Saturday, December 31, 2011

Last Post of 2011

Whew. Another year is done. It seems it ended in a crazy rush! That's just how life is when you're at my stage. Two high schoolers and a middle schooler, a great church with lots going on, family nearby, not to mention a dissertation that I've been working on for many hours. That's where I've been spending my time. I have gone hunting only once this fall! There has been very little time for personal reflection. Not good, really.
There is much good for which to be thankful. A godly wife who I don't deserve, who is excellent in every way. Great kids who all seem to be moving toward Jesus (I pray). A church family that keeps growing spiritually and numerically. Indeed, a lot for which to thank God!
Tomorrow is the beginning of a New Year--on Sunday--when we as a church will begin the much anticipated "Journey." I pray with all my heart that God will move people toward him and toward each other this year. I pray that people will be transformed through his Word, prayer, belonging, serving, giving and going. 2012 is going to be great.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Tree Time!

Wow, Christmas is a busy season! It seems every night between now and Christmas there's something festive going on. We usually get a Christmas tree on Thanksgiving weekend, but this time we couldn't make it happen. So I did the thing that bad (or "cool," depending on your perspective) parents do: got one of our kids out of school and went on a smaller-than-usual version of the annual Sparks Christmas tree adventure! You gotta know, Clark Griswald has nothing on me--just ask Darla (poor thing)! We've had some doozies and have come home with some epic trees!!

For the past several years, we've been going to Green Cove, VA (just past Damascus) to get our tree for $25. I know, I know--I spend more than that in gas! But we get a big, beautiful 9-10 ft. tree that is super fresh (in fact, I cut it down myself)! And, as every true sportsman knows, it's the HUNT, not the kill that matters.

Besides, that place is one gorgeous part of God's creation! We love the Creeper Trail, Grayson Highlands, and the whole area.
So I talked Dara into skipping school Wednesday and we dashed away. Wouldn't you know it--we got there and SNOW! Oh man, we were so excited! We had Relient K's Christmas album was INCREDIBLE!

The tree farm we went to probably wasn't even supposed to be open for business.

I went to the little old house next to the barn there and knocked. A really nice old guy came out and told us to go pick and cut a tree and call him when we were ready to go. There were thousands of flawless trees! The only difficulty was being able to make a judgment with all the snow on them.

We didn't have to go far to find the perfect tree. Good thing, really. The snow on top of the mud made for some treacherous stuff. I had forgotten to bring a saw so I had to borrow one from the man in the house. After we dragged the tree back and knocked on the door to pay, he was kind enough to crank up the old machine and bundle the tree up for us. Pretty cool!

There are lots of Christmas tree farms around there. We went to the one right next to the Whitetop Market. It is a cool little place with lots of old-timey soft drinks (like Nehi Peach and Red Rock Ginger Ale, which Dara and I got, respectively) in glass bottles. They also have a real grill where they serve a big menu of sandwiches and other food. Our family loves going there to look at the stuff and eat.

What a way to start the Christmas season! Dara and I were "baptized" into winter on November 30th!
After getting the tree we drove home and had a decorating party! I love Christmas.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Memories from my first missionary journey

Sunday I told of my first international mission trip. It was to the country of Kenya in Africa.

At the time I was a 21-year-old pre-med major who had just surrendered to God’s calling on my life to serve him professionally in ministry. Problem: I didn’t know how or where! I was stressing myself out and driving my pastor and spiritual mentors crazy with questions! One of them, Alan Duncan, a missionary’s son, advised me to go and see for myself if God wanted me to be a missionary. So I saved and raised some money and went--by myself--to Africa. It was the most significant and life-altering summer of my life.

A few people wanted to know more about my trip so I thought I’d take a short walk down memory lane and dig up a few old pictures. I pulled out the journal I wrote while on my journey. It was the summer of 1988. My football coaches were less-than-enthusiastic about me going; they were afraid I’d get sick or at least not do the summer workouts like I should and report back to fall practice out of shape.

