Tuesday, November 24, 2015

From "Turkey Day" to an "Attitude of Gratitude"

It's been interesting to trace popular thinking over the last few years about this week's national holiday. Growing up in the 60s and 70s we called it "Thanksgiving Day." A few decades later I heard radio and television announcers calling it "Turkey Day." Clearly, we had switched to focusing on possessions instead of the Giver of those possessions. This year I've heard a lot of people talking about trying to cultivate an "attitude of gratitude," regarding the holiday.

So to do this, families will gather around the table on Thursday, reciting things for which they are grateful. Others will take it a step further. In the days leading up to Thursday, they will write down these things and incorporate them into the place-settings, name cards, or table decorations they use.

I think this is a whole lot better than good old "Turkey Day." At least, we're being encouraged to give it some thought so as not to simply take our material blessings for granted. But we're still missing something here, aren't we?

It still isn't thanksgiving.

First, there isn't any giving to it. We're not offering gratitude to the One who truly deserves it for providing all the material blessings we so richly enjoy. Nor is there really any thanks because this kind of appreciation is still turned inward, focusing on my heart, my mind, and my attitude toward the people and things that are part of my life.

It reminds me of the thank-you cards my mom had my brothers and me write to grandma and my uncles and aunts who sent us presents. She wasn't teaching us to turn inside ourselves to cultivate a feeling of appreciation and gratitude. Rather, she wanted us to turn our thoughts -- our attitudes -- outside ourselves to focus on those who loved us enough to sacrifice their time, effort and money to give us the gifts we enjoyed. Yes, that even went for those socks grandma carefully wrapped for us each Christmas! The gratitude flowed from the recognition of her love -- not by focusing on the happy feelings I had inside.

So this Thanksgiving I pray we will all do just that: give God thanks for the blessings He so richly showers upon us. This thankfulness is most certainly due Him for the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus that our salvation and eternal reward come to us. It is by Him coming into this world as the God-Man, living among us, laying down His life on the cross, and then taking it up again in His resurrection.

It is the grand story we will begin reliving once again this coming Sunday as we celebrate the First Sunday in Advent.

As we take time this week to thank God for all He has done, be sure to pause and consider the ways He blesses your life. If you're so inclined, after you rise from your turkey and stuffing coma, click here and tell us what you're thankful for this year.

A Blessed and thanks-giving-filled Thanksgiving to you all!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Time for Urgent Prayer

Listening to the breaking news of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday was very troubling. I felt like we were right back on September 11, 2001. I felt helpless watching the stories pour in as events unfolded, especially the news about the hundreds of terrified people trapped in the concert hall. This whole ordeal was made doubly sad as it compounded the news of the day before when two suicide bombers had taken more than 40 lives in a neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon.

Here I was, half way around the world. What could I do?

That's where God's promise kicks in: "The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working" (James 5:16b). This is a time that desperately needs our urgent prayers just like Jesus pouring out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What should I pray? First, these attacks remind us that our time is short.

Lord, make me realize and remember how brief and precious life is. Teach me to be intentional, to make the most of every minute You grant me with the precious people You have brought into my life. I don't know when their or my time will end. How many hours do I waste alongside those who mean so much to me! No, I'm not expecting us to be separated by a terrorist attack -- the odds are greater of being killed by a meteorite strike -- but these attacks remind me how quickly my loved ones can be snatched away by traffic accidents, heart attacks, strokes, or crime. Make me ever watchful for those opportunities You give me to share my faith, my love, my heart.

Next, I'm reminded of the political leaders God has put in place to protect us from such murderous actions.

Heavenly Father, give wisdom to the leaders of our nation and every nation that deals with this threat. Give them the clarity and courage to put the welfare of their people above all things. Guide the policies they develop in relation to ISIS, to the peoples of the Middle East and, especially, concerning the refugees from Syria and Iraq and neighboring countries, which include Christian brothers and sisters who have been driven from their homes.

Closely connected is the need to pray for all public servants who protect us.

Heavenly Father, You have set governments in place to curb the outbursts of violence and evil in our world. Bless all those public servants who put themselves in harm's way to protect us. Give them diligence and vigilance in their service, and true integrity toward all the citizens they protect. Bless all agencies that gather intelligence, that they might uncover and successfully thwart these murderous attacks.

Then, there are the terrorists.

Gracious Heavenly Father, in the acts of these terrorists we have seen Satan personified. Their pitiless slaughter of innocent people gives us a glimpse into Satan's black, bitter heart, his utter callousness toward all that is good. Remind us that we do not battle against flesh and blood, but against spiritual enemies in the heavenly places. As Your Son Jesus mortally wounded Satan and his fallen angels in His suffering, death and resurrection, give us victory over them as well, as we flee to our Savior for refuge from his seething hatred. Bless all Christian leaders, missionaries, pastors, church workers, and all our Christian brothers and sisters so that we may renounce his works and his ways -- especially his subtle and attractive vices, which are so seductive to us.

