Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Crazy May

We're very proud of Drew. He's now doing
web-based marketing at Weigels.
Wow! It's the end of another crazy May. I've long noticed (for the last 25 years or so) that May is just a hectic month. There are several birthdays in our family (including Darla's, Drew's and my sister's), our anniversary (this year marked 27 years), Mothers Day, the end of the school year (made more crazy due to Drew's and Dara's graduations from college and high school, respectively), and the beginning of consistently warm weather. That brings on gardening and yard work, not to mention outdoor activities of other sorts. In addition to these things, Drew bought and moved into his first house, Duncan got engaged to be married and moved out of her college house, and Dara determined where she would go to college, bought a car and sold her truck.
Yes, Truck Norris now has a new owner. I'm kind of sad to see him go. We had pretty recently replaced the engine with a brand new AMC 304 v-8 and everything was finally running right! Wow the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into that truck! But the new owner seems very excited and will no doubt continue to give it great care.

My Wag, after body repairs, before paint.

Not my Wag. This is the kind of old school stripe I'm getting!
My Wagoneer has been another iron I've had in the fire. Since February it's been in the shop getting fixed and painted. By fixed I mean all the damage from my wreck has been repaired, plus any rust on the truck has been repaired with new metal. Now it's really getting close to being ready for paint. I'm painting it the same color it had, which is a tiny bit brighter than the original "black cherry" (dark maroon) it came with from the factory. The previous owner had given it a respray that was a beautiful improvement on the already great color (it is a little more pearly-metallic than the original) but the paint job itself was not the best. It had places of overspray and some runs, and the wood grain decal and trim had not been replaced, and it was cracking and fading. Most people never saw these flaws, but I did and it was quickly getting worse. The biggest issue was the rust that was starting to bubble and show at the bottom of the quarter panels (a typical Wagoneer issue). I'm going to do something different regarding the wood siding. I found the chrome trim for an early 1970s Wagoneer that highlights the distinctive lines that were covered in the the 1980s by all that wood grain vinyl. I am going to just do wood grain on the 4-6 inch stripe that runs the length of the Wagoneer just below the door handles inside my new chrome trim. It's been a hassle to resolve all the problems, but I can't wait to see how it turns out. It will be a unique Wagoneer!

Here's Joe, tearing down an old 360 I bought to rebuild.
After having it machined (bored .030 over), ported, and
installing a new intake, pistons, four-barrel carb, etc.,
it should be a stud. I hope it lasts as long as the old one!
What's more, I'm getting a new engine built for the Wagoneer. The original one that's currently in it has about 250,000 miles. That's a lot for a carbureted AMC 360, even though they were great engines when designed in the late 1960s. A friend introduced me to an engine builder who I really like. He's a Mopar guy (for you non-motorheads, that means he likes Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths, particularly the Hemi muscle car varieties), but he agreed to help me build an AMC 360 for the Wag that has 300 hp, and 400 lb. ft. of torque. That's not crazy power, but it is definitely much more than the Wagoneer has ever had (144 net hp, and 280 lb. ft. when new). That should allow the Wagoneer to pull Daisy our camper up any mountain that has a road. I can't wait! This was all made possible because of the hit-and-run that happened to me last August. I was hoping the Wag would be finished by our usual Father's Day camping trip, but I don't think it's going to happen. But that's ok. I really just want all these jobs done right.

I'm sure I'll write a post on all this Wagoneer stuff once everything's done (will it ever be done?).

Hopefully, things will begin to settle down a little. Right now I'm speaking at a marriage conference in LA (Lower Alabama) for Coaches Outreach.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ruminating About Running

It’s a beautiful day, and it started off well. After having a quiet time, I went to run at the Victor Ashe and Northwest Greenways. Pretty nice little trail—especially the part that goes along Third Creek—and surprisingly few people using it. I probably only ran three miles today. I’m still not going very fast and I am struggling (especially up hills) but I’m finally noticing some improvement. I’ve been running consistently again for four weeks, since the week after my dad died, about three days a week. I look forward to when I can run five or six miles at a decent pace. I haven’t run at all since last fall—and didn’t do it consistently then. I decided to get serious about this for a number of reasons:

1. I’ve lost 30-35 pounds and have kept it off for two years but have plateaued (weight loss-wise) at 172-175 pounds. I still have a flabby belly and need to get in shape. This was the plan: first lose weight and keep it off, then get in shape. I tried several times to get in a habit of running again when I weighed 200+ lbs. and it hurt my knees and back. I totally get it! It was like having a 35-pound backpack strapped on! Crazy!

2. Someone recently said I looked “frail.” I guess it’s better than “fat” or “fiendish” or “frightful” but I don’t like the idea of being frail. Truth is, I’ve resisted the temptation to lift weights (something I enjoy doing much more than running!) because I tend to get thick and don’t want to look that way (or have to buy new clothes). Opposite of frail, I fear working out can make me look like I am vain or take pride in my muscularity (maybe not at my age! I could be just telling myself that!). Admittedly, I’m kinda suspicious of 50-year-old men with noticeable muscles (especially when they have a great tan and gold nugget jewelry). I think I would rather give off the impression of humility. I’m not naturally skinny. I’m naturally stocky. It’s amazing how quickly my body wants to return to default setting! I have to fight it all the time.

3. My dad was disciplined physically and always encouraged me to be. He ran, as long as he was able, his whole adult life. I’ve thought about this a lot since his decline and death. I always respected him for this discipline, and probably because of it he lived longer than any males in his ancestry that we know about, despite having cancer!! His father and grandfather both died in their fifties.

4. I’m fifty! Besides my Sparks heritage, I’m not getting any younger and it’s not going to get any easier to get in shape!

5. My stage in life has finally allowed for more flexible time to do so. I only have one kid who is still at home (and she’s leaving for college in June) who is driving, busy, and quite independent. Thankfully, the church is in a place staff-wise that does not require me to spend as much time as I have in the past doing more than I should. Yes, it's still very busy, but my schedule is more controllable (versus being more in control of me!). Thank you, Lord. Truth is, time (or lack of it) is usually the primary factor determining whether or not I am working out.

