Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Sandy Hook School Tragedy: A Biblical Response

Why God?

The Collective Conscience of a Nation Calls Out!
The question expressed in the title may be the most frequent inquiry in all Christendom.  With the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the collective conscience of our nation is asking, why?  Most people who believe in a spiritual being in charge of all are attaching God to that question.  Is there a Biblical answer to these questions?  I am not a theologian; I am a former schoolteacher.  But every Christian has a theology and to be viable it must work in good and bad times.  Before delving into this issue I must say that the finite can never totally understand the infinite.  Therefore, there will always be some unanswered questions in the fine print.  But I do believe there are broad biblical answers that can get us through such a horrific event with our faith intact.
God is Sovereign and Man is Free
            If there is a God, how could he allow something like this to happen?   This question has echoed in the hearts of many across this land.  It calls into question the very existence of God.  Not to mention that it implies that God may not care, and if He does, He is not able to do anything about it.  As Christians we must be able to answer this question. 
            God is sovereign and man is free.  This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  God is able to work His  sovereign will and yet still give man his free will.  Try and wrap that one around your earthly mind.  How does it work in everyday life?  How did it play out on that December day in that New England town?  I don’t know.  And I am in good company, as the Church has been discussing it for centuries without a clear-cut consensus.  Maybe what God has not revealed plainly (in the Bible), we should not try to explain totally.  Whatever the case may be, there is a God who rules in the affairs of men, but has chosen to give man a measure of freedom in that process.  This may be the point of wisdom that can explain why we have such unthinkable evil in a world governed by a good God.
            There is a case in point in the Bible that deals with hatred and murder. 

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.  (Genesis 4:6-8)

Clearly, it was not God’s intent or desire for Cain to commit murder.  God reasonably explained to Cain the right and wrong response to anger and the corresponding blessing or consequence.  Cain used his freedom to ignore a God who is only seeking his well being and murdered Abel.  Evil is perpetrated in this world when we disregard the kind and just intentions of God.  At this point you might be thinking would it not have been better if God had made us without the ability to hate? But if He had, God also would have had to create us without the ability to love. Without evil, good has no meaning.  You can’t have one without the other.  God did not create us to be puppets.   
Justice Prevails
            You might also be thinking that I have described a God that has His hands tied behind His back.  Not so.  God sees the end from the beginning with an eternal perspective.  We see only a small clip of the movie with a temporal perception.  God has a plan.  We live in a fallen world where evil is pervasive.  There is a titanic struggle between good and evil.  Yes, at times it does seem like evil triumphs over good, but make no mistake about it, there is a God who rules and reigns in this universe.  The end has already been decided.
 But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” 
                (Revelations 21:8 NASB)
The gunman did not avoid responsibility by killing himself.  The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished... (Nahum 1:3 NASB).  God always has the last say.  Ultimately justice prevails and God will reward good and punish all evil.
Acts of Unimaginable Kindness
            “Well and good on judgment day!” you might say.  What about the anger we feel now when we look at the pictures of those innocent children taken from us?  Or how do we deal now with the frustration we feel because we can’t do anything to lessen the pain of the parents, relatives, and friends of those slain? Again, let’s look to God’s Word for the answer:
 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:21 NASB)

On that fateful early December morning, Adam Lanza showed no mercy and perpetrated an unthinkable act of rage on the weakest and most vulnerable among us and on those who cared for them.  Maybe this week we should target the weakest and most vulnerable among us with unimaginable acts of kindness and mercy.  If we do, good may start to overcome evil, and our healing may begin.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Does Your Image Reflect Who You Are?

Dispelling the Illusion of Perfection

Those Lousy Sinners
What does a Christian look like?  How does he or she act?  Someone once said, “a Christian is not perfect, just forgiven.”  We all know that no one is perfect, but unfortunately, many believers in Christ try to give the appearance that they are pretty close to it.  We apply a veneer of righteousness to our lives that reflects an illusion of perfection.  Jesus spoke of two individuals in the Bible.  One who had this illusion and one who didn’t.
                 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other
                   was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed
                   this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else….
                   13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes
                   to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God,   
                   be merciful to me, for I am a sinner. 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee,
                   returned home justified before God.”  (Luke 18:10-11,13 NLT).

