Turning guns into plows – Just a future vision? Or possible now too?

29 Nov

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A vision of the mountain of God!  We’re studying prophecy during Advent 2016, and week 1 takes us to Isaiah 2:1-5, a glorious image of events in the last days.

The temple mount is in Jerusalem, and it is not all that high.  When you think of tall mountains around the world, you don’t think of Jerusalem.  But if you are thinking of the nation of Israel, you do.  It certainly isn’t the highest point in the nation, but symbolically for the people of Israel it is the high point.  Notice that in the vision we see that it will be raised above the hills?  Raised?  Physically? Is Isaiah’s vision saying that the temple mount in Jerusalem will go through a geological upheaval and be raised higher than Mt. Everest?

The temple mount is 2430 feet above sea level.  Everest is 29029 feet, ten times higher!  God could easily raise up the temple mount higher than Everest if he wanted.  But you’d think that would make it really hard for people to get there, which is a big point of this passage.

But maybe I’m being hyper literal, and I shouldn’t be.  This is where prophecy can get tricky.  Maybe all this vision in Isaiah 2 means is that God will raise the temple mount above the rest of the city and the hills nearby.  Could be, but I doubt that is how God intends for us to understand the vision.

I suspect this elevating of the temple is entirely symbolism!  No actual physical movement needs to take place.  The image of the mountain of God being raised above all other mountains, I think, is just a symbolic way that God is saying the glory and importance of the mountain will be raised in the hearts and minds of all people because of who is there.  God himself is there!  So God’s presence makes his mountain the greatest of all.

What is striking about this passage is what happens next at the end of verse 2: people from all over the globe make their way to Jerusalem. But why?  The answer is in verse 3.

The peoples of the world want to go to the mountain to be taught God’s ways, so that they may walk in his paths.  They show that they want to learn.  They are teachable and humble.  And what do they want to learn?  God’s ways.  Why?  They value God’s ways enough that they not only want to learn them, but they also want to be changed by what they learn, as they want to walk in his paths.

How about you and I?  Do we have a humble teachable desire to learn God’s ways and be changed by them?  In this passage we see a picture of the future, a day when people from all nations are seeking God, when many people desire to learn from God.  But what about right now?  Right now it is the church that should lead the way in streaming to God, desiring to learn from him.  We the church should be the example now, though only in small part, of what life in the Kingdom of God will look like world-wide in the future.  We the church should be showing the world what the future will look like.

The next thing we read in verse 3 is about the law and the word of God going out.  What does this mean?  What significance does it have?  Perhaps there is a connection between the going out of the law and the word in verse 3 and what happens in verse 4?  Take a look first of all at verse 4:  God judges and settles disputes.  He is bringing peace.  In his Kingdom there is peace.  Then notice the illustrations of this peace that are the remainder of verse 4:  The tools of war become tools of industry, farming.  What once was used for destruction of humanity has been retooled for the flourishing of humanity.  God’s word and law transform society.  Wars cease, and so nations do not need to train up armies for war any longer.

What an amazing vision of the future!

But we live in the here and now. When you read such a wonderful vision of the future, does it discourage you, because we see so much war around us now?  Think about it.  What we read in this beautiful picture in Isaiah 2 is so different from what we see in the world around us.  War and hatred prevail.  Darkness.  When you watch the news, it can seem like the world is a very dark place.

In Cambodia the darkness of the Khmer Rouge devastated the country in the 1970s.  Millions died in the Killing Fields.  Thankfully that era is gone, and Cambodia is a nation slowly allowing its eyes adjust to the light.  One beautiful picture of this is how survivors of trafficking are taking old landmines and turning them into attractive jewelry.  Learn more here.

So I love how Isaiah’s vision finishes in verse 5 “come, let us walk in the light.”

See the connection between verse 5 and 3?  Both verses 5 and 3 talk about walking in the way of the Lord.  In verse 3 it was through the teaching of the Lord that the people learn to walk in his ways.  This teaching ministry was a huge focus for Jesus.  He taught the people what life in the Kingdom of God looked like.  We can learn to live that way now, to walk in the light now as verse 5 indicates.

kingdom-of-god-is-likeThis is why on this first Sunday of Advent we remember that the first part of the mission of the Messiah, who was Jesus Christ, was that Jesus was teacher of the way of the Kingdom.  When you read through the four stories of his life, the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you see him spending a lot of time teaching.  He taught the crowds.  He taught his disciples.  He taught his enemies.  He taught individual people here and there.  He told stories.  Parables we call them.  Often the phrase that he used to start his parables was “The Kingdom of God is like…”

Jesus came to teach us about the true Kingdom of God.  It is a Kingdom that is not just far far away or life after death.  The Kingdom of God, Jesus taught his disciples in Luke 17:21, is among us.  We don’t have to wait for the Kingdom until we die; we can and should work towards the continual advancement of the Kingdom in the here and now.  This is the life of discipleship that Jesus taught.

So let’s imagine what the Kingdom of God could be like in the here and now as it grows among us.  As one person gives their life to follow the way of Jesus, they themselves are gradually being changed.  They are learning from Jesus how to live in the here and now.  For example, when they used to be selfish, they learn from Jesus to practice self-denial.  When they used to indulge in impurity, Jesus teaches them to be holy.  Where the ugly things of the world used to pour out of their lives, now the good things of the Fruit of the Spirit flow from them: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.