Back-in-the-day flashback. Had to work
to GAIN weight back then. Not now.
6. The weather is great this time of year. I wanted  to get started running months ago but the weather was a discouraging factor. I know, call me a wimp. I’m just practical. I know that I need the right conditions to get started if I’m going to stick with it. Hopefully, the worst part is now in the rear view mirror. God, help me to stay with it. I’d love to find a chin-up bar and place where I can do some push-ups and sit-ups and I’d love to play something like tennis or basketball or racquetball regularly where I can get some supplemental vigorous and fun exercise. But those might be hard on the old man joints and back. I still wake up most mornings with a stiff and mildly painful back (11 years after surgery). And I don’t want to get an injury and have to have more surgery. And I really don’t want to do the very popular HIT (high intensity training) or CrossFit as a few of my friends are doing. For one thing I hate being sore! I was sore for over a decade of playing football and other athletics when I worked out hard. And I really don't have the time and don’t want to be looking like a fitness nut or a weight lifter (not that I could or that there’s anything wrong with any of that, just not the goal)!

Here’s my real motivation: I just want to be reasonably healthy and do everything possible as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9, “to become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (verses 22-23). Paul says we should “run” in such a way as to win the prize. And just as athletes exercise self-control, I should “discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally, “pummel my body” (v. 27). The prize we desire is not like those trophies or benefits that perish, but is a much greater “imperishable” one (v. 25). Whatever that is, that’s what I want. He said that he did not want to be “disqualified” “after preaching to others.” I’ve thought long and hard about what that means. I don’t think it means we would be disqualified for heaven. I think it means that there are “preachers” out there (not just professional preaching pastors, but Christians who are proclaimers of the Gospel) who are considered “disqualified” both in the minds of those who hear their words (even if they preach the truth of God) and perhaps in the view of God himself if they did not practice what they preached or believed. Among other things, we preach that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. His temple should reflect our respect for him. We preach that our highest goal is to bring glory to God. Just as our homes should not be sloppy and an embarrassment since it is a reflection on our God, neither should our bodies be. They reflect our diligence and care. We preach that God wants us to live circumspect lives and to do all things “as unto God and not men.” So we do not seek physical fitness or anything else “aimlessly…as one beating the air” (v. 26) but as one who has a purpose. That purpose is to glorify God. Paul said to his disciple and young pastor, Timothy, “bodily training is of some value…” but he is quick to remind him what is much more important: “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1Timothy 4:8).

I’ve been around athletes, health nuts, and people who want to look athletic all my life. For much of my life I’ve pursued physical fitness and athletic excellence. Here’s one of those places where a proper balance of moderation and self-discipline should triumph. Like other good things, a lack of wisdom and proportion can make good the enemy of best. I’m speaking of my own situation not others’, so please don’t misunderstand. I know there are all kinds of variables regarding physical fitness for everyone, and we’re all different. I just know my sinful heart. If I’m not struggling with laziness, I’m struggling with the temptation to compete and be obsessed over the next athletic goal. Been there. Not going back. Lord help me.

God, I just want to make the most of the days you’ve given me on this earth. I just want to be able to communicate your truth without being a distraction or detriment in any way. I want you to be seen and known and loved and obeyed. I want to be completely yielded to you so that I can be used by you. Help me to know where physical training fits in to all this. I love you.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Eventful" Is An Understatement

I'm a pretty sorry blogger. But if I've ever had an excuse for not writing new posts, 'tis now. In the last few weeks my father quickly declined and passed away, my daughter's boyfriend asked our permission to propose to her and they were engaged, and I turned 50! I've also been writing in hopes of one day publishing a book about my father. All of this is in addition to pastoring and teaching at Providence Church!
I'm not seeking sympathy. In fact, I'm a little concerned that I'm feeling as upbeat as I do!
Big sister Duncan on the left in 2004 at age 8. Big
time daddy's girl. Now she's getting married.

I have always dreaded the day my little girl would be engaged to be married. I'm the guy that has always had to turn off the radio when any of the many songs like "Butterfly Kisses" comes on. I just can't hardly bear to think of it. But God is so gracious. My daughter, Duncan, couldn't have found a better guy. Ben Davenport is the one for whom I've been praying for over 21 years, since when we found out that Darla was pregnant with a little girl. Ben is humble and loves Jesus more than anything else. His character is strong. He loves and esteems Duncan and treats her with the utmost of respect and gentleness. He's a hard worker and is honest to a fault (if that's possible). When I say "Duncan couldn't have found a better guy," I truly mean, God found Ben for her. She has always had extremely high standards for guys, hardly dating at all in high school, and has taken some ribbing from friends for that reason. Ben is why girls are wise to be picky. When I say he's "the one for whom I've been praying," I mean he's not just that future husband "somewhere out there" who I prayed for, but he's the kind of man for whom I've been praying for my daughter.
Duncan and I at the beach.
I pray (and did again even now) for the woman who God has for Drew, and the man God has for Dara. Far more important than getting our kids through college and on their way to a healthy and financially stable and happy life, is that they marry godly people. This is, from a worldly perspective, the single most important factor that determines all the rest. I believe God is in control of this and that they, by yielding their lives to him–trusting him with all their hearts, he will "direct [their] path." And it is true for anyone.
So I am joyful in my heart about Duncan's engagement.

Coach Ken Sparks with his
game face circa 1988.
I was playing at CN during this time.
My father's decline and death was a seismic event in my life. He has been without a doubt the most influential person in the world to me. Even in his last month, I watched him continue to grow closer to Christ. He read a book about heaven. He wanted to talk with me about dying well. He wanted to work on a book about how the Gospel had changed him and others through him. He told me of how he understood the sovereignty of God more than he ever had and talked about God's perfect purpose and will. And he wanted to go to be with Jesus. The last three or four days of his life were brutal. He was so weak. He couldn't even turn on his side or sit up by himself. He was trapped in a body. But despite his pain and helplessness, he still exhibited the fruit of the Spirit. My phone was accidentally silenced when Carol (my stepmother) called me to tell me he had passed away. She tried several times early that Tuesday morning. She finally called Darla who told me. Upon hearing, I was immediately thankful and relieved. A couple of days beforehand, I had begun praying that God would take him because he was suffering and wanted to be with Christ so desperately. God answered.
My dad, sister, and I in August 1971. That's
our red 1968 Volkswagen dad bought new
that later became my first car.
The funeral was all good. After the private burial with family and his coaches and their families, we had the longest receiving of friends I've ever seen! An exhausting four-and-a-half hours. My feet were killing me! Dad had asked me to do the funeral. You can see it here. Other than a very brief battle with emotion in the first few minutes of the sermon, I never struggled or cried. Still haven't! I have felt a little guilty about this. "Why have I not broken down and shed tears about my dad's passing?" I have asked myself. Well, because I've had almost five years to say goodbye. And because I know how ready he was to see Christ. As long as I can remember, he has been talking about that day when he would "shed his earth suit." Well, that earth suit was ready to be shed, let me tell you.
The last thing I said to my dad was, "I love you." And the last thing he said to me was, "I love you too." I am profoundly grateful God let me be his son. I want to live up to his example.

