Unstuffing the Stuffed Stuff

Get a grip! Mind over matter! Suck it up, buttercup!

Sound familiar? You and I have become experts at “overcoming” our emotions, but I’d like to suggest today that – when it comes to those emotions which make us uncomfortable – the avoidance of them can’t last forever. As I stated Monday on Facebook: “I’m no psychologist, but I’ve learned a lot about the human soul over the last 31 years of pastoral ministry.” So, I’d like to expand on the thoughts which I started there because I think that the craziness of 2020 has caused most of us to suppress some negative emotions which we’re going to have to deal with, sooner or later. And my money is on sooner.

Why have we stuffed all those emotions this year? We’ve done it to survive. My theory is that, when we’re under significant pressure, we stuff stuff (I just made up that term, but I think I like it) – without even realizing it – in an attempt to keep life as “normal” as possible. There’s been a lot of that going on in our lives in recent months, as we have attempted to combat the madness and unpredictability of 2020.

So, amidst all of that obvious unpredictability, here’s my prediction: grief is coming. I predict that 2021, for many of us, will include waves of unexpected and unexplainable grief. Feel free to tell me next year that I got it all wrong – I welcome that – but it’s still my prediction.

Classic Christian anthropology assigns two primary characteristics to our souls: the intellect and the will. Our intellect and our will mirror the very nature of God Himself – they flow from the fact that we are created in God’s image. Animals do not have an intellect or a will in the sense that humans do, and that is a critical distinction between humans and animals. When we think of the “flesh,” we think of all of our bodily urges from “I’m exhausted” to “That girl looks off-the-charts amazing – how quickly can we plan a honeymoon?” to “I’m dying” to “Where is the Krispy Kreme?” But you and I are more than even all of that. Much more, in fact. There is also the “heart” at the very core of our personhood. Holy Scripture affirms this: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23). And, in the universe of the human heart, there is the world of our emotions.

Now, there is a very real sense in which we are in control of our emotions. I certainly don’t have to act on every angry or vengeful feeling that comes my way. Can you even imagine a society where we all behaved that terribly, all the time? In other words, it is within our power to nourish and foster – and perhaps I’ll even use the word “tame” (bring under control) – some of our emotions. But, there is another sense in which our emotions are entirely out of our control. To demonstrate this, I would submit to you Exhibit A and Exhibit B, from your own life. Exhibit A: You didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. (I’m betting on at least a little agitation.) Exhibit B: When you woke up this December morning, instead of gray and cold when you went outside, all you saw and felt was cloudless sunshine and a warm, gentle breeze. (I’m betting on some surprise happiness.)

Self-control is a good thing and in fact a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But emotional suppression can cause serious trouble. Because here’s the deal: no matter how hard we try to suppress them, negative emotions don’t go away. In fact, they can destroy us from within. Or they tend to ooze out later, and often in harmful ways.

I think you can expect some grief. Here’s why: 2020 has cost you some things. I think about our high school and college seniors who missed much of their senior year – and perhaps their graduations. That’s not a big deal, unless you’re the senior. As COVID-19 has marched on undeterred, it’s happening again to another batch of seniors. (And this is just one tiny example.) So, when the grief comes, own it. Don’t deny it. It’s O.K. to wait for the right time to express negative emotions, as long as you express them. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3-4). Feelings of disappointment and fear and powerlessness are normal; it is suppressing them that is unhealthy. If you try to suppress those feelings forever, you’ll find the “ooze” looking more like numbness or depression or uncontrollable anger or self-destructive behavior. Or, all of the above. Our enemy can, and indeed does, capitalize on our suppressed emotions – they’re part of his arsenal of weaponry to be used against us when the moment is right.

Friends, grief doesn’t always look like grief. But grief is a normal part of life. So give yourself permission to grieve. Jesus wept with His friends. Think about that. Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears. Think about that. Do we think we’re stronger than Jesus? God invites us to be honest and to fully engage our emotions. His shoulders are broad enough for our sorrows. We’re counting on that for 2021!

And we are going to need each other. Times like these require acute sensitivity to the needs of others. We’re all paying a price for the social distance, and it’s a steep price. We’re to grieve with other grievers (Romans 12:15). And, because we’ve all lived under the “suck it up” mantra, we might have to encourage lament – for ourselves, and for others. We’re unaccustomed to it. We’re helping each other break up strange ground. In uncharted territory, we’re holding up each other’s arms (and hearts). Post-pandemic, people will have physical, emotional, and psychological scars.

On a more personal note, my own soul is particularly blessed – in this season of widespread distress – by the words of the ancient prophet, Habakkuk (3:17-19) … Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on high places.

Strange as this season may be, It is abundantly clear that the God of our salvation is here with us! Let’s help each other unstuff the stuffed stuff so that we can rejoice in Christ, and tread on high places!

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

The Power of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can change our lives! I’m talking about more than a day on our calendar, of course, but I’m referring to a heart posture which can revolutionize how we see the world – and how we see our own circumstances.

God is good. That’s a given. God deserves our thanks. That’s also a given. But, as quickly as I can acknowledge both of those things to be true, I’m also able to identify my own reluctance to thank God as I should. I’m admitting that sad fact right here, and right now, on Thanksgiving Eve.