I had been in the air about 24 hours (not counting layovers) by the time I got to Nairobi. Marshall Duncan (Alan’s dad) had traveled monsoon-beaten mud roads to get there to pick me up. We stayed in Nairobi at a missionary conference center for a few days before going to the Duncan’s home in Kericho.

This part of Africa was not the arid, dry place I was expecting. It was green and wet. My first impression of the people was not really positive. We were in a big city. People were staring and some would boldly ask me for money! I learned quickly how to say, “No” forcefully in Swahili so that they would not think I was a na├»ve American tourist (read: “target”). We went west across the Great Rift Valley to Kericho, a small town in tea growing country.

For the following days, Mr. Duncan showed me the real Kenya. The people were for the most part wonderful, genuine, and hard-working. My primary job was to help build churches.

Some didn’t have buildings and met under a tree or in an empty lot. Others were barely planted, having only a new, young pastor.
I spoke a lot. Schools, church groups, people curious about the mzungu (white man) who was digging a foundation for a church building, I would speak to any group of people who would listen.

It was cool that some of the people heard about Jesus for the very first time from me (through a translator)!
I also helped out at the Duncans' place doing chores and tending their garden. They had Indian neighbors who invited us to dinner. Strange but good!
Mr. Duncan liked good food. And eating was always an experience!

Then Mr. Duncan took me to stay for two or three weeks with the Bass family who lived on the east coast. Missionary Dwight Bass really made a lasting impact on me. He was a tireless and positive man with an indomitable spirit. We went everywhere from small villages in thick cashew jungles, to the Muslim inner city of Mombasa.
One thing we did was to teach a few dozen young Christians how to share their faith in Christ with others. Amazingly, those people led over 1000 individuals to Christ by that fall! In meeting Christians in some of the villages I experienced some of the most incredible worship and loving hospitality of my life. People who were much more committed Christians than me would give me the place of honor in their homes and feed me the only chicken they had (which they killed just for me). It was humbling. On the long drives between villages I learned SO much from Dwight about missions. I also had several opportunities to speak and share my faith.

It wasn’t all work. Mrs. Bass took their kids and I to the beach to blow off some steam!
While at the beach my wallet was stolen (along with hundreds of dollars), which was another valuable lesson learned.

One of the most significant moments of my life happened one evening when Dwight and I were standing outside a school full of students singing beautifully in worship while the sun set and the stars were coming out. Dwight became emotional and said, “This...this is what I live for! It doesn’t get any better! In times like these God reminds me that I am doing exactly what he wants!” I shared the emotion and breathed in the moment contemplatively. It was at that instance that God “spoke” to my heart and confirmed my call. He clearly conveyed to me that he wanted me to be a home in the U.S. “Thank you, Lord.” I prayed out loud with gratitude.

After my stay with the Basses, I went back to the Duncan’s home. Mr. Duncan (who wasn’t feeling well) took me to a village called Londiani and introduced me to an African pastor with whom I would be staying for the next several days. I will never forget that town.

We were threatened and cursed by a witchdoctor (who Mr. Duncan demonstrably put in his place just before he left town), I was the center of the biggest “mzungu parade” of my whole stay, I was arrested and taken to jail, I attended a church with topless women, and slept on the dirt floor of a cardboard hut! I ate goat, banana, and root stew, cooked by my host the pastor (who knew almost as much English as I knew Swahili)! Talk about culture shock! I can’t even begin to describe it!

The jail story always gets questions and demands some explanation. After the “mzungu parade” I was the talk of the town. Two policemen came that afternoon to question me. They looked through my bag (I had a tape player, camera, notebook, Bible, clothes, etc.) and acted really suspicious. What I didn’t know is that there had been a recent communist uprising in a neighboring town. The police believed I was a communist organizer! They arrested me and the pastor panicked! He just took off! Feeling abandoned and that things were out of control, they led me across town to the jail through the muddy streets in a torrential downpour. They put me in an 8’x8’ cell that had a hole in the corner (the toilet) and a broken metal chair. The head policeman (who knew a little English) interrogated me. “So, you no like our country?” and “What do you think of our president?” were the kinds of questions he asked. Realizing what was going on, I assured him that I loved Kenya very much, supported their political system, and was enjoying my visit!

