Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What Is Missing Today?

There is something missing in our nation today and, because of its lack, our nation appears to be unraveling at its seams.  America has always been the melting pot of ideas - both religious and political, educational and economic.  In fact, as one remembers his/her class on American History - what was it, in eleventh grade? - our nation was founded upon great political, economic and religious differences.  And, following the War of Independence, those differences became the strength that resulted in the writing of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights - two of the greatest documents in the English language and models for other aspiring peoples around the globe.  Many held strongly to one side or to the other, but the vision of a greater good for the nation brought resolution through compromise.  (By the way, I highly recommend Joseph Ellis' book titled, "An American Creation," if you want to get some great insights into this particular time). 

But the greatest divider of our nation was not dealt with by those Founding Fathers - the matter of slavery.  Debates, followed by compromises, followed by more debates, followed by more attempted compromises ensued.  And, as you remember, this divisive matter was only resolved through a long and bloody civil war.  And yet, was the matter really resolved?  The Proclamation had been issued in 1863 by President Lincoln and the war had been won, so, technically, slavery was over.  Yet, it would take another century before attitudes would be changed.  Yes, people would march.  Yes, people would cause riots.  Yet, as I look back upon those first historic images I remember as a child, I hear the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urging people to protest with civility.  And many did.  And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law.

Friends, our nation has always had strong differences of opinion.  Sides have been drawn and held with strong convictions.  But, as I read American history, there was usually a strong sense of civility in dialogue present.  I may strongly oppose you on the floor of the debate hall, but I will go out for a cup of coffee with you afterwards.  In other words, I may oppose your beliefs but I do not oppose you as a person.  And that makes all the difference. 

Civility, which the dictionary defines simply as "politeness", is missing today.  We no longer have debate.  We have firestorms on the street.  We no longer have meaningful dialogue.  We carry placards filled with hate-speech.  We no longer have respect toward one another.  Often with words filled with anger we let others know of our animosity toward them.  There is little thought given to smashing someone's storefront window because we are angry at the outcome of an election or even a sporting event, forgetting that window is someone else's property and should be treated with respect.  We mock and belittle men and women in authority over us - those who put their lives on the line each and every day - failing to show them the respect they are due.  With little thought we impugn the character and reputation of those around us simply because they do not agree with our opinions. 

Why is this happening?  Again, let me draw upon what I have learned from years of reading American history.  The key pronoun in America's past has been "us."  Yes there were differences.  And yes, sometimes those differences were strongly voiced.  But the greater good of America was always in the forefront.  The question asked was "What is best for us?"  As I look at our nation today, that pronoun has been changed to "me."  And the question now being asked is "What is best for me?"  We are becoming a nation of individualists.  When over three hundred million people focus only upon themselves and not the greater good of the nation as a whole, we are in trouble.  And, at times, in order for the greater good of the nation to be achieved, I must surrender my needs of the moment.  When that happens, a nation becomes strong.  The sacrifice and surrender of personal goals that the national goals might be achieved is what made America what it became.  Perhaps President Kennedy stated that principle well when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  It is not about "me" but it is about "us."  How I wish we could get back to that philosophy. 

As I have been thinking about this, it suddenly occurred that that should be the operative principle of the Church.  It is not about my needs being met.  It is about my helping meet the needs of others around me.  As a child I learned the following acronym for "joy" - Jesus, Others, You.  It is so simple, yet so very difficult to practice.  We can only do it with the help of Jesus.   And, perhaps, just perhaps, if Christians would begin to model civility toward each other, it might set a model which others in our nation could accept and follow.  Just maybe!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Important Visitor to the White House Today: What Does It Mean?

All eyes are on Washington today as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his first visit with President Trump.  During his campaign Donald Trump was enthusiastic in his support of Israel, our nation's only democratic ally in the Middle East.  One would think that the greeting of the Prime Minister today would be greatly different from those times under the previous Administration where the relationship between President Obama and the Prime Minister could be described as "cool" at best. 

