the war on babies

In July 2015 I had the opportunity to participate in some sidewalk counseling in front of an abortion clinic in Dallas called the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center (SWSC). If you’re not familiar with it, sidewalk counseling is the practice where one or multiple individuals stand near an abortion clinic and talk with those entering and exiting the clinic in an effort to convince them not to get an abortion.

The girl in the picture whose face is partially concealed is named Alma (that’s not her real name) and we took that picture together after she decided not to abort her baby.

If you’ve ever seen a movie that depicts something similar, it usually involves a group of angry people that are practically frothing at the mouth, yelling all kinds of hate at a poor, scared, young woman.

While that “scene” may be useful for certain plot devices, get it out of your head because it is nothing like what actually happens when a group of people work together in love to prevent the killing of innocent children.

Let me tell you a little bit about my experience.

SWSC is located in a shopping center on a very busy road called Greenville Avenue. There is a sidewalk between the SWSC and Greenville Ave., and that is the area the sidewalk counselors (SC) are allowed to stand.

SWSC Map

 

In the above map you can see where the center is, the black lines are sidewalks, and you can see the parking is on the other side of the SWSC. I’m going to the trouble of showing you all this so you can have a better understanding of what it looks like, but also so you can understand the complexities and challenges therein. As you can also see, the parking area is on the other side of the building from where the SCs are allowed to stand, but the entrance is between both of those areas. The entrance is about 20 or 30 yards from where the SCs stand, and because of the noise from the traffic the SCs have a very small window of time in which anything they say can be heard by those entering or exiting the building from the parking lot. If people have their windows down while entering from the street, there may be a little time there as well.

Given how loud traffic can be, there are many times where the SCs cannot be heard at all.

There are a number of things we say, but we try to condense everything into a tight, concise message for those that may not stop or walk over to us. For those we only speak to in passing we say things like, “God loves you!” “Your baby loves you!” “We love you!” “Your baby has a heart beat!” “You do not have to do this!” I add the exclamation marks because we are literally yelling these things so that they can hear us over the roar of the traffic.

Responses vary drastically. While some choose to ignore us entirely, they are the minority. Most slow down a little bit and at least look our way or say something like, “I have to, I don’t have the money!” Or “I have no choice!” Some make obscene gestures or swear at us. All of them, it is plain to see, are hurting inside.

Some of them stop and talk to us. They might talk to us from afar, or they might approach us. When they do that we have the opportunity to have a real conversation. One of the things I learned from those conversations is that the vast majority of the time these women feel like they have no choice. There’s no money, or they’re too young, or they don’t have the time, or their boyfriend doesn’t want it, or any number of reasons. But that’s the thing, they’re doing it not because they want to but because they feel that they have no choice. They want their child and some part of them already loves their child, but they feel like they’re backed into a corner.

And so we tell them that they do have a choice. There are options. We put them in touch with organizations that can help them. We pray with them. We let them know that they’re not alone.

On the day the photo with Alma was taken we talked to three young women who decided not to get abortions. Just as with all things in life, I cannot say with any certainty what would have happened if we had not been there. Maybe their minds would have changed on their own, but I have to say that I doubt it.

I’m sharing this story for a couple reasons.

First, there is a battle going on right now, every day, all over the country, and I get the feeling that most people just don’t realize it. Maybe they’ve encountered it from time to time and they’ve forgotten. Maybe they’ve never known. But this is a battle of life and death and every single day thousands die in that battle.

Second, I want you to know that this battle is accessible. I realized a few years ago that I wanted to get more involved so I Googled pro life groups in my area, and the one that seemed to show the most activity was the Catholic Pro Life Committee in Dallas. I am not Catholic, but they were doing what I wanted to be doing, they are the group that does the sidewalk counseling. So I called them, got the information I needed, and showed up. There is free training they offer periodically, but if people just show up, are willing to be helpful, loving, and humble, that’s all they need. Sometimes people show up just to pray.