While sitting in my cell, I made note of who was in the other cells. An old man who seemed to be drunk, and a young teen who looked like he had been beaten were also behind bars. There was also a young woman there who the policemen ordered around like a slave. I picked up by their actions and words that she must have been a prostitute who was working off her sentence (this was confirmed later when I got the rest of the story). She came and offered me chai (hot tea with milk). I gladly accepted. Using some of the few Swahili words I had learned, I tried my best to share the good news of Jesus with her. I kept saying, “God loves you,” “Jesus is God’s Son.” and “Jesus died for you.” She listened intently, then smiled and tears ran from her eyes down her face.

The police made her leave my presence and I prayed that she understood. While sitting there in the dark (there was one light on in another room) I went from being scared, thinking, “My family will never see me again or know what happened to me!” to thinking of Paul and Silas in Phillipi. I almost started singing around midnight! What dawned on me is that God was totally in control. I can trust him. Later that night a car pulled up to the jail. I heard some people come in the front office and begin speaking sharply to the head policeman. Through the door I could see the other two stand at attention with fearful looks on their faces. A light came on and into the hallway walked Marshall Duncan with a distinguished older African who turned out to be a tribal chief! The pastor, who I thought had abandoned me, had gotten a ride to Kericho and found Mr. Duncan, who had previously led the tribal chief to faith in Jesus! Those poor policemen were wishing they had never arrested me!

Of course there is much, much more that happened. Reading my journal brought back so many memories! I saw (and ate!) many wild animals, and even had some close calls. I slept on the banks of a crocodile-infested river and had hippos walk all around my tent during the night. Look carefully at the below picture and see the hippos at the top right, next to the river.
This picture was actually taken right behind my tent.
While traveling with Jim, a missionary’s son who was about my age, our convertible Land Cruiser broke down (a common occurrence) in the Masai Mara, many miles from the nearest sign of civilization. Our African driver got out to try to fix the problem. He suddenly bounded back in the vehicle shrieking, “Simba, simba, simba!” I knew that word. It means, “lion”! I grabbed my camera and started looking toward the horizon, hoping to get a good picture. The panicked driver pointed down toward the front, left tire (in Kenya, that’s the passenger side of the vehicle). There was a huge female lion concealed in the tall grass, about 15 feet from us!! I snapped a couple of pictures before I felt “that awkward moment when you realize you’re not in a zoo and could become lunch to a wild lion.” I looked around and realized we were in the middle of a pride of lions—six of them were within 35-40 feet of the vehicle! Long story short, we did a lot of sweating and praying. We hadn’t even seen another vehicle for hours. We finally noticed on the horizon a tiny cloud of dust. It grew. I (perhaps unwisely) took off my orange shirt, stood on the top of the Land Cruiser and frantically waved and screamed. Miraculously, they saw us. It was an African wildlife tour guide taking a vacationing American out on safari to photograph animals! They chased off the lions and the two drivers fixed our old Toyota.

Who was the vacationing American in the other vehicle, you ask?
(This is where you are going to think I’m lying...but God knows it is the truth.)
Jeopardy! game show host, Alex Trebec!
He was ticked-off, by the way, acting smug and annoyed at us since we had disturbed his private safari. After we recognized who he was and saw his attitude, I asked Jim, the missionary’s son, “How can we make sure he never forgets us?” We considered several things. Finally, while the drivers worked, I stood up in my seat and yelled (with an unbridled east Tennessee accent), “Hey! I know you! You’re Bob Barker! He’s Bob Barker! Go-lly, imagine that, we come all the way to Africa and see Bob Barker!” Trebec just shook his head in disgust. Jim and I laughed all the way to where we were staying. I’d love if someone would ask him if he remembers us! It makes me want to tryout to become a contestant on Jeopardy! just to ask him!