Several topics will be addressed at today's meetings.  One such topic will be the belligerence of Iran after the nuclear treaty has been signed.  At the time of its signing both Donald Trump and the Israelis declared that the treaty was bad for Israel, bad for America, and bad for the world.  Yet the Iranians laughed all the way to the bank with palettes full of American taxpayer dollars.  Since that treaty was signed - by the way, without Congressional approval as required by the Constitution - Iran has developed and tested long range ballistic missiles, has threatened U.S. Naval ships in the Persian Gulf, and has declared with braggadocio that they could destroy Israel in a matter of minutes.  The Iranians have also stepped up their presence in Yemen and in Syria, and their financial and military backing of both Hamas and Hezbollah continues.  The Iranians have let the world know that they desire to be the "king makers" in the Middle East.  What should be done to begin to curtail this rogue nation who will soon have access to a nuclear weapon?  Should the Trump Administration reinstate financial sanctions against Iran?  Should steps be taken to refreeze Iranian assets?  What steps should the United States take to assure Israel of our guarantee of their security?  How I would love to eaves-drop on that conversation in the White House today.

A second subject will be the continued building of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, known to us as the West Bank.  The question remains as to whom does this area belong?  If you remember your modern-day history of the Middle East, you know that what the Jordanians called the West Bank was captured from the Jordanians in the Six Days War of June 1967.  (This June will make the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol city).  Furthermore, the Israeli army defended that area when the nation was again attacked in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Israel claims that territory as the right of conquest.  The Palestinians, under the tutelage of the Jordanians, claim that Israel merely occupies land that rightfully belongs to them.  And thus the debate has been waged since 1973.  And so, Israel has built dozens of new communities in Judea and Samaria and also in East Jerusalem.  If you remember this past December the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution, over the abstention of the United States, that declared such settlement communities to be a violation of United Nations past resolutions and to be illegal, and that Israel must walk away from the West Bank to the agreed upon pre-1967 lines.  Israel's response was to continue building settlements.  Although President Trump has not been crystal clear in how he viewed those Israeli settlements, I am confident that that discussion will take place today in the White House.  It is important for both nations that there be clarity in this issue.

A final topic that, in all likelihood will be discussed, is of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Talks have been started and stopped dozens of times over the past years; most times the stoppage has been the result of the Palestinians desiring a "little bit more" from the Israelis.  Here is the $64 million question: Can there be an effective two-state solution?  Would an independent Palestinian State really remain at peace with Israel, or would the situation in Gaza - which Israel disengaged from in 1995 - become a reality on Israel's eastern border?  Could it be possible for Israel to be a united Jewish-Arab state and still remain a recognized Jewish State?  (That might be difficult as the Arabs would suddenly become the majority population).  President Trump has indicated that he would like to negotiate a peace settlement of some kind.  Perhaps a businessman, who is used to making deals, will have more success than politicians. 

Friends, we know that the Bible declares there will be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.  In fact, there are two solutions, one following upon the other.  The first solution is that of the Antichrist who, according to Daniel 9:27, will enter into a covenant with Israel that will last for seven years.  But, as the people of Israel will discover, the Antichrist does not have the welfare of the Jewish people in mind, only his international ambitions.  At the end of the seven years, the second solution will be presented.  This is recorded for us Zechariah 14.  Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem to establish His throne and to reign over the world from there.  Only then will the people of Israel know true peace.  What a glorious day that will be! 

Before I leave the subject of Israel today, I want to share some exciting news.  Another Dead Sea Scrolls Cave has been located.  This is number 12.  The cave had been looted - how long in the past no one knows.  But there was abundant evidence that scrolls had been hidden in this cave as well.  The many times I have stood at Qumran and looked across that deep chasm into the mouth of Cave 4, I have often wondered how many more hidden caves contain even more scrolls.  Perhaps this discovery of Cave 12 will spur others to explore even deeper. 

As I have shared many times in the past, keep your eyes upon the Middle East, especially upon Jerusalem.  That city is right in the center of the world, placed there in importance by God Himself.  (Read Ezekiel 5:5).  God is not finished with His people.  Let's pray that our President and his team will understand the value of standing with Israel.  There are times when one can and should be critical of some of Israel's policies, but we can never walk away from Israel.   