But we also must pray for wisdom to distinguish between Satan and the terrorists he is using.

Holy Father, remind us that even though Satan and his angels are beyond redemption and repentance, these humans are not. Until their death, they are not beyond the reach of Your grace in Jesus Christ, who carried their sins to the cross. Bring them to conversion, repentance and salvation --that these deadly enemies may become our brothers -- just as You converted Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and made him a strong defender of the faith.

To bring about their conversion, we need to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters living in danger in their lands.

Heavenly Father, richly bless our Christian brothers and sisters who are standing firm, and sharing their faith in the Middle East and in all parts of the world where radical Islam subverts and corrupts. Grant that their witness through sufferings, threats, and even the pain of death, may bear fruit. Let the blood of all Your martyrs water the seed of the Gospel that Your Holy Spirit would work faith in the hearts of many Muslims.

Finally, pray that God would work through us to reach those Muslims who live in our nation and in our communities.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your great love for all people. Grant us true love for the Muslims You have brought into our nation and into our communities. Give us grace to treat them with kindness and dignity, that in us they may see Your love. Give us wisdom and compassion to share with them the freedom Christ Jesus has won for all. In the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The depth of man's depravity toward another seems to have no limits at times. In the face of villainy like Friday night's heinous rampage in Paris or the suicide bombings the day before in Beirut, Lebanon, it's easy to lose sight of the cross and what Jesus' death -- and resurrection -- stand for: total victory, freedom, peace, and the forgiveness of our sins.

As Christians, what can we do to address the darkness in this world? Share your thoughts by clicking here and telling us about it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Finite Sins?

Over the last two weeks we've looked at how to respond when someone denies the Bible's teaching about hell -- and why it's important to make the effort to defend that teaching. The last objection I want to consider today is the notion that our sins are finite -- and thus it would be unfair and unjust of God to inflict the infinite punishment of eternal suffering in hell for our finite sins.

Why is this important? Because if we buy this argument that our sins are finite, then Jesus' sufferings on the cross were totally unjustified -- and God the Father would be guilty of divine Child abuse. (At least that's what some hell-deniers argue to get us doubting what the Bible clearly teaches about hell).

I'll be the first to admit I would like to think my sins are finite, you know, minor things that impact no one but myself. The problem is no such sin exists. Each and every disobedience against God's Law sends ripples throughout creation. Of course, bigger sins like mass murders or the Nazi Holocaust send much larger waves that devastate many lives, but even our smallest sins and white lies send ripples of one sort or the other.

It is amazing how one careless comment can shatter one person's confidence, embolden another to sin, and severely damage an important relationship with someone else -- all at one fell swoop. Or consider how our rudeness or impatience at a restaurant can darken our server's mood, who then turns around and takes it out on other customers, staff, and family when they get home. Then those people have their moods darkened, and the ripples keep spreading.

Now, to be sure, sometimes we do nothing wrong, and people still take offense. That's not a sin on our part. We've been talking the last three weeks about people who are offended by what God has revealed about hell. That surely doesn't mean God was in the wrong for offending them.

The point is there is no such thing as a finite sin. One of the responses to our blog from two weeks ago said it extremely well:

"Every transgression has unintended and uncontrollable (eternal) consequences. Each transgression is like a domino. There is nothing that can stop the momentum of dominoes falling, nor the negative effects of sin in the world. Transgressions have infinite consequences; only someone who is just and sovereign can control the consequences of sin. Hell only exists because of rebellion against the Creator of everything."

And that brings me around to why we would want to talk about hell in the first place. We talk about hell so we can talk about God's solution to it. He didn't just abandon us to our well-deserved eternal fate. He gave His Son to pay that penalty in our place. When I consider Jesus' agony in the garden, the details of His suffering at the hands of the Jews and the Roman soldiers, and His crucifixion, I start to glimpse the mountain of sins I have committed. And when I multiply my sins by each person who has ever lived or will ever live, I see the incredible love and grace of Jesus who selflessly took that punishment upon Himself to set us all free.

As we approach another Thanksgiving, we can certainly cultivate a spirit of gratitude for all the material blessings we enjoy. That being said, I can't think of any other gift of God more deserving of our thanks and praise than His full and free forgiveness of our sins for Jesus' sake.

Our forgiveness is so utterly undeserved, we can scarcely take it in. After all, why would God care? Why not bring an end to humanity and be done with it? Thank heavens His ways are not our ways.

What about hell and God's offer of forgiveness to us? Any thoughts? If so, you can share them by clicking here and telling us about it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Defending Hell to Share the Gospel

Last week I mentioned a pagan blog that used three arguments to dismiss the idea of hell:

1. Power-hungry religious leaders invented hell to control their followers through fear.

2. Hell wouldn't be just because it is infinite punishment for finite transgressions.

3. Hell wouldn't be right because it is punishment based upon the violation of arbitrary rules.

We received some great responses from blog readers. Some of these I'd like to bring to the forefront in the coming weeks as we talk about how to reply to these challenges.