Turning 50 is no big deal. It's kinda fun to joke about. I got my AARP card. Funny, I got one when I turned 20 for some reason, so I guess Darla's right that I've been kind of like a senior adult for 30 years now! Truth is, I feel great, I lost 35 pounds about two years ago and have kept it off, and I've been running since my dad's death. Someone said I looked frail. Frail?! Perhaps flabby or funny or fifty, but frail?! That's a first, and it kinda hurt a little. I haven't run in several months, so I decided it was time. Sadly, I didn't even own a pair of shorts I could run in! All I had were either too big or the elastic was worn out. My shoes are so out of style. My over-sized sweats hang off my body like I'm a kid wearing my father's sweat suit (actually it is a sweat suit my dad gave me). Running isn't very fun when you're out of shape. I'm past the soreness stage, now I'm just trying to increase mileage (I can run about two miles right now) and make it worth the effort. When I get to where I can run six miles, I might be able to eat about anything I want (that seriously motivates me)!
I remember not too long ago when 50 seemed so over-the-hill! I came to Providence as a 29-year-old and our oldest member was 50!! Wow. It doesn't feel that old to me. I just embrace it. I'm happy. I just pray that God will perhaps help me overcome some of my long-time hangups and struggles and favorite sins. I want to be more like him. I want to be useful to him. I'm not really wanting to live too long, however. My grandmother turned 100 in February, and I really don't think I want to live that long. And having watched my dad decline, I'd rather not die slowly from cancer. I think I'd like to go quickly, perhaps on my knees shouting "Jesus is Lord" as an Isis swordsman beheads me. That would be better. Until then, I just want to be faithful and consistent and ever-growing closer to Jesus.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cookin' a Pig

It’s a whole hog barbecue and it’s called many different things across the USA: In some places it’s a hog roast, a pig pull, or a pig roast. The Cajuns call it “cochon de lait.” It’s called a pig pickin’ in the Carolinas and other parts of the deep South. It’s an echon asado in Puerto Rico where it’s the “national dish.” It’s famously practiced in Hawaii luaus where the “Kālua pig” is buried in the sand with hot coals, protected in banana tree leaves. Pretty much everywhere it’s done with a big group of people as a celebration. And although there are many ways to do it and lots of different styles of sauces and trimmings, it’s almost always good.

In Jefferson County, TN, where I grew up and learned the art, it is simply called, “cookin’ a pig.” We used to serve it over cornbread hoecakes, and eat it with a smoky and sweet tomato-based sauce (that’s got a little spicy kick). Usually slaw, baked beans, and corn-on-the-cob are served as sides. Some want buns to make a sandwich. My mouth is watering even now. It is simply one of the best ways families and groups can celebrate together or just enjoy each other’s fellowship.

From time-to-time, someone will ask me about whether Christians should be enjoying pork so much—let alone celebrating something church-related—when the Old Testament law forbids its consumption. I think a case can be made that it is the perfect food for a Christian celebration! We are not under the law but under grace. The people of God are no longer a closed group of Jews and Jewish proselytes (the circumcision). All that changed with Christ. He came to fulfill the law. All the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament pointed forward to him. Now the Good News is for “all nations” as he commissioned us. What’s more, remember Peter’s vision of a sheet let down from heaven with unclean animals that God told him to eat (Acts 10)? I’m pretty certain there was a pig in there! His vision symbolized that God had included the “unclean” gentiles in his plan and saves all those who believe. Why should we not keep this symbolism? When we eat pork, we are celebrating the fact that God has included us! Just as the pig was once considered unclean (like me), and even though the pig was previously a filthy, slop-eater; he can be an aromatic and delicious blessing to many through his own sacrifice!

Cooking the pig is not hard, but there are several ways things can go wrong. You must take care that the fat that runs off the pig does not catch on fire. That’s the worst thing that can happen. A burning pig will amaze all who witness it. It will destroy anything around it. Don’t let it happen. This means building a pit on a slight grade so that the fat will drain away, and not putting coals that are still flaming underneath. Keep a shovel and 5-gallon bucket of water or hose near the pit in case a flame gets going. The main reason someone must be responsible to be with the pig at all times is this. Also don’t cook the pig too fast. This is always the temptation. It warms up slowly. It cooks slowly. Don’t rush things. No matter how many times I say it, people always do.

Don’t run out of wood or let the feeder coal fire go out. That’s not good. It can allow the pig to drop in temperature. If you are about to run out of firewood, go to Wal-Mart and get a bunch of charcoal. The natural lump kind (rather than briquettes) is best, but either will work.

I think one of my favorite parts is the fellowship that is engendered, not just when eating the pig, but while cooking it. The way I cook a pig takes about 24 hours, and there’s not a whole lot of work to do, but it requires someone to be present the whole time. This means there’s a lot of sitting and talking that happens. It’s a great—perhaps even perfect—environment for men to get to know each other. We have a task, it takes some skill, and the whole time we’re enveloped in aromatic, smoky goodness. It’s also done under the stars and sky in an outdoor setting. I don’t know of another thing that brings guys together and opens them up like cooking a pig.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Order a pig. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find pigs. I used to know several slaughter houses that would sell a whole hog to the public. Lately I’ve had to get them through Food City’s butcher who could get one for me. When ordering a pig, the slaughter-house (or meat processor, or grocery meat department or whoever you can find to provide it) should clean and scald the pig. A “scalded” pig still has it’s skin and is much better for several reasons, most of all so that it will not dry out as much while cooking. It also makes the pig easier to handle and makes the grease easier to manage. I like to have them leave the head on, along with all feet and the tail (it’s kinda fun, especially with the reactions you get from city-slickers). Good cooking pigs should weigh between 60 and150 pounds dressed. The bigger ones are harder to handle and cook. The amount of meat per person depends on the group. One pound of dressed pig per person is a good rule-of-thumb (a 100 lbs. pig feeds 100 people).

2. Rather than digging a pit, I prefer to build a temporary pit of concrete blocks two blocks high, five blocks long, and three blocks wide (32 blocks for one pig) on slightly sloping ground which helps the grease drain away. I’ve also built a pit out of bricks or rocks, so anything will work that are about the same size.