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Response to Hatred: Grace-Filled Speech

How does one begin to describe the times in which we live?  One word that could be used is "riots."  America has seen its share of riots in the past - almost from its founding.  Perhaps the very first riot was known as the Shays Rebellion that occurred in Massachusetts in 1786-87.  It was a very isolated event, but it tested the resolve of the new nation.  Then there were the Draft Riots that occurred in New York City in 1863, protesting President Lincoln's call for the drafting of men to serve in the Union Army.  These riots lasted four days and dozens of people, primarily blacks, were beaten or killed.  Again, it was a very isolated event, but it tested the resolve of the President to bring an end to the Civil War.  There were the Rodney King riots that occurred in 1992 in Los Angeles following on the heals of the alleged police brutality of this cab driver.  But, once again, this was a very isolated event.  There were the riots in the Deep South in the late 1950's and into the 1960's that formed the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.  These riots expanded beyond the localized events of the past.  Again, a nation's resolve toward the inclusion of all was tested.  In many ways that resolve is still being tested.

But what we are seeing today is a proliferation of riots across our country.  It seems that nearly every major city in America has had some type of "march" these past few weeks.  These events are filled with the voices of deep seated hatred.  These riots have been the scenes of the destruction of property and the harming of human lives.  Are these riots and demonstrations the result of grass-roots outcries against injustice?  From some of the interviews I have heard and read from those who have participated in such events, there is a voiced uncertainty over the exact reason for those events. 

As I have watched those riots and marches, my mind was drawn back to those final days in the life of Jesus Christ.  Listen to these words as recorded by Matthew:  "Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.  So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, 'Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?'  For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. ... But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. ... When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  'I am innocent of this man's blood,' he said.  'It is your responsibility!'" (Matthew 27:15-18, 20, 24). 

Picture the scene:  It is Passover time which meant that there were hundreds of thousands of people in Jerusalem.  The previous week, Jesus had been greeted with a hero's welcome as He entered into the city.  The Pharisees and religious leaders quickly sensed that they were losing control.  How could they accomplish their intended goal, namely the death of Jesus, without arousing the wrath of Rome?  What better way to do that but to stir up the crowd.  And so "plants" were placed among the crowds that milled around the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem.  They targeted a few key individuals who could be counted on to get the crowd aroused.  And soon, Pilate had a full scale riot on his hands.   I believe that if you had asked the common person, who was shouting "Crucify him!", why he was making those statements, few could really answer.  Perhaps the strong majority really did not care one way or the other who was released, Barabbas or Jesus.  They were just caught up in the excitement of the moment.  It was a typical crowd mentality. 

When I see those crowd-pictures flashing on the network screens, I ask myself this question: "How many of those people can clearly articulate why they are there?"  I believe the strong majority cannot.  They just want to be included in something. 

Friends, what I grieve most for these days is that we have lost the ability to sit down and have a civil conversation with another over the differences we might have.  We have lost respect for each other.  We descend into the morass of vitriol and name-calling.  We no longer can listen with an open-mind, seeking to find a foundation of truth upon which we can safely anchor.  The voice of reason has been silenced.  The voice of objectivity has disappeared.  Now it seems that the one who has the sharpest invectives is the one whose voice is most strongly heard.  Thus the proliferation of hate-filled speech.  Thus the rise of the crowd-mentality. 

So, how is a believer to respond?   I am reminded of those words of admonition from the Apostle Paul, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6).  Grace-filled speech shared with others can bring a calming impact.  Grace-filled speech means that I have carefully considered both sides of the argument.  Grace-filled speech means that I seek the betterment, not of myself, but of the community around me.  Grace-filled speech means that I am careful about the terms I use to describe someone else.  But, grace-filled speech is not easy to give.  I believe it can only be given as we have given ourselves personally into that marvelous grace of Jesus.  He floods us with His presence and He then speaks through us. 

Sadly, I believe that the hatred we are seeing evidence of today, will only increase in the coming years until Jesus returns.  The Apostle Paul, in his final letter written to Timothy, describes how he envisioned the attitudes of people in the last days.  Let me share just a few of his descriptors: people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, unholy, unforgiving, without love, slanderous, brutal, treacherous, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:1-4).  We can either cower in fear or we can boldly, with grace-filled speech, declare the love of God to a world that continues to shout, "Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!"  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Lessons Learned as Mom Faced Death

It has been three weeks since I last posted anything to my blog.  Those weeks contained events that have really changed our world, or at least our country.  But my focus these past few weeks has not been upon what was happening in our country - although I kept an eye upon them and an open mind.  My focus was upon the deteriorating health of my Mom.  And what a journey it has been filled with opportunities to share great memories with my Mom and to reconnect as family as we kept vigil by her bedside. 