It seemed every missionary I was around was sick or had the runs or something. Amazingly, I never did. I didn't have the time or opportunity to work out while there, but I did a lot of physical labor, and tried to run at least once a week. Nevertheless, I wasn't in great shape when I got home. Spiritually, however, I returned in the best place so far in my life. My perspective had changed.
God taught me so much that summer! There are so many things that will never leave me. Here are a few:
• God is 100% trustworthy. 100%.
• God is doing amazing things around the world.
• There are good and bad ways to do missions.
I learned first-hand the great challenge of international missions. I saw HOW to DO missions & how NOT to do missions. In our desire to do good, American Christians have made a lot of mistakes, too. Finding indigenous people/leaders/pastors and planting churches are the keys to reaching the nations. I saw examples of great people of God who he used tremendously. I also saw shams and “missions” that did more harm than good.
• Christians are a family no matter their language, color, or nationality.
• Most American Christians are minor-leaguers by comparison to most Christians in the world. But there are some American missionaries who are fearless, humble, spiritual giants.
• Personal: God clearly spoke to my heart that he wanted me to be a pastor in the USA. I think I needed to get away from all the distractions and focus on him. Interestingly, I began dating Darla the fall after I returned. It was like God was preparing me for many things.
I came home many good ways. That’s what happens when we get out of our comfort zone and go on a Journey!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Providence is going on a Journey

I know some of you who read this blog are not a part of Providence. This is a summary of what we presented to the church Sunday. It’s an overview of something we’re doing next year that we’re calling “The Journey 2012.” It’s going to be fun!

For 2012, folks at Providence are invited to take a journey to experience biblical Christianity. Particularly in five ways:

1. Journey through the Bible in a year. You can do this in the following ways:
• As an individual. Have you ever wanted to read the Bible through in the order in which it occurred? You will be able to do this online, on your smartphone or pad, or in your real Bible.

• As a church on Sundays. Every Sunday in 2012, the sermon will cover a theme, story, or selections from the passages we’ve all just read the previous week. Sometimes hard-to-understand parts will be discussed. Obviously, it would be impractical to read and discuss every verse, so we’ll get more of the 20,000-foot view!

• Our small groups will discuss the passages too! Here you will be able to express your thoughts and questions with others who are reading like you.

• Our students and children’s ministries will be following along, bringing out the main themes from the reading on their level. Your whole family is invited to walk through the Bible with our church family! It is an opportunity for you to really get to know the greatest book ever written together.

2. Pray deliberately.
You can’t read the Bible without noticing how people talk with God regularly, yet in our busy, high-tech culture, "the average Christian spends less than two minutes a day in prayer” (Nicole Haye, iNewswire, November 21, 2008). We want to help you know how to pray, what to pray, and help you stay motivated (whether you’re structured or unstructured)!
Hand-made leather “travel journals” are available for you to use devotionally.

3. Journey together in community.
• You are invited to covenant with a small group for a year.

• We invite all of you to serve in your church family for a year.

4. Give to kingdom causes.
Take the time to pray and think about how God wants you to participate this year regarding the following 3 giving categories:
First fruits to the storehouse.

Missions opportunities.

Facility expansion.

Regarding missions, our elders have prayerfully considered exciting local and international missions that need our support. Locally we want to financially support Hope Resource Center, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, and our local church planting efforts. Internationally, we are helping launch a new church planting organization: Global Planting Initiative, and are beginning the process of planting another church in Brazil!

5. Journey on mission for one week of your year. Instead of WorshipServe this year in which hundreds of you have taken part, we’re inviting everyone to be missional for more than just one Sunday. We’re inviting you to give a week. Because everyone is in a different situation, we’re offering opportunities locally, nationally, and internationally. The point is to make a difference and experience helping people in a different culture.