3. Make sure the floor under the grill is suitable to prevent fires from happening. To go all out, line the ground in the bottom of the pit with heavy duty foil (not regular thin foil), then place a few bricks on the foil, then lay a coarse screen (fine steel grate) on the bricks. Place the coals on the screen. This makes it very easy to control fires. I do not always use foil or a raised grate to put the coals on if I have a gravel spot on which to build the pit, which allows laying the coals on the ground in very small piles under each ham and shoulder, and sometimes the middle of the pig. The gravel disburses the fat well enough to control fires. Important: keep a shovel or water hose or bucket nearby to put out grease fires while they’re small.

4. Find a steel grate that can be laid on top of the blocks and is strong enough for a man to stand on. I like a 4’ x 8’ sheet of expanded steel grate. of Before cooking, spray the top of the grate with cooking oil. This will help with flipping the pig.

5. When the pig arrives, start a fire with dry, seasoned hickory wood. The purpose of this fire is to prepare hot coals to place under the pig to cook it. You must keep this fire going for 24 hours, which will take about a half cord of wood. If you don’t have hickory, any hardwood (except locust, sweet gum, sycamore, or poplar) will do, especially apple (or another fruit), pecan, walnut, or oak. Do not use evergreen or soft wood. And definitely do not use treated lumber. Not only will you ruin the taste, you could get sick.

6. Final pig prep: even a slaughtered and processed pig might need some additional preparation:

• Rip-out the kidneys and any veins, etc. that the pig will no longer need.

• Take a sharp single-bladed axe or hatchet and hammer to split the inside of the backbone so the pig will lay flat on the grate (this is called “butterfly” style). Open the pig up so he will lay-out like a flying squirrel. Do not cut or make any holes in the skin. It will cause problems later on.

• Open the mouth and insert an apple. It will take a real man to open it. It’s important because the pig will bite the apple when he is done (not really, but it’s fun to tell people that).

• Lay the pig belly-down on the grate. Feel free to put a Tennessee hat on it’s head and a Bama hat on it’s tail. It will cook much happier that way.

•The pig will be finished in 24 hours. So if you want to eat the pig at 5pm on a Saturday, pick the pig up (packed in ice, but not frozen!) and deliver it to the cooking site by at least 4pm on Friday. If you have all your supplies together and the pit built, you should be able to get the cooking started by 4:30 or 5:00pm on Friday.

7. Start cooking...SLOW.

• Build a fire to make coals to cook with. If at all possible use dry hickory firewood. Just campfire sized is good. After 30 minutes of burning, some red-hot coals should be available for use.

• Use a shovel to place 2 to 3 golf ball-sized coals (or equivalent in smaller or larger coals) under each ham and each shoulder, and if the pig weighs over 100 lbs., put some right in the middle. Do not put more coals on it than this. The key to cooking pigs is to START SLOW and don't get much faster. Just be persistent. It is a low-temperature, long-duration cooking process. The most common mistake rookies make is to cook too fast and ruin the pig. Be ready, because at this point you will start receiving verbal abuse from others about how the pig won't cook, it will be raw, any fool would know better, bla bla bla. Tell them that they don't have to eat any of it tomorrow, and stand firm.

•After starting the pig, continue cooking him by adding 2 or 3 more hot coals to the same four or five piles of coals underneath the pig about every 30 minutes until the pig is done. This is done by pulling out one of the concrete blocks and then replacing it when you’ve put in more coals. After placing the coals under the pig, always add wood to your coal-making fire. You don’t want to run out of cooking coals.

•You can leave the pig uncovered on the pit for viewing for five or six hours. Then you need to cover it. We cover the pig with one large piece of cardboard that does not touch the pig anywhere except the feet and ears. Sometimes we build brick “towers” around the waist of the pig to prevent touching. Over the cardboard place a tarp that will cover the whole pit. This rig works better than a $15,000.00 cooker. And the tarp will forever smell awesome.

8. The pig is to be turned over only once, about 16 hours from start time. To turn, scoot the pig over to one side on the grate and just flip him all at once (but watch out for breaking a well-cooked leg). After the pig is turned over, grease will drip, or even run at times, so one should not put the coals where the grease drips. (Actually it will begin dripping long before it's turned but the greatest danger of significant grease fires occurs after turning.) To reduce fire risk, you can place the coals more around the edges after turning if necessary. This will not hurt the cooking rate because the cardboard and tarp will be like an oven. I like to keep as much smoke as possible under the tarp with the pig.

9. When the pig is done (according to our previous scenario, around 5pm, and at this time the pig will bite the apple in two), move it (grate and all) to the food line on saw horses. Have two servers (pullers), on either side of the pig to help people get meat. The best thing to do if the pig is cooked properly is for these pullers to put on the rubber gloves (thicker gloves are better because the meat will be hot) and simply pull the meat off and pull it apart. Yes, it will be that tender. Be careful not to break the skin, or the grease will waterproof their boots for them.

10. Enjoy some of the best and most tender BBQ you’ve ever had!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Of Demons

I understand there's been some interest in demon possession recently. It is indeed a really interesting subject, and can be hyped for effect to garner attention, or on the other extreme, demonic activity can be completely ignored! This week's message (in Luke 13:10-17) deals with a woman who is physically bent over, who many believe is demon-possessed. Most scholars do not, for several reasons. Jesus doesn't treat her as he treats other demoniacs. He doesn't speak to or acknowledge any demons (and they don't speak to him) and he touches her (he never touches a demoniac). Probably most importantly to this discussion, the phrase Dr. Luke uses to describe her condition (that is inferred by English speakers as indicating demon-possession) is "disabling spirit" (ESV). But according to scholars, this term is a hebraic idiom used to describe many physical ailments, even a whole category of conditions. An example might be how we English-speakers use the term "handicapped."

But because in the passage Jesus makes reference to Satan having bound this woman for 18 years, it does make us wonder if Satan "binds" people today, or if he can possess or oppress a person. If so, what does that look like? And what can be done to help a person in this predicament?

In short, Satan and his fallen angels are real, and so is demonic activity. I like to categorize a demon's influence on human beings with three words: possession, oppression, and suggestion.

Demon suggestion happens all the time. Satan tempts. He lies. He suggests ideas into our thoughts and does his best to entice us to sin. He seeks to confuse our ability to make decisions. He still does what he did with Eve in the garden. "Did God actually say...?" (Gen. 3:1) he asks us, and then he suggests that God's word can't be trusted. He can discourage and depress. He can cripple us with guilt. He can fool us into thinking that what he is saying is from God. 2 Corinthians 11:14 says, "And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." Under this category are so many ways demons affect both believers and unbelievers. It is important for people to pray and ask God to give us wisdom and insight. 1 John 4:1 says, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." False prophets are those people who claim to hear straight from God. That's a very common way that demons seek to influence others. So we should put all spiritual messages to the test of Scripture.

