Monday, July 27, 2015

Kings and Kingdoms



Those of us who have lived in the USA for our entire lives don’t have much practical experience with a monarchy.  Sure, we can read about countries that still celebrate (and sometimes revere) their royalty, but our governmental system doesn’t really leave room for a person with absolute authority.  In fact, acting “kinglike” would be a fatal error for any American president.  We have long lived with the idea that every chief executive of our country serves for a limited time, then we will all move on.

I mention this because I don’t think most of us get the whole idea of being under the rule and reign of a king.  Even the citizens of Great Britain have a say about the people who actually lead their nation.  They may love and respect their royals, but real political authority is now in the hands of men and women elected to serve the nation.

History is replete with examples — both good and evil — of kings and queens and various other sorts of monarchs.  Idi Amin, whose title was “president,” was variously called a ruler and a dictator.  He was known to simply create titles for himself, one of which may have been “King of Scotland.”  While Amin was a classic example of evil, ancient Biblical history tells of a king named Solomon, renowned for his wisdom and for the great wealth of his nation during his reign. Solomon had some deep fault-lines in his personality, but we generally categorize him as a great king.

Reflecting on kings can produce a smile or a frown, depending on the nature of the ruler. Without doubt, some have ruled with genuine love and concern over their subjects.  Others, realizing their “absolute power,” have ended up corrupted absolutely.

Thumb 1215px CrownOfThornsBedfordMuseum 1024When Jesus Christ came upon the scene in the Roman outpost of Judea, the people of their little nation were, like most of the known world, under the rulership of a dictatorial nation.  Rome vacillated between different forms of government — at times Caesar was in absolute control and at other times, power was in the hands of the Senate — but the Roman people certainly lacked the freedom through which we tend to interpret the idea of power and authority.  Rome's distant outposts were often governed by people far more cruel than the Caesars themselves.  No wonder the people of Judea longed for their own “king,” who would deliver them from the oppression of the great empire.

Jesus, though, came for a different purpose.  He made that clear when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  (John 18:36)  What does that mean?  What is this kingdom thing anyway?  It’s fairly easy to recognize that Jesus is…ultimately…King of kings and Lord of lords, but how does this whole “kingdom of God” idea play out for those who follow Jesus every day?  How does it work for those in a free nation like the USA or those in a totalitarian place?  That’s the topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  It’s our last episode of “Why Bother?”  As we have been saying all summer, “This stuff matters!”  That’s doubly true of this subject, so  I hope you can join us Saturday or Sunday.  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, July 20, 2015

You Worship Something!

Many years ago, a pastor from what was then an Eastern Bloc Communist country was released from prison.  He had been held there and tortured for many years because he wouldn’t recant his faith in Jesus Christ.  Finally free, he was able to get to the United States, where he was able to write and talk about his story.  One of the disturbing questions that he was asked repeatedly was, “Why did some Christians stand firm in the face of great hardship while others ended up denying Christ so that they could avoid the pain?”  His answer has haunted me for years: “Those who stood firm had their faith in Christ; those who denied Him had their faith in their faith."

I’m thinking about his quote today because it strikes me that many people live in denial.  They think that they are free from worshiping and serving anyone or anything.  It was that great theologian, Bob Dylan, who wrote the famous lines:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

It was Jesus Christ Himself who set the record straight on this issue.  As he faced off with the devil in the wilderness, he answered the last of three temptations this way: “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.’ Matthew 4:10 (New Living Translation)  

If we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are surrounded by things that seem to be crying out for our full devotion.  Once we face that truth, we can take the next step and realize that those things — even good things like our mate, our family and our friends — aren’t truly worthy of our worship.  After all, placing them on such a pedestal will ultimately put us into some type of bondage.  For instance, how many times have we heard stories about a wife who “worshiped the ground her husband walked on” only to be lured into a lifestyle that she completely detested?  A huge chasm exists between loving someone and worshiping them.  Love implies selfless devotion, but worship is a complete yielding of oneself to someone…or something.
Thumb 3789754228 b2c861f3f0 o 1024
Let’s take this one step further because many followers of Jesus have been lured into a very subtle trap.  They have fallen in love, not with their Savior, but with worship.  Why is this so dangerous?  One reason is that it can leave us just as spiritually anemic as those Christians who denied Jesus because their faith was in their faith.

