Is Change Really Possible

photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc
photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

Change, my friends is inevitable. Nothing is static in this transient world. Nothing! This is especially true in a world of rapidly evolving technology. Today’s new thing will probably be obsolete by the end of the week!

But when we ask if change is possible, we aren’t referring to change in the general sense—our real emphasis is on positive change. Faced with a steady barrage of negative news, sometimes we can’t help but wonder if things will ever turn in a healthy direction. Violence is prevalent. The economy sits on shaky ground. Our government finds itself immersed in gridlock. The church takes only faltering steps, most of which are in the wrong direction.

There is, however, an underlying question that seems to plague the common person. “Is change really possible in my life?” is the question that most of us ask. Sure, there are the narcissists who stand convinced that they have no need to change. In addition, we find the confident few who believe that, with a bit of hard work, they can become whatever they want. Still, I suspect that most of us have run up against powerful roadblocks in our efforts to become better people. We’ve tried moving forward, but always find ourselves being drawn back into our fears, our compulsions, and our dark thoughts. As a result, deeply-rooted doubts cloud any sense of hope that we once had for a better tomorrow.

photo credit: jessgrrrr via photopin cc
photo credit: jessgrrrr via photopin cc

The essence of the Christian gospel is about change. God was not content with the status quo of sin and death so He sent His much-loved Son to do something about the problem. And do something He did! Forgiveness of sin and guilt is a change we can’t live without.

Still, much more remains. God provided His Word as a roadmap to change and sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts as an agent of change. I’m not saying that transformation is easy by any means, but it certainly is possible—for every one of us.

photo credit: Matt Gruber via CreationSwap
photo credit: Matt Gruber via CreationSwap

Through my thirty-plus years as a Christian, I’ve researched, studied, and watched. My desire has been to find a Christianity that really works—not simply another humanistic or ineffective twist to an old religion. In that time, I’ve come to understand that the power of human sin runs deeper than any of us realize. But I’ve also come to grasp that the power of God’s grace is far greater than even the bonds of sin. The key, more than any other thing, is learning to continually draw upon the fullness of that life-changing grace.

Yes, change is possible for any of us as individuals. And if change is possible for the individual, societal change is certainly within our reach.  This confidence in God’s grace as realized through the gospel of Jesus Christ motivates me to press on in my Christian service, knowing full well that ours is a future founded upon real hope.

Speaking of change, we are still in the process of transitioning over to our new website which will continue to feature my blog. If you would like to remain subscribed to my “blogotional”, you can do so by entering your email in the subscribe panel on the right-hand side of the new website.

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The Greatest Holiday Ever!

photo credit: |vvaldzen| via photopin cc
photo credit: |vvaldzen| via photopin cc

There is something about Easter that sets it apart as one of the most significant holidays to celebrate. Thanksgiving and Christmas rank right up there, of course, but aside from peanut butter eggs and sugary peeps, Resurrection Sunday continues to be one of the most meaningful days on the calendar.

One thing that I especially appreciate about this three-day holiday experience is that it conveys a profound message of hope while still maintaining a firm grasp on reality. In a natural sense, there is very little good about Good Friday, and yet, its continued remembrance provides an ongoing reminder of humanity’s desperate need. Sin is dark and violent—a reality that we dare not ignore. Yet through the cross, not only is sin addressed but it is dealt a fatal blow with Christ’s resurrection from the grave.

The timing of Easter is also quite meaningful as it signals the arrival of new life bursting forth after the long, cold months of winter. The lengthening days and increased warmth of the sun provide a powerful sense of hope and anticipation. What an awesome time of year!

If there is one word that I could use to describe Easter, it would be new. That we speak of new life is evident, but a greater dimension remains that often receives only lip service. The resurrection of Jesus Christ marks the initiation of the New Covenant. The original meaning of new in a Biblical Greek context doesn’t simply mean a more contemporary version of something one already owns. Rather, it speaks of something entirely new and different compared to what has previously existed.

photo credit: mbtrama via photopin cc
photo credit: mbtrama via photopin cc

If I decide, for example, to purchase a new car to replace the one that I already own, I am simply buying another vehicle of a similar type. But if I chose to purchase a car that also serves as a boat, a submarine, and an airplane, I would obtain a vehicle that is unlike anything known to all of my neighbors, friends, and relatives.