American Greetings did some market research and discovered that most Americans – three out of five – aren’t even interested in thinking about thanksgiving. They’re all for the turkey and dressing, and maybe the football, but would rather take a pass when it comes to inventorying their manifold blessings. In short, we’re more ungrateful than we might have imagined. My suspicion is that it’s all too easy for Christ followers to fall right in line when it comes to this epidemic of ingratitude. I need to hear my grandmother’s voice again: “Count your blessings.”

Here’s a game-changer, friends (First Thessalonians 5:16-18): Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

“Rejoice always?” Why would God command me to do something that He knows I won’t – and in fact can’t – do? I mean, for goodness’ sake, I’m likely to pout or make a snarky remark (at least in my head) before I finish this blog posting. Here’s why God raises the bar, I think: He wants His standards to prove me a sinner so that I’ll never forget my need for a Savior!

So I can’t let my weakness drive me to despair – though it has the potential to do so if I don’t rehearse the gospel on a regular basis – but I must lean into Jesus for the spirit of rejoicing that I can’t manufacture on my own. My sanctification really is, at its core, Christ’s life lived in and through me (and many days in spite of me). Imagine this: I can look to my Lord to produce the rejoicing in me when my joy-tank has run dry. How marvelous! The same is true when I’ve lost my will to pray. And the same must be true when my thanksgiving meter isn’t pointing in a positive direction.

Here’s why it matters: thanksgiving changes everything! But here’s the deal: I don’t have to feel thankful before I can start thanking God. In fact, sometimes I have to thank God before I’ll have any “thankful” feelings at all. When I do express what I know to be true about God’s goodness – and just start thanking Him despite my cruddy feelings (or lack thereof), God never fails to begin to give me glimpses of His glory sprinkled against the backdrop of whatever situation seems to be dragging me down.

I need that right now. Do you? Let me give you an example from my little corner of the world: I’m upset about government overreach, and the perceived loss of our liberties. Is it as bad as I think it is? Probably not, since I’m the emotional creature that I am, but this COVID-19 craziness can feel downright suffocating if I stay too long away from the fount of living water! And that’s just one of multiple concerns on my current radar screen. I’ll bet you have a panoramic radar screen too. My point is: there are lots of reasons why thanksgiving might escape us this year – right now – if we don’t purpose to seek the Lord for the work of grace in us that each one of us so desperately needs.

Though I don’t always do it perfectly, friends, I’m telling you that there’s tremendous power in what I’m sharing with you today. Thanksgiving is more than a duty. It’s more than a list of blessings. It’s more than a holiday. Thanksgiving is profound spiritual victory in your life and mine! In an age of ingratitude and self-absorption and practical atheism, genuine thanksgiving smashes our idols, renews our zeal for Christ, and restores our sagging souls. I would submit to you that Satan’s strongholds in our lives are diminished when we look up to God with a thankful heart, because real thankfulness – especially during a season of difficulty like the one we’re in now – is a sacrificial attitude which is simply and sweetly pleasing to our gracious Lord.

And He is so worth it. So, so worth it.

We all know that the trappings of the holiday won’t look the same this year. Most of us, by and large, have accepted that by now. Perhaps, though, the thanksgiving which we’ll experience in 2020 will be a taste of something even better.

 

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Free and Fair

This is not meant as a politically partisan post, on any level, but it is a post about my concerns regarding our American republic. My prayer is that my words will be “heard” in the spirit of grace with which I will attempt to communicate them.

I am very apprehensive about the integrity of our recent national election. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would ever have to say something like that! This is the United States of America, after all. We are not Venezuela. We are not a banana republic. We are descendants of the Pilgrims, whose steadfast convictions about personal freedom made their way into our nation’s earliest governing documents. And here’s why I’m deeply concerned: if you and I can’t trust that our votes are counted fairly, then the very foundation of our self-government is gone.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that I know that Joe Biden lost the election. Far from it, in fact. Mr. Biden may well have won the election, just as the current numbers and media projections indicate. But my concern is that there are some very credible people alleging that voter fraud was a serious issue in the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Perhaps this is just more political drama, as if we haven’t had enough of that in 2020. But my suspicion is that this is more than political theatre. So I don’t want to get into the weeds today about this particular allegation vs. that particular defense – we have courts in which those matters can and should be settled – I simply want to raise the issue of why election integrity ought to matter to every American. And to every follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not about defending President Trump. In fact, I’ll quote Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton: “The importance of getting it right outweighs the importance of rushing to judgment.” Those words came out of the Bush-Gore election controversy in November 2000. They still apply.