The Kingdom can impact us!  We learn from Jesus how to live and we start to look more and more like him.  His Kingdom is evident in our lives.

But it doesn’t stop there.  As we are following the way of Jesus, we also want others to follow that way as well.  As we are disciples of Jesus, learning from him how to live, we are discipling others to follow Jesus as well.  Every disciple of Jesus is also a disciple-maker for Jesus.  “Go and make disciples,” he told his followers.  So as the Kingdom reigns over us in increasing measure, so it expands and grows and reigns over other people as well.  Other people in our own families.  Our friends.   And most often that expansion, that growth of the Kingdom, happens because we the disciples of Jesus are actively allowing the Kingdom to grow in our own lives, and we are seeking its growth in the lives of others.

But it doesn’t stop there either.  As more and more people allow the Kingdom to rule and reign over their lives, soon society begins to change.  People no longer need to cheat and steal.  People no longer need to purchase the latest greatest gadgets in order to find fulfillment.  People no longer need to spend money lavishly on themselves.  People heal broken relationships.  People have renewed strength to fight and win over addictions.  Generosity is the norm.  There is plenty of money left over to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.  People at war can’t remember why they are fighting because they are so overcome with forgiveness and love for one another.  Criminals stop their lives of crime.  Prisons start to empty and shut down.

This is the vision of the Kingdom in the future for sure.  The day when God’s rule and reign will be complete.  But it can also start here and now.  That was a large part of Jesus’ Mission as Messiah, to teach about how his followers can live out that amazing Kingdom here and now.   And you know what? That’s what we Christians are to do.  Take a look at Acts 2:42-47 and you see them living this amazing vision out.

Right after Jesus returns to heaven, what do those first disciples of Jesus do?  They seek to live out the Kingdom right there together.  And that is what we are called to do as well.

So let us walk that road of discipleship to Jesus together.  Let us earnestly seek to learn from Jesus how to live so that not only might we be transformed, but others and our society will be as well.  And it starts with us.

This Advent, what will it look like for you to say “Jesus, teach me how to live!”

Is biblical prophecy just weird, or does it somehow actually matter?

26 Nov

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Does the idea of prophecy weird you out?  Does it seem hokey?  People able to predict the future.   Really wild visions of angels and dragons.   The Bible is loaded with prophecy, and while it is definitely interesting to read, it is confusing and hard to understand.  Prophecy is so weird that I usually avoid it.  But this year, Advent threw me for a prophecy loop.

For as long as I have been at Faith Church, we’ve observed the Season Advent.

What is Advent?  Do you know what definition of the word “Advent” is?

How about a one-word synonym?  “Coming”

It refers to the coming of Jesus into the world, which, of course, we celebrate on Christmas Day, the day we remember his birth.  Ancient Christian believers wanted to have a time of fasting and preparation before one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, Christmas.   Advent is observed, then, the four Sundays prior to Christmas day, and on those Sundays we reflect on the first coming of Jesus, so that we might ready ourselves for his second coming.

Not all churches observe Advent.  There is no biblical mandate to do so.  In fact, Advent was created after the events of the early church that we read about in the New Testament.  Faith Church, along with many others around the world, simply chooses to give ourselves to this spiritual discipline.

An important question for preachers is: What could we talk about on these four Sundays of Advent to help us reflect on Jesus’ first coming so that we might be better prepared for the second coming?

I decided to look at the Lectionary for help.  A lectionary is basically a system for studying through Scripture.  There are daily plans as well as weekly plans.  Some are two years long, some are three years.  Each day there is an OT reading, a NT reading, usually a couple Psalms, and a Gospel reading.  If you follow the Lectionary for the whole 2-3 years, you would cover much of the Bible (depending on which Lectionary you use), and some parts like the Gospels and Psalms you read numerous times.

As I opened it, I wondered what the Lectionary readings are for Advent 2016?  Of course there are the stories of the birth of Christ in the Gospel readings.  Those are always great.  But it was the Old Testament readings that jumped out at me.  They are all prophecies from the book of Isaiah.  I will admit to you that I have shied away from prophetic books in my preaching because interpreting prophecy tends to be very complicated, and I’m not sure I want to do that hard work.

Gail Godwin, in her novel Evensong, says through the lips of her character Reverend Bonner, “Handing the Book of Revelation to a literal-minded person without any guidance [i]s like presenting a child with a box of matches and telling him to go out and play.”  Same goes for Isaiah and the many other prophetic books of the Bible.  Prophecy is an intimidating genre for the preacher, and yet it holds great fascination for the reader.  We offer month-long elective classes every April and October on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and at the end of the month we ask participants to complete an evaluation of their class.  The evaluation also asks them to suggest topics or books of the Bible they’d like to study in the future.  Every single session at least one person lists the book of Revelation.  Though we may not understand it, prophecy holds our attention, like watching a horror film, or the newsreels of war zones and natural disasters.