Third, I’m writing this because right now I want to be sidewalk counseling but I can’t because I have a full-time job, and the abortion clinic operates in the hours in which I work. Here’s something that you may know about me already – I have a very loud voice. When I was there, there were women that could hear me that would not have been able to hear anyone else who was with me. And my loud voice is nothing that I created, it was God-given. And it breaks my heart. Every day I wonder if I should just walk out of work and do sidewalk counseling instead. But for now I can’t, because I have a wife and son to support, and I love them, but I’m telling you: There is more that must be done.

Proverbs 24:11-12 says,

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?

The innocent are being slaughtered in America. We can try to sugar-coat it however we want, but the truth is, abortion is murder. When famous Dallas abortionist Curtis Boyd was asked a few years ago if he thought abortion was killing his answer was, “Am I killing? Yes, I am. I know that.”

This is our sin. Let us not stand by in apathy as it continues to flourish, but instead let us remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40,

As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Most Americans consider themselves Christians. And as Christians, it seems pretty clear that child sacrifice is something that ought to be resisted. Ignorance is not an excuse. Apathy is not an excuse. Lack of a clear understanding of the complexities of the issues is not an excuse. And I stand condemned with everyone in that I know I have not done enough. But I’m here to tell you that I want to do more, I hope you do more. Here are some ways you can do more:

Prayer – Pray for the end of abortion in America, legally, and in practice. Pray for the women who feel like they need abortions that they see the truth. Pray for those who work in the abortion industry that they would see the truth, that they would quit, and that they would work against abortion. Pray for those already working against abortion that God would give them strength, and endurance, and they would know what to say and do, and that their efforts would be effective. Pray for me, that I can be more involved and effective in this fight.

Politics – Let your political decisions be informed by abortion. Vote accordingly. Call, email, and letter-write to your representatives accordingly. Consider running for office.

Do – Google pro life organizations in your area and get involved. You can usually just start with an email or a phone call to someone in the organization and they’ll tell you what you need to do next. If you need help finding the right people or right organization contact me, and I will be happy to help.

Give – Maybe you don’t have time, but you have money. Same thing as above – find a good organization that is bearing fruit in your area and give to them. Women don’t just need to be told not to have abortions, they often need help with things like healthcare, lodging, childcare, and so on. We want to help them with these things as much as we can.

Other – Maybe God has put something specific on your heart. Maybe you know someone thinking of having an abortion, and you can encourage them in the right way. Maybe you’re thinking of adopting someone, or taking in a woman who needs shelter. There are a million ways to help, and some of them may not fit into any specific “box.”

I hope that reading this has changed your perspective some. The fight against abortion is a heart breaking, gut wrenching, real, raw labor of love, but it is a fight worth fighting.

the meaning of life, the universe, and everything

In the cult classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, there is a story about an immensely powerful computer called “Deep Thought” that is tasked with coming up with the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. In the story, Deep Thought agrees to take on the problem, but it takes seven and a half million years to calculate. When it’s finally time to reveal the answer, it goes like this:

“Good Morning,” said Deep Thought at last.
“Er..good morning, O Deep Thought” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have…er, that is…”
“An Answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes, I have.”
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.
“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.
“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and everything?”
“Yes.”
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonsuawl.
“I am.”
“Now?”
“Now,” said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
“Though I don’t think,” added Deep Thought. “that you’re going to like it.”
“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”
“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.
“Yes! Now…”
“All right,” said the computer, and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Yes..!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Yes…!”
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes…!”
“Is…”
“Yes…!!!…?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

If you’ve never read it, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is hilarious, and definitely worth picking up. Though it has been over 15 years since I read it, I still remember it fondly.

The story about the answer to life, the universe, and everything encapsulates something that you may or may not have previously considered: In life, you cannot effectively sum up broad, complex issues with single-word or single-idea answers. There’s too much nuance. Too many exceptions. Too many perspectives. Humorously enough, there are people who have tried to find answers in the answer “42.” After years of this, Adams finally put the matter to rest in 1993 when he said,

The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’ I typed it out. End of story.

People crave deeper meaning.

For these reasons 42 is a particularly funny, clever, and frustrating joke. If the question was not already in the reader’s mind before reading it, then it will be by the end. And you’re left with “42.” And it leads you on the path of thinking about many, many deep things.

But I’m here to tell you that there are answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. The information is available. Are you interested?

Are you?

