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Monday, June 27, 2016

Faith and Freedom

Every American school-child knows the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In his book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, (one of Bill Gates’ five favorite books for the summer) Yuval Noah Harari argues that the Declaration of Independence would look starkly different if it were re-written to reflect secular science. According to Harari, if we stripped the foundations of the Christian faith from its wording, and replaced them with evolutionary science, it would read like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among them are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”

Without God, we cannot be “created.” Instead we are reduced to the random result of evolution.  Neither can we be “endowed by our Creator,” since there is no Creator to endow us with self-worth. We are left with an accidental existence unrelated to value.  Therefore, no human being has any more inherent worth than the spider or the ape.

And regarding liberty, “There is no such thing in biology,” Herari contends, “liberty is something that people invented and exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free.”  Since science has not been able to define happiness, we will have to settle with the “pursuit of pleasure.” 

There appears to be a headlong rush to de-Christianize our society.  Faith is being pushed from the streets of intellectual commerce and dismissed in the dark alleys of superstition. We may be well on the way to re-writing the Declaration of Independence into the secular terms Harari has proposed.

Unless we recapture the “faith of our fathers,” our future may look like the forbidding landscape of science fiction movies with human beings consigned to violence and anarchy.  Without faith, we could return to a survival of the fittest.  

Where would we be without the statements of Jesus? “The very hairs of your head are numbered. Love one another as I have loved you.  In that you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”

Hitler followed secular science to its logical conclusion and implemented a policy of eugenics that eliminated the weak and infirm as “life unworthy of life.” Over 400,000 were sterilized against their will. Millions were extermiated.  Marriage was strictly controlled to foster eugenic purity.

Others, like Mother Theresa, Corrie Ten Boom, William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln followed a faith that compelled them to care for the poorest of the poor, to set the captive free, to bind up the nation’s wounds

Jesus introduced Himself saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Only faith can give us the framework for human dignity and worth. Only faith can safeguard our freedom. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rescue the Refugee

We have always thought of ourselves as a nation of courage and hope.  Few statements reflect our identity better than the quote affixed to the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”  There is something sacred about Ellis Island, the entry point for so many who came in response to the beacon of life and liberty.  Most of us are descendants of those who came.

Facing severe persecution in the civil wars that swept across Liberia, thousands fled to the United States in the last decade. A few weeks ago I attended the building dedication for Ebenezer Liberian Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.  More than a thousand people showed up.  They filled the auditorium and spilled over into corridors and classrooms.  I was inspired by their hymns, songs and testimonies to God's goodness and grace.

Four decades ago I visited Vietnamese refugee camps in central Texas.  Most were “boat people” who fled persecution and poverty after the fall of South Vietnam. We picked them up with buses and brought them to our church, even though most spoke little English. A few members in our church resented their presence, but most reached out with the compassion of Christ. Today more than 1.5 million Vietnamese call America home. The largest Christian Vietnamese church has over 4,000 members and the number of Vietnamese Christians is growing.

In Minnesota I met Hmong Christian leaders.  The Hmong were Animists from the hill country of Laos and close allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War.  They fled brutal persecution and sought refuge in America.  More than ¼ million now live in the U.S. Many have embraced Christ. There are now more than 140 Hmong Christian churches in the United States, most in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.  Their children are attending college and moving into professional ranks.

Today the oppression in Syria represents the world’s greatest refugee crisis. 11 million Syrians, more than half of them children, have fled the brutal attacks by ISIS. Most of them are Muslim. But many Christian organizations are reaching out to these refugees providing shelter, blankets, water, food and comfort. Virtually every denomination is represented as well as para-church groups like Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision.

When Jesus introduced himself to the synagogue in his hometown at Nazareth, he infuriated the crowd by stating that God loved the Syrians. He reminded them that Elisha healed a Syrian leper when there were many lepers in Israel. They were so enraged they tried to throw Jesus off a high cliff.  (Luke 4:16-30).

We are always afraid and suspicious of people who are different than we are. But “perfect love casts out fear.”  Isaiah says, “Hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees.  Let the fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer. The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land.”  (Isaiah 16:3-4).

Monday, June 13, 2016

Father's Day

Next Sunday is Father’s Day in the United States, Chile, Canada, Japan, the UK, South Africa, China, India and most of Europe. Nations around the world recognize the important role of fathers in the lives of children.

As a 12-year-old boy, Jesus rewrote everything we ever thought about fathers and everything we think about God.  He had visited Jerusalem with his parents to observe the Passover as was their custom.  Relatives and friends traveled in caravans from Nazareth to Jerusalem once a year to observe this significant historic Jewish celebration.  On their journey home, the group from Nazareth discovered, to their horror, that the 12-year-old Jesus had been left behind on the streets of the capital city. 

Mary and Joseph left the returning caravan and traveled a full day’s journey back to Jerusalem to find him.   After three days of anguish, they found him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the religious leaders.  Hardly able to control her emotions, Mary confronted him, “Son, why have you treated us this way?  Don’t you know your father and I have been anxiously looking for you?”  His response shocked her.  He said. “Did you not know I must be about the things of my Father?”  Mary and Joseph did not understand what he was talking about. (Luke 2: 41-52)

The reason for Mary and Joseph’s confusion is rather simple.  They had not thought of God as Father.  Like all faithful Jews, they considered God too holy for his name to be pronounced. Only the priest could approach God in the holy of holies and that only once a year. 

This became a dominant theme in Jesus’ ministry.  He revolutionized prayer by teaching us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven” and encouraged us to bring all our requests to God saying, “Which one of you if your son asks for an egg will give him a stone, or for a fish will give him a snake?  If you being evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father which is in Heaven give what is good to you.”

"Take no thought saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed?’ For your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things ..." "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." "I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me." With his final breath upon the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  From his first recorded words to his last, Jesus redefined God as our Father.

Faith takes on an entirely different dimension when we discover God as Father.  Our Father in Heaven wants to know us, love us and transform our lives to reflect His goodness and grace in a world torn with hatred and violence.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Proof of Heaven

Eben Alexander was convinced that there is nothing beyond this life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1976 and received his M.D. from Duke Medical School in 1980. After he completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular neurosurgery at Newcastle-Upon Tyne, he served for fifteen years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School with specialization in neurosurgery. As a physician and a scientist, he concluded that when the brain dies all consciousness ends. The person ceases to exist.

All that changed on November 10, 2008 when he suffered a severe attack of bacterial meningitis that left him on life support and, by every measurement, brain dead. After existing in this comatose condition for a week, Eben Alexander miraculously woke up. When he did, all his preconceived scientific assumptions about life and death were changed. The dramatic Near Death Experience (NDE) left him convinced that life beyond this physical existence is not only real, it is the greater reality.

He documented his experience in his book, Proof of Heaven. He writes, “The physical side of the universe is as a speck of dust compared to the invisible and spiritual part. In my past view, spiritual wasn’t a word that I would have employed during a scientific conversation. Now I believe it is a word that we cannot afford to leave out.”

As impressive as Dr. Alexander’s near death experience may be, it pales in comparison to the historic death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, it was not a “near death experience.” A Roman soldier thrust a spear through his side releasing a final gush of blood and water to confirm that Jesus was truly dead. His lifeless body was buried in a borrowed grave, and, on the third day, to the shock and surprise of his closest followers, God raised him from the dead.

Luke, a first century physician, after conducting exhaustive research and extensive interviews wrote, “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3). Paul, arguably one of the greatest minds in history, stated, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Every other event in history is dated by that singular life that gave the world its greatest “proof of heaven.”