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Monday, September 29, 2014

Disciples in Disguise

A number of years ago I attended a conference at the Harley Davidson factory in Kansas City.  A group of pastors and church leaders gathered at the factory to spend a few days touring the facilities and visiting with the administrators.  Some of us were there because we had a lifelong love of motorcycles.  Most of us were there because we wanted to learn how the Harley Davidson leaders had transformed a nearly extinct motorcycle company into a model of success at the turn of the century.

The thing I remember most about the conference was a statement made by a young executive who spoke to the group.  He had just returned from Europe where he helped introduce the Buell sport bike.  He stepped to the microphone and introduced himself.  He said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ disguised as a Harley Davidson Executive.” 

Since that time I have discovered disciples disguised in many walks of life:  teachers, doctors, mechanics, students, professors, engineers, nurses, administrators, athletes, grocery clerks, farmers, businessmen, soldiers, homemakers, … the list is almost endless. 

Many people consider themselves to be Christians.  Far fewer think of themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ.  To be a Christian usually means we give assent to the Christian religion, that we are comfortable with occasionally attending church, and we know we are not Muslim, Buddhist or some other religion.  To be a disciple, however, raises the expectations to a whole new level.

Interestingly, Jesus never used the term Christian.  In fact the term is only found three times in the Bible, and twice it is used by non-believers.  Jesus chose to speak about disciples. He said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27). “If you continue in my word then you are truly disciples of mine. (John 8:31). “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.” (John 13:35).  “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8).  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).

So, what does a twenty-first century disciple look like?  They look a lot like those we find in the first century.  Those who followed Jesus then were fishermen, tax collectors, business men and business women, mothers and fathers. Today, they look like you and me.  They come from every nation and every race.  They can be found among the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the famous and obscure. Wherever you find fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who have received God’s grace and love others as God has love them, you will find disciples in disguise.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Parenting and Discipline

Adrian Peterson’s whipping of his four-year-old son has catapulted the issues of parenting and discipline to the front pages of the news.  Peterson’s actions are universally deplored.  According to Peterson, he sought to discipline his son for pushing other children on the playground.  He took a limb from a nearby hedge, stripped it of its leaves and used it as a switch.  Many of us have memories of our mothers doing the same.

But Peterson’s discipline of his son bordered on the brutal. According to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office, Peterson’s son suffered cuts on his thighs and hands and bruises on his lower back and buttocks.  Peterson was indicted by a grand jury charging him with causing injury to a child.  As a result the Minnesota Vikings have placed their star running back on an exempt list preventing him for any participation in team activities for an indefinite period of time.

Parents have often quoted “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as Biblical support for spanking their children.  The only problem is that this statement does not occur in the Bible.  There are other references to the “rod” in Proverbs, but not this one.   “Spare the rod and spoil the child” first appeared in a poem by Samuel Butler in 1664.

The Proverbs verses about correction could be interpreted symbolically as well as literally.  It could be a dramatic and poetic way of underscoring the point that good parenting includes wise discipline and correction. Nowhere does the Bible condone injury to a child. 

In fact, Jesus had some of his harshest words for those who would harm a child.  Jesus said, “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18:5-6).

Paul gave these instructions to parents: “And you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4).  

Children need correction.  They need it for their own safety so that they don’t put their fingers in electric sockets or run across the parking lot into the path of oncoming cars.  They need correction regarding interaction with other children, to learn the manners and respect that will make them successful and benefit society. They need discipline to do the right things and avoid the wrong. 

But that discipline needs to always be wise, without injury, whether mental or physical, supported with love and affirmation.  They need the discipline that comes from observing the examples set by their parents in the way husbands and wives treat each other and how they conduct themselves in difficult situations. They need nurture, instruction and explanation.

Hopefully we will all learn lessons along with Adrian Peterson that will make us better parents and a better people.

Monday, September 15, 2014

When God Comes Close

Celtic Christianity has a term to refer to those moments when the separation between this world and heaven becomes so minimal that we sense the presence of God. They call these the “thin places.” They are the places where love and compassion reign. Where forgiveness overcomes resentment. Where selfishness is swallowed up in sacrifice. Where prejudice surrenders to acceptance. Where the violent flame is quenched and people live in peace. They are the times when our soul is overwhelmed with awe and we worship God.

The news usually focuses on “thick places” where our world is farthest from God. For some strange reason people gravitate to the sick stories of murder, corruption, abuse, crime and war. But God gives us moments when He comes near, moments when we sense the fragrance of His presence and we hear the whisper of His voice.

Sometimes the “thin places” make their way into the media. We witnessed a thin place when the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania provided food and comfort to the family of the killer who murdered their daughters in the Amish school a few years ago.

Sometimes we sense the thin place when we stand before God’s creation and marvel at its majesty, beauty, complexity and balance. My wife and I felt we were observing one of those “thin places” when we watched the full moon slowly rise over the ocean last week at Galveston. 

Sometimes we feel it in cathedrals and churches or informal and intimate gatherings with other believers. Sometimes the thin places appear in everyday life. Often, when they do, they are unexpected..