You see, Adams and his readers weren’t the first to ask these hard-hitting questions. A few thousand years ago a knowledgeable man who had studied God’s law had the opportunity to ask God a question face-to-face. He asked,

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (That’s a good question to ask).

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV)

Various context clues indicate that the man asking God this question didn’t know he was God, but rather, believed that Jesus was just some guy going around teaching all kinds of nuisances. Therefore, he may not have valued the words that Jesus spoke to him, but we know who Jesus is. He is God, and he didn’t just give us the answer, he gave us a bonus answer as well.

If these are the greatest two commandments, and all the Law and the Prophets depend on them, maybe they’re the kind of things we should think about more? Talk about more? Why didn’t God place special emphasis on this when He first gave us these commandments?

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)

Oh.

Talk about special emphasis. God didn’t just tell us what he do. He told us to keep those words on our hearts, and to teach our children, and talk about them, and write them where we can see them. And that was written around 1300 years before Jesus said the same thing. They’re a big, big deal.

People go their entire lives looking for answers like this. What do I do? How do I find meaning? What is my purpose? The answers they come up with are legion: Be a good person. Be a very good person. Want nothing. To thine own self be true. Deny yourself. Save the planet. Seek happiness. Live a healthy life. Low carbon footprint. Be stronger than everyone else. Make more money. Live without. Do what feels right. Depend on yourself. Depend on the government. Depend on your community. The collective is everything. The individual is everything. Might makes right. Violence is never the answer. Coexist. Kill the infidels. Paleo.

Even when people are explicitly avoiding religion, they cannot help but be in one. That which you serve, which you put in a position of preeminence above all else, what you care about most, what you hold in the highest regard, that is your god. And for many of us, we wonder about blindly in the darkness until we stumble upon that god, be it money, convenience, power, sex, family, friends, self, food, status, education, politics, the American Dream, or a million other things. We judge our ancestors for carving idols out of wood, or worshipping the sun and moon. How foolish we are! We do the same thing, choosing arbitrary things around us to worship, but unlike our ancestors, we don’t even realize we’re doing it, because we deny that we even have religion. We live in a secular society. 

Bound by these lies, we are slaves to that which we unknowingly worship, being dragged along in a hopeless, endless search for fulfillment.

But we do have a purpose, and we do have the answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might! This is your life purpose, whether you know it or not! The specifics? Like what you’ll do for a living, where you’ll live, how long you’ll live, the hardships you’ll face on the way – Those will all be worked out, and there will be trials and tribulations. You will face many trials. But in every situation, no matter what it is, no matter how good, bad, or mundane, we are always to Love God.

In modern life we have a host of encouraging phrases: Keep your chin up, you can do it, just keep swimming, you’ve got this, stiff upper lip, and on and on.

Let this command to Love God be the “just keep swimming” of your life. Let it  be the phrase you say under your breath or out loud, and the one you think about, and talk to your kids about, and write on cute little Pinterest signs or wherever you know you’ll see it.

There is an irony about Loving God and your neighbor being the greatest two commandments. All the rest of the commandments, the law, are a list of things to do and not do. Actions. But love, while it does manifest itself in actions, is not itself an action. It is a state of mind. Love is attraction, devotion, admiration. It is an internal process.

And it is only through this internal process, through this state of mind that the rest of the law can be kept in any meaningful way. Love comes first, then obedience. And obedience without love is meaningless.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)

The most important commandment is radically different from the rest of the commandments, but it is the foundation upon which they all rest: Love.

It is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. God loves us, and we are to love him, and love others.

The answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is not 42.

It’s not power. Or Science. Or Tolerance. Or Hate. Or Relative Truth. Or Rigidness. Or The Wonders of Human Achievement.

It is this:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

would Jesus support the death penalty?

Would Jesus support the death penalty?

That is the question posed by Jonathan Merritt in an article in The Atlantic in 2014. It’s an interesting question, and it is reminiscent of the question, “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?” that was so often asked in the 1990s.

Although it’s pretty clear from the get-go where he stands, Merritt answers his own question outright about halfway through the article, “Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.”

He cites, a number of things including a plea by Mother Theresa to a governor in 1990 to, “do what Jesus would do.”

