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Monday, May 4, 2015

A Princess Is Born

Kensington Palace made the announcement last Saturday: “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a daughter at 8:34 am.  The baby weighs 8 lbs 3 oz.” It was a typical British announcement with little more flair than the weigh-in of jockeys at the Kentucky Derby.  But Prince William and Kate beamed with joy when, seven hours later, they presented their newborn daughter to the world. 


When Prince William married Kate Middleton four years ago it was a storybook wedding.  Two billion people watched. Since that time, the Royal couple has charmed the nations with their world-wide tours.  Now they have enchanted us with their children, Prince George and his little sister, the Princess, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.  Keeping with British tradition, William and Kate did not announce her name until Monday afternoon.


Part of our attraction to William, Kate and their children is our fascination with celebrities. But, in this case, even celebrities stand in awe, overshadowed by the traditions of royalty.  We are moved by something deeper than celebrity worship.  The core attraction of the royal family is just that: family.


In our scientific and antiseptic world we are sometimes in danger of reducing human life to the mundane, the clinically predictable.  But the birth of a Princess somehow draws us back to celebrate the majesty and the mystery of birth and life: the natural result of a man and a woman committed to one another in matrimony.

We are each born of a mother and a father, which does not mean that we all know our fathers and mothers.  Parents are not always married, and in some cases, such as artificial insemination, they never even know one another.  But, the fact of the matter is, we are all conceived, fashioned and formed by the mystical union of male and female. 

It has been so since the beginning.  Genesis states, “ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” (Genesis 1:27,28)

Sooner or later most of us want to know our lineage.  Where did we come from?  Who were our parents, and who were their parents? What mysterious mix of ethnicities and nationalities went together to produce … well … us?   

None of us is elected or engineered to be who we are.  Britain’s new Princess is who she is by birth and by choice. She is born a Princess because Prince William chose Kate Middleton to be his bride. And she is born a Princess because she is the daughter of their union.

In a similar way, we are all born because God chose us and gave us birth.  In Isaiah, God says, “You who have been borne by Me from birth, and have been carried from the womb; even to your old age, I will be the same, and even to your graying years I shall bear you!  I have done it, and I shall carry you; and I shall bear you, and I shall deliver you.”  (Isaiah 46:3-4).

Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9).  Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  (1 John 15:9).   

On this coming Sunday, as we celebrate Mothers’ Day, perhaps a newborn Princess will remind us who we are.  
 

Monday, April 27, 2015

When The Storm Comes

We were at our beach house on Galveston Island a couple weeks ago when a tornado passed over Jamaica Beach.  Our house shook; the windows rattled; hail battered the walls like bullets.  We kept reminding ourselves that the house survived Ike.  It would surely survive this.

Galveston is familiar with storms.  The historic hurricane of 1900 virtually destroyed the city and killed 6,000 people.   Hurricane Ike raked the island in 2008.  The F-1 tornado that passed over Jamaica Beach on April 17 won’t even appear as a blip on the screen.

Beach houses on the Island are built for storms.  We know that years may pass, maybe decades, perhaps a century, but the wind, rain, hail and floods will come.  We must build for it and we must expect it. In Jamaica Beach every house is at least ten feet off the ground built on pilings driven as many feet, or more, beneath the surface to anchor the house on solid soil.

In the same way, we must prepare ourselves for the storms that can devastate our personal lives.  Loved ones will die.  We will grow old, battle illness, suffer a tragic accident or fall victim to violence.  We are all mortal.

Jesus ended his Sermon on the Mount with a parable about houses built upon sand and rock.  When the winds blew and the storm raged, He said, the house built upon sand fell. The house built upon rock stood.  (He didn’t include anything about houses built upon pilings.  But I guess poles sunk ten to twenty feet into the ground are as strong as foundations built on rock. Our house is still standing and we are still dry.)
 
Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.” (Matthew 7:24-27).

 Peter wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. … Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (1 Peter, 1:6-7, 4:12). 

We cannot prepare for the storms after they hit.  It is too late.  Preparations must be made months and years ahead.  The storm only reveals the foundation that has already been built.  In the same way, the faith that will carry us throughout life and beyond death is a faith that must be nurtured and established before the trial comes.  This is why Bible study, prayer and Christian fellowship are so important day-by-day and week-by-week.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Repentance

Perhaps the one word most needed in our age of addictions is the word that seems to be missing from our vocabularies. 

In his classic devotional book, My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, “The entrance into the kingdom of God is through the sharp, sudden pains of repentance colliding with man’s respectable 'goodness.' Then the Holy Spirit, who produces these struggles, begins the formation of the Son of God in the person’s life (see Galatians 4:19). This new life will reveal itself in conscious repentance followed by unconscious holiness, never the other way around. The foundation of Christianity is repentance.”