If you want to hear the whole message, click here.

For the next 3 weeks, we’re going to explain more detail and encourage everyone to pray about how they’d like to be a part. The Journey begins in January! I can’t wait!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Weird Halloween...

I must confess a really weird thing about me...I have this little ongoing internal struggle about Halloween. It’s not a big deal. I certainly haven’t said anything about it to many others—definitely not publicly. I really don’t have an axe to grind with Halloween. I don’t think less of anyone who dresses like a zombie, witch, ghost, or Freddy Kruger. It’s just this little internal struggle. Perhaps it is because of all the trouble I got into as a teenager on October 31. Perhaps it is the fact that it’s the only holiday (“holy-day”) that has no national or Christian significance (there is debate on this: some say it has some Christian meaning and is harmless, some say it possibly even glorifies some anti-Christian ideas??). I’m really not sure what it is.

What I do know is that my kids think I’m weird. And some of the few others that know my struggle think I’m weird.

Add to this my weird affection for history. October 31 just happens to be the day that Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 99 objections to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church to the big front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. He did this intentionally on “All Hallows Eve” (i.e. the day before All Saints Day, which is celebrated by Roman Catholics on November 1). Since Constantine became a Christian in 512 AD, it’s the biggest event in Christian history—perhaps even the history of the world! So (this is sooo weird), I try to get my family together to watch my favorite movie, Luther (2003), which tells the story!

This year, there’s another opportunity on Monday, October 31. No, not a Christian substitute “Trunk-or-Treat,” “Judgment House,” or “Fall Festival.” At noon that day, a group of Christians from Protestant churches all over Knoxville are meeting to silently pray for awakening. The Protestant Reformation was a long-needed awakening of true Christianity and millions were saved as God’s word was unleashed in Europe, effectively ending the dark ages of the medieval period. We need another awakening. You can come and pray, too! This time it will be at Cedar Springs Presbyterian’s old sanctuary (they call it their chapel). What a weird way to spend lunch on Halloween Day!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

My Old Body

We all grow old. Someone once joked, “I like growing old better than the alternative!” I’m not so sure. I’m just 44 but I’m running out of expendable organs! I lost my appendix a few years ago, now I might be losing my gallbladder.

Tuesday night I awakened with strong stomach pain and hugged the bowl from 1:30-4:30am. I just figured it was something I ate that wasn’t sitting right (we ate at a Mexican place for staff lunch that day). I had no fever and felt otherwise fine so I didn’t think it was a virus. My stomach continued to bother me—so much so that I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I tried to eat something for lunch. Big mistake! I became violently sick from 3:00 to 6:00pm with extreme stomach pain. I didn’t eat anything after that for the rest of the day because I was feeling so queasy. Thursday morning I felt a little better. I ate a little cereal and felt shaky again but was ok. I didn’t eat anything the rest of the day and had a great night’s sleep. Friday I woke up feeling great, I drank some milk and was fine. Then I totally did something stupid. Thinking my “sickness” was over I had two pieces of pizza. One hour later I was experiencing MAJOR pain in the top center of my stomach. It went on for hours. By 5:00pm, I was hurting so bad Darla called the doctor. They said to go to the ER. On the way, I was near passing out from pain. After hooking up the I.V. and getting some pain meds, they did some tests, including ultrasound, finding polyps in my gallbladder. I went home and the pain meds wore off—it’s been hurting a little since. I get more tests on Monday, and may have to have it removed. Since then I’ve been walking softly, drinking only water and eating hardly anything (and nothing fatty).