Demon oppression is even more serious. It happens when one gives in to Satan or a demon, or when one is attacked by the enemy. I have witnessed many cases of people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses (depression, obsessions, phobias, etc.) who, I believed, were oppressed by satanic forces. Satan can even wage war on individuals with sickness, death of loved ones, and other life activities in attempt to destroy a person's will to live. Read Job! Satan relished the opportunity God gave him to destroy Job...or to attempt to destroy him. As far as we know, Job never knew that the source of his troubles was Satan. In response to this kind of vigorous attack, Peter said to "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you" (1Peter 5:6-10).

Possession is when a demon (or demons) actually inhabits a person and controls them either part or all of the time. This is a terrible condition. But it CANNOT happen to a person who has believed in and has received Christ. A believer is already possessed by a spirit: the HOLY Spirit. God himself lives inside. He is the stronger man (Matthew 12:22-32).

I did not have time in the message today to have a side-bar discussion of demons and demon-possession. But earlier in our study of Luke (August 28, 2016) we covered a passage all about Jesus' dealings with an unfortunate man inhabited by many demons. Here is the link to hear the message. I have made these notes available below.

Jesus' Power Over The Demonic
(Luke 8:26-39)

•If you feel like you are a mess—perhaps so much so that you think God has given up on or forgotten you… 
•If you wonder how Satan and demons work. If you fear demonic activity or suspect it at work in your own life… 
•If you’ve wondered if some of the diagnoses of mental health or addiction-related issues might be modern-day labels for possible demonic influences (possession, oppression, suggestion)… 
•If you have ever felt that some people can’t change—that they’re “too far gone”—and have wondered whether the “Jesus answer” is enough…Today is for you. 

C.S. Lewis prefaces his book, The Screwtape Letters, this way: 
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which [the human] race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”  

He could not have been more right. We have these two extremes before us today in abundance. Darla and I went camping, across from us there was a particularly loud and arrogant guy who proudly proclaimed that he was an “avid atheist” and he and his wife began mocking God and church. I’m sure he’d have a good laugh over the idea of a real personal devil and demons. On the other hand, while I have known OF people who claim to worship Satan, I have KNOWN many Christians who were a bit obsessed or overly fearful of all things demonic. Ouija Boards, superstitions, backward masking in rock songs have all caused various reactions from fearful Christians looking for satanic vices. Oh could I tell you stories of kookiness!
...Like when we bought our last house and some well meaning people wanted to come over first and pray in every room and anoint them with oil and cleanse it of possible demonic strongholds. Not kidding. Weird.
...Like when I went to a pastor's prayer summit meeting years ago where a man led us to pray against "spiritual gateways" like where "The Katch" and Goody's corporate headquarters are across I-40 from each other and claimed that the Tennessee River appeared to be a serpent winding through Knoxville. Not kidding.
...Like the crazy reactions Charles Swindoll received when he put a little red devil statue on his desk! 
All and more are nutty, laughable examples of people being concerned about the wrong things.

But Satan is no joke. He is real, he has much power and intelligence, and is the leader of a battalion of fallen angels who hate God, hate all people—image bearers of God—and especially those of us God has redeemed. They have declared war on us. They desire to hurt God and his mission, and the way they wish to do it is to hurt us. They hate you, and hate God. Of course, he uses their schemes to bring about his plans, and the devils know their days are numbered. 

When Jesus came to earth, he entered what demons consider their domain. There is hardly any better example of his power than when he met them. We saw Christ’s power over nature (storm/wind/waves). It was so spectacular, the disciples were afraid and wondered, “Who is this?” Their question is about to be answered.

Luke 8: 26Then (right after the storm Jesus calmed) they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. (This is a scary thing! Listen:) For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.)
Mark 5 adds that “No one had the strength to subdue him.” And that “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.” In addition, Matthew 8:28 says that he was “so fierce that no one could pass that way.” 

I’m sure he had quite a reputation. I bet all the kids talked about him: “Necked, bloody, demon-man is going to get you!” Only, it was real. Not “they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and walks around” (Charlie Daniels—The Legend of the Wooly Swamp).

But as scary as this man was, we should realize he was really pitiful. We should have compassion on him. He’s a mess! We aren’t told, but I wonder what his story was. Maybe he had been exposed to religion/music/superstitions of the pagan culture that was on display around that area, the “Land of the Garasenes" (the land Mark calls, "the Decapolis") the region along the southeast side of the Sea of Galilee and northern Jordan River. It's population was majority Greek and other gentiles, but there was still a large Jewish population, who were hellenized and known to the other Jews as compromisers. Or it could be that he was just a victim! 

Regardless if he somehow invited or allowed the demonic influence or not, we should pity him. 

KNOW THIS: I don’t care how bad you’ve got it or how messed up you are, this guy is worse. AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHY JESUS CROSSED THE SEA TO SEEK HIM OUT. HE MATTERS TO JESUS. Can I remind you what Luke has shown: Jesus cares about the ones everyone else shuns or overlooks. No one else cared about this man. All had given him up for a life of torture. Then he meets Jesus:

 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him.

If you would have been there to hear that, you would have had chills. Everyone knew what a legion was. It’s a group of 5000-6000 Roman soldiers. If there’s any significance to the name, that means there are thousands of devils torturing this man. Now, before you begin to scoff in your mind, check out this article in the Washington Post from last month
Jesus is no mere exorcist or psychiatrist. He’s the all-powerful Son of the Most High God. They know him and fear him greatly. He has absolute authority.

And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 

Because he could have! The demons, who know their time is limited, may have thought (like the Jews of Jesus' day) that the Messiah would come to conquer. He did, he came first to conquer sin on the cross. They didn’t know he would come again as conquering king. These demons who are meeting Jesus face-to-face are trembling in fear that he is coming to banish them to the abyss—where Revelation 20 says Satan will be bound for 1000 years. They’ve been torturing this man for years—they’re right in assuming that God’s justice required that they will be tortured without mercy. They’re afraid and begging.

 32Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

Crazy! And that's exactly what the herdsman thought!

34When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.

So...Why the pigs?
1. They show witnesses that the demons were not imaginary. There are 2000 rotting pig carcasses floating in the sea. "This is no joke. This man was really possessed by demons!"

2. They show that sinful people make better “homes” for demons than amoral animals. Jesus even used “house” as a description for the body of a person who is possessed by a demon. Demons prefer people to animals.

3. Pigs were considered unclean to Jews. I learned of a rabbinic tradition that claimed they were among the most impure beings in creation. (I get it: slop, mud, etc.) Anything below them was considered, “abysmal.”

