Friday, October 30, 2015

Why I Am a Christian

I am a Christian. No one who knows me will be surprised by that confession. What might surprise some people is the path that brought me to faith. Though I grew up in the church, the son of a Presbyterian elder, the grandson of a pastor, faith in Jesus did not come easy for me. My years in college, and the years immediately following, were full of questions about what was real. It wasn’t obvious sin that kept me from Jesus – it was the question of whether there was actually a Jesus to turn to.

My path to the faith ran through the crucible of doubt. My doubts were intellectual and emotional. I questioned whether God existed, whether Jesus was truly divine, whether the Bible could really be trusted; I also questioned whether, if God did exist, he would actually care about me, whether he would be willing to forgive me, whether I even wanted forgiveness. My doubts were as comprehensive as they were unyielding.

Some people will tell you that doubt is evil, and that God is not interested in your questions. They say that you should simply believe, and everything else will take care of itself. That kind of certainty without evidence has always eluded me. Doubts were a constant companion in my young adult years. But I’m certain that even in my doubts, God was there, patiently helping, guiding and answering, even when I didn’t even realize it.

Now, it is certain that doubt is never seen as a virtue in the Bible, but neither are doubters cast into utter darkness with no chance to have their questions answered. God is gracious to us in our doubts. If you have doubts, you are not alone. We don’t like to talk about it in the church, but I’m convinced our numbers are legion – people with questions, who don’t know where to turn for answers. The great news is that there are answers available.

What finally broke through the gridlock of doubt for me? My doubt turned to faith on a simple premise – Jesus rose from the dead. Something happened on that first Easter morning roughly 2,000 years ago. After Jesus’ death, his disciples had all scattered. They were afraid they would be next on the cross. We find them, even after hearing reports of his resurrection, hidden in a room, afraid they’d be found. But then Jesus shows up. And that’s when things start changing.

History tells us all of the original disciples (except Judas, who killed himself after Jesus’ death) went to their graves proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the grave. And there was no benefit to them to lie about it. 10 of them died martyrs’ deaths. The 11th, John, was exiled to the island of Patmos to live his final days. None of them gained anything from proclaiming a lie. But there they were – until the day died, saying that Jesus, the Jesus who was publicly killed on a cross in front of thousands of people, had risen from the grave.

This realization was just what I needed – I went from wanting to believe, to truly believing. I went from hoping it was true, to being certain it was. Now, there are still days when I wonder about it all – but those days are few and far between – my worst days. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of my faith. If someone could prove to me it wasn’t true, I would walk away from the faith immediately. And I think the apostle Paul would be right behind (or in front) of me. After all, he said “If Christ is not raised, our preaching is in vein, and your faith is in vein.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)

The bottom line is this – if you have doubts you are not alone. If you have questions, there are answers. If you want answers, you can find them. Your doubts are not something to be ashamed of - and they might be the very thing that lead you into real faith.  You might also find that in your doubts, Jesus was there all along, patiently pointing you in the right direction – faithfully pointing you to himself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race and the Gospel and My Mississippi

I am a son of the South – a son of Mississippi no less – born, raised, educated, and employed here for most of my life. I love Mississippi so much I moved back after moving away, choosing to raise my family here, choosing to plant my life here among some of the best people in the world.

But I am not immune to understanding our flaws, historically and currently. The issue of race has always been a big one. I grew up in an era where it was still socially acceptable to use the n-word in polite (i.e. white) society. People knew better than to say it in front of black people, but they used it with regularity when they weren’t around. The worst thing a white girl in my high school could be branded as was an “n-word lover,” and they could get that brand for something as simple as turning down a white guy for a date. My best friend once had a black friend at his home playing basketball with him in the yard. An older white man literally stopped in the middle of the road and just stared at them for about a minute, not saying a word. He didn’t have to say anything. They both got the message – this was not acceptable. Let me be clear - not everyone thought and acted this way, but a large number did. Whites and blacks could go to school together, they could play sports together, but having a friend over of a different race, or dating someone of a different race, were simply bridges too far. These attitudes were prevalent when I was a kid 20-30 years ago. That’s one generation. And I have no reason to believe they were isolated to the small town in which I grew up. It was a town full of really good people – still is. This is just how it was then.