It’s been a rough ride since turning 40! In addition to appendicitis, I’ve had back surgery, and had to wear glasses for the first time in my life! It’s really kind of funny, and I’m thankful that it hasn’t been worse (as others have unfortunately experienced!). But it’s another reminder of the frailty and finite nature of our earthly bodies. It reminds me not to love this world. It makes me look forward to heaven! It makes me thankful for Darla (who's been really great).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Worldview: Pat Robertson and Alzheimer's

I rarely get red-faced with anger. But when a staff member reported that Pat Robertson (TBN founder and 700 Club host) effectively affirmed a guy cheating on his wife with Alzheimer's disease, I could feel the heat building in my cheeks. I watched the whole interview myself. It is simply unbelievable. I was still seething Sunday when I mentioned it, but feel the need to blog about it since it’s been a week and there’s been no retraction, and because of the errors his words propagate. Perhaps now Robertson, who is well known for making imprudent statements, will finally be sidelined as "unreasonable" and discredited. What an embarrassment to Christ and his followers!

You can read a blog that puts Robertson's words (original video included) in perspective by Randy Alcorn here. It is a must-read. In it are quotes from McQuilkin and Joni Eareckson Tada that show the TRUE Christian response to those afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

Pat Robertson is a Charismatic, borderline health/wealth/prosperity doctrine leader, who is often quoted by the mainstream media as a spokesman for Christians and evangelicals. Among charismatics, he has a cult following. Quite frankly, I'm ready for him to retire into obscurity. I first became familiar with Robertson during his presidential campaign in 1988. It was the first election in which I was old enough to vote and Robertson was vying for support as the “Christian” candidate. Even at age 18, I sensed that although he was attractive in some ways on the surface, there were some things about him that caused uneasiness. That’s the deceptive thing about these guys; they deliver a mixture of truth and lies. I remember watching the 700 Club where he frequently made weird claims that God was speaking directly to him. He would claim to know of viewers “out there” who were suffering from different specific diseases and conditions, and he would proclaim healing for them in very specific ways. Since then he has made several specific predictions publically (that he claimed were from God) that have not come to pass. Have you ever read what the Old Testament says about “prophets” like Robertson?

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.' And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?'—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deut. 18:20-22).

While I do not recommend capital punishment(!), I do encourage great caution to anyone who hears him. In the New Testament, Peter writes:
...There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies...And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1, 3).

Peter says their motivation is greed. Robertson has apparently fared well in peddling his mixture of truth and falsehood. He is reportedly worth between $200 million and $1 billion and has set his son up as the heir of his media empire (which smacks of nepotism).

While gleefully impugned by liberals in the media with regularity, Robertson’s comments on leaving a spouse with Alzheimer’s have found him some new defenders among them. William Saletan wrote that Robertson is thinking “how a liberal thinks. He faces the reality of human experience in all its contours and contradictions. And he's willing to let that experience complicate his principles.” Hmmm. Problem is, they’re not Pat’s principles. They’re Christ’s. And they’re not complicated. Jesus:
“A man...fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. [Two religious leaders] passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan...saw him, he had compassion. He...bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise" (Luke 10:30-37).

Plenty of Christian leaders have denounced Robertson’s words. But I've not read any discussion about the doctrinal implications of his view of marriage. What does it indicate about his worldview? I’ll try to be brief...