So we have one man, the Pharisee, who was self-assured about his righteousness, and the other man, the tax collector, who was sure of only one thing, he desperately needed a savior.  The sinner returned home justified and the religious man did not.  Let me tell you a story about a religious man who once had his veneer of righteousness peeled back a bit and exposed some of his clay feet.
I Gave Her a Couple Angry Scowls
The setting was a Youth With A Mission (YWAM for short) missionary training center in central Virginia.  On one occasion a couple that worked with me on recruiting projects in North Carolina came to Virginia to visit us. Our relationship was valuable on a personal level and important as a ministry connection. In fostering these kinds of relationships, we can try to make a good impression, and in doing so be tempted to distort our image somewhat.  We appear to have it together, when we know we really don’t.  This may have been slightly the case in this visit with my friends.
  One Sunday morning this couple arrived at our apartment for breakfast before church. My guests were in the dining area waiting while I helped my daughters get ready for church in the adjacent bedroom. For some reason, uncharacteristically, my youngest daughter was not being cooperative in getting ready for church. Most Sundays our family trips to church were uneventful, but on this day it was tough sledding.
The delayed obedience of my daughter coupled with the pressure to entertain our guests was getting to me. I peered at her a couple of times with an angry scowl. No response.  Finally, I lost it. I let my daughter have it verbally, in a very angry and unloving fashion. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I was wrong. Right away, I apologized to her and asked for her forgiveness. As most kids are, she was quick to forgive. I felt a lot better—until I envisioned my guests in the next room with surprised looks on their faces. Had they heard what I said? They probably had. What would they think about me now?
We finally made it out to breakfast. I sat down at the table. I looked left and then right, trying to avoid eye contact for fear of getting the look—the look that says, “How could you do something like that”?  Trying to appear normal, I wondered if I would make it through this meal with my ego in tact?  Needless to say, it was a very uncomfortable breakfast.
We finished breakfast. I returned to the bedroom and told the Lord, “I can’t avoid their eyes all day. Lord, what do I do?” I felt impressed to tell the couple exactly what had happened and to ask them to pray for me. After church we went to a restaurant for lunch. We paused to pray for our food. Now was my chance. I looked at them with a feeling of impending doom in the pit of my stomach. They were going to know me for how I really was.  “I don’t know if you heard or not,” I said, “but I really lost it with my daughter this morning. I didn’t handle the stress very well. Would you guys pray for me in that area?” The husband smiled from cheek to cheek. At first I thought maybe he was laughing at me. Then, from his demeanor, I realized it was not that kind of smile. Continuing to grin, he said, “That’s what we like about you YWAMers. You have the rhema”—he liked the Greek word rhema (word, revelation)—“in this area of openness!”  At that moment reality exploded in my mind. The fear of being authentic was based on an illusion. The incident that I thought would bring a loss of respect, when I openly admitted it, actually heightened my guests’ appreciation. I saw it afresh and anew: the enemy lies to us. He seeks to keep us in darkness. He deceives us into hiding. But God desires that we live openly and honestly before him and people.  God seeks to dispel the illusion of perfection and he blesses authentic living.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Who Is On The Throne of Your Heart?