Only one Person satisfies all the hopes and dreams of worship.  He is the one who sets us free versus everyone and everything else, which only put us into bondage.  He is the one worthy of our praise, our honor and our full devotion.  That’s our “Why Bother” topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  You don’t want to miss this message, but catch the podcast if you can’t be there!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Battle Lines

8585088640 d84dd32151 o

“Let’s just drive,” I said, as Cathy and I planned a recent trip to Topeka, Kansas.  Our journey straddled the July 4th weekend and flights seemed unusually expensive.  “I can afford a little extra time off for the trip.  We can stop in Albuquerque and see my family on the way."

So we drove...about 1400 miles each way.  What do you do on a 1400 mile trip?  The answer for us is easy: we listen to audio books.  Our choice this year was the unabridged version of Les Miserables.  The audio performance was really quite good…but it’s about 30 hours long.  30 hours!

After the first couple of hours, during which we hadn’t really entered the story line yet, Cathy and I made the decision to fast-forward our way through much of the historical background.  “Should have gotten the abridged version,” she said.

Even with her jumping around the pastoral passages (I was driving), we still didn’t get finished with the book before we arrived back at home.  Therefore, we made the decision to watch the movie, choosing the screen version of the musical, which was produced in 2012.
I happen to like Russell Crowe as an actor, but his Javert wasn’t desperate enough, especially after hearing Victor Hugo’s description of the character in the book.  For that matter, most of the movie characters seemed a bit shallow.  That may be the result of trying to fit an epic story into a 2 ½ hour movie.

My purpose here today is not to write a critique of either the novel or the film.  Instead, I want to point your attention to this simple fact: evil exists…and we will spend our lives either fighting it or capitulating to it.  The story of Jean Valjean is captivating and haunting because he was wronged by a system which considered the poor as expendable.  Valjean’s initial response was to  fight that system with malice and deceit.  A powerful change happens to Valjean as the story unfolds.  His transformation results from an act of unconditional love.  With a new heart and a converted outlook on life, he spends the rest of his days fighting against the very force that once consumed him.

I learned long ago that the most heart-pounding, nerve-wrenching stories MUST have a very evil bad guy (or girl).  After all, the battle is largely meaningless unless it includes the hope of bringing down some form of insidious darkness.  In Les Miserables, Javert might be seen as that villain.  However, he is far more the victim than the perpetrator of darkness. Jean Valjean was considered evil because he stole a loaf of bread to feed hungry family members.  Javert considered himself good because of his self-rejecting moralism.  Both men, though, were victims of an evil system which only Valjean wanted to escape.  After all, moralism is easier to defend than repentance.  That is, until a person’s own version of morality fails them, as it does Javert.

I spent far too many years of my life failing to understand the depths of pervasive evil in our world.  Maybe my enemy wasn’t dark enough to really grab my attention.  That is true no longer. I recently reflected with these lines:
If you stand for the right,
You’ll be in a fight,
For people love darkness
More than they love light.

You see, I have been the moralist and I have been the penitent.  I have come to realize that being the latter requires that I face up to the battle lines in our world.  It was Paul who reminded us that our struggle is NOT against flesh and blood.  Like Javert, people are the (often willing) victims of a world twisted by genuine evil.  Fortunately, God has given us weapons of war to bring down the great schemes of our enemy.  That’s the topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  You don’t want to miss it!  If you can’t make it to one of our services, catch the podcast!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Dead Or Alive? It Matters!

Move Over Darling Poster
When Cathy and I recently watched “Move Over, Darling,” starring Doris Day and James Garner, we pretty much knew we were in for a treat.  We have long admired the stars and figured that the film would be captivating.  We enjoyed the expected humor, but the story resonated on a number of levels.  The gist of it is this: how much would change if a spouse, thought to be long dead, turned up alive?  The answer, of course, is EVERYTHING!

Everything would change.  It doesn’t matter that a court had announced the death as legally viable and the life insurance had paid off.  It would make all the difference in the world if the person wasn't really dead.

I won’t give away the plot line of the movie.  It’s worth the watch, even without dinosaurs. (Nor does the city of Los Angeles get destroyed by an earthquake.)  Even without digitally-enhanced action, this film has twists and turns and some life-changing decisions that MUST be made.  It’s scarred with human failures as well as the lack of communication among the main characters.

I mention the “dead or alive” question here because the entire faith of Christianity hinges on it. Most of us would say that Confucius said some pretty wise things.  The same would be true of Buddha.  No one can question that Mohammed founded a religion that has influenced the far corners of the earth.  The single feature that sets Christianity apart is the faith that Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross, was buried in a borrowed tomb, then rose from the grave, never to die again.