Let me share four observations which I believe are worthy of our prayerful and careful attention today …

  1. We’re losing “truth” in general. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans think that we’re in the middle of a “crisis in facts and truth.” This is why more and more people distrust our basic institutions. The truth is, both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about “fake news,” but the disagreement comes in the form of what media outlets can be trusted for reliable information. Statistically, Americans say that rampant misinformation has a colossal impact on our confidence in government (68%) and in each other (54%).
  2. We’re being manipulated by the high-tech giants. We’re all at risk of losing our freedom of speech whenever viewpoint discrimination is allowed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need or want those who control social media “protecting” me from views and opinions which they consider to be untrue or potentially harmful to me. It’s time for all of us to put on our big-boy and big-girl pants and seek the truth for ourselves! That’s America as it was meant to be. Censorship isn’t freedom.
  3. We need to understand that, when it comes to voting, computers may not be our friends. I’ll quote from a presentation made before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity (Manchester, NH, 2017) by Andrew Appel, who is a professor of computer science at Princeton University: “It’s easy to make a cheating vote-stealing program that isn’t detected by logic and accuracy testing! Every voting machine (just like any other kind of computer) has an internal clock, so it knows when it’s election day. So you just make your cheating program cheat only on election day, after 8am. Since the LATA [“logic and accuracy testing”] is done before election day, the cheating program will be on its ‘best behavior’ when LATA is done.” I find those words chilling, friends. In fact I was stunned when I read them in my research for this blog posting. It’s “easy” to cheat!?! Not being a computer guru myself, I would have imagined precisely the opposite.
  4. We owe the priority of a free and fair 2020 election to our children and grandchildren. Elections are essential to the healthy governance of our nation, and to the promotion and flourishing of freedom around the world! I graciously submit to you my conviction that the most fundamental principle at the core of a credible election is that it truly reflects the free expression of the will of the people. This mandates that we work together toward inclusivity, transparency, and accountability at every level of government – and across the political spectrum. We must insist upon nothing less, in my humble opinion.

And, while we wait, don’t lose heart! Our American Founders very wisely established a division of powers for times such as this. We can all side with James Madison: “All men having power ought to be distrusted.” What did he mean by that? I think Madison meant that we all need accountability. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. That’s how America works best.

If people are making dishonest claims about election fraud, I pray that the Lord will silence and sideline them before they cause any more harm. But, if people are attempting to cover up election fraud, my prayer is that the Lord will expose both their actions and intentions. America needs to know the truth. That, I think, should be your prayer and mine. It should be a bipartisan desire and effort. It should bring us together, right now, out of a shared respect for the integrity of our American vote.

Our nation desperately needs the wisdom of Almighty God: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1).

May God save America from becoming a banana republic without the bananas.

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Follow the Science?

These days I hear a lot of folks bragging that they “follow the science” – as if nobody else cares anything at all about science. So I thought I would address this today. Please bear with me, friends.

Let me be more specific: a number of people try to make the claim that Christians frame science as a challenge to our faith. In other words, it seems to be the perspective of many public commentators that Christ-followers like to make it our business to dispute, or to disparage, science. I need to point out here and now: that’s simply not true! Science is no enemy of Christianity or the gospel.

Recently you may have seen the popular placard, where “SCIENCE IS REAL” is touted amidst a bunch of other political slogans. In fact I’ll include a picture of one of those yard signs. The subtle message is: “If you don’t agree with my politics, in addition to being generally unenlightened, you’re on the wrong side of science too.” That’s the issue that I want to take up today.

Most Christians are not anti-science at all. But it’s quite obvious that no sensible person can go along with every proclamation which is made in the name of “science.” Were we to do that, we would be changing our belief system regularly, if not daily. (“Give us two weeks to flatten the curve.” LOL.) Let me say it another way: Christians aren’t anti-science, but we are opposed to some things which are advanced under the umbrella of “science.” And we’re not on board with those things simply because they’re largely, if not entirely, scientifically unsubstantiated. And isn’t that a respect for, and the pursuit of, real science? Science is not just a celebration of the latest hypothesis, but it is hypothesis tested by experimentation. As objective observations are made, reasonable conclusions are drawn based upon that which is observed. And repeated. Because “science” has become so politicized – like nearly everything else in our popular culture – we seem to be in danger of abandoning the scientific method entirely.

It’s interesting to me that the “follow the science” crowd often does not want us to “follow the science” when it comes to biological gender. Facebook now allows you to choose from over 50 genders as you personalize your profile. And the “follow the science” crowd doesn’t often want to speak of unborn babies as full persons endowed with all of the intrinsic characteristics which make them fully human. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get my point: “science” isn’t always science.

What many people really want us to do is to accept the theory of evolution as if it were established scientific fact. There’s just one problem with that: evolution is not established scientific fact. Not even close. In fact, evolution can’t even answer the most fundamental question: how did it all start? More than ridiculous is the idea that “it just happened.” It is science that reminds us that nothing can never create something (First Law of Thermodynamics). Create something from nothing? Toward the end of his life, Stephen Hawking decided that it can be done, but only in the quantum realm. I’ll translate that for you: “we don’t know, and you couldn’t understand it anyway, so just trust me.” Check out The Grand Design. You’ll discover there more than you ever wanted to know about eleven-dimensional M-theory. But what you’ll also discover there is that an avowed atheist will set aside science, when necessary, in order to maintain the desired godless worldview. Said Hawking: “Science makes God unnecessary.”

It is not “anti-science” for you and me to stand upon God’s Word, in the sense that we take God at His word regarding how He created the world, and how He created humankind. We may not all agree on some of the finer points regarding Creation, because the Bible doesn’t answer all our questions, but we can all agree that God was there – and that we weren’t! Science can’t answer the questions of origins at all – it’s simply not possible for science to do so – so all we’re doing is looking to the only source of truth which we have available to us: the words of the Creator Himself. I find it ironic that we’re accused of fearing the truth, when in fact we’re seeking the truth. We believe that God is the only one who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2). He is the Truth (John 14:6)!