4. The sea is a symbol of the abyss in Jewish lit. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus' day, called the Septuagint, abyssos almost always translates the Hebrew word, tehom, meaning the “watery depths of the earth” (Psalm 77:16; 78:15; 106:9; Isaiah 51:10; Amos 7:4), and in Psalm 71:20, "the depths of the earth" are spoken of in a manner closely signifying death. Abyssos never translates Sheol, so in the Old Testament it never carries the idea of "the realm of the dead." In Genesis 1:2 the total chaotic earth is called "the deep," over which the Spirit of God hovered. But during the intertestamental period the meaning of abyssos broadened to include the idea of death as well as the realm of demonic spirits. Simply put, in Jesus’ day, the sea is a symbol of the abyss.

5. If these pigs were owned by compromising Jews, this was a judgment of their sin, indeed of the sin of the whole area of the Garasenes. It hurt their economy, but they didn’t protest. They show their response by simply asking Jesus to leave.

6. By committing suicide in the sea, the pigs are making a strong statement to all who would hear of this. Even pigs, as profane as they are, cannot bear to live while filled with these wicked demons. Death—even death without hope of life afterward—is preferable to life under satanic control. They didn’t hesitate in this instinctive response.

7. There’s no bargaining with Jesus at judgment. These demons ended up in the abyss...exactly where they begged Jesus not to send them.

However you interpret it, it’s a vivid picture of the filth of the demons and Jesus’ uncompromising judgment on them. They were duped by Christ who made a huge statement of their condemnation that simply sending them straight to the abyss wouldn’t have done. Of course those who heard about it—who also profited from the pig trade—were afraid. They were completely uncomfortable with this uncompromising Christ. And they begged him to leave.

So he got into the boat and returned. 

But what about the man? For the first time in years he’s clothed and sane. He’s proof of what happens when Christ seeks you out and shows mercy. Before Jesus departs on the boat,

38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. 

There are some truths in this story I hope you caught:

•There is a spiritual realm, and evil spirits who are very real. They hate God, therefore they hate God’s image-bearers. They can and do INFLUENCE people: either by Possession, Oppression, or Suggestion.

•Jesus wields complete authority over all things spiritual, even devils, who must obey his word. The only way for us to successfully defeat Satan is through Christ.

Hebrews 2: Jesus became human 14that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Because Jesus died, we are not slaves anymore. But we don’t have to wait till heaven to have victory over Satan’s schemes. 1 Peter 5: 8Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

•Demons are exceedingly fearful of Christ. This should make us wonder: why are we so fearful of them? Yes, they are very powerful, intelligent, and dangerous. But our God is infinitely more so. And we can trust him.

•Jesus turns messes into messengers. I'm thankful for this. Because I'm a sinner without any merit on my own. I have made messes. But God somehow uses even me. I wish I could have been there when "necked, bloody, demon man" came home at peace, and with a story of amazing redemption through Christ. I bet people listened.

Four practical NOW WHATS:

1. Join Beauty for Ashes. Beauty for Ashes is a great opportunity for women who are dealing with hard things, whether big or small. I plead with you to sign up.

2. Get counseling. There is a spiritual underpinning to successful counseling. We have a great opportunity because Tara Havely is on our staff. We also have other trained ministry staff. Email us (or call the church office or tell us on the card). We will set you up with an appropriate counselor who can evaluate and help you.  If you want to meet with Tara, put that in the email. Otherwise, we’ll set you up with a minister on our staff who is experienced and educated. All is confidential.

3. Read The Screwtape Letters b
y C.S. Lewis. We have 200 copies available, $10 each, but you can also get it online. Think about how the enemy plots and schemes. Know that he hates you. But know that God has your best interests at heart and loves you more than you love yourself. Know that he is in control. 

4. Yield yourself to Christ.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Don't Worry, Invest!

From a sermon given on January 29, 2017 at Providence Church.

Jesus said some difficult things. Among the most difficult for us Americans is what he said regarding the desire for stuff and wealth“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). If taken seriously, these words (at least) cause us to reflect. But we have to eat, right? And we need clothes and a roof over our heads. All that costs money and most of us can’t walk to work! 

Jesus continues with this theme.

Luke 12:
22And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 

Wow. It’s almost like he’s speaking across the centuries directly to us! We obsess over food and clothing! Not like many in Jesus' day who worried where their next meal would come from, or who owned perhaps two or three sets of clothing and one pair of sandals. But we can’t get enough! We have walk-in closets full of clothes we hardly ever wear. How many pairs of shoes do you own? And food? We have hundreds of choices of stores and restaurants; we struggle with obesity, not starvation. Just think of the amount of money we spend on food and clothing. I won’t even mention other external appearance concerns we have, unimagined by those in Jesus’ day: plastic and enhancement surgery, cosmetic dental work, hair implants, makeup, skin-care products, gym memberships, and trips to the salon! Jesus continues:

24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. 

Our familiar member of the raven family is the crow. Like sparrows, they seem to be everywhere. They definitely eat corn and stuff in our gardens (scarecrow), Just this morning I saw a murder of them (yeah, that's the right term for a "flock" of crows) eating roadkill. Point is, few crows ever starve. They have a veritable smorgasbord spread out below their wings. 

24...Of how much more value are you than the birds! 

God cares so much more about you…he knows what you need and will provide. 

25And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 

There are so many people I’ve known who were extremely health-conscious who nevertheless died young. And some, like my 100-year-old grandmother, who ate high-cholesterol foods, smoked much of her life, and never exercised, lived long lives! I’m not negating the value of good health and wise habits, but when it’s your time, it’s your time! In fact, studies show that anxiety is as big a life-shortening factor as diet and exercise! Despite all our science and medicine, life expectancy is still between 70-80 years. Funny, Psalm 90:10 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” That was written 3000 years ago! 

Jesus continues:

26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 

You can’t control when you die, so why worry about all life’s necessities?! Let God worry about that!

27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 

Did you see that? Wow. Seek his kingdom and the rest will take care of itself. What does "seek his kingdom" mean? It means long for the world to come. Jesus had been there—he knew heaven well. And he knew the great contrast and how temporary and minor-league this world is by comparison. Do you remember how petty the middle school drama seemed when you got to high school? And how silly high school seemed when you were in college? And how ridiculous our college concerns seemed once you were married? Our fears and priorities here will be so laughably shallow when we're in heaven. Therefore, we are wise set our sights on the next world. Not this one.

32“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 

Heaven's going to be yours! And God can't wait to give it to you! Wow, that changes everything! 