But prophecy is not valuable because it titillates us.  Prophecy, understood well, carries a message, sometimes a warning we need to heed, often a vision of God’s beautiful kingdom.  Godwin’s point is well-taken.  Literalist approaches that suggest prophecy is basically just another newspaper, telling us about the events of world in our day, are severely misguided, leading people astray.  And yet, that literalist approach is what so many have banked on when picking up the Isaiahs and Revelations of the Bible.  Instead, we need to spend time doing the hard work to discover the message of the prophecy.  When we do that research, we find that we need prophecy, that we can learn something very important from it.

So it is time for some Old Testament prophecy from a guy named Isaiah.  The Lectionary has hand-picked a number of passages in Isaiah specifically applicable for Advent, all of the passages giving us an astounding vision of the Messiah and his mission.  First up is Isaiah 2:1-5, a vision of the future that has interesting implications for the here and now.  In this prophecy, Isaiah takes to an amazing future mountain of God.

Do you want to learn more about prophecy?  About the prophet Isaiah?  And about the mission of the Messiah?  And most of all, do you want to learn what it matters to us living in 2016?  We welcome you to join us for the first Sunday of Advent 2016 at Faith Church, 9:30am, November 27.

Why it shouldn’t matter to Christians if global warming is a hoax or not

21 Nov

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Last week the Chinese confronted President-elect Donald Trump about his comments four years ago that they had created the hoax global warming.  Christians have been fighting among themselves and with the larger culture about global warming and other environmental concerns for much longer than four years.  It is all too easy for us to be blinded by our political preconceptions.  Instead, as we have been attempting to do all along in this series on Life in These United States, let’s see what God has to say in the Bible.

What are the biblical passages and theological principles that we could apply to our world, and how we live in our world?

First of all, we learn that God is creator and owner of the world.  We first see this way back on page 1 of the Bible,   Genesis 1.  There we read that God created everything, and he says it is good!  Seven times, as he creates the universe, he says it is good, including a final review of all he made and he says it was very good!

Another wonderful passage that describes God’s creation is Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.”

So the first principle we see in Scripture is that God not only created the world, and he calls it good, but also he reminds us that he is the owner of the world.

Second, God not only created, but he is still actively involved in his creation.

In Genesis 9:1-17 we see a momentous covenant that God makes between himself and his people.  The story in Genesis 9 describes the aftermath of the flood that Noah and his family, and all the animals in their massive boat, survived.  God approaches Noah to make a covenant.  This covenant extends well beyond just one family. In this covenant you see the extremely personal way that God interacts with his creation, sustaining and preserving it.

Likewise the future picture revealed in Revelation 4:11 is also a good reminder to us: “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

In the same manner, look at Numbers 35:33-35, where God tells the nation of Israel, “Don’t pollute and defile the land.”  God is speaking spiritually here, not wanting the Israelites to pollute the land with sin.   Within that instruction he is also clearly saying that he lives in the land with them.  Thus he wants them to behave in the land using his method, not theirs.

Let’s summarize what we have seen so far.  God created the world, and it is very good.  He owns the world and is deeply involved in sustaining and even living in the world.  This is in contradistinction to the idea that some people have of God, an idea that after he created the world, he has been hands off.  They feel he set it in motion and now is sitting back watching what we will do.  But that is not what we just read.  No doubt about it, God does allow us a lot of leeway.  We call it free will.  He does allow us to choose how we will live on this planet.

And that is where we are heading next.  Yes, God created the world and continues to be very involved in it, but he also invites us to join him in caring for it.

That is the next main point.  We are called to Steward Creation.

Going back to Genesis 1, remember what God said in verse 28?  We are to rule over creation.  But God explains this further a few verses later.  Look at Genesis 2:15.  In the garden, he told Adam and Eve to work it and keep it.  You know that means?  Piece this together with the first two points we have looked at so far.

This means that it wasn’t their garden.  It was God’s garden.  God created it, God created them, and he placed them in the garden to care for it according to His wishes.  As owner of the garden, God has the say in how it is to be treated.  Adam and Eve didn’t get the say.  They were stewards and had to treat the garden like God instructed them.

That’s what a steward does. The steward doesn’t own the thing over which they steward.  The owner owns it.  And the owner decides how the steward is to treat it.  In our case we are talking about the earth.  God owns the earth, and he gets to be the one who decides how it is to be used.  As Christians we need to see ourselves, then, as stewards of God’s creation.  It is incredibly important that we find out how God wants his creation to be treated.   Once we find out how he wants it to be treated, then we should treat his creation that way.

And if we don’t?  Well Rev. 11:18 has a significant warning for us.   There will be a day when God says that he will destroy the destroyers of the earth.  Doesn’t sound like a situation that a person would want to be in, does it?  I don’t want to be anywhere near that.

You know what this tells me loud and clear?  Christians should lead the way in creation care.

We should practice creation care.  We should advocate for creation care.  Creation care should be a priority.  In a moment we’re going to suggest some practical steps.  But before we get to applying this to our lives, let’s consider one more aspect of creation care that often comes up.

If creation care is so important to God, why has there been push-back against those in our society who are not from a Christian perspective but who are also trying to care for the earth?

