Monday, December 5, 2016

So Much Grace, It's Not Fair


 The last time we were together we talked about a social engineering project in China, that some have compared to  Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.  In case you forgot your high school literature, neither of those dystopian novels presented a very pleasant scene.
Here is the question that concerns us:

What if there were a system that would reward each of us with exactly what deserved?
Really, it's not a matter of if; the fact is there is such a system and it presents a far more alarming scene than any fictional account.  We tend to think in terms of more-or-less.  God is perfect; His standards are likewise perfect.  These words from our Lord's earthly brother are one example of what the Bible has to say on the subject:  "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).  The question is not, "Am I better--or less bad--than others around me?" but, "Do I measure up to God's standard?"
The answer is, "NO!"

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” 
(Romans 3:23)
We don't need justice.  We need grace.  Grace of such a quality that when we examine it we'll be tempted to say, "That's not fair!"  Take the case of the Apostle Paul.  He was a legalistic leader of a warped brand of Judaism.  He felt driven to, and totally righteous about, persecuting followers of Christ.  He was involved in the stoning of Stephen, and proceeded to wreak havoc in the church.  See here, and here.  Yet this former one man wrecking crew, came to be a recipient of God's grace.  He, himself, was amazed at the scope of this grace.  Paul called himself the "foremost of sinners."  Yet he saw God's grace as sufficient to deal with any quantity of sin.  
    "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,
          so that, as sin reigned in death,
even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Romans 5:20-21

Yes, God is righteous, but, without any compromise to either, He is also gracious.  That is why the Apostle Paul puts both concepts in one brief statement.

  "The wages of sin is death,
but the gift of God is eternal life. . . ."

(Romans 6:23)
We are right to respect God's justice.  That should not be the end, however.  A knowledge of God's absolutely holy standard ought to drive us to God's grace.  What John Newton called God's "amazing grace."
That great grace is captured in a verse that is likely the best known passage of scripture in all the Bible.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” 
(John 3:16, KJV)
I encourage you to find out more here.  
A good place to start is to scroll down to the "The Good News About Jesus." 

 It's STTA.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Social Credit, Karma, & the Gospel




 In the car, last night, I listened to a fascinating discussion on NPR about a new program in China that is engineered to foster more desirable behaviour among the population.  It is being described as "Social credit."   It's kind of like the system that creates FICA scores in the USA, only on steroids.

The social engineering project is supposed to keep track of a wide range of behaviours that are deemed to indicate whether or not one is trustworthy.  Not only will the database keep track of financial transactions, but also things like how often one calls their parents, or how many disposable diapers they purchase.  All of this data is being crunched by the network, and then based on algorythms the system issues a score.  This score will

have wide-ranging impact on a
person's life. Official penalties for a low score range from inability to get a job, to being required to pay a deposit in order to book a hotel room.  In addition to stick-type consequences, there are also carrots.  Those with higher scores are given preverential treatment in many business transactions.  There are also unoffficial consequences.  Chinese citizens are encouraged to make their high scores known.  Having the right number could be more important than the right look in getting a date with the hot prospect.

As I listened to the conversation I was reminded of another conversation I had earlier in the week.  It was about Karma, the Eastern concept that says each person gets what they deserve.  The book of Proverbs is full of Karma-like maxims.  Those who work hard and save are likely to have more good things.  Those who show themselves to be friendly are probably going to have more friends on whom they can depend in a time of need.  Responsible parents are apt to have well behaved children.  A broad view of Scripture, however, as well as observation of life in this world indicates that Karma is a capricious lady.  Since computers are built and programmed by humans with their agendas and limitations, and those who scam the system are often as resourceful as those who build it, we won't create a system that will significantly improve on what Asaph saw three millenia ago.  

"I saw [the proud] prosper despite their wickedness.
They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong.
They don’t have troubles like other people . . . 