My Mother was admitted to the hospital the day after Christmas and was diagnosed with double pneumonia and A-fib.  She was extremely weak, but eagerly began the treatments for both conditions.  And she began to make some slow but steady progress.  My two sisters and brother and I talked with her about returning to her independent living status in her apartment.  But then, she took a sudden turn for the worse.  For reasons the doctor staff at the hospital did not understand, her stomach and bowels decided not to work.  Everything possible was done to persuade them to work, but to no avail.  It was at that time that my Mother made the decision that heaven looked a whole lot better than to continue the struggles here with a failing health.  She knew my Dad and my brother and brother-in-law and granddaughter-in-law were all there waiting for her, along with a myriad of friends from days gone by.  She chose to enter into hospice care.  And, last Saturday morning, she experienced her coronation in glory and her reunion with so many others there.

Over the course of more then four decades of ministry, I have sat by the bedsides of many who were in the final hours of life.  And I have learned two valuable lessons through those experiences.  First, and perhaps this is the most difficult one for family members, death is a lonely experience.  The act of dying can only be accomplished by the one who is dying.  For family members at the bedside, this is frustrating.  There is a desire to help the process of dying along.  In the case with my Mom, because she had made that decision to enter glory, we prayed each day that God would take her.  Death for some comes quickly, too quickly; for others, death comes slowly, too slowly.  My Mom fit the last category - at least she thought it was too slow.  I remember her asking me early last week, "Max, why can't I die?"  How does a person answer that question?  My response to her was simply, "Mom, perhaps God is not finished building your home, yet.  There are some final touches He needs to add."  Was that the right answer?  I don't know, but it was satisfying, at least momentarily, for my Mom.

Although my Mom was dying by herself, we constantly assured her that she was never alone for God was with her.  We reminded Mom of God's promise, "I will never leave you or forsake you."  Mom loved Psalm 23 and we either read or recited it multiple times.  Oh those comforting words from David's pen: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."  Oh the peace that comes when we know the presence of God, even in the hour of dying. 

The second lesson I have learned can either bring comfort or despair, depending upon how the question can be answered.  And the question is this: Do you know where your loved one is going to spend eternity?  We knew how to answer that question on behalf of Mom.  She had a longing for heaven.  She had a passion to see Jesus.  God continually brought into Mom's mind verses that brought her comfort and encouragement.  (Mom had worked in her church's AWANA ministry for years, and those verses she had helped those boys and girls to learn were now bringing forth fruit in her life as she lay upon that hospital bed).  She would wake up from one of her deep sleeps and say, "I remember another verse" and then she would quote it to us.  There was absolutely no doubt in our minds as to Mom's eternal destination.  So we will meet this Friday morning to celebrate Mom's coronation.  And what a celebration it will be.

Yes, we are grieving the home-going of our Mother, Grandmother, and Great-grandmother.  But we can say with the Apostle Paul, "We sorrow but not as those who have no hope."  We know that a great reunion awaits us some day - hopefully soon - there in glory.  What a day that will be!

But, as we experienced a peace about where Mom was going, I have also sat by bedsides where there was not that assurance of heaven.  When I would ask the question, "Do you know where your loved one will spend eternity," I often got blank stares or a response of "I don't know."  I would hear people say, "My Dad was a good person," or "My Mother really worked hard."  But there was always that uncertainty of knowing whether the person dying had a relationship with Jesus Christ.  My Mother knew the reality of those words of Jesus, "I am the way, the truth, and the live, no one comes to the Father except through me."  And, oh what a difference that faith claim made for us these past few weeks.  Let me ask you, "Where will you spend eternity?"  If you have not yet told your loved ones your answer to that question, please do so.  They need to know.

Friends, next week I will share with you my thoughts on the first weeks of the Trump administration and highlights, or lowlights, of what else is happening in our world.  I believe the signs are pointing to the soon return of Jesus and our great reunion with those saints who have gone on before us.