We need to be careful about this.  We want to protect endangered species, but we don’t want to idolize them.  It is great to see the resurgence of the bald eagle for example.  In my childhood in the 1980s, bald eagles were endangered, super rare.  Seeing them at a zoo was a big deal.  Now?  They’re back, and here in Lancaster County.  But do we want to protect them to the point where they become a menace and start picking off free range chickens?  There needs to be balance.

Take the Chesapeake Bay.  We want to keep it as clean as possible.  But should we put restrictions on farmers to the point where it is financially impossible for them to farm because the cost of handling run-off is too much?

What we see is that there can be complexities in the vast and varied domain of creation care.  It is a huge planet.  And there is much disagreement about what is the right thing to do.

I found this comic that makes a good point.

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In our day and age there is no doubt that creating a better world, caring for God’s creation, is a lot of work, and it might mean that some people think we are taking it too far.  But if being a good steward of God’s creation means that some people disagree with us or make fun of us, then so be it.  I would rather God see me as his faithful steward even if that means taking heat from people who think that caring for creation is no big deal.  I would rather work hard on making our world a better place, even if we find out that global warming is a hoax.

Furthermore, Stewardship of creation is connected to stewardship of our finances. 

High mileage cars not only use less fossil fuel, but also save you on the cost of gas.  My parents recently got a new car and gave us their old one.  The car they gave us is a hybrid and it gets crazy good gas mileage.  I love that.

Another example is solar energy.  It is not only unlimited, clean, but can also save you on electric bills.  When we replace the roof on the church in the next few years, wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to get solar panels?  Or maybe the new Tesla solar shingles, connected to one of their batteries, so that we can run our facility on our own energy!

Another thing I am so thankful for is that we were able to put a wood stove in our house a few years ago.  Wood heat is renewable, and if you’re willing to do some work, you can often get it free.  Not to mention all the splitting and stacking and carrying is great exercise.

In all these examples, and many others, creation care helps not only the earth, but also your bank account.  The problem is that there are plenty of ways to live cheap that might make it seem like we are being good stewards of our bank accounts, though at the same time we are not being good stewards of creation.

Can I tell you how many coffee makers Michelle and I have been through over the years?  I’ve lost count.  You know what we do?  If the coffee maker breaks, we trash it and go buy a new one for $20.  How many of you do this with phones, TVs, computers, gadgets, and clothes?

You know what they used to do years ago?  Fix things.  Sew clothes.

But now, we are called the disposable generation.  Many industries build obsolescence into products so we need to get new ones every year.  Small appliances.  Fashion.  I urge you to jump over and visit The Story of Stuff.  Their first video of the same name is ten years old, but the message is just as powerful as it was then.  Since that time, the Story of Stuff people have created numerous other videos that make a wonderful argument about how we can be good stewards of creation.  Take a look at The Story of Bottled Water, for example!

Bottled water might not seem like a big deal, but where do all those bottles go?  They get disposed and pile up, along with all of our other mountains of garbage.  One of the ways to combat the disposable generation, and the piling up of junk and garbage on our planet is Recycling.

Have you ever wondered what actually happens to our local recycling?  Does it get used again?  I’d like to feature a few local companies and how they approach recycling.

I was out jogging the other morning, following the Eagle recycling truck.  I was surprised to watch the workers dump the entire contents of recycling bins into the back of a regular garbage truck and smash the recyclables together!  I was especially surprised because I am an Eagle customer!   I have also seen the Good’s Disposal recycling truck and it has a whole bunch of compartments that recyclables are divided into.  My pessimistic, skeptical side saw that and thought “We Eagle customers are being scammed.  The Good’s people are actually doing recycling!”

So I called my company, Eagle, to ask about this.  I started off by asking a very general question about how they handle recyclables.  Because of my detective work that other morning, I already knew what was happening in my neighborhood, and I wanted to catch them in a lie.  But they told me that all my recyclables are dumped into one truck and smashed together, exactly like I had seen.  “So then what?” I asked.  The rep told me that those compacted recyclables are taken back to Eagle’s main facility, where they are dumped into a large truck.  An 18 wheeler.  They are then taken to the recycling company, owned by Penn Waste.  “So what does Penn Waste do with them?”  The rep didn’t know, and said I would have to contact Penn Waste.

What I found out about Penn Waste blew me away.  See for yourself!

Actually, during my research, I learned that through Eagle and Penn Waste, I could be recycling a lot more than I currently do.  That convicted me, and rightly so. It used to be that you could only recycle #1 -2 plastics.  Now they take #1-7.  And there are many more items they recycle.  Please check your garbage haulers’ recycling guidelines as things have improved in the last few years.  I had not been paying attention.

I also called Good’s Disposal to see how they handled recyclables.  Faith Church uses Goods, and I found out they have different guidelines.  On their website, they say “Our goal in PA is to recycle 33% of the waste stream. This effort will save land, trees, and materials for the next generation.” That sounds great but they only recycle #1-2 plastics.  So it would seem to me that a good steward of God’s creation would choose a trash hauler that has the most recycling options available.