So who’s really following the science? I’d say that’s an excellent question.

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Peace

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Those are our Lord’s words as recorded in Matthew 5:9. Oh, how we need we those words now! Amidst widespread fears of social unrest and even violence in our nation’s streets, it’s important to be reminded of our unique role – as followers of Christ – here and now. The storm clouds are perfect for disaster: highly-contested election results in key swing states, police departments under intense scrutiny, suspicions of voter fraud, the rise of paramilitary organizations, and even surging COVID-19 numbers. Angst lurks on every corner. Resolution doesn’t feel close at hand when the election news updates feel more like “hurry up and wait.”

Here are just a few things that you can do to be a peacemaker …

1. Make much of our higher kingdom.

In Christ, you and I are already citizens of heaven! We can’t lose sight of that right now. When it comes to the affairs of our earthly government, you and I are meant to be the soul of the state – not its surrogate. We’re to respond positively when people in the public square honor the precepts of Scripture, and we’re to speak the truth in love when they do not – regardless of political ideology or affiliation. The more that our neighbors can view us as kingdom citizens first and foremost – the more that they can see that our loyalty to Christ is our highest loyalty – the more that they will trust us to help them in this hour of great tension and turmoil. In a recent survey, many respondents were asked to describe their emotional take on the 2020 election season. Not a single respondent used the word “hope” or anything like it – and that pervasive sense of national despair should be on our radar screen in early November. If it’s not, we can’t love very effectively right now.

2. Avoid sweeping generalizations.

If we’ve learned anything at all this year, it’s that we ought to stop looking at people exclusively through the lens of race or gender or ethnicity (or whatever). People are individuals. We’re not a bunch of monolithic voting blocs, and we ought to avoid speaking of each other along such divisive lines. We’re all created in the image of God, and each one of us possesses inherent dignity and worth. Our wrong assumptions about others certainly aren’t charitable, and in fact, they can be dangerous. The better we really get to know people, the better we will understand them. And that’s part of our high calling along the route of our pilgrimage here. Our words can bring life to others, but they can also inflict harm. We have to be careful regarding not only what we say, but what we tweet. Used wrongly or carelessly, social media can be a deterrent to our calling as peacemakers.

3. Don’t help misinformation spread.

Everybody likes a juicy secret, but you and I must be careful that we’re not – in the hearing of one, or in the telling of one – bearing false witness against our neighbor. Here’s the deal: hate and false allegations are like two peas in a pod. And we’re going to have to check our hearts on a regular basis just to make sure that we’re not caught up in either. The 16th-century Reformer John Calvin issued a warning that still fits today: “Slander is often praised under the pretext of zeal and conscientiousness. Hence … this vice creeps in under the name of virtue.” When we vehemently disagree with someone, particularly in the arena of politics, it’s easy to justify sinful behavior against that person (movement, group, political party, etc.) because our eyes are on the prize of setting the record straight! Passion for the right cause can be a good thing, of course, but we’ve got to keep our motives and our actions in check – particularly in a season dominated by sound bites, hyper-emotional rancor, and political spin.

4. Recognize that everybody is afraid.

This we also forget: the “other side” is just as afraid as we are! Fear is everywhere, and in everything, these days. One of the ways we can love people right now is to acknowledge the uncertainties of our present cultural landscape – and the resulting sense of unsettledness that those uncertainties create in each one of us. In terms of predictability, 2020 has been a veritable nightmare for most people, and so they’re looking for some sense of control in any area of life where they can find it. Unfortunately, this election season is managing to make everybody feel even more powerless than we already did. Once you establish trust with your neighbor, that reality of powerlessness might be some fertile soil for a gospel presentation. After all, everybody likes the sound of “good news” these days!

5. Tell the truth to those you love.

On many of these points, we’re going to have to help each other self-correct. That will mean that some hard, but needed and good, conversations must happen along the way. God can use this season to strengthen the body of Christ. God can use this season to grow us in Christlike character and perseverance. God can use this season to renew our hope in our risen Savior – where our only hope should have been anchored all along! In our lives, grace and truth are not to be balanced with each other – but we’re to be all about grace, and all about truth. The Lord rarely matures any one of us without using other believers in our lives to help us get where we need to be. Hard as it may be to believe, we may look back one day and see this moment as that kind of fruitful season.

6. Remember that we’re not in it to win.

Our purposes are higher: we’re in it to serve! Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And that heart-set can make all the difference. It would be unwise for you and me to get caught up in hyper-partisanship, and we are clearly not afforded the luxury of a “safe” withdrawal from the conflict of this season. We are not called to win. We are not called to withdraw. We are called to love.

Peace. Jesus made it our business.

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Vote

We are blessed to live in a nation where freedom of speech, religious freedom, and the free exercise of religion are protected. Truly blessed! Under such extraordinarily privileged circumstances, I believe that the exercise of our right to vote is part of our Christian calling to live as salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:13-16).

As Christ followers, you and I are dual citizens in a very important sense. We are already citizens of heaven, but we are also citizens of a specific nation here and now on Planet Earth. It is my contention that the Bible calls us to exercise faithfully our responsibilities in both regards. Voting, I believe, is one of our responsibilities as citizens of this nation. Our participation in the affairs of the visible nation is an expression of our clear and compelling witness to the reality of our invisible nation. Not voting runs the risk of signaling to our neighbors that we don’t care about a key dimension of the personal freedoms with which our God has blessed us.

