Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why Suffering? PART ONE

Why Suffering?    PART ONE      PART TWO      PART THREE      PART FOUR       PART FIVE

Dear Friends,

On July 20, 2012, a gunman entered a movie theater in Colorado, killed twelve people and injured 70 others. A few days later, a newspaper columnist wrote that “it was God or voices in the shooter’s head” that caused him to do what he did. After my anger had subsided at what I had just read, I tried very hard to let that one go and I just couldn't. God was not responsible for the evil that took place that night! 

It's one thing when someone expresses an incorrect theological statement in private and another when it's a respected and well-read columnist on the front page of a major Los Angeles newspaper with a large readership. That morning, I sent the columnist an email and this is what I wrote:

“I have always enjoyed reading your columns but today's column surprised me. You concluded that it was either God or the shooter’s mental illness that turned him into a mass murderer. Do you really believe that what happened could have been a premeditated and intentional act of God? Do you believe that God is the initiator of evil in the world? In the midst of pain, grief and unspeakable horrors, do you see God as the perpetrator? Do you really believe in a cruel and unholy God who used James Holmes as a puppet in order to orchestrate mayhem and destruction in God's own Creation?
If you do believe that, then somewhere in your life experience, you have received an understanding of God that is not believed or taught by the church or by any of the major religions. If you don't believe that, but you mischaracterized God out of your own anger or hurt, then perhaps you owe your readers an explanation and owe God an apology...”

This columnist and I then had an interesting exchange of emails. He told me he had been raised Catholic but never went to church. He remorsefully admitted that, “maybe we too easily blame God for things that aren't His fault.” He told me that his daughter died from cancer in the past year and it was then that I understood the source of his pain and the reason for his anger at God. It's understandable for a grieving father to wonder where God was in the middle of his daughter's suffering. I wrote him back and told him some things about God that I hope were helpful for him to hear and think about. Just a few months ago, I read about the columnist’s own death and remembered our email exchange about his Heavenly Father. If he didn’t get it before, it’s for certain that he knows the truth about God now...

Probably the question that Christians hate most is “If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” We hate it when non-believers ask us this because most of us aren’t certain about the answer and, to be honest, many of us have asked it ourselves. But we need to know the answer, because this question has caused more permanent and temporary atheism than any other. Surveys of non-believers have shown that this one question is the biggest road-block to accepting Jesus, and that’s why, when they come to us for answers, we need to have a good theological understanding of how the reality of evil and suffering plays out in God's Creation. We need to be fully prepared to answer the basic questions about our faith. (1 Peter 3:15)

We understand why this is such an important and difficult question. People suffer in unspeakable ways and die in horrific circumstances every moment of every day. How does a good God allow this? None of this seems to make sense to us. I know that God is good. God is love and kindness and mercy and compassion. Because God is good, God hates evil. God is also Sovereign and Omnipotent – meaning He rules and reigns and is all powerful. Evil and suffering are pervasive throughout the world. They touch our own life and the lives of those we love and cherish. So I don't get it. If God is so good, and He loves us so much, then why does He allow all this evil and suffering when He has the power to wipe it out forever?

When a non-believer asks this question, we can’t just toss off an answer composed of platitudes and a Bible verse. It’s an important question and it will take the next few AMEN Corners to answer it...

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Where's Your Laughing Place?

Dear Friends,

As a young boy, my favorite movie was Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH. The first movie to mix live actors with animated characters, it was a warm, sentimental story of a young (white) boy living with his mother on his grandmother’s plantation after his parents separated and his father deserted the family. Devastated by the loss of his father, the boy runs away from home but meets Uncle Remus, a former slave, who befriends the young boy and they bond in a father/son relationship. Uncle Remus tells the boy stories about the adventures of Br'er Rabbit and those stories are the animated parts of the film. Popular in the early 50's, this film was considered to be so controversial it is the only Disney film never released for home distribution. 

Set in the days of reconstruction after the Civil War, and with the black characters speaking in the dialect from that time, the film was found to be offensive by the NAACP because, “..scenes like blacks singing traditional black songs were offensive as a stereotype.” And just as many whites were offended by SONG OF THE SOUTH because a white boy had been befriended by a black man who was a very warm and endearing character. The outraged whites loudly objected to the movie because they were afraid it would create goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations. Of course as a kid, I knew nothing about all this shouting going on over my favorite movie. All I knew is that I identified with the boy in the movie and wanted an “Uncle Remus” to be my friend.