The New Covenant, while yet another in a series of sacred and binding relationships between man and God, is totally different from any type of relationship previously known to humanity. Through the New Covenant of grace, we are offered the extreme privilege of being able to relate to God on His terms—not through the law-based existence of our ancestors.

People who are repulsed by the all of the judgment seen in the Old Testament often focus on only a small piece of the puzzle. One of our most deadly errors is to miss the fact that the Apostle Paul compares the Mosiac Law to a harsh school-master who points the way toward the New Covenant of grace.

Before the coming of faith we were all imprisoned under the power of the Law, with our only hope of deliverance the faith that was to be shown to us. Or, to change the metaphor, the Law was like a strict governess in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him. Once we had that faith we were completely free from the governess’s authority. Galatians 3:23-25 (Phillips)

photo credit: Michael 1952 via photopin cc
photo credit: Michael 1952 via photopin cc

This passage calls to mind the image of a strict Catholic school nun of an earlier era. (I know that they weren’t all hard-nosed, but there were enough mean ones to make the stereotype somewhat viable; each of my Catholic childhood friends had his own traumatic story to tell.) Step out of line in any way and you could be sure that Sister Mary Meanheart would immediately smack your fingers with her wooden ruler—her continued harshness awakening within each heart an intense desire for salvation, or, at the very least, a nicer nun.

God never intended the Mosaic Law and its judgments to be a permanent way of life. His goal was to show the futility of a legalistic worldview and leave us longing for a new type of existence. This realization makes it especially unfortunate that we so often define Christian maturity in light of how well people obey certain rules. At its very core, the Gospel is a message of freedom, not one of requirements and obligations.

Not only does Easter mark the arrival of spring, it indicates the initiation of a truly new way of life—one filled with hope and peace and everything good. For those who grasp the true meaning of the season, this is a holiday worth celebrating!

How You Can Help to Prevent Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook Shooting
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It has been several days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I am still struggling to process the reality of such a horrible event. Other mass shootings in recent years have scarred communities, but this one has left deep and lasting scars for our entire nation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a similar effect, but there is something different this time around. Those killings were the work of religious extremists operating from halfway across the globe. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the product of our own societal dysfunction. That a young man would maliciously murder twenty first-grade students, jolts suburban and rural America with the realization of what inner-city dwellers have known for quite some time:  something is terribly wrong in our beloved nation.

Of course, an intense battle will be fought over gun control. Some will contend that guns should be banned. Those in opposition will argue that law abiding citizens who carry weapons will actually help to make our streets safer. Both sides will support their arguments with various statistics and anecdotal stories. The battle over gun control, however, provides a convenient diversion from deeper, more difficult issues that must be addressed. To say that guns are at the core of the problem is to grossly over-simplify the issue, while avoiding any sense of personal responsibility for the collective citizenry of our nation.

Greed
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The bottom line is that we have become a nation of self-centered consumers. And while I would never say that such a description applies to every person in the U.S., I do believe that it is quite accurate in a general sense. Even issues such as the misappropriation of pharmaceutical drugs or the prevalence of violent movies and video games are closely tied to greed.

Our freedom that was purchased in blood has now become our demise, for freedom only works when the people of a nation collectively seek the greater good. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was both true and prophetic:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB)

Today, even the Church is driven by a consumer mentality. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders cater to this destructive mindset because they believe it is the only way to get people into their churches and to fund their ministries. Our American gospel is all about what God can do for us, while the true nature of the Christian faith remains relatively untouched.

Money App
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God, it appears, has become an app that we can access in time of need. We have a salvation app, a provision app, a comfort app, and, at this time of the year, a Baby Jesus app. The sovereign King of the Universe, however, will not cater to our self-centered terms. If we want to relate to God, we must fully subscribe to His entire operating system—one that calls us to seek Him with all of our hearts as a way of life. If we would flock to our churches to seek His presence and drop to our knees in prayer with the same intensity of emotion before a national tragedy, there probably would not be the need to do so afterward.

Violence in America began to seriously escalate in the 1960’s. What brought it on? I am convinced that the roots can be found to have materialized just after World War II with our collective pursuit of the American Dream. While our nation held to a form of religion, at that point money became our national god. We honored Jesus with our lips, but the real god of our hearts was materialism. Psalm 16:4 tells us that, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (ESV). Is this not an accurate representation of our grief over the Sandy Hook shootings? The violence of our day is, at least in part, the fruit of over half a century of materialistic idolatry on the part of an entire nation.