In the United States Constitution, which of our rights appears most often in the text? It is our right to vote. I think that it should mean something to us that the right to vote is singled out more than any other.

Just in case you’re interested, Section 2 of the 14th Amendment imposes a penalty upon states that deny or abridge “the right to vote at any [federal or state] election … to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States … except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” The 15th states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” can’t be abridged by race. The 19th Amendment says that the same right can’t be abridged by gender. The 24th Amendment says that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” in federal elections can’t be blocked by a poll tax. And the 26th Amendment protects “the right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote.” Thus, in America, the ballot is a fundamental right, and so I believe that you and I have a fundamental responsibility to cast ours – even if and when we are less than enthusiastic about the current political landscape.

A democratic system enables the government and politicians to be held accountable by the people. It provides a critical check on political power. It aims to give everyone a voice. You have a voice, so I’m urging you to let your voice be heard. I agree with Winston Churchill: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

If the sun comes up on Tuesday, Jeremiah’s ancient words ought to ring loud and clear in our ears: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7). I urge you to vote from an informed perspective. And I urge you to vote morals over money. Sometimes we have to vote strategically – this is part of employing Biblical wisdom – and it means that we want our vote to count even when absolute uniformity with our perspective on every issue isn’t an option. Before we decide to cast a protest vote, we ought to think through the practical implications of that vote. In other words, we need to understand who we may be helping to put into office inadvertently. So the prophet was right: this is a call to humble prayer.

Romans 14 reminds us that we must respect our God-given conscience. It’s also why we respect people with whom we have political differences. This applies to voting, as it applies to everything else we do. We search the Scriptures. We use our best faculties of reason. We listen to other wise voices in our lives. And we never lose sight of this: regardless of who wins the election, Jesus will still be Lord! You and I are always to be people of hope.

And, though we sometimes have to endure political administrations which were not of our choosing, the longest of them – in light of eternity – is like a pail of water against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Temporary political consequences may pile up until we feel crushed under the weight of them, but our Sovereign God is able to keep us from falling.

What the angel Gabriel said to Joseph of our Lord Jesus (Luke 1:33) is still true: “Of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Vote. And rest.

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

This Magnificent Moment

In my personal devotions this morning, I was reading through First Corinthians 15, and specifically that somewhat confusing section where the Apostle Paul recounts: “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” (Verse 32). The Greek word for “beast” or “wild animal” in that context is therion – and it nearly always describes a literal creature. I’ll cite a few examples: the wild animals surrounding Jesus during His wilderness temptation (Mark 1:13), the animals in Peter’s vision (Acts 10:12), and the poisonous snake that bit Paul on the isle of Malta (Acts 28:4). I suppose it’s possible that Paul fought literal animals in Ephesus – in some kind of public games, bullfighting, or other arena setting (which did happen in Ephesus) – but I think that’s highly improbable for a couple of reasons. First, Paul was a Roman citizen who would not likely have been compelled to do such a thing. Second, we don’t see in Acts 19 any evidence that Paul was arrested at Ephesus – and certainly there’s no mention there of any arena fight of any kind.

All of that tips me toward a metaphorical interpretation of these “beasts”, in the sense that Paul had to contend with real – and in fact ferocious – enemies in the church.

Beasts. Perhaps Paul had in mind some specific people in Ephesus, like the many artisans who would have been particularly provoked and threatened by Paul’s exposure of their idol worship. Perhaps Paul had in mind the philosophers, like the Epicureans who would have despised Paul’s gospel message of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Perhaps Paul had in mind the magicians and other practitioners of dark arts (Ephesus was the epicenter of the cult of Artemis, the Greek bull goddess). Perhaps Paul had in mind all the people who were caught up in the wild human passions and rampant sexual immorality that characterized their community. Only the Lord knows those specific details, and we simply can’t this side of heaven.

All of that being said, we must not miss the forest for the trees. Whatever Paul meant by “wild beasts,” his main point is that you and I must understand the power of Christ’s resurrection in our lives! THE REASON why you and I must keep on contending for the gospel – no matter the hostility of the opposition, or the personal cost – is that our bodies will be resurrected to eternal life! In other words, our enemies may prevail against us in the short-term, but the eternal victory that is already ours in Jesus has already been won!

Life will not always be easy, and neither will church life. That’s why you and I are never to just “live in the moment,” but we are called to always have an eye toward eternity. This moment may be bruising, but these temporal afflictions aren’t the end of our story. You and I have to face each day’s beasts with the tenacity of God’s Spirit … and sometimes the ugliest beast is the one I see in my mirror. “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” may be the mantra of the fatalist, but you and I are resurrection people! We’re not despondent in the corner or on the sidelines of life, but we are fully engaged in the spark of eternity which always lies embedded in this moment – for we know that the tomb is empty!

We must also never forget what Paul penned to those believers in Ephesus whom he so dearly loved (Ephesians 6:10-20). Our most ferocious enemies we can’t see. Those “spiritual forces of evil” are ours to contend with – but never in our strength alone. At every point in human history, we must band together as believers whenever and however we can – “praying at all times in the Spirit” – that Christ would be immeasurably glorified even in our harshest earthly temptations, trials, and tribulations. Only Christ’s “gospel of peace” can bring us – or keep us – together, friends.