And lest we appeal to explicit passages in the Old Testament, Merritt cuts us off at the pass by saying, “Christians who support the death penalty often cite passages from the Old Testament that allowed for capital punishment. But Jesus told his followers not to observe the Jewish law that allowed for retributive justice: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.'”

Furthermore, Merritt appeals to our desire to belong by citing a statistic that only 5% of Americans believe that Jesus would support the death penalty.

I’ll address a number of points here, but first, isn’t the question all wrong?

It’s almost as if we’re asking, “What would Jesus think about this…. if he were still alive?”

I know that many people who identify as Christians do not take Christianity literally, at least not all of it. The Creation Story? A metaphor. The Exodus? Unsubstantiated and ridiculous. Jesus walking on water? Come on. His resurrection? I mean, he was a good teacher, but…

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he said,

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-19 (ESV)

Guys, Jesus is alive. We don’t have to ask what he would have supported. What does he support? What does he want? What does he command? And, of course, what has he commanded? Because we can look back at what is written in the word of God, the Bible, and find out.

Merritt contends that Jesus told his followers not to observe the law, but I say that is a misrepresentation of what Jesus said. Here is the passage in its entirety:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42 (ESV)

Jesus did not tell his followers not to observe the law. He told them not to take vengeance, which is nothing new! Later, in Matthew 22:39 Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, that quote is part of a larger passage (Leviticus 19:17-18), which says,

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Again, nothing new. Back in Matthew 5, Jesus says nothing about people no longer being under the law, or that the law does not apply to them. In fact, in the very same chapter, Jesus says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. – Matthew 5:17-18 (ESV)

The law, the Old Testament, did not come from a different God. It came from our God! From Jesus! I’ll be the first to say that there are parts of it that we don’t fully understand, and parts that were quite clearly written with the the cultural and societal challenges the ancient Jews faced in mind, but plenty of parts are quite clear, and easily applicable to everyone. Here are a few examples:

Genesis 9:6 – Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Leviticus 24:17 – Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 20:13 – You shall not murder (no punishment listed here, just a simple command from God).

Exodus 21:12 – Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.

Numbers 35:30-31 – If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.

That is what Jesus said about the death penalty.

But, to be honest, I’m not writing this because I’m especially passionate about the death penalty. I’m writing this because I’m passionate about Jesus. I’ve noticed a trend (though it’s really nothing new) where people try to bend God’s word, the Bible, to their own will, to support their own agendas. Jesus was a socialist. Jesus was a capitalist. Jesus would have been a Democrat. Jesus would have been a Republican.

Far be it from me to opine on God’s will about government (though the one’s He established biblically included a theocracy and a theocratic monarchy), but I will highlight one of the closest things to a political statement Jesus ever made:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. – Mark 12:13-17 (ESV)

Pro tax? Anti tax? Whatever. Others may interpret this differently, but essentially it was a non-answer. It was a well-worded non-answer and the point is, we should be focused on other things. Our belief in Christ should shape our worldview, not the other way around.

Using the scripture to support one’s own will (outside of God’s) is nothing new. There are plenty of examples to be had, but I’d like to point out one of the most poignant. In Matthew chapter 4 Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days, and then he was tempted by Satan. Verses 5 and 6 say,

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

And here’s the part of the Bible where Satan quotes Psalms 91:11,12:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

The scriptures have been written to serve God’s purpose and to further God’s will – not our own. When we try to make it about our will, we’re not only sinning against God, we’re literally mimicking Satan.

It’s funny how complex, nuanced, and even abstract discussions about theology can be, but it’s amazing how simple core of the gospel is:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – John 3:16-18 (ESV)

We can discuss how, what, why, and a million other things all day, but ultimately our gospel is that simple.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

 

salvation, forgiveness, and chocolate cake

Imagine the very best slice of chocolate cake you’ve ever had.

What if salvation were a chocolate cake? As it says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” It is clearly the greatest gift of all time, but imagine for a moment that gift were manifested in a beautiful chocolate cake.