Shooter
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On a practical level, our incessant quest for more stuff, combined with the rise of secularism and the gradual rejection of the Christian faith, has precipitated the horrible decay of the nuclear family—the building block upon which a healthy society functions. More specifically still, the growing absence of loving, faithful fathers has led to an identity vacuum in the hearts of our nation’s children. Show me a culture lacking in a healthy sense of identity and I will show you a nation of young men immersed in a climate of violence.

As I consider these things, I can’t help but think of the ancient nation of Israel as they found themselves exiled in Babylon—an exile brought upon by their own idolatry. But the God who they had rejected and ignored spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah with a message of kindness and hope.

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how things may appear, and no matter how dark and foreboding the future may look, we can all help to turn the tide of violence in our culture by seeking God with all of our hearts, by putting material possessions in their proper place, and by genuinely loving those around us. Can there be a better season of the year to get our priorities right than at Christmas?

Era of the Living Dead

Evans City Cemetery – Photo by Willjay – CC BY-SA 3.0

The film begins with Barbra and Johnny visiting their father’s grave in rural Pennsylvania. Barbra is afraid to be in a cemetery at such a late hour. Johnny teases her, as any brother would, totally unaware that a zombie–a reanimated corpse–is about to knock him unconscious against a headstone. The rest is history. Night of the Living Dead proceeded to become one of the most revolutionary horror films of all time.

Until Night of the Living Dead came on the scene, horror movies were mostly innocuous—nobody took them seriously. But genuine fear dripped from the frames of this particular flick. Parents who naively took their kids to the theater reeled with regret as their unnerved children squirmed in genuine horror.

Exactly what was so scary about Night of the Living Dead? I think perhaps it was the sense that the evil inescapably was us. It is one thing when evil is out there, or when monsters can easily be identified as alien creatures from planet X. But the potential (and fear) for us and our loved ones to become the source of evil is a game changer.

Fear and death have always been closely linked. The potential for death, or loss, powerfully grips the human heart with various forms of fear–especially anxiety. It all points to a zombie-like existence in which we find ourselves longing for life, but beset by fear; for fear in and of itself is a form of death.

The intent of Lucifer’s zombie conspiracy was to usher fear and death into a world once defined by peace and life. The plan worked to the point that death and fear now characterize unredeemed humanity.

Many centuries before Night of the Living Dead was filmed in Evans City, Pennsylvania, the Apostle Paul wrote of another sort of living dead. In speaking of widows he stated, “But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives” (1 Timothy 5:6). Imagine that, a seemingly harmless widow proclaimed to be a sort of zombie long before film was ever conceived. Now that’s truly scary!

Photo by Joe Shalbotnik – CC BY 2.0

Paul’s words remind me of a lobster pound a traveler might find along the coast of Maine. Right there, in full view for patrons to see, is an open tank with live lobsters crawling around. I mean, technically they are alive, but in a greater sense those lobsters are already dead. They repeatedly circle the tank (what else is there to do?), their once powerful pinchers banded shut as they jostle for meaningless advantage. The finality of death is inevitable, and unless a savior of sorts purchases those crustaceans and releases them into the ocean, it is only a matter of time until they are boiling in a pot and then lying on a plate.

Since Lucifer initiated the zombie conspiracy, death and fear have continued to hold captive the general population of the human race. Like the lobsters in the tank, like the widows of 1 Timothy 5:6, ours is the Era of the Living Dead. Powerless, hopeless, and beset with fear, we scurry about, jostling for meaningless advantage, pursuing only momentary pleasures; doing what we can to forget about the giant hand of death that will, in its season, tear us from the only world we’ve ever known.

If this all sounds very morbid and repulsive, that is only because it is very morbid and repulsive. The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t simply a nice, optional message. The Gospel is our only genuine hope.

Photo by Ted Van Pelt – CC BY 2.0

Whitney Houston – More Than One Reason to Mourn

Photo by Egghead06 - CC BY 3.0

I agree with so many others that Whitney Houston had an uncommon measure of God-given talent. In today’s world of media hype and shallow stardom, she stands as one of the few who possessed a truly magnificent voice. Most would be envious of her success, but more and more we are seeing that in the shadows of fame linger deadly forces intent on ensaring the unsuspecting.