When Jesus came, the reign of God broke through upon the earth so that we were able to see, in a brilliant flash, what God’s Kingdom really looks like. This is what John meant when he said, “That was the true light, which, coming into the world enlightens every man … we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” Wherever Jesus went he created a thin place. This is why Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

When He sent his followers out, Jesus taught them to live and speak in such a way that people would know that they had come into a “thin place.” “Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'” (Luke 10:8).

As followers of Jesus our task is to help create the thin places. We do so by living in such a way that the reign of God rules in our hearts, controlling our speech, our actions and our decisions. We are to create “thin places” wherever we work or study, among our co-workers, fellow students, family, friends and even our enemies.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” He was teaching us to pray that we might become instruments for the thin places. This is why Jesus said, “You are the light of the world … let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your father who is in Heaven.” God desires that His reign and rule should be displayed and celebrated.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ebola Crisis

Ebola continues in the news.  Last week another doctor returned to the United States who was infected with the disease while treating patients in Liberia.  Dr. Rick Sacra, a family physician from Massachusetts is the latest US victim diagnosed with the disease.  He arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center on Friday, September 5, where he was declared “sick but stable” by medical staff.

That same evening  Matt Lauer’s interview with Dr. Kent Brantly was aired on NBC.  Dr. Brantly and his colleague, Nancy Writebol, were the first US medical personnel diagnosed with the disease.  Their diagnosis and return to the United States for treatment ignited global fears of a worldwide epidemic.  Writebol and Brantly were treated in Atlanta.  

In Liberia where Brantly, Writebol and Sacra served as medical missionaries, the ebola virus has killed more than 1,000 people since its arrival six months ago.  There is no known cure for the disease.  Up to 90% of ebola victims die suffering from acute diarrhea, vomiting, uncontrolled shaking and, in many cases both internal and external bleeding.

Both Writebol and Brantly recovered and were declared free of the ebola virus last week.  Their story raises several questions.  The first question many ask is:  What saved them?  Did we find a cure? 

The medical community is guarded in their response.  Perhaps they found some clues that will help discover a cure.  But others have received similar treatment given to Brantly and Writebol and died, including two doctors, one from Spain and another from Liberia. 

When asked about his treatment and recovery, Dr. Brantly was clearly convinced that the real secret to his recovery was prayer.  Brantly said, “The people in the room taking care of me, they began praying over me. What I didn’t know at the time is that there were also people outside my house praying for me.” He thoughtfully added, “There were thousands of people, including my teammates there in Liberia who were begging the Lord to save my life.” 

A second question is: Why were these saved and not others?

Nancy Writebol responded, “We don’t understand the way the Lord works. Why did God allow us to receive treatment? Why were we saved and not others? I don’t know that we can ever answer that question.”

But there is a third question.  Why did these individuals leave their successful medical practice and the safety of their homes to put their lives at risk treating impoverished patients in Liberia? 

Dr. Kent Brantly released this statement in response to that question: My wife Amber and I, along with our two children, did not move to Liberia for the specific purpose of fighting Ebola. We went to Liberia because we believe God called us to serve Him at ELWA Hospital.
“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. … I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name.

“When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.”
The ebola crisis is expected to escalate in the next few weeks.  Hopefully Dr. Brantly’s illness, along with Mrs. Writebol and Dr. Sacra will signal a global call for prayer, courage and sacrifice to stamp out the disease and rescue the victims in west Africa.   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Stephen Hawking, ALS, The Ice Challenge and Faith

I like Stephen Hawking.  I admire his brilliance. Even more, I admire the courage he has shown in his fight with ALS.  Last week he took the ice challenge for ALS awareness.  Actually, since he suffered with pneumonia this past year and his health is frail, his children took the ice dunk for him.

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963 when he was 21. The doctors gave him two years to live. That was 51 years ago.  Since then he has won numerous awards and made major contributions to physics.  His best known work is “A Brief History of Time,” with more than three million copies sold.

I was saddened a few years ago when he said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

It is difficult for me to comprehend how such a brilliant mind can reach the conclusion that all we observe in the universe is an accident, that there is no intelligent force or design behind our existence.  It seems as illogical to me as finding a state-of-the-art functioning PC in the desert and concluding it just accidentally originated from nowhere. 

Science and empirical evidence can only take us so far.  The question Hawking is dealing with is bigger than any religion or denominational expression. It is also bigger than science.  It is a question we all must face and answer.  How we answer it makes a great deal of difference in how we live and how meaningful our lives are. 

Hawking concluded that since there is no God, humans should seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.  This too, makes no sense to me. If there is no God, where is the motive to live responsible and valuable lives?  We are sucked into a black hole of non-existence and non-meaning.  What does it matter?

If we argue that love matters then, it seems to me, we are thrown back into the very lap of God.  Love is the greatest and most mysterious reality in our existence, eclipsing all other discoveries.  Who wants to live in a world of technological perfection and scientific achievement without love?  A loveless world would leave us shallow, fragmented, lonely, isolated, fearful, and miserable.

Here lies the greatest truth:  “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  (1 John 4:16). 

Ultimately, I suppose, faith or non-faith is a choice.  We can choose to believe that our world is the result of a creative God who desired and designed our existence from the tiniest molecule to the most distant star or we can choose not to believe.

The idea that human beings are no more than computers that will one day crash and be discarded as junk leads nowhere.  For my part, I will choose to believe.  It is the only conclusion that seems to make any sense.