Another recycling option that is very convenient here in Lancaster (and many other places) is recycling your Styrofoam.  Locally Dart Container has two Styrofoam drop-off sheds, one at their Leola facility, and one at the Pitney Road facility.  Here at Faith Church, we have a Styrofoam recycling trashcan in the fellowship hall, the can with the hole in the lid.  No other trash should go in there (but somehow it does…).  The other trashcans in the fellowship hall are for other trash.

But there is more.  You can save up your Styrofoam, with the #6 on it, and bring it in to the trashcan in the church fellowship hall.  And our Faith Church family who work at Dart will take it to the shed for you!  That’s what we do at my home.  We save up our Chick-fil-a cups, and our chicken trays, and all our Styrofoam and bring it in to the church or drop it off in one of the sheds.  As God’s stewards of his creation, none of us should ever have a reason throw Styrofoam in our trash!

Another way that Faith Church is caring for God’s creation is through Adopt-a-Highway.  The Rock martial arts ministry that meets here on Monday nights cleans the two mile stretch of Old Philly Pike from Horseshoe Road to Mill Creek Road for us a couple times per year.  Isn’t that awesome?  There are so many more roadways that need to be adopted.  Would you look into your group joining the effort and cleaning a road near you?

How else could a church family care for God’s creation?  How can you practice being a steward of God’s creation?  Protect the sanctity of parks, preserve farms.  And get out into nature.  Rip yourself away from the screens and see nature with your own two eyes.  Go on hikes.  Run.  Walk. Ride bikes.  Enjoy it.  See God in it.  Garden.  But local produce and meat.  There are so many ways to care for creation.

In closing, hear the amazing words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Do we need to take global warming seriously?

18 Nov

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This weekend we finish our series about Life in These United States.  We have been talking about what everyone is talking about.  I’ve enjoyed this series, though it has made me squirm from time to time!  But  as we conclude this series, we look forward to Advent.  Yes, Advent begins next week.  And during Advent we will be studying five passages in the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah.  Five passages that talk about the mission of the Messiah.  Then after the new year, we will begin a series through the book of 1st Timothy.

This weekend, though?  Creation care.  Creation care is just theological code for “environmentalism.”  But creation care is different from environmentalism, and I think you’ll see why.

As I was preparing this week, I came across this amazing headline:  “China delegate hits back at Trump’s climate change hoax claims.”

What is that all about?  Four years ago, the article reports, President-elect Trump said “China had created the concept of climate change to make America’s manufacturing sector less competitive, dubbing the global phenomenon…’non-existent’.”

Now this week, the article goes on to say, “Beijing has turned the tables on US President-elect Donald Trump over his accusation that climate change is a Chinese hoax, claiming that it was the Republican’s own party that initiated global warming negotiations.”

Really?  The Republicans?  Can’t be.  Well, it turns out it can be: “Climate change negotiations began with the UN’s International Panel for Climate Change in the 1980s, supported by the US Republican-led administrations under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.”  Reagan and Bush?  Did you know that?

Furthermore, “China and the US are the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases that are causing the earth’s temperatures to rise, according to UN data.”

How many of you watch the weather reports on the news that list the record high and low for each day?  How many of you see how often the high for that day was recorded way back in 1894 or 1927 and think “Global warming is a crock.”?  How many of you hear the reports that world-wide the last year few years have been the warmest on record?  What should we think about global warming?  Is it a hoax?

The article above notes that “scientists say a 2-degree Celsius rise would be dangerous for the planet.  The US and China signed the Paris agreement in climate change talks last year, which involves both developed and developing countries. It aims to keep the world’s rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to create a carbon-neutral world by 2100.”  But you have probably heard what President-elect Trump has said about it:  “He plans to dump the agreement, which he described as a ‘bad deal’.”

Why am I bringing this up?   I don’t want this to be a political sermon.  I’m not trying to prove to you what science says about environment.  But the environment is something that is often in the news.  So how should Christians think about it?

Doesn’t the book of Revelation predict that God going to destroy the world?  So what should we care about global warming?  What is the big deal?

Perhaps it is a bigger deal that some people think.

Join us at Faith Church at 9:30am this coming Sunday 11/20/16 as we seek out biblical passages and theological principles that we could apply to our world, teaching us how we should view this planet.

How to respond to people struggling with gender

14 Nov

transgenderIn our Life in These United States Series, we are talking about what everyone is talking about.  This week we look at the topic of gender distress.  Months ago Bruce Jenner announced that for years he struggled with gender and was now Caitlin, changing his gender from male to female.  Then Target stores said that their customers of one gender could use their restrooms for another gender, if those customers identified with the opposite gender.  The result has been a divisive and at times bitter national conversation.  So today I ask, what is a Christian response to people who are struggling with gender?

First, have compassion.  I urge you to work on ridding your heart of anger and disgust.  Instead be filled with compassion and seek to understand, seeing people as people, loved by God and made in his image. Transgender people can draw up within us lots of strong feelings.  When anger or disgust rises up inside of you, instead of assuming that it is righteous anger, ask yourself, why is that anger there?  Perhaps the situation is not the problem, but the solution to the problem.  Perhaps the problem is really that your heart is filled with anger and disgust.