It is hedonistic: Robertson’s advice indicates that his most important guiding principle of life is that self is happy. This is essentially a form of hedonism. Whenever self is not happy, lesser things are expendable and are subject to change—or even discarded—in order to serve the greater. Things like the person with whom you once fell in love, with whom you shared life and bore children. Things like a vow before God that promised “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” With hedonism, love of self is the supreme ethical factor, not love of God or love of others. Think of a world where this belief is practiced wholesale. There would be no soldiers or firefighters to put their lives in danger for the sake of others—to do so would be considered foolish rather than heroic. And think of how much the crime rate would skyrocket. After all, if the ultimate judge of good is what is pleasurable for me, anything anyone else has is fair game. It is better for me to have it, by any means. Conversely, it would be sinful to do anything to take from me that which brings me pleasure. It would be a violation of my rights! It sounds very much like the opposite of the great commandment of Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is idolatrous: A person’s situation (or the interpretation of one’s situation) trumps God’s commandments. Fear of God is subservient to love of self. God has been effectively usurped and replaced by a new, false god: self. This, of course is THE original sin—which resulted in the fall of Lucifer as well as the fall of humankind and gave us the curse. Pride—love of self—is the singular target of the Ten Commandments: No gods before God. No idols. No misuse of God’s name. Remember Sabbath. Honor parents. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. Bottom line: when we dethrone God and replace him with self, we commit idolatry. Pat Robertson’s advice is especially treacherous because he proclaims the spouse as “gone” and having died “a kind of death” before God has taken her life, because she could not recognize her husband. Think of the implications for abortion, euthanasia, treatment of the handicapped and elderly, and a host of other ethical issues! We subvert God’s order and supplant God’s decree with our own selfish agenda.

It disregards God’s purpose: The man whose wife has Alzheimer’s was said to have “gotten bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition.” Instead of understanding suffering as an existential reminder of our fallen world causing him to desire God and heaven, this man evidently understands suffering as evidence of God’s injustice causing him to commit further injustice (cheating on his infirmed wife). That’s tragic enough. But more tragic is Robertson’s confirmation of this distorted view. Robertson’s replies, “I hate Alzheimer’s,” and “I can’t fault him for wanting some kind of companionship, and if he says ‘she is gone’ he’s right” seem natural enough and perhaps even compassionate. But is that the best reply for a Christian leader? Is God unjust? Or is there something (some things) he wants to reveal in trial and suffering?

I am thankful that God didn’t say “they’re gone, they’re gone, they are gone!” regarding our hopelessly diseased, rebellious, and sinful state. I’m glad he didn’t simply “divorce” us in order to find companionship elsewhere. He would have been completely justified to do just that, for unlike the Alzheimer’s victim, we are responsible for our spiritual handicap. No, instead “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And...he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death...on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). This supreme act of selflessness resulted in our salvation. Think of the difficulty! The Transcendent God did not cling to this glorified state. Instead, Holy Christ lowered himself, put on fragile flesh, and moved into our sinful world. God stooped to share in our helpless, pitiful, diseased existence—simply in order to save us.

Is it possible that “sharing in Christ’s suffering” may include lowering ourselves to serve the helpless ones we love? I think it does. We can learn much. We can teach much to others about God. We can understand and long for our salvation and ultimate freedom from our “body of sin.” And we will be rewarded by God. On the other hand, if we do not show compassion to those who need us in the time of their greatest destitution, what does it say of us? What does it say of our own experience of God’s grace? Is it possible that we have not understood our helplessness and his great mercy? Because if we have, we would gladly give mercy to others—particularly those with whom we have covenanted our lives to become one flesh.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:1-11)

Contrast that with Matthew 7:15-23
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Your fruit is not good, Pat. I pray that you will change or that you would please retire and get out of the spotlight.

The persecuted early Christians were impugned by the Romans because we cared about the “least of these” to the extent of giving proper burial to the dead among the pagans because all individuals were made in the image of God, and raising little Roman girls who, not wanted by their fathers, were left in the streets. Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate lamented:
[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.

God, grant that we regain this reputation today!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

An Amazing Time.

From my high school days I dreamed of going to the Rockies on an outdoor adventure. When Drew was seven years old, I shared this dream with him after reading a book about the western wilderness. He said, "Maybe we can go together sometime, Daddy." We decided that night that we would when he was old enough (if he still wanted to). Drew LOVES hiking, backpacking, and experiencing the wilderness. It has always been his thing. And it is something we both love.