All of the stories told by Uncle Remus had strong moral lessons but one in particular that stands out was Br'er Rabbit’s, “The Laughing Place.” That’s the place where you can always go to be happy and I’m thinking that maybe even us non-animated human characters also need a laughing place.

Christians are not often characterized as a happy group of people. The sad truth is that too many of us are known not for our joy and happiness but for our bitterness and negativity. Like those in the Old Testament, we figuratively rend our garments and smear ashes on our head in response to even the petty problems in our life. We anxiously elevate the most minor trauma into major drama. 

We wring our hands over the fallen world. On Christian web-sites, there are daily prophetic voices telling us the time is now to enter into sustained fasts for our nation and the world. A well-know author recently told a conference of evangelicals that we Christians are not supposed to be happy! The reality of the world is grim and any joy we have means that we have not fully understood the gruesomeness of our environment and we are fooling ourselves with the shallow emotion that we call happiness. Whew! Just hearing that makes me want to find my laughing place! 

Your laughing place will never become your place of permanent residency while on this planet. Only in Heaven will there be no more tears or sorrow. And so we do grieve over the world’s atrocities and our own tribulations can also cause great sorrow. But our sorrow cannot be a place of permanent residency either. Sometimes we just need to hit the reset button and restore the joy of life. We need to go to our laughing place.

Br'er Bear complains “But I’m not laughing.” Br'er Rabbit responds, “I never said this was your laughing place. This is my laughing place.” Your place will be different than mine. My laughing place is walking along Carpinteria Beach hand in hand with my loved one. She and I scour the beach looking for heart-shaped rocks and life is never better for us than those times. Your laughing place is the place that always makes you happy. It may be going on a walk or working in your garden. It may be going out to eat at a nice restaurant with good friends. It may be playing a board game or a rousing game of bunco. It may be hunting for thrift store treasures with a friend. It may be sitting outside and engaging in a stimulating conversation or lighthearted banter with a buddy. It may be playing with your grandchild or walking your dog. 

Think for a moment about the things you do and the places you go that always bring happiness and restore the joy in your soul. The Bible says that we are to “Rejoice Always..” 1 Thess 5:16-18 and in order to do that, some of us may need to spend a little more time in our laughing place...  Amen?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Life We Long For

Dear Friends,

What’s the difference between a Prosperity Preacher and a Politician? (answer: MAYBE NOT MUCH) Last Sunday, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy to become our next president. The day before, her campaign manager wrote a memo to the staff to state the mission, purpose and “talking points” of the campaign. Clinton’s mission is “to give every family, every small business, and every American a path to lasting prosperity by electing Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States.”

According to my dictionary, “prosperity” means to achieve economic success and wealth. The promise of prosperity plays well with the people most likely to vote for her. Today, 63% of Democrats earn less than $15,000 per year and that’s why political promises of prosperity to that socio-economic group are understandably very appealing. But even if the politician’s and prosperity preacher’s promises come true and you are rewarded with great wealth because you gave money to support their ministry or political campaign, does having lasting prosperity really bring the quality of life that we so desire?

The old adage, “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” is proven true time and time again. America is the wealthiest nation in the world and yet the majority of Americans are among the most unhappy. You may be surprised to hear that a recent Gallup poll surveyed people in 143 countries and found that the top ten happiest nations are all in Latin America. And, these top ten happiest nations are also among the poorest countries in the world.

So if money can’t buy happiness, how do we find, have and keep the joy, happiness and life satisfaction that we all seek? A 2011 report drew evidence from over 1,400 studies and found that Christians live a happier, healthier and longer life than non-believers do. A study of over 20,000 Americans found that income and education had little impact on their quality of life and their longevity, but attending church regularly added an average of seven years to their life and, if they were African-American, their church attendance doubled their life expectancy with an added 14 years!

The studies showed that Christian believers, who attended church on a regular basis, not only had a longer and healthier life but that they also had increased “well-being, life satisfaction, hope and optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem, better adaption to bereavement, less loneliness, lower rates of depression, lower rates of suicide, less anxiety, less criminal behavior, greater marital satisfaction and stability in relationships.” 

The evidence shows that if you want to be happier, healthier and live longer, the answer is not more money, a better job and a nicer house. The answer is to believe in Jesus, follow Him as your Lord and Savior and go to church! 

Too many Americans today are unhappy, angry and dissatisfied with life. The problem is not that they don’t have enough money. The problem is that they don’t have enough Jesus. The Son of God never promised us a prosperous life overflowing with wealth and riches. But Jesus does promise His followers that they will have a more "abundant" life. (John 10:10) and the Greek word He used means a life that is absolutely overflowing with vitality and filled with superabundance! It means a life brimming over with all you could ever desire and hope for – a rewarding life overflowing with His blessings!