I’d like to say I was completely immune to this kind of racist environment, but I was not. I said and did things growing up that I am ashamed of, made jokes that would mortify me if I heard them now, and more than anything, didn’t stand up when I saw things I knew were wrong. One thing I did learn early on though – this kind of racism that I was growing up around was completely at odds with what I was learning about Jesus in church. My granddad and pastor, an imperfect but honest man, preached a Gospel that simply couldn’t live for long with racism, even if he didn’t perfectly understand that truth. The Gospel he preached, the Gospel the Bible taught, simply wouldn’t allow one group of people to believe they were superior to another group of people in any way. So once I became a believer, I began to understand that. It was a lesson that was reinforced by the African-American friends I was making at my school – good guys who I played sports with, went to class with, and shared a lot in common with. Guys like Tyrone, Calvin, Daniel, Dale and Edgar – they taught me by example that we were simply not that different. Living my life with them showed me experientially what the Gospel taught me theoretically.

Now, let me be clear – much has changed in the last 25 years. There have always been many good Christians in Mississippi, but race has often been a blind spot. Many of them have come to see what Jesus demands of them over the years on this issue. Just like me, the Gospel has taught them much, including how racism and Christianity cannot co-exist. They were not convinced of this by rejecting the truths of the Gospel – understanding those truths better is what convinced them. Just like slavery and Jim Crow before it, white Christians realized the error of their ways by better grasping what Jesus demanded of them if they followed Him.

But after watching the events that happened at a Charleston, South Carolina church last week, the brutal murders of nine African Americans at the hands of a white racist, I’m reminded that the type of racism I grew up with – actually even worse than what I grew up with – is still around. It has not died yet. And many of the people spouting it are also claiming to be Christians. But real believers, white and black, can easily look at those ideas and quickly reject them as completely out of step with the Gospel.

But there is another sin to which white Christians who rightly reject this kind of racism sometimes fall prey – it’s the sin of, “Haven’t I done enough already?” This is an attitude that rejects racism, tries to look at all people as equals, and is possibly even sorry about their past racist actions, thoughts and words. But Christianity demands that we go further than simply saying, “I won’t do that anymore.” Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be peacemakers, to put the needs and concerns of others above our own. Here is what Christianity demands of repentant racists – that they seek to be agents of reconciliation with the people for whom their attitudes have changed toward.

So the question for people like me, and for people like those good people I grew up with, is this – what are we doing to be God’s agents for racial reconciliation? It’s not enough to stop having racist attitudes and actions. We must actively seek to cross lines and mend fences. We must seek to see our thoughts and actions through the eyes of those who are different than us. And we must realize that because of what Jesus has done, through his perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, that we have more in common with our other-race brothers and sisters in Christ than we do with our same-race friends and family who don’t believe. We have a common bloodline now, one that is deeper and more important than the one that determines our skin color.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Are You Practicing Christianity or Witchcraft?

Christians don’t think much about witchcraft or magic these days. The idea conjures up images of ladies who come out at Halloween with crooked noses, warts and black hats. When we think of magic, it’s more likely to be along the lines of what a Disney princess can do than anything the Bible talks about. There are times when the idea of witchcraft as dangerous rears its head – as with controversies over the Harry Potter books (which my son is reading right now) several years ago. The main idea we get when we think of witchcraft is that it is make-believe, maybe even a fun escape from the real world we live in right now.
But as Christians, we know there is much more to the universe than what we can simply see; we know there has been a God who is constantly acting to keep the world together, and who has in times past acted in miraculous ways to bring about his ultimate purposes. This was most perfectly seen when God himself became man, lived among us, died and was resurrected from the grave. A Christianity without a God who sometimes miraculously intervenes is no Christianity at all. Now, this doesn’t mean a Christian must buy all claims of the miraculous that people, even fellow Christians make. It simply means that we know God has acted miraculously in the past, and that he has the ability to do so again if he so desires.
But we need to be careful how we understand this, because if we’re not we will conflate the miraculous work of God with little more than witchcraft. If you have a wrong conception of who God is, then you may very well be practicing sorcery instead of Christianity. Let me give you an example that has shown up in my Facebook feed a couple of times in the last couple of days.