I am profoundly grateful that our church has from the start determined to give full-time staff a sabbatical after every seven years. Pastors in particular tend to get buried in their work and sometimes burn out; or perhaps worse, burn out their families. I could give numerous examples. This policy helps us keeps family first and rekindle the burning passion for Christ--both necessary if we are to lead people spiritually. It is because of this intentional policy that I was able to fulfill my and Drew's dream, and spend some invaluable time together before Drew goes to college in a couple of years (I dread the thought!).

Many months ago, I blocked out July for the trip. I didn't know where the money would come from, but I knew God would provide. He answered my prayers. I was able to save a few hundred dollars over the last year, and without ever mentioning the need to anyone, a couple of wonderful people from our church gave me gifts that made it possible to go. I am so grateful.

We flew out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming on July 4th for 23 days. There is no way to tell every detail. We backpacked and camped in the Tetons, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Yellowstone, the Winds (a desolate high mountain range south east of the Tetons), the canyon land of Utah, the Colorado Rockies, and other places. We saw 7 states (not from Rock City): Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and (barely) New Mexico and Arizona. It seems most spots had their particular plague: cold & snow, mosquitoes (often), gnats, no-see-ums, horseflies, heat, bears, or something else! But believe me, the beauty and exhilaration of each place far outweighed these tolerable negatives. I'm sure you Providence folks will hear stories in the future from the wild and wonderful adventure Drew and I had together.

The one thing I will say at this point is this: I would not trade anything for the time spent with Drew. I love my son. Yes, we had some good deep conversations--sometimes about very spiritual things. Yes, we had to depend on each other. But perhaps best of all we were TOGETHER; laughing, hurting, stinking, and experiencing amazement. I (intentionally) did very little reproving. We are completely different in many regards, but we are also very much alike--a fact that I focused on. We both like to eat well. We both like to read. We both like to observe the plant and animal life around us. We both like tech stuff (computer and cell phone related in particular), we both like the same styles of music, we both like to talk about politics. We both like our sweet tea.

One of my daughters was going through a rough-spot a while back. A Christian friend Darla and I respect gave some advice. "Enjoy her. Let her know you delight in her." I took the advice and it made all the difference. As parents we can easily become negative. In this I am guilty. Drew is our oldest, and the fact that he's a son makes him even more the victim of my high expectations. Of course, I have his best interests at heart and only want him to experience the benefits of wisdom. When he resists wisdom, I can become negative. Sometimes negative communication can be inferred as, "You're a failure." ESPECIALLY if a kid does not have the confidence of knowing his parent delights in him or her. My brother-in-law wisely said it this way: "Reproof without relationship equals rejection and rebellion."

Relationship is the key. There is no substitute for time spent doing what your child loves to do--encouraging them and delighting in them and with them. I challenge you parents to MAKE THIS HAPPEN. Consider this a great task you must accomplish. It is not complicated. It is invaluable.

Here are a few pics of our trip.

Hidden Falls in the Tetons:

Cascade Canyon:

Fixing lunch after a cloudburst next to Cascade Creek.

Hiking on snow in July:

A hill of flowers with quite a view:

The beginning of our hike around this lake (Green Lake) to the top of one of the mountains in the back.

This is Slide Lake which is a several-mile hike into the Winds range. Incredible!

(Above) Climbing the talus (rock slide) above slide lake on our way to 12,000+ ft. Flat Top Mountain. There's no trail here! We call this "the Epic Hike."

(Below) We are probably 80% of the way to the top where we rested and ate.

Canyon country near Moab, UT.

Gemini Arches. Look closely to see that we are hundreds of feet from the floor! There was a monument there of a guy who died here driving his Jeep. I can see how.

This is a great campsite Drew picked on a mountain across the "hole" from the Tetons. Perfect (except for the horseflies and mosquitoes)!

Red Mountain in Colorado, above the famous "Yankee Girl" silver mine. We camped on the mine site.

Different from Red Mountain is "Red Hills" in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Our last night was spent near here.

Buffalo. Umm...I mean, "Bison."

Evidently I've reached the max of photos I can publish on this post. There are literally hundreds more!