A cake from God. It makes the best cake you’ve ever had seem like a stale, old wafer in comparison. Let’s call it the Great Cake. The Great Cake is huge, for starters. But it wouldn’t matter how big it is because it never runs out. You can eat piece after piece, and there’s always more! It’s always beautiful. Immaculately constructed, it shows no signs of aging as the days pass by. And it never goes bad. You can proudly showcase it on your front lawn. Neither sun, nor rain, nor wind, nor snow, nor hail, nor sleet will alter its appearance, flavor, or shelf-life. And the taste… it’s too good to describe. The flavor of a thousand chocolate cakes in every bite. The texture, the moistness… it’s all there, and it’s all perfect. Is it healthy? It’s the healthiest food you’ve ever had. You could eat it and nothing else for the rest of your life. It’s the greatest cake that has ever been made.

Over time, however, many of us grow embarrassed of the Great Cake. When we first receive it, we show it off, tell others about it, offer them some. Tell them how easily they can get one of their own. But not everyone appreciates the Great Cake. Some people don’t like chocolate cake. Some people prefer not to eat cake at all. “It’s a little offensive to assume that other people would feel the way you do about your chocolate cake.”

So we take it, and instead of keeping it on our front lawn we put it in our house. “It’s more appropriate there,” we say. “After all, it’s a personal thing.”

We used to take slices with us to work and eat them for breakfast and lunch. But that made some co-workers uncomfortable. “I don’t have a problem with the fact that you eat chocolate cake, but do you have to do it here? In front of everyone?” A reasonable request, we decided, and kept our cake consumption to the confines of our own dining rooms.

We know the Great Cake is good. We say as much when we talk with other cake eaters. But we just get tired of eating it all the time. So, many of us end up eating our cake once a week, at a meal with all the other cake eaters. We all bring our cakes out, and talk about how delicious they are, and how we would love to eat it more, but there’s just so much going on. Work, the kids, life. It just gets in the way, you know? We eat a few bites, then put it back and go on with our day-to-day.

There are a lot of things we do wrong when it comes to our salvation. We hide it. We don’t share it. We don’t celebrate it. But it’s worth sharing. It’s worth celebrating. Belief in Jesus is life changing. But for so many of us, is it? Recently reading in Revelation I read about the church in Laodicea, and I was reminded of the church in America:

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the same of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'” – Revelation 3:14-22

“I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”

America, compared to the rest of the world, compared to the rest of history, is rich. And whether we’re conscious of it or not, we have a tendency to rely on these riches, to rely on money. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, but do we reach out and grab ahold of it? Or do we sit back, comfortable with the knowledge that it is near, but unwilling to be moved by it?

The Great Cake is good. And if we truly believe that, we will eat it as much as we can, as often as we can.

Let me stretch the cake analogy just a bit further.

When Jesus told the disciples how to pray, He said,

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:12, 14-15

 

Forgiveness is important to God, and it is important to God that we forgive.

If God’s forgiveness of our sins is like the biggest, best, most amazing cake ever made, then our forgiveness of others is like giving them a bite of that cake. Did we earn our cake? No. Do we deserve it? No. Did we have to pay for it in any way? No. Can it ever run out? No.

On the surface there would seem to be many reasons we might not give someone a piece of our cake. I don’t want to share it, it’s my cake! They don’t deserve it!

But these reasons, when we think about it, don’t make any sense. We didn’t deserve our cake. And it’s not like giving away pieces will deprive us of any of our own. In fact, doing so only makes our cake richer!

There is no good reason to not share your cake.

There is no good reason to not forgive somebody.

If we deny others a bite of our cake that we did not earn, pay for, or deserve, and it can never run out, then what does it mean to us? What does it say about us?

If you’re looking for a way that you can grow in your relationship with God, then do this: Forgive. That grudge you’ve been holding against that person for that thing for years? Forgive them. When someone hurts you, insults you, treats you unjustly today, or tomorrow, or the next day – forgive them. Immediately. Whether they ask for it or not. The forgiveness we offer others is petty in comparison to God’s forgiveness, but it says something about our hearts.

If God can forgive you and the rest of mankind for willfully disobeying him day after day for years, despite the fact that we know the difference between right and wrong, then you can forgive others for their sins against you.