Say this slow … you are not practicing Christianity if you do this, you are practicing witchcraft. When we turn God into the kind of God who can be manipulated by our simple word choices, and who must act in particular ways if we do particular things, then we are treated him like nothing more than a magic spell. Say the incantation right, and it will work every time! The problem with this kind of thinking – at least one of the problems - is that it treats God not like a real person, but like a supernatural entity, a “genie in a bottle,” waiting on just the right words said in just the right order at just the right time with just the right sincerity, so that it may act in a particular way. This is garbage, and it must be rejected by every person who calls himself a believer in Christ.
One of the ways I think we have come up with this idea is by reading actual things that Jesus said, and completely misunderstanding them or intentionally misrepresenting them. When Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” that was not a command to ask for what you want, tack “in Jesus’ name,” on the end, and then wait for your reward. Jesus is telling his disciples to ask for the things they want, so long as they are in accord with his character, in line with his will, and will ultimately bring glory to the Father. It’s a dangerous thing to take God’s name in vein, you know. That command is about more than cussing. Your request for a new Mercedes may very well fall into this category. And the reason you haven’t gotten it is much likely because you don’t need it than it is because you haven’t said the right words in the right way and really, really meant them.
Now, you may not actually think like this, but that doesn't mean you are beyond danger. You need to ask yourself - Do I treat God as a means to an end, or the end in himself? Your chief job as a Christian is to glorify and enjoy God forever, not just enjoy his gifts. It's the difference in a man loving his wife because of the person she is, or because she cooks him dinner every night. It's the difference between loving God, and loving the perceived benefits that God has given you for following him. 

So this is a call for wisdom and self-examination – does your faith look like the kind of faith Jesus actually talks about and commends, or is bordering on witchcraft – using God as a cosmic power who grants all your wishes and desires if you really mean it? The first is Christianity. The second is witchcraft. And the Biblical denunciations of such practice apply to you.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Screwtape and Heaven

(Editor's note - this letter is written in the spirit of C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters," purported to be letters from a senior demon to his younger nephew, about how to tempt a particular subject. I make no claims of the same quality of Lewis.)

My Dearest Wormwood,

I understand your patient has had some kind of accident, and has fallen into a coma. You must realize how precarious a situation you find yourself in at this moment. He has stayed faithful thus far to our insipid enemy; I’m afraid if he doesn’t wake up, we will have lost him. Of course, the consequences for you will be quite terrible if this happens. So it is best for you, and for our side, that he wakes up. Now, there is no guarantee that his waking up will be of any benefit for us either. You would think that someone who goes through a terrible ordeal like what your patient has gone through, and then wakes up from it, only to face months of hardship and rehabilitation, would be ripe picking for our side. Unfortunately, what we very often find is that such a person actually grows in his trust of the enemy. This has been a terrible quandary for us as we have researched this phenomenon. Some of our most ingenious plots have been turned against us by the other side, and we have lost not a few patients for good, even as they struggled through serious health issues. The bottom line is this – whichever way this goes for the patient, you find yourself in grave peril. Extreme measures are in order.

But there is some new research we have developed that I believe may be helpful for you, if and when the patient wakes up. It’s really cutting-edge stuff, and has shown some great promise during these days when even those who call themselves followers of the enemy seem to have very little idea about what he really thinks or wants or is like. I would suggest that if he wakes up, you need to somehow convince him that he actually spent time in Heaven during his unconscious state. This move does not come without its risks, but the reward for it is ever so great.

 Let me explain to you how this works. You see, the enemy actually appears to genuinely care about these people. Of course, we know differently, but our best attempts to figure out what his ulterior motives are have thus far come up short. This “love” he has for the creatures has manifested itself in several ways, but one of them is that he has chosen to reveal himself to them. Through the course of several centuries, he showed particular people little pieces of him. And it all culminated in that dreadful attack that took place when he himself landed in territory that rightfully belonged to us. We repelled him, of course, but he has convinced them that he ultimately overcame it. And these revelations are his greatest weapon against us. When people here about what he did, something about them is changed. We’re quite sure he is brainwashing them; nevertheless, one of the most dreadful weapons he has used against us are these written revelations that they have collected in their scriptures. Nothing else has so much power against us as this evil collection of stories.

Though we haven’t been able to stop the stories from being told, we have been able to blunt their effectiveness, by undermining them. Some of that has come through people who have tried to poke holes in their truth, but our most ingenious attacks have come by using people who believe them to be true. What we’ve done is convince these people that though the Scriptures are true, they aren’t quite enough, that something else is needed. We have convinced people who are otherwise worthless to our cause that their experiences are as important as those stories found in their scriptures. And when this happens, they have fallen right into our hands.

Now, back to the plan. If your patient is one of these people who values his experience as much as he values those stories, then you have someone who is ripe for the picking. You'll want to make what he sees in "Heaven" as beautiful (in his eyes) as possible, and keep it as close to close to "orthodoxy" as possible. The more it looks like the way the enemy has described it, the more easily, you can fool him. If you can convince him that he went to Heaven during his hospitalization, then the next thing you must convince him is that he must tell other people about this experience. Never mind that those Scriptures specifically speak against such a trip to Heaven and back, and especially speaking of it. Many of the enemy’s people these days have no real idea what the scriptures really say. But what they do know is that they’re supposed to tell others about him.