 Did I keep my heart pure for nothing?
Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?
I get nothing but trouble all day long;
every morning brings me pain" 
(Psalm 73:3–14, NLT).
As Asaph went on to say (read all of Psalm 73.  Note especially the corner the Psalm-writer turns in verse 17) he is confident that justice will eventually be done.
The real problem, though, is not that, outside of the God of the Bible, there is no system, either mystical or silicon-based, that can perfectly deliver what we deserve.  The supreme problem is that God will make sure that ultimately everyone of us will get exactly what we have coming.  It is a theme that runs through Scipture, but is captured in its brutal reality in two sentences from the Book of Romans:

"All have sinned. . . ."  Romans 3:23
"The wages of sin is death."  Romans 6:23

To gain a greater understanding of those words, read the first three chapters of Romans and Revelation 20:11-14.  If Karma shows up at all it will be to nod approval of God's justice.

I'm way overtime on this STTA, but the good news we celebrate at Christmas is not only is God righteous, He is also gracious.  I'll be back Monday with more, but you can go on, on your own, by exploring this page.  A good place to start is to scroll down to the
 "The Good News About Jesus." 

Until then . . . 

 It's STTA.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Shining Our Light Out Where It Can Be Seen



 I just read about what looks like an interesting book, The Evangelicals You Don't Know, Introducing the Next Generation of Christians, by Tom Krattenmaker.*  Tony Kritz, a friend of Krattenmaker, writes about his friend in CT Pastors (I'm not sure if the link will work for nonsubscribers, but hereit is).  He describes Krattenmaker as one who does "not identify as a Christian, he most closely aligns with Unitarians and is unapologetically secular and progressive."
While Krattenmaker has not been "converted," the way he looks at conservative Christians has changed.

There was a time that, when Tom looked into the conservative Christian world, he saw mostly darkness. However, just as when one stares into the darkness of the night sky, the longer you look, the more you can't help but see the stars. Yes, Tom now sees the twinkling stars in the once dark world of evangelicalism. He's seen the side of us that many spiritual foreigners haven't—the signs of Christian life and light that shine God's life to the world.
That's what piqued my interest about the book.  Kritz's comment comes from Philippians 2:15.  The NIV says that Christian people are (should be) like stars shining in the sky.  I was the lead pastor of a small church for forty years.  I continue to be active in several ministries.  I have often heard, and done my share of, bragging about how bright "our" star is shining.  On only a few occasions have I heard  someone who is on the outside comment about the light we are shedding.  Of course we have an explanation for that.  "The world is opposed to what we are doing, they are blind, and unwilling to acknowlege the benifits we bestow on our surroundings."  No doubt true, at least partly, but is that all?
Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).  Both He and the Apostle Paul seem to indicate that the nature of a Christian life well-lived will be such that others, outside of our group, will notice and be the better for what they see.

Could the problem be that far too often we are guilty doing exactly what every Sunday School child know we aren't supposed to do--hiding out light under a basket?  Jesus points to the foolishness of such activity.  Matthew 5:16 indicates that good works ought to be done out in the open, so people can see them.  This isn't talking about better publicity.  It is speaking of a different kind of good deeds.  We ought to be doing good deeds in line with what we call the Golden Rule.  Our thought should not be what makes me look good, but what will truly help my neighbor.  Indeed Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, that good deeds, properly done (see Matthew 6) will result in glory to God, not self.

Quickly, here are two examples from my observation:
A friend of mine lives in a place where he is able to be the chaplain to ahigh school football team.  Not everyone on the team share's my colleague's faith.  He is not reluctant, nor apologetic, about his Christian faith.  More effective, though, than the devotionals he offers is the friendship that he provides to the team and coaches.  He commends positive action.  He encourages virtues that are shared by folk who don't share our faith, things like hard-work, courage, discipline, respect, and teamwork.  Not a boy on that team can say "Nobody cares," because my friend cares about each of them.  Not everyone on that team is, or will become, a Christian, but every member of that team knows that not all preachers are guys who don't care, and say things we can't understand.  They know my friend cares, and because they know that, they are more likely to care about what he knows, and says.
My church is once again presenting a Live Nativity to our community.  We do it without cost to those who attend.  No arms are twisted.  The event is put on by cops, factorty workers, retirees, nurses, teachers, business-people, homemakers, foresters, computer techs, kids, and teens.  I'm proud of the people who do it, because instead of just railing about the excesses of the Christmas season, they have asked, "How can we shine a light, not in our building, but down in a public place, so others can see?"