The Great Cake is here. You have it. Eat it! Share it! Talk to others about it! And celebrate, because it’s the greatest gift in all of history!

Why, God? Why?

When I was seven years old my uncle Gary traveled to Púcuro, Panama to film a video for three American New Tribes Missions families. Dave and Nancy Mankins, Rick and Patti Tenenoff, and Mark and Tania Rich were living in the tiny village near the Panama-Colombia border to teach the Kuna people there about God. This was a life-long mission of love, in which the families worked together to create a written alphabet, a dictionary, and translate the Bible into their own language. They taught Bible lessons, and helped the people in whatever ways they could. My uncle documented their efforts, and returned home.

Two weeks later Dave, Rick, and Mark were kidnapped by members of the leftist guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia). Wars (even guerrilla wars) cost money, and one of the ways the FARC financed their war was by kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Foreigners, including Americans, often made attractive kidnapping targets for the FARC because they were likely to have families, employers, or organizations with access to money who might be able to pay hefty sums for their return.

However, many missionary organizations maintain policies against paying ransoms for kidnapped members. Their reasoning behind this is that it increases the kidnapping risk for missionaries everywhere, essentially putting a price on their heads. If the ransom is paid today for this group, perhaps it’ll get paid tomorrow for the next group. The logic is not flawed, and because of policies like this many missionaries have likely avoided being kidnapped.

Of course, it hasn’t stopped all missionaries from being kidnapped. Others have been kidnapped before that and since then, but because of my family connection – my uncle having been with them so recently – it hit closer to home. In addition to hearing about these men and seeing the sense of loss that my uncle felt, there was the realization that if the kidnapping had just occurred two weeks earlier, or if my uncle had been there two weeks later, we would likely have been grieving his disappearance as well. Furthermore, my father (who now works in full-time missions with my mother) often traveled on short-term missions trips, and often to similarly dangerous places. It was a somber feeling.

At seven years old I had recently begun saying my prayers every night. Just before bed my father would read a few chapters from the Bible to my brother and I, then we would say our prayers. I decided to pray for the kidnapped missionaries. I prayed for them every night.

In those days I had a habit of adding something to the prayer list and keeping it there for a long time. I essentially had a few main things that I prayed in a specific order, and might have added other things ad hoc here and there. Over the years the list changed, but one thing did not change, and that was my prayer for the missionaries who had been kidnapped. I certainly did not think about them all the time, but I thought about them a lot.

In John 14:12-14 Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

This passage seems pretty clear: if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says,

…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.

When I prayed I believed in God’s power to rescue those missionaries, and believed that He would do it. I was certain.

I prayed for them for over eight years. But in September 2001 New Tribes Missions concluded, based on the testimonies of multiple FARC guerrillas, that the three American missionaries had been shot by FARC guerrillas as Colombian troops were closing in on their position in July 1996.

They were dead, and had been for five years.

Many people face challenges that test their faith. For me this was the first, and maybe the greatest one I ever faced. Why? Why? Why? I found it difficult for me to articulate much more than that. For years I had prayed with all faith, that God would rescue the people that had marched forth in His name. But they were killed, and not only that, but I had continued to pray for their rescue for five years after the fact. Why?

I wrestled with the question for years, and faced questions you may have asked: Is God just? Is God good? These questions led to more specific questions: If God created everything, and he had the option and ability to create it however he pleased, could He have not found a way to give us free will and ensure that we chose not to sin? For a time I lost sleep over these questions.

But at some point I stopped wrestling, and simply let go. I knew that I could not answer these questions, and I could let that stand in the way of my faith or not. I chose to believe.

Perhaps I am inadequate to explain it, but when you let go of yourself, and cling to God, an enormous weight falls away. In 1 Samuel 26:23, David said to King Saul,

The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness.

In this case, I believe God rewarded me in accordance with my need. He settled my restless heart and mind, and helped me to better understand what is written in his word. You see, when we read passages like John 14:12-14, telling us that if we ask Jesus anything in his name, that He’ll do it, we’re quick see it from a worldly perspective. What should I ask for from Jesus? Wealth? Health? Good looks? A strong body? Friends? A big house? A better education? A great job?