When I was in college, a group of students would lead worship services from time to time at Water Street Rescue Mission.  Or we would just attend worship there.  One evening I remember walking out of the chapel, headed to our vehicle to return to campus.  As we stepped into the parking lot a man to our right was there.  He was older than us, maybe in his 60s, and he was dressed in women’s clothing.  A feeling of disgust raged inside me.  All I wanted to do was get out of there.  Yet he was clearly hurting, possibly drunk.  He turned, heaved, and vomited.  He needed help.  We kept walking.  It was a grand failure on my part.

When we respond to people who are different from us, we first need to be honest about our inner short-comings like prejudice, disgust, anger and rage.  All people are created by God, loved by God, just as we are.

Then avoid condemnation.  Take yourself to the stories of Jesus.  Remember the story when the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus?  They wanted Jesus to condemn her.  His response?  In John 8:1-11, he said, “Is anyone left to condemn you?”

“No” she said.

Amazing, the words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.  So go and sin no more.”

He chose not to condemn, but in the same breath he says what “Go and sin no more.”  Jesus was always for truth and righteousness.  He called sin “sin”.  And we should do the same.

But I want you to notice something else about Jesus here. Jesus’ pattern was that he was harsh with the Pharisees who thought they had God figured out and were not gracious about their relationship with God.  Jesus was also sometimes harsh with the disciples who should have been further along than they already were.  But Jesus was compassionate to those who were struggling with sin.

What we learn from Jesus is this: no matter what view you hold, hold it with grace and humility.  Lancaster County has a heritage of definitive thinking.  We don’t want to be wishy-washy, but we need to express love to toward those who disagree.

Encourage contentment.  Once you have assessed your own heart, and you are filled with loving compassion, the third way we can respond is to apply the biblical principle of contentment to gender distress.

We need to be content with how God made us.   He made us in his image, and said “it is good!”  He loves us.  Therefore followers of Jesus should be exceedingly cautious about allowing thoughts of discontentment with ourselves to creep in.   This could relate to much more than just gender distress.  There are many ways in which we can grow discontent and have distress about our bodies. Think of plastic surgery, excessive working out, excessive dieting, pills, trying to get a perfect body, constantly purchasing the newest trends in clothing.  Even curating our Facebook and social media accounts so that we look better than we really are.

That is not to say that we can let our bodies go.  The principle of 1 Corinthians 6, that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, enters here.  Paul said, “Honor God with your body.”  That means caring for it in a healthy way.  Healthy eating, exercise and healthy medicine are important, but as with all things, they must be done in moderation.

I would urge anyone who wants to change anything about their body and life, to take that before the Lord and examine the motivation of your heart.  If God is enough for us, that means he made us this way, and he can be sufficient for us, despite the very real struggle that we feel inside.  I would encourage anyone who feels distress about their gender, about their body, to first ask the question, “Is God really enough for me?”  Do you remember that God loves you so deeply?

Finally, practice community.  All people need community, and our final response should be one of welcoming all.

Here in the Family of Faith Church we want to be a community where anyone will feel they belong, for the church is, after all, a community of broken people saved by grace.

Mark Yarhouse in a wonderful article in Christianity Today mentions that “A few years ago, my research team at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity conducted the first study of its kind on transgender Christians. We collected information on 32 biological males who to varying degrees had transitioned to or presented as women. We asked many questions about issues they faced in their home, workplace, and church, such as, “What kind of support would you have liked from the church?” One person answered, “Someone to cry with me rather than just denounce me. Hey, it is scary to see God not rescue someone from cancer or schizophrenia or [gender dysphoria]…but learn to allow your compassion to overcome your fear and repulsion.”

He goes on to talk about the Gospel in his article, and I think this is important for us to here, so I’m going to quote his words at length.  He says, “Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.

“As Christians speak to this redemption, we will be tempted to join in the culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage. But in most cases, the church is called to rise above those wars and present a witness to redemption.

“Let’s say Sara walks into your church. She looks like a man dressed as a woman. One question she will be asking is, “Am I welcome here?” In the spirit of a redemptive witness, I hope to communicate to her through my actions: “Yes, you are in the right place. We want you here.”

“If I am drawn to a conversation or relationship with her, I hope to approach her not as a project, but as a person seeking real and sustained relationship, which is characterized by empathy as well as encouragement to walk faithfully with Christ. But I should not try to “fix” her, because unless I’m her professional therapist, I’m not privy to the best way to resolve her gender dysphoria. Rather, Christians are to foster the kinds of relationships that will help us know and love and obey Jesus better than we did yesterday. That is redemption.”

So how are you responding?  Do you have people in your life that have some kind of gender distress?  Will you respond to them like Jesus would?

Can we talk about Gender on Sunday?

10 Nov

Image result for gender questions

Can we talk about gender on Sunday without coming across as condemning?

Mark Yarhouse, in a Christianity Today article from a year ago, talks about a person he worked with who had gender reassignment surgery:

“Sara opened our first meeting by saying, ‘I may have sinned in the decisions I made; I’m not sure I did the right thing. At the time, I felt excruciating distress. I thought I would take my life. What would you have me do?’ The exchange was disarming.”

As I think about what this sermon on gender should include, Sara’s comments remind me of something very important we need to remember: we’re talking about people.  An absolutely vital principle that we need to remember when we talk about people is that they are all made in the image of God.  Furthermore, God loves every single one of us.