Shine on!  This Friday on a high school gridiron, the week after in a park, near many of you, and many other places TBA.

 It's STTA.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving Tuesday Everyday

Giving Tuesday:

 I'll be honest (actually, I try to be all the time)  I don't understand Giving Tuesday.  I just know that I see the words all over the internet.  It appears that it is an attempt to encourage people to give to worthy charities.  I hope organizations that are doing good work will see their budgets increased.

I am struck, though, with the fact that for the Church of Jesus Christ every day is giving day.  On many occasions I have been impressed with the generosity of God's people.  I'm also impressed with the great needs that in many Christian ministries.  For the past couple of days I have been in communication with leaders in a ministry with which I'm involved about the end of year needs.  I know it is popular to point to some high-end "ministries" led by flambouyant leaders, and talk of the extravagance in church related work.  I haven't found that to be the norm.  I have spent my life in ministry, and my impression is amazement at how much ministries get done with the limited resources they have available.

So on this Giving Tuesday, I want to say thanks to those who give in support of churches, missions, schools, and other worthy ministries that are seeking to advance the cause of Christ.  I also want to thank those resourceful and faithful leaders who give time, effort, expertise, and often entire lives to these works.  I know you wait for the word from the Lord, but let me say down here, below, 

"Well done."

We might not get it done on Tuesday, but if you would like to find out about a ministry that I'm involved with that has need, drop me a line.

It's STTA.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful to have Survived and More

Thankful to have Survived & More:

 Some of the wisecracks that I've heard all my life make a whole lot more sense at this point in my life:
"How you doing?"
"At this point in life I'm just glad to be doing at all."
"It's good to see you here."
"At my age, I'm just glad to be anywhere."
"I'm still kickin', just not too high."

Winston Churchill said, "Few things are more exhilarating than being shot at to no effect."  Those who live to fight another day have a joy in survival that is not understood by those who have never stared the blackness in the eye.

I don't want to compare my life to those of you who have really faced danger, but as I look back over my sixty-six plus years I see some times that I could have checked out.  The most memorable occasion was not one of physical danger.  It took me a long time to get over it.  In a sense, I'll never be over it.  As I look back over the last year, or so, though, I notice that sun has been as bright as I ever remember it shining, flowers smell like flowers.  I find myself just sitting and taking in God's goodness.  I'm glad to be able inhale.

It is not merely that I survived.
I am spending this Thanksgiving surrounded by family.  As I type this  my lovely wife is by my side.  Both my sons and their families are serving the Lord.  My two adult grandchildren appear to be on the right track.  I have worthwhile work to do.  I just ate a wonderful meal with all my family, earlier today my son and I took a bike  ride.  To quote the Casting Crowns song, "It's time for us to more than just survive.  We were made to thrive.

I'm thankful to feel those words being worked out in my heart this Thanksgiving.

It's STTA.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TOGETHER, for Thanksgiving and Beyond


Together Again, It makes my gray head thankful:

 If you have nothing better to do than to read STTA every day, you know that Kathy and I have been at our older son's house for the past couple of days.  Last night, my younger son and his family arrived.  Kathy and I watched, and HEARD, the "Cuzzins" having a good time.  We really enjoy the fact that they enjoy each other.  Everyone except my older grandson was there.  He has been out on his own for a couple of years.  He lives nearby and will be in and out this week.  It's good to be together.

It's even better to be TOGETHER.
My Daughters-in-law, and my sons are bringing their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  The oldest grandchild, the one on his own, is a passionate follower of Christ.  I can look around my son's home and see reminders of the faith that makes this, and his brother's family tick.  I am very thankful.

At this point in life all of us being together is an important part of me being together.  I remember hearing Dr. James Dobson, decades ago, answer the question about what he regarded as most important in family life.  I found these words in a graduation speech Dobson delivered.  As I remember it approximates the answer I heard on that earlier occasion.

". . . be there.
On resurrection morning, be there.
I will be looking for you then.
Nothing else matters. Be there."