This first response counters the accusation that hell was invented by power-hungry religious leaders.

"Faithful religious leaders have nothing to gain by inventing a punishing state of existence for those who deny God's grace and mercy. Those who reject Jesus as their Savior live without any hope, and we see the real-world consequences when people live without any sense of sure and certain hope outside of themselves. If there is no hell, why do people keep referring to it?"

I agree. When I look at the sheer scope of hell which the Scriptures -- and Jesus Himself -- describe I can't imagine even power-hungry religious leaders coming up with something that expansive, that horrific. If the notion of purgatory -- a limited duration of suffering -- was enough to sell indulgences in Martin Luther's day, there was no need to invent never-ending suffering if it was just a way to raise money and increase the power of the clergy.

On the other hand, if teachings about hell come directly from the God who created it as a place of punishment for the angels who rebelled, then religious leaders preach about hell because they genuinely care about the people to whom they are speaking; they want to teach them how we can all escape that dire punishment through God's free gift of forgiveness for Jesus' sake.

But the last sentence of the comment really jumped out at me: "If there is no hell, why do people keep referring to it?" Why do people feel compelled to construct arguments to invalidate something in which they don't believe? Can it be that the law of God is written in their hearts, the truth is ringing in their ears, and these arguments are their attempts to silence it?

Now think of the people around you: your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers who are living without a proper fear of the holiness and justice of our Holy Creator. There is only one reason to discuss God's wrath and hell with them, and that is to establish their need for a Savior. Once this is done, you can share the Good News of God's Son, Jesus Christ, who became human and paid that penalty in their place. And be sure to remind them that you too were under that same sentence until Jesus set you free.

Hell. Everybody's got an opinion about it.

What's yours?

You can share your thoughts on the Men's NetWork blog by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hell under Attack

Well, hell isn't under attack. It's the Bible's teachings about hell that are under attack. I came across the following comment on an October 15, 2015, pagan blog on death and the afterlife:

"It is, I think, the threat of Hell more than the promise of Heaven that creates anxiety among Abrahamic monotheists. It's tempting to see this as an effort by power-hungry religious leaders to control their followers through fear. Certainly that's a big part of the emphasis on Hell by conservative Christians and Muslims (if Jews threaten anyone with Hell, I've never heard it). But I categorically reject the idea of infinite punishment for finite transgressions against arbitrary rules."

Without a judgment or hell to worry about, he is really rosy about his future afterlife. He wrote about knowledge he has from past lives on earth; he is confident he will enjoy a time of rest with the gods after this life, then return for another life on earth where he will again rejoin the web of life and try to make the world a better place to live.

Before you start thinking these are only pagan arguments -- and you don't know any pagans -- these arguments to reason away the threat of hell are held by many former Christians as well as unbelievers, in our country. They fit well with our society's rejection of absolute truth and its acceptance of all kinds of different lifestyle choices.

This line of thinking includes at least three arguments:

1. Power-hungry religious leaders invented hell to control their followers through fear.

2. Hell wouldn't be just because it is infinite punishment for finite transgressions.

3. Hell wouldn't be right because it is punishment based upon the violation of arbitrary rules.

One way to deal with these arguments would be to ignore them. After all, isn't it more important to focus on God's love and heaven? Why do we have to bring up sin and judgment, death and hell? If you have a brother or sister, son or daughter, co-worker or neighbor who believes this way, wouldn't it be better to just let the topic alone and love them to death with the Good News of God's love? Wouldn't you just be driving them away by talking about sins?

As this pagan blog goes on, it exposes the danger lurking beneath this argument. Since the writer is convinced there is no hell, then the cross becomes utter foolishness. He even goes so far as describing Jesus' suffering and death on the cross as the worst case of divine child abuse.

In the blog in the coming weeks I'd like to work through each of these three lines of reasoning. But first, I'd like to give you the chance to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What would you say to someone who gave you these three reasons as to why he rejects hell?

Is it really sharing the Gospel if you exclude Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection as our Substitute and Savior?

You can share your thoughts by clicking here and telling us about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Helicopter Parents

Parenting is tough. It seems each generation of children is asked to grow up faster than the one before. Our kids face so many more options and temptations than we ever did. And there's always plenty of advice from parents, in-laws, and friends for kids nowadays too -- as well as plenty of criticism when they aren't quite doing it right either.

But I'm not here to give advice or criticism -- just to offer some perspective. My one and only child is now half way through the first semester of his freshman year at college. From everything I can tell, he is absolutely thriving there, and we praise God.