Whenever we do things wrong we most often try to justify our actions. We might agree that what we did was wrong, but we search for excuses.  We feel sorrow, regret or remorse.  But we seldom, if ever repent.  Perhaps the idea doesn’t even cross our minds.

When John the forerunner introduced Jesus to the world, he did so by calling people to repent.  “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 3:1-2) Thousands sought him out, confessed their sins and were baptized as a sign of repentance.

When Jesus launched his public ministry He also preached repentance.  “From then on, Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.'” (Matthew 4:17).  On one occasion, Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you also will perish.” (Luke 13:3).

Most of us understand repentance as a decision to stop doing bad things.  To turn from our sin and to turn to God.  John the forerunner defined repentance by our actions.  He urged the crowds to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”  To some he said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”  To the tax collectors he said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”  To the Roman soldiers he said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7-14).

Repentance enables us to move beyond remorse and hating ourselves for what we have done.  Judas felt remorse after he betrayed Jesus and then hanged himself.  Peter also felt remorse for denying Jesus and wept bitterly. But, unlike Judas, he repented, was forgiven and served Christ the remainder of his life.

Repentance is a gift of God’s grace.  We cannot simply repent on our own.  It must come from God. After Cornelius was converted, the disciples concluded, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”  (Acts 11:18).  Paul wrote, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25).

Repentance is more than an act of the will, it is a transformation of the mind. The word translated “repent” is the word metanoia, which means literally “transformation of the mind.”  This is why Paul encouraged believers not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2). When we repent and place our faith in Christ we see God, the world and ourselves in an entirely new light.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Faith of Leap

The Australian missiologists, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch wrote a book in 2011 with the title, The Faith of Leap. The “faith of leap” is about experiencing the kind of faith that enables us to go where we have never gone before and do what we have never done before.  It is a faith defined by action.

It is the kind of faith Abraham demonstrated when he left his family and his home to follow God.  It is the kind of faith Moses experienced when he returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh for Israel’s deliverance. Peter, James and John demonstrated this faith when they left their fishing boats to follow Jesus. The man born blind exhibited this kind of faith when he stumbled through the streets of Jerusalem in search of the Pool of Siloam. 
 

When I think of the “faith of leap” I think of my friend, Heather Herschap. If you have been reading this column for long, you will probably remember Heather.  She is a young woman born with cerebral palsy. Since birth she has had limited use of one arm and speaks with an impediment.  But when she smiles, her face lights up the room.
 
Heather is intelligent and determined.  She earned a bachelor’s degree at Baylor University despite her disabilities.  For four years, she was one of the most recognized students on campus, racing between buildings in her electric wheel chair, her hair blowing in the wind.
 
Heather’s life changed dramatically during her freshman year at Baylor.  One night, alone in her dorm room, she fell between her bed and the wall and was unable to wriggle free.  Trapped, frustrated and frightened, she says God spoke to her.  As a result she began reading the Bible and attending church.  She soon came to faith in Christ.
 
Her “faith of leap” has continued to grow. She went on to earn a Master’s degree from Truett Seminary and has made multiple trips to India to minister to those with handicaps similar to her own.  She currently serves in a center for the handicapped in San Antonio, Texas.
 
Last week, Heather published her second children’s book, The Story of Lucy, an Amazon e-book.  Lucy is the charming and inspiring story of a girl who overcomes disabilities to bring love and faith to others. Her story is all the more poignant because Lucy's experience parallels that of the author. Through Lucy, Heather invites her readers to rise above their own difficulties to discover a wonderful world of God’s love and grace.
 
Most of us will never face the obstacles and difficulties Heather has had to overcome. But we can all exercise our own “faith of leap” to make the world a better place.  Faith that follows Jesus is this kind of faith, faith that requires us to take the leap.  Like a child leaping into the father’s hands, we can leap into the unknown because we know who will catch us.

Click the image to the right to view Heather's book on Amazon.
 
 


Monday, April 6, 2015

The Power of Words

When we were children we had a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  We usually quoted this little rhyme when words had hurt us, and it was usually followed by sticking out our tongue for emphasis.  Somehow this ditty has been passed down through the generations, even though it is not true. Words can destroy us.

It is not the well thought out words that give us trouble, words that we wrestle with before writing them down, words that we edit a dozen times before finally putting them in print.  The words that trouble us and cause our difficulty are the careless words, the thoughtless words, the words that escape our lips without thinking.  These words cannot be called back.  Unlike animals escaped from the cage, words cannot be hunted down and returned to captivity.
 
Sometimes the careless words run rampant causing unknown damage without our knowledge.  We don’t even remember what we said, or when we said it. But the damage is done nonetheless. 
 