Children & grandchildren aren't computers.  We can't program them.  At the top of our goals as parents, however, at the head of the list of our priorities for how we use those eighteen, or so, critical years that our children are at home, in bold letters on our prayer list should be these words, "Lord, in the end, I want my family to be there."  Together.

It is likely a long way from here to heaven.  For the youngest of us it could be a century.  I can't look in anyone's heart and see what is there, but looking around at my family together, and seeing the evidence, gives me great encouragement.  In the sense of "Keep it together." or, "Don't go to pieces."  I feel together.

Moving toward Thanksgiving, I'm a thankful "Papa."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hope, With A Side Of Hash-browns

Hope, With A Side Of Hash-browns / Thankful:

 "Usually, it works like a well-oiled machine."  
There was plenty of oil and grease in the Waffle House where we stopped for lunch on the way to my son's home, but that's not what makes the team that dishes out waffles, eggs, burgers and hash-browns work.  I'll get back to that in a moment.

November 8th a bunch of my fellow-citizens, having concluded our country is going to the place of Divine, eternal retribution in a hand-basket shocked the world by electing a complete outsider to the highest office in our land.  On Wednesday morning, another group of Americans knew for sure that the picnic container we are in was headed to the fire that won't be quenched.  Still others see the divide among our population, that the election confirmed, and just know that the two-sided wicker tote, with all its contents--that would be we Red-White-and-Blue types--is about to plunge into the pit with no bottom.
There were about eight folk in a roadside restaurant who apparently hadn't gotten the memo.

Kathy and I didn't intend to stop at Waffle House.  As we were making our way across Georgia I saw a sign on the interstate for a different restaurant.  When we got there, though, we found that it was only a carry-out place.  We needed a break from the Honda, so we went in search of something else.  Before we even got into the diner, we were glad that we had stopped.  A black gentleman I would take to be eighty met us in the lot, greeted my wife as a "young lady," and escorted us in.  Our waitress was a middle-aged Caucasian gal.  If I had to guess, I'd say her early life had had it's share of "drama."  Her job as a server was probably part of her having gotten it together, after some years that had produced their share of grief.  Manning the grills were a young black man who looked like he had played offensive line on his high-school football team, and a youngish white woman, tattooed, and appearing  like she wouldn't take any nonsense.  I've seen clones of them on TV news, yelling at each other from opposite sides of street demonstrations.  The guy who called out orders to the food handlers looked to have roots in the Middle East.  His man-bun, ear rings and general bearing said "college student" to me.  Most of the rest of the staff had a salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar appearance.  It would have been hard for a Hollywood casting agent to put together a better cross-section of America.
It was lunchtime.  The little dining-room was full.  Others were waiting for carry-out orders.  The operation was functioning to the max.  When our waitress brought some more coffee, Kathy commented about how impressed she was with the way they worked together.  That's when we heard the "well-oiled machine" line.  Not only did the staff do their jobs well, they were having fun while they were doing them.  A woman who moved from task to task, kept up a running dialog with our friendly greeter,  Everyone else chuckled at their schtick.  You could pay a lot more at a dinner-theater and not get as good a show. Not only did people have to do the job at hand, they had to dodge their associate as she or he did assigned duty.  A couple of times one worker made her way through the hive of activity carrying a load of hot parts from the grill that needed to be cleaned.  The waters parted, and then settled back, leaving hardly a ripple.
I hadn't intended to say any more about the recent election and the divisions in our nation that it revealed.  More capable commentators than me are speaking on the issue.  At lunch, however, in a restaurant where the Cleaver family would feel at home, I saw a model that gives me hope in the world where Beaver's grandkids live.  I doubt that anyone, on either side of the counter, has any idea about how to solve our national and international problems.  But they do know how to feed a room full of hungry customers, and have fun while they're at it.  Here are some observations distilled to do this points:
  • Get a job, do it well, and take pride in your work.
  • Treat those around you with respect.  Know that if they do well, they'll help you succeed.
  • Put forth the effort to get along.  It makes it more likely that others will do so for you.
  • Don't forget to have fun along the way.
Listening to the news from the power-centers of the world causes me to be concerned.  Watching the crew at the Waffle House off of I-85 in the Peach State give me hope.

Thank You, Lord for that encouragement.