Buzz off buddy, she burnt you last night!
  The setting was a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Disciple Training School that I was leading in rural Virginia.  A young lady named Kim had arrived at the training center with a set of conflicting affections.  Kim and been raised in a Christian home, but recently had become involved with a young man who did not share her moral values.  This involvement has taken its toll on her relationship and walk with God.  At the urging of her mother, Kim had enrolled in our school.  As the initial weeks passed, we noticed that Kim was starting to respond to the love of God.  God’s Word was coming alive in heart again and saying to her, Kim, I love you. 
Mid-way through the school term I found myself in front of the classroom.  The students sat there, so eager to know and serve God. The session topic that day was on the relinquishment of rights; a message that may very well try their faith. For some it might even determine whether they would go on with this God thing.  I spoke about the life of Abraham and how he had to give up Isaac, upon whom all God’s promises were to be fulfilled.  The teaching pointed out that there are things in our lives, some good and some bad, which if we hold on to, will hinder our intimate relationship with Him, and put a roadblock in the way of being useful for Him.  Normally, we have an application or response to this teaching. We instruct the students to take some time in prayer after the session, asking the Lord if there was anything that He wanted them to relinquish.  Was there anything in their lives that was more important to them than God?  The bonfire would be built and students would come with carefully worded notes to the Lord written from their hearts.  Apprehensive but determined, students would come and cast slips of paper into the fire, watching them turn to ash, knowing that the Lord gives and He takes away. It was an activity between them and God. There was no public disclosure of what God was requiring of them and if God showed them something that was fine, and if He didn’t, that was okay also.  There was no external pressure applied.  But God always seemed to show up.
That day the rain pelted against the classroom wall. A low pressure area had descended upon us, and the weather forecast called for twenty-four to thirty-six hours of steady rain.  This sort of precluded a bonfire, but one of our staff members said; “There is no miracle in the fire, why don’t we put a candle in a bucket and do it right here in the class room?”  We decided we would give it a try.  The spiritual atmosphere turned out to be just as solemn.  There is always a sacred presence in meetings like these.  People bring lifelong dreams and aspirations and place them before God to take or give back.  Young people would often bring specific relationships or even the right to have a long-term relationship.  Young potential missionaries would place even their call from God in the hands of the Righteous Judge. Neither the young people, nor God takes lightly the gravity of moments like these.
            That night was no different. The little candle flickered near the rim of the bucket.  One by one the students, with notes in hand and people, plans, and desires running through their minds, approached the candle.  Written on the notes (known only to them and God) were things like; Lord, I give you my desire for a spouse.  Dear Lord, I relinquish to you my vision to serve in Africa.  Jesus, I lay at your feet my relationship with my boyfriend or girlfriend.  As they gazed at the paper turning into charred ash, they envisioned their dreams going up in smoke.  Some must have wanted to pull it back, but they knew if it was never totally given over to God, they would never know if it was theirs or His.  What was the resounding question reverberating in our minds that evening?  Was there anyone or anything more important to us than God?
            That night Kim sat near the front of the classroom toward the side.  As the meeting progressed, she took out of her Bible a picture. Yes, it was a photo of her boyfriend.  She stared at it for a few moments and then with great care placed it back in the Bible.  She took it out and put it back at least twice, each time with a longing expression. 
My eyes panned out across the classroom.  Everyone who so desired had been given the opportunity to respond.  As I was about to close the session, Kim arose with picture in hand and moved toward the front. She had counted the cost and with a determined look on her face purposed to put God first. Kim placed the picture in the flame, her expression revealing that it was an object of great value.  It was one of those old Polaroid pictures that seemed like it was made partly of wax.  As the flame started to burn through and melt the picture, it bent and made a cracking sound.  You felt as if you could almost hear her heart breaking. Her fingertips continued to hold fast to the print. She started to feel the heat from the flame.  Her fingers separated from the picture and the charred remains dropped into the outstretched hands of a waiting God. That night there was a change of the residents in her heart; one moved out who could never totally fulfill her, and one moved in that would never, ever disappoint her.  It was a very memorable moment, both for Kim and the lover of her soul.
Where the Rubber Met the Road
            The next morning as I was walking toward the dining hall and the pay phone rang.  I almost never answered the pay phone, but it rang and I was there and so I picked up.  Guess who it was?  Yes, it was Kim’s boyfriend.  What do I say to him?  Buzz off, she burnt you last night!  No, it was not my place to speak.  I told someone to go get Kim.  What did she tell the guy?  I don’t know.  I never asked her, because frankly it was none of my business.  These are sovereign areas that only involved her, her boyfriend, and God.
I do know that she finished the school and instead of going back to her home area, she worked for a couple of years as a missionary with Youth With a Mission.  That speaks for itself.
            Why did God have me answer the phone that night?  I think there may be two reasons.  First, He wanted to remind me again that words can sometimes be cheap.  It is not what we say but what we do that counts.  Even symbolic gestures such as burning our notes can be useless unless we are committed to follow through.  The real test for Kim came not in the classroom that night.  Yes, maybe it started there, but the real test happened when she talked with her boyfriend.  That is where, spiritually speaking, the rubber met the road.  This is where she proved whom she really loved.
            Second, God was trying to reaffirm to me that relationship with God and the Lordship of Christ are real and important issues to God.  The burning of our notes was not just a spiritual game we were playing, but an avenue to allow God to take His rightful place in our hearts.  There is only room for one God in our hearts.  There is the capacity for many loves in our life, but only after the One True God reigns supreme.  Anything that challenges His supremacy and lordship is a vane idol, which God in His mercy must allow to die. Why?  Because He knows idols will never fulfill those who worship them.  That night or any night, it is really all about; who is on the throne of your heart?

Adapted from Ken Barnes, TheChicken Farm and Other Sacred Places: The Joy of Serving God in the Ordinary (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2011), 24–27.