And we must never limit our perspective on what God is doing to what we can see right now. Because, where Jesus reigns, strangers can become beloved. Enemies can become friends. Darkness can yield to light. Which leads me to a beautiful quote by Emily P. Freeman: “Always assume people are struggling more than they let on … be willing to be the person in the circle who carries compassion, who’s willing to listen, and who doesn’t have to have the last word. Be careful whom you hate, because it could be someone you love.”

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Becoming Grace

On Monday I posted on Facebook and Twitter a quick thought: “Beyond just singing Amazing Grace, what if we were being amazing grace?” I’d like to expound on that. In fact, this will be a bit of expounding and expanding.

Grace is who we are. It’s not just some abstract theological concept. As followers of Jesus Christ, grace is the very core of our identity. The great, sovereign, and holy God of the universe – against whom each one of us has sinned grievously – has issued an undeniable and incontrovertible verdict: we are all guilty, and we deserve the sentence of eternal death. Yet, out of His infinite mercy and love towards us, this same God has charged His own Son with all our crimes – while pardoning us! Not only that, but God has credited to each one of us the totality of the righteousness of Jesus: our Father now sees each one of us through the lens of what Christ accomplished for us through the perfections of His life, death, and resurrection! This is the good news of the gospel: you and I are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Grace.

Most of us love to sing about it, but that can be only skin deep. Is grace who we are? Is grace what we do? And – this is super important – DOES GRACE DESCRIBE OUR SHARED LIFE TOGETHER?

I would submit to you today my heartfelt conviction that “Grace” ought to be the banner over our front door, and that grace ought to mark our attitudes and behaviors more than any other descriptor. If that’s not what’s happening in real life, then we don’t really believe in grace.

I’m trying to convince you of our desperate need for experiential grace. It’s much more than a song. It’s our life. In our contemporary culture of “canceling” each other, shouting over each other, and exploiting our differences with each other, a true understanding of grace is all the more critical. So please allow me to “preach” from the crux of my soul …

Grace means that I can love as I’ve been loved.

I’ll quote Sarah Klingler: “We don’t hesitate to sing worship songs about God as a ‘Good, Good Father,’ but juxtaposed to this Good, Good Father is a not-so-good father who views us as juvenile delinquents who deserve whatever comes our way. Yet, the truth of the matter is, the love of God is so vast He calls us His own. He claims us as His children. It’s a love so incomprehensible He stooped low to be with us, to become one of us.” Friends, if you and I know personally this God, how can we not love others? It’s that vertical connection of grace that opens the door for our horizontal experiences of grace.

Grace means that I can share life with others, despite profound differences.

We’ll never be united around politics or preferences. It just can’t, and won’t, happen. That’s the wonder of the church: we’re a straggling group of misfits brought together by only the unsought call of a Savior who had no place to lay His head. We don’t come from the same places, and only some of us like pumpkin-spiced stuff (haha). There are some Cubs fans in our number and a few who like the Wildcats. And, for every one of those lesser loyalties, there are passionate counter-loyalties among us all day long. But that’s what makes us beautiful: our shared life comes from Jesus – and from nobody else but Jesus.

Grace means that I’m a quick confessor.

Most of the time I fail at this one because of what Jesus already said is true about me: it’s much easier for me to see what you’ve done wrong than what I’ve done wrong! That’s why I must stay connected to the vine. I must stay in the Word. I must keep learning to listen before I speak. I must regularly pull away from the noise of the world to think, deeply and introspectively. I’m desperately dependent on the Holy Spirit for this! Are you? We’ll never get there on our own. Unless Christ invades us and has His way in us, we’ll remain permanently self-deceived in our pride and self-justification.

Grace means that I’m a quick forgiver.

When I’m getting an engaged couple ready for their wedding day, I always remind each one of them to be the first to forgive. That is the way of Christ. That is the way of happiness. That is the way of peace. That is the way of conflict resolution. If we take seriously our Lord’s example on the cross, then we know that we’re wasting our time even thinking about whether or not someone deserves our forgiveness. Of course they don’t! But that’s the point. Neither did I. Neither did you. Neither did we.

Grace means that I’m not about bitterness, murmuring, or schism.

This means that I must continue to live in the awareness that I am daily receiving grace from the Lord Jesus. As soon as I forget that I draw my next breath only by His divine permission, life will become all about me – and you will be collateral damage. This chaotic behavior seems built-in to the fabric of our old nature – which keeps trying to rule the roost in each one of us. As soon as life has become all about me, I won’t even recognize that my careless self-absorption – which holds on tightly, like deadly poison in my inner self, to the past offenses of others against me – is perpetrating hostility and division in the relationships around me.

Grace means that my primary identity is not in myself.

Am I willing to be considered a fool for the sake of Christ? Are you? Am I willing to think in such a way that the “attaboy” I’m craving is only the smile of Christ? Are you? When others charge me with a crime, am I willing to admit to myself: “I’m all that, and much worse”? Are you? Because here’s the reality: as long as you and I keep trying to anchor our self-worth in the opinion of others, we’ll never find it. It will elude us forever. In fact, we need something far more than we need self-esteem: we need Christ-esteem. And the moment when we begin to actually believe that we’re as loved by God as the Bible so unequivocally affirms, that is the moment when we will begin to give ourselves away.