Looking back on the last couple of months, I'd have to say the thing that really surprises me is how quickly he grew up -- or maybe I should say, how quickly he had to grow up. Just last year we had access to his grades, and we talked to him every night. He didn't have to worry about laundry, or food, or getting himself to school. Now it's all on him. He's got a lot of decisions to make, and it's up to him to make those decisions. We even have to rely on him to tell us how he's doing academically, if he chooses to, that is.

Over the last decade Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen at Stanford University, noticed more and more young men and women are having trouble adjusting to college. They aren't used to taking care of themselves, making their own decisions, dealing with the challenges of life. She says the problem is their helicopter parents. They constantly hover and swoop in to personally intervene every time their child faces a difficulty.

So I would encourage all the parents of younger children to step back from time to time and consider how you are helping your children prepare for that day when you will drop them off at college, or move them into that first apartment. Are you giving them the responsibilities, the freedom, the choices, and the opportunity to learn how to make decisions for themselves? Will they know how to deal with a roommate who keeps totally different hours than they do? Will they have the confidence to make necessary alterations in their class schedule? Will they be able to sidestep peer pressure and prodding to engage in questionable activities?

But there's something far more important than even these issues: their spiritual preparation. Sometimes we are so busy running them to practice and games -- or even preparing them for college and career -- that we neglect to impress on them the importance of their faith -- of staying connected to their Creator and Savior. Are you demonstrating that for them? They clearly see how important (or unimportant) your faith is to you. And they're bound to take their lead from your actions.

You're concerned about their earthly life and getting them off on the right foot, and that's the way it should be. But how much more important is their eternal destiny in heaven or hell?

Nobody said saying goodbye (for a time) to a son or daughter was going to be easy. But that doesn't mean the separation should spell calamity for him or her once they've set out on their own.

How was it when your kids left the nest to go their own way? Was there much difficulty with their newfound freedom? Did it get easier for you with successive kids leaving home? Is there anything you wish you would have known (been privy to) when you had them at home, which you discovered only later?

Tell us how things went for your kid(s) when they made their exodus. How did things go for you? You can click here and tell us about it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Last Message from El Faro

On Thursday, October 1, Danielle Randolph, a crew member of the American container ship El Faro sent a message to her mother: "Not sure if you're following the weather at all, but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it. Winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone."

Shortly after, the 790-ft. cargo ship radioed it had lost power, then disappeared in Hurricane Joaquin -- a category 4 storm -- the kind you don't want to head into aboard a top-heavy cargo ship. After several days all Coast Guard searchers found was an oil slick, a life ring, and part of a battered lifeboat, along with one dead body in a survival suit. After a fruitless week, the Coast Guard called off its search for survivors.

I imagine over the centuries many ships were lost in hurricanes that way. They headed out from port having no clue that a monster storm was heading their way. But the El Faro captain and crew had weather satellites and hurricane hunters who fly airplanes into storms. What could have made them ignore the threat and leave port, especially when forecasts of the storm's track were all over the place, and none of the experts had a certainty where it was heading?

But waiting it out in port is tough -- for sailors -- and for you and me. Our teenage years are some of the worst for having to sit back and wait while our selfish desires for instant pleasure blaze away inside. And then going off to college is another dangerous time. That newfound freedom tempts us to throw caution to the wind and indulge in some reckless behavior and questionable decision-making.

My brothers and I hit those ages with our parents' warnings ringing in our ears. But often we had to test the waters for ourselves rather than take their word for it. Some of our friends made decisions that have affected their lives negatively ever since. A few aren't here anymore.

Now I'm older and wiser ... supposedly. Time and experience have taught me patience and the value of self-control. But there are still times I don't heed the warning signs. There are times I take risky chances I shouldn't. Our impatience and hunger for instant gratification can get us into deep trouble when we ignore the storm warnings God gives us.

I'm thinking of the Ten Commandments. Each one shines a bright spotlight on a dangerous threat to our eternal salvation. They warn us about desires and decisions that can shipwreck our faith. But sometimes those teachings seem so archaic, so distant, so irrelevant. Sometimes I just get an itch to set out from the dock and feel the exhilaration of the wind and the waves.

That's why Proverbs is one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. From chapter one on, God repeatedly calls me "My son," then goes on to clearly spell out the deadly perils that go with blindly following our desires, even as He vividly unfolds the rich quality of life that is ours when we trust His loving wisdom and follow His course for our lives. When I read it, the Holy Spirit puts my life back into perspective, and restores my appreciation for the great life our Father has given me here on earth, and the glorious, thrilling future that waits for us with Him in heaven.

Waiting for God's timing in life is tough, but it's always worth the wait.

Which Bible books or passages do you find most helpful for avoiding the deadly storms of temptation?

Are there words of wisdom -- Scriptural or otherwise -- you can share that have made a difference in your life? If so, click here and let us in on your secret.