Oklahoma: What we know and don’t know

Here we are again. It’s probably because of our limited, time-bound perspective—when everything happening right now is more tragic, more significant, more everything—but it seems like we’re wrestling with more tragedies than we have in a long time. Maybe it also has something to do with the ubiquity of social networking and always-on, everywhere-you-go live footage. The world is shrinking.

None of that matters to the people in Oklahoma who are hurting right now, of course. Their pain is real and raw and intense. We can pontificate all we want about the frequency of and reason for disasters, but what they care about is the loved one who’s gone, the lives that are forever changed.

Christians are quick to respond when things like this happen. Rarely, but occasionally, a few add to the pain by minimizing it, or sometimes even implying that the tragedy has come because of God’s anger . . . that he’s punishing sinners because of specific things they’ve done.

More often, though, Christians show the love of Jesus to hurting people. They give millions of dollars, truckloads of resources, countless hours of service. As you read this, trucks from distant points are rolling down long, flat interstates to bring supplies to desperate families.

They may not know what they should say, but they know what they can do.

I see this, and it makes me thankful to be part of God’s family. You may have seen some headlines yesterday about evangelical leaders who made insensitive comments about why God allowed this deadly tornado to be spawned.

If there’s ever a time for that kind of speculation, I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. It seems to me that we ought to focus instead on what we know: hurting communities need to see the love of Jesus in the lives of his people.

And they do. They see love in the tears of a group of Christians from three hundred miles away who’ve come to unload boxes and pick up debris. They see compassion in the hands of believers who give up their vacation time to put on their overalls and get to work. They see love in the dimes, quarters, and crumpled-up one-dollar bills that children will cram into envelopes and send to relief agencies today.

Now’s not the time to try to explain why it happened, and perhaps we’ll never know. Now’s the time to act on what we know: God hates the brokenness of this world, and he sacrificed his Son to save it, and us. Today—and every day between now and the new heaven and earth—we have an opportunity to show the world a tiny glimpse of the love that ultimate sacrifice has created in us. We have an opportunity to help the world get a closer look at Jesus.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

For us

Most of you reading this have heard and said it so many times, you may take it for granted. Jesus died on the cross “for us.” If I’m not careful, I can say a quick prayer and thank the Lord for what he did “for me” at Calvary without ever really thinking about what I’m saying.

It’s such a small phrase, and it’s found all over Scripture.

He “gave himself for us” (Titus 2:14).

He “died for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

He “gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

He became a “curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

It’s important that we understand—and reflect on—the significance of what that means. “For us” means he died in our place, as our substitute. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes, and because we’ve all sinned we deserve death (Romans 6:23; 3:23).

But because God is love, Jesus took the penalty that we deserved.

It’s a beautiful thing. The innocent was treated as a criminal so that the guilty might be acquitted. His righteousness was given to us, and our guilt was given to him.

I’ve always been intrigued at the Lord’s struggles in Gethsemane. I once thought it was because he dreaded the physical horrors of crucifixion, but I doubt that was foremost.

I suspect instead that he feared the reality of becoming a sin offering on our behalf. He knew that in order to redeem us, he had to bear the weight of our sin on his shoulders. More than that, he became guilty because of our guilt. We became innocent because of his innocence.

And he did it all “for us.”

For you. For me.

Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we can talk about it and even pray about it without facing the reality of it.

Today, in your meditation time, thank him again. Do it seriously, joyfully, gratefully.

Seeing through the fog

It was a fog-shrouded morning on July 4, 1952, when Florence Chadwick dove into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean. She intended to become the first woman ever to swim from Catalina Island to the California coast, but after she had been swimming for over fifteen hours she became exhausted, cold, and discouraged. She asked her trainers in the boat beside her to take her out of the water. They pleaded with her, telling her they could see the coastline, but when she lifted her head out of the water all she could see was fog. Finally they relented and took her out of the water . . . less than a mile from the beach. She had covered 25 miles before quitting.

In an interview that afternoon she said, “I don’t like making excuses, but I really think that if I could’ve seen land—and not fog—I could’ve made it.”

She was probably right. Just a few months later she attempted the feat again—this time keeping a clear image of the beach in her mind—and she completed the swim.

In some ways, I think that story illustrates the Christian life. We stop looking at our goal and get discouraged. Tired, frustrated, stressed. The obstacles around us seem overwhelming, insurmountable.

The fog becomes impenetrable, and we’re tempted to quit.

I suspect some of you are there now. Your stresses have accumulated to the point that you feel like you can’t keep dealing with it all.

There’s no magic pill, no miraculous formula, but the book of Hebrews includes a clue to sticking it out. This passage was written to struggling Christians:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (12:1-2).

The key is in this phrase: “looking to Jesus.”

If you look at your bills, time demands, relationship challenges, worries and problems, you’ll be overwhelmed. That’s the fog that keeps you from seeing the One who matters.

It’s important to take some time to focus on Jesus: how he lived, what he said, how he died and was resurrected. His kindness, his compassion, his love, his forgiveness.

Will you do that today?

Will you spend fifteen minutes focusing on the Lord? That’s not much time, of course, but it might be more than you’ve been spending with him lately.

Talk to him, commune with him, rest with him. Ask him to help you see through the foggy, messed-up parts of your life and see him at work.

Ask him to help you receive his joy and happiness and peace.

Ask him to help you live the triumphant, victorious life he called you to live.

The world in his hands

What I’m about to say has been said so often by so many generations that it has found its way into quite a few clichés. Take your pick.

“We had it good back in the good old days . . .”

“Back when I was a kid we didn’t even have to lock our doors . . .”