We have to start there.  And that love God has for every single person must consume us.  We can’t talk about people without making sure that God’s love for all people dominates our conversation.

With that in mind, we need to talk about gender.  Our series on Life in These United States has only two more sessions.  One on gender, and one on creation care (theological code for “the environment”).  In this sermon series we’re talking about what everyone is talking about, and today that is gender.

I think it is quite timely to bring up gender at this time considering that our election featured the first major party female candidate for president, Hillary Clinton.  But in addition to the traditional approach to gender, that of male and female, the topic of transgender has become a feature in our national conversation.

When one of our American Olympic heroes, Bruce Jenner, decided to come out as a women, using the name Caitlyn, he took the spotlight for a news cycle.  Around that time, the retail chain Target, joined the conversation by announcing that their stores’ bathrooms would be open and affirming to those who identify with a different gender.

How should Christians think and act about gender?  If people like Sara are struggling with their gender, how should we respond?

Join us at Faith Church on Sunday, November 13, 2016, at 9:30am to learn more!

How to eat media

7 Nov

Image result for eating a cell phone

Last week I said that a college Shakespeare class and the movie Dumb & Dumber helped me change my mind about media.  I thought I had this media thing all figured out when I was a teen.  I was confident that there was no way it was affecting me.  But as an adult I have personally experienced media shaping my life.

But this begs the question:  What is media?

The News?  In days gone by, it was the paper.  Then the radio.  Then television.  But now we would say that the news is only one slice of the media.  When we say the word “media” that does include the news media, but it is so much more.

Actually the word “media” is plural.  It is “more than one medium.”  Medium?  A size for a t-shirt?  A person to help you communicate with the dead?  No, not those kinds of mediums.  The medium I am referring to is a “means of cultivation, conveyance, or expression.”  Another way to define medium is “any source of information that influences us.”  That could be a lot of things.

It is not just the news media, but now also social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and more.  Add to that all the entertainment media:  TV, Music, Film, Print, Internet, Gaming.  There is also the expansive world of advertising.  These are all examples of media.

Media surrounds us doesn’t it?  In fact, there is a verb that is often used to describe our interaction with media.  It is the verb “consume”.  We consume media.  We eat it.  We take it into our lives.  That happens by listening with our ears and watching with our eyes.  In our culture, we are media consumers.

Should we just eat it all up?  It’s like a smorgasbord out there; the media food just keeps coming with option after option of enticing choices.  How do we know what media food we should consume, and which ones we should avoid?

Are there biblical principles for consuming media?  It’s a question we’ve been asking all through this series.  Can an ancient 2000 year-old book relate to our world?  Some people say it’s not possible.  But we have found week after week that God’s Word is just what it says it is, living and active, and very applicable to our world.  It is loaded with principles that we can apply to many situations.  And it has some great principles for how we should interact with media.

First, God teaches us to be aware of the power of ideas.  Thoughts and ideas have changed the world.  Philosophers have said that the Vietnam War was started by two men discussing ideas in a coffee shop in Paris a hundred years before.  Thoughts and ideas ripple their way through the months and years, making an impact in one person’s life, then another, and another, and sometimes the results are massive.

So Paul says in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”  This could be translated “see to it that no one gains control over you by human wisdom.”  Paul isn’t talking about physical captivity.  He is talking about when we allow ideas and deceptive philosophy to so captivate our thinking that they gain control over us.

In other words, media communicates lots of ideas to us, and we would be wise to be cautious consumers of it.  That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

See the reversal?  Instead of allowing ideas and thoughts to have control over us, we turn the tables and allow God to control our thinking.

So how do we do this when it comes to media?

Run away?  Maybe.  I think about the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.  When his master’s wife tempted Joseph to sin with her, he ran away.  That is an option.  But running away from a problem is not always a good choice, and in some cases, like living in a society surrounded by media, we don’t have a choice to run away.

Last year I toured the Ephrata Cloisters.  It is a fascinating tour, and I urge you to go visit.  It is one of the many wonderful historical places that we have here in Lancaster County.  The Cloisters tried hard to get away from society.  But as I listened to the tour guide tell us what went on there, an eerie feeling grew inside me.  The Cloisters and their leader seemed like a cult, fleeing the harsh realities of the world, only to create more of their own.  And though they talked about being Christian, they clearly missed the heart of God’s mission.

When people talk about feeling from the world, from media, it is usually because they don’t want to be affected negatively by it.  They want to remain pure and holy, which is good.

But that doesn’t mean we have to get off the grid.  In fact, the second principle we learn in the Bible is that we are to engage the world.  Jesus said in his prayer in John 17:15, the night of the Last Supper: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

Paul in Acts 17:16-34 shows that he, too, did not run away from the world.  In fact he used the media of his world.  He was knowledgeable about it, and used it to share the Gospel to the leading thinkers in the city of Athens.  Athens in the day of Paul was not the intellectual and philosophical powerhouse it had once been when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were there.  But it was still an important intellectual center.  Look at verse 28, and we see Paul quoting famous poets.  He is using media of his day.  He didn’t run from it.  He knew it and used it.  Look what happens in verse 32-34.  Some sneered at him, but some believed!