Last Sunday, we heard a great interpretative translation of John 10:10 by a Greek scholar that goes like this: But I (Jesus) came that they might have, keep, and constantly retain a vitality, gusto, vigor, and zest for living that springs up from deep inside. I came that they might embrace this unrivaled, unequaled, matchless, incomparable, richly loaded, and overflowing life to the ultimate maximum. That’s the abundant life we all long for!

The abundant life is available to all and absolutely free of charge! No donation to a ministry or political campaign is required. You don’t have to send your credit card info, check or money order. There’s no obligation or contract to sign. And wait! There’s more! With Jesus, your abundant life comes with a 100% eternal lifetime guarantee! Amen?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Resurrection CSI

Dear Friends,

It was Sunday evening and the frightened disciples were cowering behind locked doors. They were terrified that the Jews who had just executed Jesus would be after them next and they would all be massacred. Yeah they’d heard that looney story  about Jesus being alive from Mary Magdalene and the other women but scornfully dismissed their testimony as an “idle tale.” Luke 24:9-11 And then of course, the most shocking event took place! Jesus appeared in the locked room and the disciples panicked thinking it was a ghost! Luke 24:36-37 But Jesus showed them His hands and His side and it was then that the disciples believed. John 20:20

And Thomas wasn’t there so he missed all the excitement. The other disciples, who had been there and seen Jesus, told Thomas that the Lord was alive. Thomas said to them, “Yeah, sure! Unless I see His hands, and put my finger into the nail holes, and put my hand into the hole in His side, I will not believe.” John 20:25 (my paraphrase)  

Thomas is the kind of guy who would make a good investigator on CSI. He’d be the one unemotionally photographing the gruesome nail holes and taking skin scrapings. He’d be probing the wound in Jesus’ side for microscopic wood fibers from the spear. By now, over a dozen of Thomas’ closest friends had been eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, but Thomas had to see for himself. He needs to see the physical evidence that the crucified Christ has become the resurrected Lord. He needs to see the nail holes and see the torn flesh. He needs to probe the deep puncture wound. He needs to see Jesus alive and breathing. Unquestionable, visible forensic evidence must be present in order for Thomas to believe.

We read that the disciples had gathered again and this time the skeptic Thomas was with them. Jesus appears to them again and invites Thomas to conduct a thorough physical examination. Thomas examines the hands and the side of Jesus and the evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive. Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” John 20:27-28 

And the Apostle John, who was writing down this factual report of events, recorded the next crucial words of Jesus: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

What Jesus wanted Thomas and all the disciples (including you and me) to know is that believing doesn’t depend on seeing. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Cor 5:7

Many of us are like Thomas. We need to see to believe. Yes, we believe in Jesus. Sure we believe He’s the Son of God. Of course we believe in God’s providence and provision. We even believe that God still heals the sick today. But to be honest about it, we still have those little doubts. And like Thomas, if we could only just see some irrefutable evidence of God working in our life and answering our prayers, then we could really believe.

It’s easy to believe when times are good. But it’s a little more difficult to trust in God and believe that He’s there for us when we’ve been laid off at work. When we’re facing financial difficulties. When we’re faced with a debilitating illness. When we’re struggling with family problems. When the grief over the loss of a loved one is overwhelming. When a son, a daughter, a mother or a father is not speaking to us. When we are just plain bored with life. When we’ve been there and done that so many times, we’re just tired. When our spiritual well has run dry. When things are out of control. When we are on our knees crying out, “God are you really here? Are You hearing my cries to You? Why can’t I see any answers to my prayers, Lord?”

And suddenly we’ve become a “doubting Thomas” demanding to see visible evidence of God’s work. We’ve become discouraged by the dark silence in our soul, and yet the truth is that sometimes God is doing His greatest work in the silence. And to paraphrase John 20:29, Jesus would say to you, “Blessed are you who have not seen and still believe – and still trust – and still hope.”

Our hope is a living Savior who is with you today. Our hope is Jesus, walking with you through life. Our hope is a risen Christ who is pointing to your future. When we believe in Him, we have been born anew to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. 1 Peter 1:3-4 But with vision limited by our humanity, we must walk by faith. We can then be thankful that, unlike Thomas, we have no need to see with our eyes. The Bible is all the evidence we need in order to have never-ending hope and know that the best is yet to come! Amen?