“When I was growing up I had to walk to and from school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways.” (usually implying that people were tougher back then)

What the clichés suggest is that things are changing, and they’re definitely not good.

So I say this, fully recognizing it’s been said before.

We live in scary times . . . times that are different than they used to be and perhaps indicative of significant societal changes to come. Far-reaching decisions are being made at high levels, and more and more folks around us do not seem to care about the biblical foundations of ethics and morals.

A couple of years ago Cardinal Francis George said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” He was speaking to the increasing secularization of our society and its potential effects.

Perhaps you’ve said something similar. Maybe you’ve worried about the kind of world your kids or grandkids will live in. There’s no way to know, of course, and no amount of hand-wringing will help.

But it’s good to put things in perspective. Christianity has experienced some of its most incredible growth during times of persecution, and, as I heard someone say recently, the darker it gets, the brighter light shines.

We don’t know what God has planned for our country, but we know that he’s got plans. Presidential statements, Supreme Court rulings, and laws and resolutions don’t surprise or worry him. The changing sentiments and fickle whims of people without God don’t undermine what he’s accomplishing in the world.

Cardinal George went on to say, “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Though I would disagree with what he means by “church,” I agree with his sentiments.

Whatever happens here will happen under the loving and providential eye of an omnipotent God, and he will use his people as he has done for thousands of years.

It reminds me of the old VBS song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands”:

“He’s got the whole world in His hands . . . He’s got my brothers and my sisters in His hands . . . He’s got the sun and the rain in His hands . . . He’s got the moon and the stars in His hands . . . He’s got the wind and the clouds in His hands . . . He’s got the rivers and the mountains in His hands . . . He’s got the oceans and the seas in His hands . . . He’s got you and he’s got me in His hands . . . He’s got everybody here in His hands . . . He’s got everybody there in His hands . . . He’s got everybody everywhere in His hands . . . He’s got the whole world in His hands.”

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

How you can save a soul

It’s an ugly picture. In one of his letters Peter uses the graphic image of a dog’s returning to his vomit or a recently washed sow’s returning to her mud.

What he was writing about, of course, was a believer who wanders away from God. If we’re honest, we must admit that it isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do, because this world is often so alluring. Sometimes we’re mesmerized by its glitz and glamor, finally waking up only to realize we’re miles away from God.

Have you ever wandered? In adolescence, perhaps? Or maybe in college or at another particularly difficult point in your life?

I hope you’re back. If you are, I’m glad you came home.

But not everyone has. Not yet. So James closes his letter with a short encouragement for us to do whatever we can for these folks.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

You’re probably not a preacher, and you may not serve God in any “official” sense, but I’d like for you to do three simple things today.

One, make a list of ten believers you know who have wandered away from God. Perhaps it’s a family member, former co-worker, a neighbor, somebody who used to attend your church. You could probably come up with a hundred, but just do ten.

Two, pray for every name on that list. Pray that God’s Spirit would work in their hearts and move them to repentance. Ask him to orchestrate the events of their lives so they see that the path they’re on will end in destruction. Ask him to open a door for you to be able to speak an encouraging word.

Three, take one step—just one—to let God use you to work in their lives. It might be something as simple as a “How’s it going?” text or email. It could be a phone call or an encouraging note or a Facebook post. But do something.

We undersell ourselves, I think. We assume all the serious spiritual work will be done by the guys who stand in our pulpits or serve as our shepherds.

If I understand James correctly, though, he’s saying that just an “average” every-day believer can have an enormous effect on someone’s soul. It’s incredible to think that you and I can “save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins,” isn’t it?

So today—make a list, say a prayer, initiate contact—and see what God does.

Thoughts about the Gosnell conviction

Perhaps this isn’t great devotional material, but I can’t help but write a few words about the tragic situation in Pennsylvania with Dr. Gosnell, the abortion doctor who was convicted this week of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies.

Perhaps God brought this grisly story to light so that he could change the way that abortion is talked about in our country. Maybe he intends to wake some of us up so that we can see that lives—not cells, not fetuses, not mere choices—are at stake in this conversation. I’ve already read stories of people who have changed their minds about abortion, so we can praise God for that.

Maybe God wanted us to remember again that we live in a broken world, on a cursed earth, amidst fallen people, so that he might stir up in us again a longing to be where he created us to be. Maybe some of us who live tidy lives in the suburbs need to see the face of evil and look wistfully toward a world without violence and death.

Maybe he wanted us to think about abortion in a way that we haven’t before, or at least in a way that many of us haven’t. Instead of just wringing our hands and preaching against it, maybe we should remember again that everyone needs Jesus. That includes abortionists, the people who work in their clinics, and, of course, the expectant mothers who—maybe because they’re confused or they made a mistake or they just don’t understand what they’re doing—choose to have an abortion. Maybe God wanted us to ask, “What are we doing to help confused and broken people? What are we doing to change the cultural climate to help the people around us see that all life is precious?”

I’ve got a lot of questions. I’d like to know how somebody could do what Dr. Gosnell and some of his assistants did. I’d like to know how a country in which the majority of people call themselves Christians could think it’s acceptable to abort hundreds of thousands of its babies every year.

I suppose we don’t have those answers, and maybe we never will, but whenever we see sin in some kind of graphic form like this, it ought to remind us that sin isn’t just the big, headline-making, jaw-dropping things. It’s pervasive, and it hurts us all. Those of us gawking at Dr. Gosnell from a distance also struggle with sin, though maybe it’s of a more private, not-as-serious (so we say) variety.

Here are a few relevant verses to meditate on and pray over today:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1,4).