So how do we live when dying is gain, when heaven will be ours?
According to Jesus, here's how:

33Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 

It is so counterintuitive to us, isn’t it? We almost can’t believe our ears (that Jesus would say such extreme things). But it’s not extreme at all…if heaven is real…if Jesus is telling the truth…if we really will live eternally, then this little time we will have spent on earth will become for us a tiny, distant memory! In view of heaven’s great riches and beauty and satisfaction and perfection, what will we think about our current obsession for earthly things?!  

I know the Bible says there will be no sadness there, but I sometimes wonder how we will not regret our present obsession with stuff. Especially when we will look back and remember all the needs around us—the people who lived in our world who through our generosity might have heard—better, might have seen—the Gospel lived out by people—Christians, us—who gladly gave up what we could not keep, to gain what we could not lose; and gave it so that others would gain it too.

There is one more verse. And it's a doozy.

34For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

I love this verse. Because it is a key that unlocks so much. To understand it, let’s get the images in two key words: “treasure” and “heart.”

The word, treasure, is the Greek word, thēsauros. It literally means a “place of treasure,” where one puts one's investments.

The word, heart, is the Greek word, kardia. (yes, like "cardio" and "cardiograph") It can mean the physical blood-pumping organ, but here "heart" is the symbolic “seat of the passions, desires, affections.” 

Now: notice the tenses of the verbs “to be”: “is” (present tense), “will be” (future tense).

So here’s what it’s saying:

Where you place your investments NOW, that’s where your affections WILL BE.

Jesus is conveying at least two ideas: 

First, you can tell what people really live for (their future aspirations) by observing what they invest in now.

Second, you can direct your investments in such a way that will influence what you love. And if you want to love God and his kingdom more, you should invest in that.

So what?

1. Find contentment by making Christ your satisfaction. He’s the only one who truly satisfies. You will not find it anywhere else. Surrender to him.

2. Find peace in trusting God to provide for your needs. If you are simply obedient to God regarding finances, for example, peace will result. That means following God's instructions for managing your money (like, live within your means and avoid debt, save, be thrifty, budget, and be generous). We offer Financial Peace University at Providence to help people find peace by being wise with money.

3. Find beauty by your faith in Christ. Not by external appearances. Things like what you wear or your hair or makeup or youth or stylishness. Real beauty is really is about what’s on the inside. We know that’s what matters to God—what he sees. But it’s true for others, too. Young women, focus on your character and wisdom and joy. 1Peter 3: 3Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—4but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. Guys, don’t focus on curls for girls. Focus on integrity, discipline, humility, and courage. Be a man of God. That’s attractive—especially to the kind of girl who will one day be a great wife, mother, and best friend for life. Impress her!

4. Know that God desires to give you much more than mere necessities. He can’t wait to give you his kingdom. Like parents look forward to Christmas more than kids, and loves the moment they come down the stairs to see the gifts, so God looks forward to giving you what he has planned from eternity.

5. Invest yourself in the kingdom. How? There are so many ways. Think about ways God wants you to offer your time, talents, energy, and money, and invest! 

Then your heart will love him and his kingdom even more.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sanctity of Lives

Sometimes it is good to take a step back from a portrait being painted to take it in as a whole. Our artist, Luke, has been painting a portrait of Jesus who cares about people, specifically, people the world overlooks. God sees and loves and saves those who believe and gives them meaning as he uses them for his glory. There are so many examples. Just recently in Luke 12:

6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

While preparing for this message I was studying at home and watching the birds at the feeders on our deck. Chickadees, doves, wrens, cardinals, finches, and sparrows are regulars. Sparrows are many bird-watchers' least favorite. They’re the brownish-grey birds at McDonalds. Fact is, biologists tell us that our "house sparrows" as they are known here, are an introduced species that originated in the middle east, are now all over the world, and are perhaps the most common wild bird on earth. Coincidental? Everyone in the world knows the sparrow as a ubiquitous, hardly noticeable, insignificant little bird. But they're not to God. He knows them all by name and provides for and prospers them. Jesus uses the lowly sparrow to illustrate how important we are to God—so much so that every single hair on our heads has an individual number. Wow.

Next week we will study vv. 22-34. Here’s a little preview, and I want to pull out one aspect that illustrates what we’ve seen from Jesus as we’ve been studying Luke 12.

24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! ...27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you… 32“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

We’ll unpack the whole passage more next week (there’s so much good stuff!) but I want to focus on how this reveals God’s heart for people. God loves all human lives. They are special, holy to him. Why? Because he created human beings in his own image. All other life forms and everything that makes life possible he made for us. To support human life. Not just for sustenance and survival, but for prosperity, productivity, awe, and purpose.

How important are you to him? He made you unique and wonderful, he created all things for you, he has created a plan to show you his love/forgiveness/grace by dying in your place, and he wants to give you the kingdom! And not just you.

Today is what Christians call “Sanctity of Human Life” Sunday. Yes, that's when we acknowledge that God cares for human beings, even at their most vulnerable place—beginning in the mother’s womb.

Psalm 139:13-16

13For you formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother's womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
      my soul knows it very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you,
  when I was being made in secret,
      intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
   in your book were written, every one of them,
      the days that were formed for me,
      when as yet there was none of them.

God sees every human life—beginning with it’s very inception—as precious.

Here's my question:
If Christians don’t stand for life in the womb, who will?

One of the many reminders that evil is alive and well in the world is the continuing diminishment of the most innocent and vulnerable lives—unborn children. This is our age’s infanticide—an evil common to most ages (be it ancient civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, Inca, as well as some Euro-asian tribes, and seen in the Bible in ancient Egypt when Moses was born and even Israel when Herod heard of one "born King of the Jews" killed the children around Bethlehem). Abortion is ours. There have been about 60 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade. Half of them little girls, and 18 million of them black babies (that's 1/3). That's stunning.

Good news is we’re making a difference. A report released this week showed that the abortion rate has fallen 50% from it's height, to a historic low since Roe in the U.S. For the first time since 1973, under 1 million babies were aborted in a year.

One million...babies killed. Wow. We still have so far to go.

The issue of abortion is certainly not where it ends. Too many times when we hear “Sanctity of human life” we think only of the unborn. But they are not the only lives being diminished and devalued in our culture. Yes, you no doubt know that racism & sexism still exists. There seems to be a lot of conversation about these things. Of course, racism is evil. God sees no color. Of course sexism is evil. Gen. 1:27 NIV So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. We, regardless of race or sex are image-bearers of God.