So you can use the enemy’s plans to defeat us against him. The patient can do something completely contradictory to his holy scriptures, and believe he is doing it in the enemy’s name! This is one our most ingenious developments yet! This may very well be the brick we pull that causes the entire house to fall down! We can convince him to do something the enemy has forbidden in the enemy’s name, while at the same time undermining the authority of those evil scriptures! Who knows, he may get a best-selling book and influence thousands of people to become “Christians” without knowing a thing about the very scriptures the enemy has given them to reveal himself to them! I’m salivating as I consider their surprise as they find they’ve fallen into our hands!!!

Ravenously yours,

P.S. Please contact research and development ASAP by encrypted e-mail to find out the techniques for this particular temptation. We cannot risk the specifics of this new technique falling into the hands of the enemy by communicating by mail.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ferguson, the Gospel, and What I Must Do

Like many of you, I have been watching the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City with a mix of horror and sadness. I’m a news guy; the particular facts of those particular cases, where police officers killed suspects, are not mine to opine about. But I’m also a Christian. And as I have watched the racial divisions that have bubbled to the surface over the last few weeks, I have thought a lot about what must be done to mend these divisions.

Racial reconciliation has been a major issue for me throughout my life. I grew up in a small Mississippi town in the 80’s where racism was still strong. There were plenty of good people who weren’t racists, but the problem was still rampant. I know it is miles better there now than it was when I grew up. But I saw it first-hand; real hatred spewed from people who were in church every Sunday. And it didn’t fit with the Bible I was reading and hearing my grandfather preach from each Sunday. I knew something had to change.

Here’s the thing; the Gospel demands things from us, in general, and on this particular issue. Let me be clear – the Gospel offers grace, and it is grace that is offered freely. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, every person on the planet is offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life, simply by placing their faith in that Jesus. This grace is free, but that does not mean it is cheap. Once we are given this grace, again and again, the Jesus of the Gospel makes demands of us. We are told that because of what Jesus has done for us, that it is imperative that we must do some particular things. To do otherwise would be a slap in the face to the grace that has been offered us. And this is most certainly the case when it comes to racial reconciliation.

Now, we live in a world of a million prophets and no Israelites. Everyone wants to make high moral pronouncements about the way things need to be; no one wants to repent of their own sins. No one wants to look at their own lives and ask themselves what they must do. So instead of the things that other people must do on this issue, here are a list of the things I believe the Gospel demands that I must do.

- The Gospel demands that I seek racial reconciliation - The Apostle Paul couldn’t be any clearer – what Jesus has done for us has created a new kind of people, no longer separated by old divisions. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Because of what Jesus has done, I have infinitely more in common with an African-American who is also a Christian than I do with a white person who is not. The job of racial reconciliation is making this theological truth a reality. It means focusing on the things I have in common more than the things that are different. I must do this.
The Gospel demands that I see others’ needs as more important than my own – But If I am going to seek racial reconciliation, it’s going to require that I lay down my rights to be right on some things.

                              “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have 
                              this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form 
                              of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking
                              the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he 
                              humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:4-8)

Notice Paul says that when we put others before ourselves, we are being like Jesus. When we place the needs and thoughts and desires of other people above our own needs and thoughts and desires, we are acting out the Gospel story, having the “mind of Christ. How does this play into racial reconciliation? It is incumbent upon me to listen much more than I speak, to care more about what others have to say infinitely more than what I think. I must reach across racial lines and divisions and seek to understand those who look different than I do.

- The Gospel demands that I speak and act with humility – The Gospel tells us two important things: 1) that we are infinitely more sinful than we could ever imagine, and 2) that God loves us more than we can fathom. When we understand these truths, they will humble us. And humbled people don’t need to always be right. As a matter of fact, humbled people realize that they are often wrong. And so the Gospel forces us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers; only God does. And God uses other people to help us get those answers. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to speak gently when I speak, to act kindly when I act, and to always consider that I don’t have to win every argument. Jesus says I am right with God because of what he has done for me. I needn’t constantly seek ways to justify myself. I simply need to humble myself.

None of these things are easy. But they are certainly worth the trouble. In a world that is divided, the church ought to be a beacon of light, a place where people of different backgrounds and races and nationalities can come together and rally around the one thing that is more important than any other thing – the Gospel. It unites all those who believe. We are one body. Unfortunately, we have far too often pretended otherwise. But we can change, and that change starts with me.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Christian Cotton Candy

It is autumn, a time of year for carnivals and festivals and fairs and football games. That means that over the next several weeks, copious amounts of cotton candy will be consumed. Any parent worth his or her salt knows one important thing about cotton candy – it’s best consumed in small amounts. Eat too much, the kids get really hyper, and then possibly sick. Cotton candy is great is small doses. It is not so great when you eat too much.