I spent some time the other night watching Nightline’s tribute to Whitney and a number of interviews highlighted the sadness of the situation. I couldn’t help but feel as though they weren’t just talking about Houston’s untimely death, but also the precipitous fall of her amazing career in conjunction with the downward spiral of her personal life. It is indeed all very sad, but I also see an underlying sense of tragedy that I just can’t seem to shake.

How is it that Whitney Houston could cut her teeth singing Gospel music, but never fully comprehend the power of the Gospel as it gives freedom over the power of sin? I don’t say this to be critical of Houston herself, for by no means is she alone. (Elvis Pressley quickly comes to mind.)

Photo by click - morgueFile

The temptations that accompany fame can be intense, but the roots of these types of problems go far deeper than the natural eye perceives. I honestly don’t think that most church attenders truly understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a very real sense this means that the typical pastor also struggles to comprehend and communicate the transformational power of the Gospel. Of course, we all have much to learn, myself included, but as a whole it seems to me that we can do much better than we are.

A transformed life begins with a clear understanding of the Gospel of grace:

“. . . because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth . . . .” Colossians 1:5-6 (NASB)

An incomplete or errant understanding of grace creates so many of our problems. Some churches emphasize grace as the unmerited favor of God, and that it is. But grace is also the God-given life-force enabling us to do all that God calls us to do, including living in victory over the power of sin. This doesn’t mean that genuine Christians will be perfect, but that sin becomes a self-centered choice rather than an enslaving compulsion.

Photo by Mark Strozier - CC BY 2.0

The Gospel of grace is not to be equated with a Get Out of Jail Free card enabling us to do as our hearts desire and still go to heaven. The amazing power of grace renders sin powerless, and living by faith is essential because only through faith are we freed from pride and able to abide in grace.

But beyond selfishness, sin has traps to which entertainers are especially vulnerable. It’s here perhaps that our greatest measure of ignorance lies. Human nature strives to exalt itself by attempting to live up to standards of all types, whether they be moral or identity related. We simply don’t realize that the power of death quickly envelopes those who attempt to forge their identities in the furnace of human performance.

The undiscerning reader may think that I am judging Whitney Houston’s salvation. I am not; that issue is way beyond me. It’s her personal downward spiral I am addressing, and not for the purpose of condemnation. In many ways I feel as though the church has failed Whitney, Elvis and a host of others. Sure, all are ultimately accountable for their own actions, but I can’t help but wonder how much pain and death could be spared if only we better understood (and thus lived) the dynamics of God’s amazing Gospel of grace.

There is more to God—so much more—than any of us are experiencing. Let’s turn our hearts to dig deeper into His truth and we’ll find ourselves celebrating hope much more than we’ll be mourning death!

For a more in-depth look at these issues, please refer to a 15-minute video clip about grace from The Search for Me identity series and the following resources on my Hidden Trails blog page: Your Promise and the SfMe Audio Files.

Get with the Game!

Photo by EclecticBlogs - CC BY 2.0

The morning sun glistened through the heavy frost still tinting the edges of my windows as I pulled into the high school parking lot. Can you think of a better activity for a cold January morning than an eight and under wrestling tournament? I certainly can.

It’s not that I dislike wrestling; I really enjoyed my son’s participation in the sport through his junior and senior high school years. But this was a very different experience—some of these boys hadn’t yet learned to tie their shoes.  I can only imagine the experience from the perspective of a five-year old.

Picture yourself as a small boy. You joined the wrestling program so you could frolic and play with friends. The practices are a little boring (can’t escape those adult rules), but for the most part it’s a great social time as you hang out and make new buddies. The idea of going to a wrestling tournament sounds simply like a multiplication (even though you don’t know what multiplication means) of the fun.

But the day doesn’t start well as your parents drag you out of bed at an absurd hour. After a long car ride, rushing into the gym is even worse than the walk to the car on this 18-degree morning! The place is packed to overflowing as the crowd buzzes loudly with excitement. A few adults wearing striped referee shirts make you line up like animals and strip half-naked while they inspect for skin diseases.

Photo by Beth Rankin - CC BY 2.0

With fearful anticipation you survey the scene. Four matches are going on at once, shrill whistles are blowing, and adults are constantly yelling. Some sound very mean. Half of the losers come off the mat crying. The other half seem oblivious to the fact that they lost.

Eventually you find yourself standing by the mat staring at another lost looking kid about your size. The guy in the stripe shirt lines you up and pierces the air with his whistle. Suddenly all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose as everyone screams for you and the other kid to throw each other to the mat. You decide to grab him, but get penalized for an illegal move. An illegal move–what’s that?