Grace means that I don’t have to win because Jesus already did.

Once we really get that, we have in fact won.

Grace. I’m convinced that our spiritual health absolutely depends on it. Only grace can lead us home.

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Now Showing: Our Dirty Laundry

For the last 2000 years, most followers of Christ have embraced some version of “natural law”: the idea that there are certain moral truths that are immanent in nature. In other words, we have acknowledged that there is some universal knowledge of right and wrong. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on natural law, as did the Protestant Reformers. (No, they didn’t agree on every point; that’s for sure.) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to natural law in his Letter from Birmingham Jail … “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for law.” Dr. King cited both Aquinas and St. Augustine. Even the humanist and lawyer Hugo Grotius based his philosophy of international law on the foundation of “natural law.”

Not only did the Reformers lean heavily upon their belief in natural law – the lex naturalis – but so did America’s Founding Fathers. Our entire system of Western jurisprudence, in fact, rests upon the conviction that there exists a natural law: an innate sense of right and wrong. Natural law runs deep and wide in our history, and in our government.

What does the Bible say on the subject? I submit, for your consideration, Romans 2:12-16. It makes perfect sense. Here’s just an excerpt: When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness …

Whether or not we realize or acknowledge it, human societies make laws because God’s law exists. There is a proper moral order to the universe, but it didn’t start with us. The point of the Apostle Paul in this key passage is that unbelievers prove the existence of natural law every time they enact a law that prohibits them from running over each other with large tractors! People don’t interpret God’s law perfectly, of course, but they display – by even caring about “right and wrong” – that there is something very powerful about our God-given conscience. This is true even in the lives of people who claim that there is no God.

It is intriguing to me just how afraid people have become of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. By all reliable accounts, Mrs. Barrett is humble and kind, and exceptionally qualified to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. (I won’t even go into all of that here, because that’s not my point.) But everyone knows that Judge Barrett centers her life around a set of strong moral convictions, and many are attempting to use that against her as an obvious disqualifier – as if faith and morality were inherently incompatible with our American way of life.

Could it be, friends, that we as a society have swallowed a giant deception hook, line, and sinker? That deception: we can pursue that which is true without pursuing that which is right.

I find it fascinating that Harvard grad and Notre Dame sociology professor Dr. Christian Smith posits that “human knowledge has no common, indubitable foundation.” He suggests that you and I spend most of our time making choices that are founded upon our unverifiable underlying assumptions. Smith refers to all humans as “believers” in that sense – claiming that we all live and act in conformity with our underlying perceptions of a larger, external moral order. Smith is hinting at what we often call “general revelation.” [General revelation is God’s clear display of His glory and power, for all to see, in His works of creation and providence (Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:18-20).] Dr. Smith contends that we’re all “believing” a storyline, or an all-embracing narrative, about the world around us. (If you’re interested in knowing more about this, please check out his book, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.) It was Christian Smith who in 2005 introduced the term “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which I’ve used multiple times in preaching what the gospel is not.

I would submit to you that Judge Barrett is a perceived threat to so many within our culture today because God stands at the center of her story. We no longer like any notion of “God’s law” – how preposterous! We’ll no longer tolerate the parts of our shared history which acknowledge our allegiance to an infinite Creator. We’ll even throw out the entire notion of natural law if we have to, just to get the job done! My theory is this: we’re terrified of the notion of a higher law because we’ve grown to love our moral relativism. “What’s good for you is good for you … and only good for me if I like it!” As a culture, we’ve taken up this weird system of valuelessness, and we’ve taken it up with a vengeance! So, the reality of an objective and supreme authority we must absolutely dismiss, lest our flimsy footing be discovered for what it is – and give way beneath us.

Absolutes? Absolutely not!

Absent a great move of the Holy Spirit in our land, I think that our American belief system is unsustainable. Our dirty laundry is showing. It is more than dangerous – it’s also ludicrous.

Are we just animals, or are we divine image-bearers? All of us must wrestle that question to the ground. And here’s why it matters. Unless we understand the Bible’s storyline – the only storyline that counts – we’ll never understand the world. And we’ll certainly never understand ourselves. All of us are believing a storyline. And – if your storyline is the storyline of Scripture – you can be absolutely certain that your life rests upon the steadiest of foundations.