We try to bury our careless words beneath repeated apologies.  “I’m sorry.”  Or “I didn’t mean it.”  Sometimes we are forgiven.  Sometimes others claim to overlook them. But words are rarely forgotten.  They lodge in the memory and cast a shadow on everything else. 
 
Jesus said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matt. 12:36) Jesus was referring to our final judgment before God.  Ultimately, when we stand before Him we will be required to give account for every careless word.  But, perhaps he had something else in mind.  Perhaps He was drawing our attention to the reality of human relations.  Careless words destroy relationships. 
 
We have seen prominent careers come to an abrupt end due to careless words spoken in the public arena.  Like the classic movie, A Face In the Crowd, few are able to overcome racial slurs and arrogant expletives caught on an open microphone.  But more damaging to us all are the careless words spoken in the privacy of our homes each and every day. Careless words chip away at relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children.  They leave families fractured and psyches shattered.
 
On the other hand, an encouraging word, the right word spoken at the right time, can make an enormous difference.  The opposite of careless words is not careful words, words that are guarded and self-serving, but caring words, words that are spoken in the interest of others.
 
Nothing is more important than learning the discipline of our speech.  James compared the tongue to the small rudder that turns a huge ship, or the bit placed in the mouth of a horse, able to harness the animal's great strength.  Careless words, he said, are like sparks that ignite an uncontrollable fire that consumes everything in its path.  “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” (James 3:2).

Monday, March 30, 2015

Resurrection Faith

Not long ago I preached the funeral of a woman I have known for forty-five years. By the time she ended her long battle with breast cancer she was in her mid-fifties.

When I first met her, she was a little girl.  I still remember her innocent blue eyes as a child.  I watched her grow through childhood and into her teen years.  When she was a young adult, she was lured down painful and destructive paths refusing to heed the warnings of those who loved her. I prayed for her, along with others and she fell deeper into addiction to drugs and alcohol. She gave her first born up for adoption and eventually served a sentence in prison.

But somewhere along the way, whether in prison or afterward, she came to faith in Jesus Christ. Like the woman who pressed through the crowd, she touched the hem of His garment. As Jesus said to another woman so many years ago, He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole.” 

In the last decade I saw her reunited with her first-born whom she gave up in her youth. She was reconciled with her family who surrounded her in love.  God brought a good man into her life who, like her, was a recovering alcoholic.

She often shared with me her testimony of faith and what God had done in her life.  She still wasn’t perfect. She still had issues. But she was different. God was healing her on the inside.

The week before she died, we visited.  Family and friends gathered around her, comforting her, praying for her and loving her.  On Wednesday of that week, she drew her last breath.

Once again, I thought of her as that innocent blue-eyed girl I first knew. It reminded me of Jesus’ visit to the home of a mother and father whose twelve-year-old daughter had died.  The house was surrounded by people who were weeping. But Jesus entered the child’s bedroom with her parents and spoke these gentle words to her.  “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”   She immediately breathed, opened her eyes and got up.   

This is the faith we believe as followers of Christ.  We make mistakes.  We may wander far from God.  We may cause pain to ourselves and others.  But He seeks us out.  He never lets us go.  He reconciles, redeems and, in the day of our death, He raises us up!
 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Promise of Palm Sunday

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before he was arrested, crucified and raised from the dead three days later.

Jesus descended the Mount of Olives seated on a donkey as men, women and children shouted and sang knowing that, by this act, Jesus had proclaimed himself to be the longed for Messiah.   They all knew the prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, daughter Zion!  Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9). After crossing the Kidron Valley, He entered Jerusalem through the eastern gate. 

Around the world Christians will gather to celebrate this historic event.  Last year over 2,000 children took part in a procession in St. Petersburg, Russia; Christian youth waved palm branches in northern Iraq; believers gathered for services in Beijing, Shenzhen and Wenzhou, China; Christians danced in Palm Sunday processions in Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana.  Hundreds of millions around the world will gather for worship and remembrance.

Four weeks ago I stood at the spot where Palm Sunday took place.  From the Mount of Olives, where He began his journey astride the donkey, I could see the sealed up eastern gates of ancient Jerusalem. Our Jewish guide told us that the Muslim occupation had sealed up the gates to prevent the Jewish Messiah from entering. 

With my friends, I read Ezekiel 44:2, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it.”  I was reminded that Jesus, fulfilling all Messianic prophecy, had already entered.

Jesus predicted what would happen.  He would be crucified and raised from the dead.  There would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines.  Evil would continue to increase.   “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24)

He promised that when He returns He will judge the earth, all evil will be abolished and He will establish a new heaven and a new earth where men will dwell in peace with one another and with God.  (Revelation 21).  


Like those who lined his route two thousand years ago, this Palm Sunday believers from around the world will raise their voices to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the King.  As they do so, they not only look back to that historic day when Jesus first entered Jerusalem.  They look forward to a day when He will return.