I think you get the picture. But my problem isn’t with wrestling or even with wrestling tournaments. It’s with forcing immature children into a harsh adult world much too quickly. Some might say this is the world in which we live. I tend to wish that our children had more time to remain relatively innocent.

But the goal of this post isn’t to malign the shortcomings of youth wrestling—it’s to highlight a problem I see with what we might call youth Christianity.

While watching those lost little guys on the mat, I couldn’t help but think of the many professing Christians who have no clue that we are at war. To them, Christianity is about blessings and benefits and going to heaven some day. Thus, they are totally unprepared when the whistle blows and life turns crazy.

11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13

Photo by J. Michael Tracy - CC BY 2.0

Therefore take up the whole armor of God . . . that you may be able to withstand in the evil day . . . 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” Ephesians 6:11-17 (ESV).

Now wait just a minute! Nobody said anything about “cosmic powers” or “spiritual forces of evil” or even “flaming darts.” All I did was raise my hand so that I could be forgiven and go to heaven!

Once again I think you get the picture. You see, the problem with youth Christianity is that if we don’t understand the dynamics of life, we find ourselves lost in the struggle. While we constantly grapple for security, comfort, and pleasure; our enemies try to take us out and our Commander In Chief seeks to form us into champions of the faith. If we don’t recognize that all of life’s circumstances are intended to sweeten our spirits and strengthen our faith, we’ll find ourselves anxious, angry and depressed because of the confusing battles we face.

I wish things were different, but Christians don’t have the luxury to remain spiritually immature children. The hope and peace that come with Christianity can only be found as we Get with the Game! (written in an encouraging manner; not yelling; honest)

Steeler Nation Wiping Tears with Terrible Towels

Photo by Sonnett - CC BY-SA 2.0

My hopeful anticipation quickly faded on Sunday as I laid on the edge of the couch watching the painful loss of the would-be World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Painful because of their many injuries. Painful because of how they played. Painful because of how they lost. Painful because of the non-penalized, illegal formation on the last play of the game. Painful! Painful! Painful!

Phone lines immediately lit up for the local sports talk shows. Emails flowed as fans provided their armchair critiques. Hines Ward called it one of the worst losses he had ever experienced. Filled with shame, Ike Taylor wouldn’t even talk with the media. The entire Steeler nation lapsed into a state of mourning.

Photo by daveynin - CC BY 2.0

There’s been much talk about how the performance of college and professional sports teams affects the psyche of a geographic region. Success in sports helps to ease the pain of economic and domestic difficulties. Failure intensifies the agony. Panthers. Pirates. Steelers. Penguins. Western Pennsylvania is walking with an emotional limp; our hope wearing an ankle boot.

But amazingly, the sun still came up on Monday morning—doubly significant because it’s always cloudy in Western PA in January (and the rest of the year for that matter). Perhaps God wasn’t aware of the Steeler loss.

Proverbs 13:12 tells us that, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Heart-sick—sounds like an appropriate description of how the Pittsburgh Steeler faithful feel (not to mention the fans of all of the other pro football teams that have fallen short this season).

There’s only one problem with this scenario—and it’s a big one! Professional football is first a business (notice the Professional), and second a game. We err to our own detriment when we put so much hope in a group of highly paid (yet fallible) men running around in tights chasing an odd-shaped ball.

If hope deferred makes the heart sick, continually misplaced hope makes it diseased. We find ourselves downtrodden, constantly searching for a few bright spots of victory. And it isn’t just sports; there are so many other areas in life in which our focus is on a human-based hope.

Jeremiah 17:5-8 speaks primarily of faith, but I think a strong connection can also be made to where we focus our hope:

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD. For he will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.

Photo by Vicky Hugheston - CC BY 2.0

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
And whose trust is the LORD. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit’” (NASB).

If we want 2012 to be full of life, the appropriate response is to focus our attention on The Living Hope. I’m not saying that we can’t enjoy sports, or that the economy or the presidential elections are unimportant. It’s just that these things pale in comparison to the eternal hope we have in Christ—a hope which never fades; a hope which serves as the anchor of one’s soul in turbulent times.

Personally, I’m so thankful that there’s more to Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (NASB). With the right focus, each and every day in 2012 can be brimming with hope and filled with life! Go Tebow!