Please allow me to share with you some things which I believe are going to crash in around us, as a society, unless we embrace God’s story …

  1. We’re going to further the notion that science and Christianity are incompatible. Subheading: Science can be trusted, while faith claims are to be feared and rejected (along with the idiots who espouse them). The “new atheists” are already teaching that “unfettered science is our only hope for true enlightenment and happiness.” I probably don’t have to tell you how politicized “science” has already become. One hour ago, literally, I was listening to a news report in which respected medical doctors were attempting to categorize herd immunity as something with about as much credibility as flat-earth theory (even though all our vaccines are based on herd immunity). This blinded-by-politics trend, which COVID-19 has only exacerbated, is only going to get worse until we recognize that all truth is God’s truth.
  2. We’re going to further the notion that “we can have a just and civil society without a source of objective truth.” And I predict that we’ll follow this fallacy all the way to its natural conclusion: traditional faith is the enemy of fairness and civility, and must be completely sidelined and “canceled” in our culture. Dr. Francis Schaeffer was right: our feet are firmly planted in mid-air! Here’s the irony, friends (Rex Smith and I were just talking about this over lunch): the only basis for civility within our culture is the shared knowledge that everyone – even our political “enemy” – is a fellow image-bearer of God. What I’m saying is this: as a society, we’re scared to death of the Bible, but the Bible is our only sane path forward.
  3. We’re going to carelessly jettison our Judeo-Christian heritage, all together, along with all of the ethics that go with it. I’ll quote Jürgen Habermas: “For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love … And in light of the current challenges … we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”

Let me be clear. There is a reason why people are so afraid of Judge Barrett. In a word, that reason is abortion. Could it be that – on some fundamental level deep within our souls – we all know that taking the lives of our children is, simply, wrong? And people are afraid that Roe v. Wade, which read into the Constitution a “right” which was never there, will crumble before our eyes the moment we have five justices who are willing to say: “The king has nothing on.” And crumble it should. We can stick our fingers in our ears if we want, but the way of life is to listen intently to the voice of God.

One more thing: right now could be the finest hour in history for the saving gospel of Christ! We don’t need any more “moralistic therapeutic deism” – which says that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ourselves – but we desperately need Jesus and His finished work on our behalf! He is risen from the dead, and He is alive! And He is Lord of all!

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts

Uncivil Society

Last year, Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate conducted a formal survey, the results of which include the following: 68% of Americans consider incivility to be a major problem in our nation. Just a hunch, friends, but I’m thinking that number may have edged up a tad in the last few months. Perhaps even in the last few minutes.

Facebook’s own research uncovered something similarly alarming: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Wow! Likewise, Twitter has admitted that they can’t even keep up with the “troll armies” which seek to divide one American from another.

It appears that civility in American life may be dying on the vine.

In an attempt to wrap our minds around what we might mean by a “civil society,” I’ll quote Dr. Michael Banner (Trinity College, Cambridge; quote from Princeton University): “the totality of structured associations, relationships, and forms of cooperation between persons that exist in the realm between the family and the state.” As defined by the World Bank, civil society is “the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.”

So, using Dr. Banner’s specific term, what has gone dreadfully wrong in this “realm” of American life? It’s a question which lies heavily on my heart as I blog today.

In his farewell address in 1796, President George Washington issued a stern warning – both to those who heard his voice that day and successive generations. Within the content of that significant speech, Washington described religion and morality as “indispensable supports,” the “great pillars of human happiness,” and the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Just let those three ideas sink in for a moment, as I share with you my own understanding of President Washington’s three tenets …

Religion and morality are the very foundations of human government.

 Religion and morality promote human flourishing.

 Religion and morality create a climate in which people are encouraged to behave appropriately toward one another.

Right before the presidential debate, someone asked me: “Does the church have a voice within our present cultural crisis?” My answer to that question is “Yes.” We must speak. We must. We must!

So please let me take a stab at this …

  1. Civility rests on an honest pursuit of THE TRUTH. It uses persuasion and argument (I’m using “argument” here in its noblest sense) to make a sound and reasonable case for the idea being advocated.
  2. Civility rejects intimidation and personal attack. It actively works against any atmosphere of verbal or physical violence, recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of every person – as God’s image-bearer. Civility promotes humanity, under God.
  3. Civility appreciates, and seeks passionately to maintain, the personal freedoms of everybody. Civility never seeks to create a climate in which: “if you oppose me politically, your voice deserves to be shut down.” Civility never looks like bullying.
  4. Civility transcends politics. Civility recognizes that we can hotly debate the critical issues of the day while maintaining the continuing values of kindness and mutual respect.
  5. Civility demands humility. A culture of civility fosters the idea that – in regard to any substantive matter – “I may be wrong on a particular point, and I am open to learning why I have been wrong.” That’s why civility moves all of us in the most positive direction.
  6. Civility promotes the classical understanding of tolerance, in that everyone has the right to arrive at their own conclusions in the light of their own conscience and understanding. That kind of socio-political environment does not demand that every idea must be accepted and embraced by every person (which is in fact intolerance).
  7. Civility never equates meekness with weakness but recognizes that meekness is – really – strength which is under control.

I would submit to you that each of these premises crashes in upon itself unless it rests upon some form of religious or moral framework. We can’t police ourselves unless we have a guideline by which to order our relationships and an objective standard by which we can insist upon orderly behavior. That’s why we, as a society, are suffering right now. We have attempted to find our national peace within a godless vacuum. That just can’t, and won’t, ever happen. Without civility based on truth and righteousness, it’s not difficult to see how a crowd of wayward, emotional, and political human beings could go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify Him!” in a matter of hours.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating “religion” for religion’s sake. We’ve had more than enough therapeutic moralistic deism in American life, and in church life. And, like our Lord, our kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). But, just maybe, 2020 can be the gospel’s finest hour! God has done stranger things. In His life, death, and resurrection, what Jesus Christ has accomplished for you and for me is still the best news in the world!

So here’s to something better!

Pastor Charles

Posted in Blog Posts