Only Christians will tell you, “The One we follow is alive!”  We don’t mean that He is alive in our hearts and minds.  We are not saying that He is alive because His teachings are life-changing. We are saying that He is fully alive and has conquered the power of death.

Saul of Tarsus dedicated his life to stamp out the teaching that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who had risen from the dead.  With great violence, Saul came against the followers who had dedicated their very lives to spread the news about Jesus.  They wouldn’t back down, so he grew even more forceful.  One day he was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.  His purpose was to shut down the followers of Jesus in Syria.  Later, Paul described what happened to him on that road:

6 “As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me.
7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
8 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked. “And the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, the one you are persecuting.’
9 The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me.
10 “I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ “And the Lord told me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything you are to do.’
11 “I was blinded by the intense light and had to be led by the hand to Damascus by my companions.
Acts 22:6-11 (New Living Translation)

Saul’s physical blindness was a reminder of his long-held spiritual blindness.  Was it because Saul hadn’t heard of a resurrected Christ that he didn’t believe?  Obviously not.  He had heard and had seen formerly timid people who were now willing to die a martyr’s death because of their faith.  It didn’t convince him, just as many of us aren’t convinced of the veracity of Islam just because some are willing to die.  What DID convince the scholar/religious zealot?  He said that he SAW Jesus…alive!  He heard Jesus speak.  For Saul, an alive Jesus changed everything!

It matters whether or not Jesus is alive.  If He isn’t, skeptics can doubt without danger.  If He is, everything He said must be true.  One verse alone, John 14:6 (I encourage you to look it up), is enough to rattle many cages!

We will pick up the subject of a living Jesus this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  It’s the next installment of “Why Bother?”  You don’t want to miss it!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Man Behind The Curtain...


…Pay no attention to him.  He’s isn’t who he says he is.  He can’t do what he says he can do.

The news spiked again last week with word of a false claim made by a leader. This time it was a civil rights worker in the Pacific Northwest who passed herself off as an African American, an ethnicity which her parents describe as false.

Such stories are becoming commonplace.  We hear them about a famous anchorman or about a military hero that wasn’t  The story might be about a politician or a member of the clergy.  Inevitably, we hear the news because the person is significant enough to draw eyeballs to his or her story.

There is a very personal part of this post that goes all the way back to my youth.  While I never took on a false identity, I was certainly guilty of exaggerating things about my life.  It started when I was in high school, I think.  Looking back, I wonder why I felt it necessary to juice up the things I said about myself.  Such exaggeration isn’t all that unusual for a teen, I guess, but for me it continued well into my twenties.  I realize now that I was on my way to being a person who could have lied about my life with aplomb.

Fortunately, I got hijacked by God.  It was the Psalmist David (who had his own struggles, if you remember) that wrote to God, "You want me to be completely truthful, so teach me wisdom.” (Psalm 51:6 New Century Version) It’s hard to describe the change that happened in me and I can’t remember all the details, but God changed my heart. I found myself wanting to be truthful at all costs.  This meant that I had to go back and clear up some things I had said. Coming clean was hard, but it set me on a course that rescued me from the person I could have become.

“The person I could have become.”  I could just as easily have been the guy making false claims about my life as some of those who recently made headlines.  I got rescued from having two faces; the real one hidden behind the curtain and the false one that others saw.  

I didn’t write this to be cathartic.  I wrote it because I know people who look at Jesus as if he is a man behind a curtain.  They think of the “real” Jesus as an outsized illusion, a figment of Christians’ imaginations.  But, is that true?  Could Jesus have been a fake?  That’s the “Why Bother?” question this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  Talk about something that matters! That’s why you need to be there this weekend.  Can’t make it?  Catch the podcast!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Blood Work

Cathy and I enjoy watching classic TV and movies.  Maybe it’s because we are classics ourselves, but we usually prefer great stories told in a way that leaves a lot to the imagination.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when we saw a shooting on a TV drama from almost fifty years ago. The victim was shot twice as he dove into a swimming pool.  When the police arrived, the body was at the bottom of the pool with a very noticeable detail missing: blood.  Can you imagine such a thing in today’s world of showing virtually anything and everything on screen in graphic detail?  If that scene were shot today, the victim would have bled out and the pool water would be a sickening crimson.

That scene reminded me of stories I used to hear about violent crimes committed by people who were shocked at how bloody and messy they ended up.  Think about it; they might have been angry enough to shoot or stab someone, but they just didn’t imagine all the blood that would flow.