“If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

But it’s easy to take scripture out of context, and for our own purposes. It happens a lot. In fact, In Matthew 4:7, Satan himself quoted Psalms 91:11-12 to Jesus when he said, “He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

Context matters. All of scripture is written in the context of God’s will. John 14:12-14 (and other verses like these) were not written in order to teach us that God is a genie, waiting to fulfill our every desire. They were written to equip us to know, love, and serve God according to His will.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

The works that Jesus does! Jesus spoke the truth to thousands. He washed the feet of His disciples. He gave up riches, and power, and honor on earth to serve a higher, heavenly purpose. He was betrayed by a follower, falsely accused by those who were supposed to be serving Him, and assaulted by foreign soldiers, and hung on a cross to die. Jesus performed miracles, yes, he turned water into wine, and fed people, and healed people. But his greatest miracle was sacrificing himself at the will of the Father, making way for the Spirit, and offering salvation to everyone.

Praying for the rescue of those missionaries was not frivolous, and was arguably well-intentioned. But, as with all humans, I could not see the whole picture.

For many years I knew nothing else about the fate of those missionaries. From the little I had heard, it sounded like they had simply died for no reason. But that wasn’t the whole story.

In 2004, a former FARC Commander named Alberto came forward to a missionary familiar with the kidnapped men and confessed to having been one of the men assigned to guarding them. It was not clear from his testimony if he physically killed them, but he certainly felt complicit and culpable in their deaths. But he had more to say. Due to the testimony of Dave, Rick, and Mark he had become saved. Those men had stayed joyful, and patient, and loving, and kind despite their hardships. The day they were killed they knew they were going to die, and they were not scared. They knew they were going to a better place, to meet Jesus. Alberto and the other guards with him accepted Christ.

Rick Tenenoff’s wife, Patti, wrote a few years ago about the Kuna church:

We missionaries planted the seed of God’s provision of eternal salvation through the death, burial and resurrection of His son Jesus. After the kidnapping, some Kuna believers took on the task of watering the seeds in the fertile Kuna soil. A Kuna couple from a different village moved to Pucuro and continued teaching the Word. It hasn’t been an easy time, but it has been profitable in that there are many Kuna now trusting in the finished work of Christ.

I don’t claim to understand God’s ways, but I do make this claim: God’s way is greater than ours.

It is not wrong to pray for what you want, or for what you need. But I don’t think that’s the main point in prayer. Jesus said, pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Praise to God, and asking for His will come first. Prayer is an opportunity for us to praise Him, and acknowledge his sovereignty in our lives. After all, He knows what is best for us (and everyone else) far more than we do.

Whatever you’re wrestling with today, God can handle it. He may not handle it how you want Him to, or how you would expect him to, but He will handle it.

 

a dream I had

I don’t usually remember my dreams. I used to think that I didn’t have many dreams, but then in 11th grade psychology I learned that people dream every night, and we just don’t remember all (or often any) of our dreams. Is that true? I don’t know, but it sounds true.

Last night I had a dream I remember. Still. It was a strange, and powerful emotional experience – maybe difficult to talk about it? So I decided to write about it.

The dream was thematically separated in to two “acts.” The first act was very different from the first, and fuzzier in my mind than the second, but it leads to the second, so I’ll tell you what I remember.

There was some kind of breakdown of society. Like in the movies. People were running around, and there were guns and shooting. I had a gun, and I was shooting. Like happens in most of my dreams where I have a gun, my gun malfunctioned a lot. I’d pull the trigger and it wouldn’t fire, or I’d pull the trigger, and instead of bullets coming out these slow moving, inaccurate, plastic projectiles would come out. I tried switching to another gun, but that one didn’t work either. Typical.

I found myself leaving where I was and going to another place (like I said, it’s fuzzy). I encountered a group of guys, one of whom said he was going to shoot me. For some reason, that made the other guy mad, and he shot the first guy, then told another guy to shoot me. In my awoken state, the logic behind such decisions seems shaky at best, and perhaps it was that lack of logic behind the man’s decision that caused me to let down my guard. Or perhaps, with my malfunctioning weapons I had no option of defense. It’s hard to say, because again, that part is fuzzy. But what happened next is clear.