Unfortunately not all the conversation regarding these hot topics is healthy. In fact, when you throw in political aspirations and people who have other self-serving agendas, we can find ourselves taking steps backward. It is important that Christians stand for truth and demonstrate God’s love to all. As bad as these things are—and they have many derivatives—I want, today, to talk (frankly and briefly) about some other denigrated people, who don’t get as much press.

•There are orphans and kids needing foster care who need parents and families to do as God has done when he pursued & adopted us as his children. Most of us never consider what it must be like to not have someone to call mom or dad. We Christians can make a difference.

Because their lives matter to God.

Homelessness is an ongoing problem in our nation. You can’t drive to Turkey Creek or downtown without seeing homeless people. What isn’t as obvious is the brokenness and mental illness and addiction and abuse from which these people suffer. We support KARM. You can give… but you can also volunteer, serve meals, and help in many other ways.

Because their lives matter to God.

Elderly and disabled/handicapped/infirm— Our culture seems to discard the elderly. We who are healthy forget those who are disabled or sick. This category includes people all around us, and so many times they are overlooked. Who in your life needs help, encouragement, or just a friend? 

Because their lives matter to God.

Immigrants and refugees—Knoxville is a city that has been chosen by our government to receive refugees from war-torn parts of the world, and because of our universities and Oak Ridge, we attract people who legally are here from other parts of the world. We can welcome these people. We support KIN and Bridge, but more importantly, we want YOU to seek friendship with internationals. Most of the time they are eager for friendship. We have ESL and we need volunteers.

Because their lives matter to God.

Addicted people. There are people in this room who have overcome addictions by God’s help. I know many who are in process. The best hope people have is Christ. One thing we want to do is create a mentoring ministry to help people overcome. Addiction is a HUGE problem in the USA. If the church isn’t the answer, what is? I am praying that God will raise up some who will lead us in meeting this need.

Because their lives matter to God.

Victims of sex slavery- Y’all may know that I’m on the board of Street Hope. There is a real problem of especially girls pushed by pimps or sometimes family to have sex with men for drugs or money. The exploding porn industry is much behind it. I just read a 25 page report by Vanderbilt and government agencies that horrified me. There is so much pain, and we have so far to go. The church must respond to this evil, as we did in abolition.

Because their lives matter to God.

Unborn babies and women in crisis pregnancy- now back full circle to abortion. Let’s not forget our church's first partnership. Way back in 1996 at the height of the abortion crisis, we decided to be a part of the solution in a positive way and were a founding church that supported Hope Resource Center. Many of you are a part, and we need many more. Here in Knoxville, over half of the abortion clinics have shut down since HRC began. Our prayer is that more unexpectant moms will have their babies, and that God will continue to redeem these women who find themselves in bad circumstances. This happens often at HRC. You can be a part.

Because their lives matter to God.

All these lives are precious to God.

So what can you do?

1. Repent from diminishing people.
That means stop seeing them as less-than-precious. Search your heart regarding your own attitude toward others. Do you consider some as less-worthy to be image-bearers? Turn from sin to surrender. See things God’s way, embrace it, and adopt it as your own. Get off the intellectual bench and recognize all lives are precious to God and change your attitude wherever need be. Go through the categories: Do I have racist feelings? Do I have sexist feelings? Do I feel ill-will toward homeless, immigrants, addicts? Or how about this: Do I consider a gay man’s life any less important to God? Do I harbor hatred toward a transgendered person?

Here's the minefield we're in: many voices (even some "Christian" ones) are urging us to compromise. On the one hand we are urged to soften the Bible's definition of sin. We must not. On the other hand (and just as harmfully) we are urged to shrink from the Bible's call to love. We must not. On either side of Christ's hard way there are ditches of sinful compromise. What it means to be Christian is to be like Christ. Regardless of what culture says, be it the media or Hollywood or political pundits or someone at work or your parents or neighbors or anyone else. We obey Christ. That means truth AND love.

Check this out: In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul tells us that God gave leaders to equip you for ministry and to build up the church...
14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, Speaking the truth in love. 

We do not compromise truth. Sin is sin. BUT WE ALSO DO NOT FAIL TO LOVE. If you claim to be a Christian, and there are people who you can’t love, you need to repent. 

John Barber this week reminded me of Cory Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who wrote The Hiding Place, who was sent along with her sister Betsie to a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews. After being cruelly treated by their captors, Betsie (who eventually died in the camp) made it a habit to pray for these inhuman guards who abused them and the other prisoners. Cory objected, but her sister reminded her that Christ said to pray for our enemies, and that if we look at them through Christ's eyes, we can love them.

That's what it means to be Christian.

2. Make a change in your mind to care. Do you feel indifference? I think that’s probably the more important question we should ask ourselves. Even if some of us do not have racist/sexist/condescending feelings for others. We’re so often indifferent. We’re so preoccupied with our own lives that we have no energy or concern for others. It’s time to look at people as Jesus did: with compassion. He looked at a sister who lost her brother and wept. He looked at a crowd stuck in sin and without leadership and wept. He had compassion on those who were lepers, Samaritans, gentiles, poor, blind, lame, hungry. But as Jesus demonstrated, our job doesn't end with just feeling compassion.

3. Pray. When you feel the darkness and hopelessness and anger and hurt (and you will if you change your mind from sin or indifference to surrender), you should pray. Make this an automatic response to the high blood pressure that compassionate people feel. It’s not a stress-management methodology. It’s not the least you can do. It’s the MOST you can do. Phil. 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything… Pray for those HARD to love. Pray that God will HELP you love. Ask God HOW you should show love.

4. Get in the game. Do something. Get uncomfortable. Talk with someone who’s not like you. Stop being indifferent and start loving people and showing it by your actions. Yes, you’re going to be misunderstood, so was Jesus. Yes, you’ll probably be hurt by some you try to love, so was Jesus.

If you remember earlier in Luke, a man asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment. He said, love God and love your neighbor. Remember what followed? The man asked, “Well, just who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan. In it, those religious Jews who knew better walked by the beaten man on the other side of the road, indifferent. They were content to let him die. But thankfully for the man, a Samaritan—a hated, half-breed, unclean heretic—saw the man, had compassion, and took a risk at great personal cost to care for him unconditionally. 

Jesus said, "You go, do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

You who know better—you Christians—don’t walk by on the other side of the road. The greatest witness of Christ and the reality of the Gospel is Christians who love with their actions.

Give toward impacting these problems. Your missions giving through Providence helps these ministries. But don’t stop there. Volunteer in these ministries.

And look for ways to be Christ to those image-bearers around you who are diminished by others.