So turn media off?  There will certainly be times when we need to turn media off.  But like I said before there are times when it comes to us, and we have to be able to respond.  It is best that we follow the prayer of Jesus and the example of Paul, and not run away from the world, but engage it, interact with it and learn to take every thought captive.

Would you like to practice this second principle of engaging media?

The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding is maybe the best Christian organization working in the area of helping Christians engage media.  They have a resource called their 3-D guide, and I urge you to order and use them.  Buy a 10-pack and hand them out to anyone you know who works with or is a parent of teens.

On the front of the guide it says “How to use your head to guard your heart, a guide for making responsible media choices.”  The three Ds are: Discover, Discern, Decide.

Recently the president of CPYU, Walt Mueller, demonstrated how to use the 3-D Guide with the song “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots?  Take a look at how Walt uses the 3-D guide, watch the music video for the song, print out the lyrics, and work your way through Walt’s discussion guide linked earlier in this sentence.  Here is a summary of the questions.

  • Question 1 – Discover – What is the message/worldview of the song?
  • Question 2 – Discern – How does this song hold up in light of the biblical worldview?
  • Question 3 – Decide – What should I do with this song?

We had a great mini-discussion about the song during the sermon yesterday.  And then the song was in my head all day.  I even heard my daughter singing it in the afternoon!  During the sermon I mentioned that the song was new to me.  When I caught her singing the song in the afternoon, I asked “So you know that song?”  She replied, “Dad, I can’t believe you said in the sermon that you never heard that song…it’s like a year old.”  I guess I need to engage with media a bit better!

A third principle we find in Scripture is to guard our hearts, as the title of the 3-D guide suggests.  In Proverbs 4:23 we read “above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” Another way to describe this principle is to look at what Paul says Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

We are called to be holy.  We should desire purity in our life, and the simple fact is that there is plenty of media that is less than holy.  We should not allow it in our ears and eyes.  Pornography is one clear example. There are other examples, too.  But it can be hard to know what media we should eat, and what media we should avoid.  As I think about this choice, one of the difficulties for Christians is to find balance between Legalism and Libertinism?  There are extremes either way.  How do we know what to do?

Legalism is when we make a rule out of something that God did not.  For example, if we said “Christians must not watch any sporting event that has cheerleaders because of they dress and dance inappropriately,” that is legalism. The Bible doesn’t say that.

But there is also Libertinism.  That is when we have too few rules.  People say that we are free in Christ, and so we can do anything we want.  Or people say that God forgives sin, so we’re fine.  The Bible says we should not have that attitude either.

It can be very hard to find the right balance.  And Christians disagree about where that balance is.

When our older boys were young, Michelle and I would be appalled when they came home from Kindergarten and First Grade telling us about PG-13 movies that their friends were allowed to watch.   We had self-righteous anger thinking that these parents are libertine and going to damage their kids.

Well the years went by and we mellowed out.  By the time our younger two were in Kindergarten and First Grade, other families were probably complaining about us and what we let our younger two watch.

Each family is going to need to decide before the Lord what is appropriate for them.  That means your family may come to a different conclusion than mine.  And that is OK.  We need to be able to love one another and be in relationship with one another while still maintaining differences of opinion about how we handle media.

If you hear yourself thinking or saying absolute statements about media, statements in which you are proclaiming that you have the one right way to eat media and everyone should follow your way, please keep that to yourself.

But as we engage media, we should use the principle of holiness to guide us.  We must take every thought captive.

There is at least one more important principle that the Bible teaches that relates to eating media.  How many of you have heard the following phrases in your house:  “Just one more level!”  Or “Just let me finish this level”?

Know that media is a powerful force.  Games are designed to keep you playing.  TV shows want you to keep coming watching.  Books are written so you’ll buy the next one in the series.  There is a very strong pull to media.

What is the inner impulse or inclination that creators of media tap into?  What is happening internally that makes it so easy for us to be attracted to the various forms of media?   For the vast majority of media outlets their number one priority is to make money.  If a piece of media is not making money, it will be discontinued.  Media offerings must tap into the human soul, so that the media is consumed.  If the media is consumed it will make money.

Think about your personal practice of media consumption.  How much time are you spending on it?  What kinds of media are you consuming?

This, then, is the Fourth Principle: remember when Jesus said “Where your treasure it there your heart will be also.”  Your heart follows your treasure.  It is kind of a confusing statement.  What Jesus is saying is that what you give your time and energy and money and investment to, your heart grows very fond of that.

A lady in our church told the story about Gone With the Wind and how reading it impacted her.  Scarlett had to be tough to get by.  As the lady from our church read the story, more and more she started to think “I’m going to be tough like Scarlett.”  The lady was not tough like that, and she admired Scarlett and desired to be like her.  This media was shaping her heart.

Is your heart being transformed by the media you eat?  Are you able to make an honest evaluation of your life?  Would you be willing to enter into an accountability relationship with someone, maybe a spiritual director, who can be frank with you?

How are you doing in parenting the young media consumers in your house?  How much media are you allowing them to eat?  What kind of media is entering their minds?  How are their hearts being changed?