I have heard stories about soldiers that were gung ho about going into combat.  They had no idea that they would end up in shock over the horror of just how bad and bloody war actually was.
15575814413 9cbefdf47f b

I bring this up today because I frequently hear people express their dismay at just how bloody the Bible is; especially the Old Testament.  "King Solomon offered a sacrifice of 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats. And so the king and all the people dedicated the Temple of God." (2 Chronicles 7:5 New Living Translation)  Imagine what THAT looked like!  Have you ever driven by a slaughterhouse and smelled the odor that comes from there?  I can recall times growing up when my dad would kill one of our fully-grown calves to provide meat for our family. The sight of all that blood would sicken me for the next few days.  22,000 cattle?  120,000 sheep and goats?  What must that have been like?

You probably know that “blood work” is a big part of the Bible.  To miss it is to ignore a critical element of faith.  That’s why it’s the topic of this week’s “Why Bother?” installment.  Believe me, blood matters and I can’t wait for you to hear about it…this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can’t be there in person?  Catch the podcast!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Who's to judge?

My cousin Tommy and I grew up a year, 2.5 miles, and a world apart.  Tommy is a year younger than me, but we spent our childhood playing, going to school, going to church and (sometimes) working together.  Tommy grew up in town and I grew up two and a half miles out in the country.  Our worldview of what makes life fulfilling?  Well, you could tell from our youngest years that we just saw the world differently.

When we got together with Tommy’s family, which was often, choices had to be made about how we would spend our time.  Since I was a year older, I did my best to exert influence on him to play the way I wanted, things like sports or war or cowboys and native americans.*  (* not the name we called it)  I ALWAYS wanted to play something competitive, something that had you fighting to win.  (How did I ever end up as a pastor?)

Tommy?  Well, Tommy was more consistent than me.  Tommy almost always wanted to play “trucks.”  He could spend hours outside, pushing dirt, hauling things and building great construction projects with toy trucks.  Tommy has trucks in most of his gene strands, I think.

One day, when we were young enough to care and old enough to know better, Tommy and I got into an argument.  (Just so you understand, Tommy and I got into more than one argument!)  Tommy’s house was a short block off the main drag in our New Mexico hometown and we often walked up to California Street to buy things from the convenience store or just to hang out.  On this particular day, Tommy and I saw a large truck go by.  We were a bit down his street when it passed and we just caught a glimpse of it.  That glimpse was enough for me, the competitive one, to show off my extreme knowledge in Tommy’s field of expertise: “Look at that Mack!” I said.

“It wasn’t a Mack; it was a GMC,” replied Tommy.

“No, I’m certain it was a Mack!”  I said, wanting my truck-loving cousin to respect my great knowledge (and let me win the argument).  

Tommy knew his trucks and wouldn’t back down.  “Sammy, it wasn’t a Mack; it was a GMC!”  I can still hear the tone in his voice as he proceeded to instruct me on the differences between the trucks.  The argument progressed and was never resolved.  I couldn’t and wouldn’t back down, either.  Tommy was a year younger, remember?

It’s scary, but it has been over a half century since that day.  I don’t get to see Tommy that often, but we pick up our truck argument every time we get together.  Tommy retired recently.  He spent his whole work career repairing semi trucks.  I quit trying to compete in sports and never chose a career fighting bad guys, but Tommy was true to his childhood fascination.

I wanted to tell you this story because we will never know for sure whether that truck was a Mack or a GMC. (For the record, the only reason I included a Mack image here was that it was the first one I could find that fit the bill for this post.)  In retrospect, I’m not even sure which side I argued that day so long ago.  It’s actually possible that Tommy and I have reversed roles several times over the years.  If I were a betting man (I’m not), I would lay money on Tommy’s pick, though.  He was probably right all along; I just wanted to win.  

There is one Person who knows the truth from that 1960s-era day.  He’s the judge who watched as that truck was created.  He presided over the “making” of the driver when that driver was in his mother’s womb.  Before rough ore was forged into steel and shaped into that truck's engine parts and side panels, that one Person knew the day the truck would drive it’s last mile.  He knew every load the vehicle would carry.  He knew every drop of lubricant that would flow through motor and transmission and hydraulic lines.  

And He knew the hearts of two boys: one who was probably right and one who stubbornly refused to back down.  The One who knew is also the only One qualified to judge and we will discover more about Him this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  I hope you can join us for the next installment of our “Why Bother?” series.  I can tell you that “This Stuff Matters.”  It matters that God alone is qualified to judge the world, including you and me.  Can’t make it to a service?  Catch the podcast!