I’m afraid that much of what Christians are consuming today, and believing is good for their faith, is little more than spiritual cotton candy. It may provide a temporary high, but it has no substance, provides no nourishment, and may actually be making them sick instead of healthy. Let me be more specific: much of what I see passing for Christianity today is little more than pop culture with a Christian bow. Much of what I see passing for the faith right now is little more than spiritual kitsch – the latest “Christian movie,” nice Christiany slogans posted on Facebook walls, Christian radio that is “safe for the entire family,” and political ads disguised as devotional material. And it’s not that movies, or slogans, or music, or politics are bad, though some of these things are certainly better than others. It’s simply that they can never replace the things that are really meant to nourish our faith. They’re cotton candy – fun, with very little substance. They’re not the kind of food that puts spiritual meat on the bones.

I have very little patience or trust in anything but the Word or any person but Jesus which promises spiritual transformation. So this is a call for Christian seriousness, a faith which is rooted in the person and work of Jesus, which is guided by the Word, which has an eye on the history of the church, and is not distracted by the pseudo-Christian junk that is out there. A faith that is mainly guided by slogans and bumper stickers is not a faith that will stand the test of time, in this world, or in your soul. We live in a society that is increasingly secular and sometimes hostile to the Christian faith. If your personal faith is not grounded in seriousness, it will not stand up. When big questions arise, when trouble erupts, if all you have is Christian pop-culture to fall back on, it will not be a safe landing spot.

So watch Christian movies, listen to Christian radio, post Christian slogans on your Facebook wall, and participate in politics. There is nothing wrong with any of this. But see it for what it is. It is not where the heart of the Christian faith lies. The heart lies in the Gospel, the story found in the Bible of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It lies in the spiritual disciplines: prayer, Bible study, worship, and community. It lies in loving and serving your neighbor. These things will provide real nourishment for you, the kind of nourishment that build you into what God wants you to be. And when you are becoming that, you can handle a little cotton candy from time to time. You’ll just find that you want less of it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Go Ahead, Be a Rebel

Our society loves a rebel. The iconic picture of the “Rebel without a Cause,” James Dean, is a part of American folklore for a reason. There is something about someone who refuses to let society define who he is, who makes his own way, who rebels against the standards that others have set for him. Our society has embraced this “rebel” mentality to its fullest extent. There’s a real sense now in which everyone is a rebel. But when everyone is a rebel, is anyone really a rebel? When everyone is “raging against the machine,” who’s operating the machine? When everyone embraces doing their own thing, then isn't that pretty much the same thing as everyone being the same?

Can I suggest something? One of the most counter-cultural things you can do in a society like this is follow Jesus. It’s a true act of rebellion in a culture that has, on the main, rejected him. In a culture that doesn't believe in objective truth, saying, “Jesus is truth,” is an act of rebellion. In a culture that embraces doubt, faith is an act of rebellion. In a culture that puts individualism above everything, making yourself accountable to a church is rebellion. In a culture that frolics in sexual sin, chastity is an act of rebellion. In a culture that loves divorce, faithfulness to a spouse for life is an act of rebellion. In a culture where anger is the norm, joy is rebellion. In a culture where fear rules, courage is rebellion. In a culture that loves to be mean, kindness is a true counter-cultural act of rebellion.

Now, you may read this and long for a day when being a Christian was not considered an act of rebellion. I’m afraid to tell you that such a day never actually existed. Our savior was crucified as a rebel. His followers were chased and martyred for the same reason. The early church knew that they were “strangers and exiles” in this world, and true believers have always faced difficulty and persecution. You may believe there was some magical time here in the Bible Belt where following Jesus was the norm for most people – ask those on the other side of Birmingham hoses in the Civil Rights Era whether that was the case. Real faith in Jesus leads to a different kind of life; a life that ALWAYS looks like rebellion against the norms of the culture.

We should not be surprised by this. The Bible describes Satan as the “god of this world.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) The norm is embracing what he as ruler wants us to do and how he as ruler wants us to think. But the Bible also tells us that through the incarnation of Jesus, the rebellion against this ruler has begun. Jesus landed in enemy territory, and now he is looking for people who are willing to take part in an insurgent campaign to overthrow the current “god.” Now, we don’t fight with the same weapons the rest of the world uses – our weapons in this rebellion are anything but violent. But they are even more powerful.

So go ahead, be a rebel. Embrace the rebellion. It will not be easy – real rebellions never are. But it will be worth it.