A man shot me twice in the torso, then put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

It felt so real.

Each bang was deafeningly loud, and the familiar smell of gunpowder filled my nostrils. All three shots were painful, but in quick succession. The last felt like I’d taken a baseball bat to the head for a split second, and then I felt numb, and everything went black. That is to say, visually everything went black. I was still thinking, still sitting there. I’m still alive. I was alive, but it was clearly different. I was numb, my consciousness felt wispier, like it could just disappear.  My life was slipping out of me, and all I could do was sit there wait for it to go. I waited. I waited, and for some reason I wasn’t dead yet, though I felt I should have been.

My dreams rarely make much sense, and more often than not, neither do my actions in dreams.

“I can’t believe I’m still alive,” I said out loud.

The man who shot me must have heard me because he shot me again. He shot me and shot me, I don’t know how many times, but the bullets hurt, and immediately I knew they finished the job.

I died.

It was quick this time. No slow, slipping away, no consciously waiting and wondering why I was still alive. The pain was there for an instant and then it was gone, and then just as quickly I was conscious again.

Conscious, but dead. I knew I was dead. I could feel my wounds again, but I knew I was dead. Also I could see again, so I got up and started walking around. I knew I was dead, and even though I still felt like I was in my body, somehow I wasn’t in my body. I walked outside and down the street, slowly shuffling along due to the pain of my wounds.

I don’t know where I was exactly, but it seemed like some little old-world town. Brick streets and stucco walls. Probably some place like Italy or Croatia. Where am I going? What am I doing? I’m dead, what am I supposed to do next?

After walking for a while it occurred to me that this was no longer the right place for me. That earth was no longer the right place for me. How do I go? Do I fly? I figured I’d try, so I jumped as hard as I could, despite the dull pain in my bullet-ridden body. I jumped, and I ascended, and I was flying. I was flying!

So I flew.

I flew out over the town, and across fields. First I flew slowly, and then I began to speed up. The sun was setting, and the view was absolutely gorgeous. The red-orange sun rays were bouncing off buildings and trees and mountains and hills. I found myself flying over water, and I was going so fast, I knew it was time for me to turn upward.

As I turned up I sped up even faster, as if being pulled by an immeasurably powerful force. I went from going maybe hundreds of miles per hour, to faster than the speed of light, and everything was a flash around me.

And that’s when I arrived on the edge of heaven. I don’t know how I knew it was the edge of heaven, but I knew, and I felt exceedingly giddy, and joyful. I continued to fly, but there was a voice welcoming me, as if to give me instructions, and prepare me for my arrival. Oddly enough, the voice was going over what the next meal was going to be, and asking about my preferences, and I remember just not caring, and saying I was happy to have the first option I was given. The truth was I was too happy to give a coherent answer, too happy to care. Food? Sure, but I just don’t care about that right now.

And then I woke up.

I’ve never had a dream where I died before. Also, if you were wondering, I’ve never died in real life either. But there was something about this dream that was…powerful. Haunting.

As usually happens on Sunday mornings, Chérie, Joshua, and I went to church to worship, fellowship, and listen to our pastor deliver his sermon. In the second service  Chérie went to help with the 1-year olds, and I with the 4th and 5th graders. My fellow teacher Jon was teaching on the birth of Christ in Matthew 2 and Luke 2.

In Matthew 2, three wise men from the East came to worship Jesus. I’m sure you know the story, so I’ll just paste this part, Matthew 2:10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

I read that verse, and I felt able to identify with it so well that it almost brought me to tears. I looked down, and fought back the tears, unwilling to explain to Jon and the 4th and 5th graders why I might be crying in the middle of class.

The moment passed, and I recovered. But I cannot help but feel that I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of the joy of being in God’s presence. Incidentally, I had just been thinking a day or two ago about the concept of worshipping God for eternity in heaven. Would it get boring? I knew it wouldn’t, of course, but… it’s so difficult to fathom in my human mind.

I can’t say I understand it fully now, but it makes a little more sense. I think that our souls are delighted to be in God’s presence. Delighted. Beside myself. Next-level-giddy. Happy. These are the best words I can come up with to describe how I felt in a dream I had.