Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Social distancing: The new normal?

            We live in unusual times that have called for unusual measures to deal with the spread of COVID-19. The spread of the virus and the number of lives being lost has precipitated such measures. The unknown factors about the virus and the small window of time to implement mitigation have also pressured leaders to act quickly and implement radical measures like social distancing. The goal of such measures is a noble one that everyone agrees with– we must save lives.
            I have no problem with our immediate desire to slow the spread of this deadly virus and minimize the fatalities. That certainly is understandable. But I do have a serious concern about the potential long term effects our current mitigation efforts may have if embraced as normative after the pandemic is over. After a vaccine is in use and the pandemic has ended, will people relate to each other again with a handshake or a high five? Will friends see each other and embrace with a hug as before? Will extended families embrace when they gather for the holidays? Will churches welcome their guests with a warm handshake? Or will there be this ingrained paranoia that prevents people from physical contact after the pandemic has subsided? That’s a significant concern with drastic consequences. I’ve heard some refer to our current “social distancing” as the “new normal.” I strongly protest such an idea. Social distancing must never become the new normal. It may be a temporary mitigation measure, but must never be the “new normal.”
            One of the problems with that notion is that God created us as socially interactive beings. The one item that God declared ‘not good’ in the Garden of Eden was the fact that Adam was alone. God said it was ‘not good’ for man to be alone. God as a relational being made us in His image as relational beings. This relational element includes physical touch. Throughout scripture we read about people connecting through touch, friends embracing one another, and even Paul and Peter exhorting believers to greet each other with a kiss. Physical touch permeates scripture.
            We also notice that Jesus modeled physical touch throughout His ministry. Jesus raised a girl from the dead by taking her hand and speaking to her. He touched the eyes of a blind man to heal him. He even reached out and touched a leper while the man was still leprous to bring healing to him. Jesus understood the significance of human touch because He made us. As a result, He modeled that in His own ministry.
            This need for human touch, however, is not only found on the pages of Scripture. Modern research has demonstrated the significant benefits of human touch as well-- even health benefits. Research has shown that affirming touch can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, alleviate pain, and even boost the immune system.
            One study conducted in 2014 involved 404 healthy adults quarantined and exposed to a cold virus. The study “examined the roles of perceived social support and received hugs in buffering against interpersonal stress-induced susceptibility to infectious disease.”  In other words, how would people's health be affected by the social support they feel they are getting and through physical hugs. The results of the study: “Among infected participants, greater perceived support and more-frequent hugs each predicted less-severe illness signs.”
            Maybe that seems simplistic, but that is the evidence. The study showed that a hug can even help people more effectively deal with an illness. That is one study among many detailing the positive health benefits of physical touch. Lack of touch can result in a weakened immune system, higher blood pressure, and greater depression. Our bodies were made by God to interact with others through physical touch whether that be a handshake, a hug, a high five or just a pat on the back. If social distancing becomes the “new normal”, then we will see another health crisis sweep the globe, which I believe would exact a greater toll on humanity and last much longer.
            During this pandemic we need to practice social distancing. But I look at it as a temporary, necessary evil, not the new normal. It must never become the new normal. That’s not how God designed us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Crying out to God

Why aren't we crying out to the LORD for deliverance?
     Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that no one is crying out to God during this COVID–19 pandemic. I know there are those who are. However, as I browse the internet and observe social media, I feel as if there is little calling to God to END this pandemic. I know Pope Francis recently made such a petition and others likely have as well, but most of what I see in Christian circles are resources on how to adjust our ministry during this pandemic. Calls to pray involve prayer for the sick, families, medical staff dealing with the situation, and wisdom for leaders. Those prayers are certainly important and needed, but there seems to be this resignation that the pandemic exists, will spread, and we have to trust our human efforts to deal with it. I don’t see the urgent cry among the church for God to intervene and end it immediately as only He can.
     Certainly, God may be using this pandemic to get people’s attention. But tragically, we don’t see people truly looking to Him for help right now. At least it doesn’t appear that way. Instead we see people looking to the latest guidance from government agencies, medical professionals, and methods such as social distancing. I’m not against any of those entities, but that's not where we should put our trust. The reality is there is no cure for this virus and though most will naturally fight it off, a significant number may die from it.
     Look at what God says in Jeremiah 17:5-6, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.’” (ESV)
     God doesn’t want us to trust in mere humans. The fact is, He is the only One that can end this pandemic and, if He chose, He could end it immediately. God could instantly destroy every coronavirus on the planet while all the collective power of the human race couldn’t do that. I'm not saying to ignore guidance given by the CDC or other human institutions. Certainly God gives wisdom to people. But that should never be our ultimate trust.
     So back to my question, “Why aren’t we crying out to the LORD for deliverance?” Could it be that God wants us to do just that in the midst of this crisis? Could it be that He wants us to turn and trust in Him who alone can deliver us rather than ourselves?
     Listen to the words of David in Psalm 20 verse 1, “1May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! And then David starts to bring the Psalm to an end in verse 7 by saying, “7Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”
     I want to encourage and even challenge you and Christians everywhere to cry out to God for deliverance from this pandemic. Pray that God would be glorified and bring it to an end quickly. We certainly should still pray for those that are ill and medical staff. We should pray that people would turn to God in this midst of this trial. But also pray that God would deliver us and quickly bring this to end. Only God can truly end this. Earnestly pray, even consider fasting, that God would do this out of His great mercy and be glorified through it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What do you want me to do for you?

            Depending on who’s asking that question, the reply sprouts from a multitude of possibilities. If a parent is asking a young child, the child’s reply may simply be, “Help me tie my shoe.” If a store clerk is talking to a customer, the reply might be, “I want help picking out some items.” But what if the person asking that question was the Lord of the Universe, the King of kings, the One who holds all power in the palm of His hand? What would your reply be then?
            This is the scenario we find twice in Mark 10. The first episode involves two young disciples, James and John. Some feel they were teenagers at this time, which there is some good arguments to support that idea. They come to Jesus (though Matthew 20 reveals they actually sent their mom) and ask Jesus to do whatever they ask Him. This may seem bold, yet on other occasions in the gospels Jesus encourages his disciples to approach God the Father with boldness in His name and He would do whatever they ask.
            Jesus replies, “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John proceed to ask that they may sit on His right and left hand in His kingdom. They are asking for the highest seats of power and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. Quite a bold request. Jesus doesn’t seem to rebuke them for their request, but instead helps them understand that they don’t really know what they are asking, He then goes on to clarify what leadership looks like in His kingdom. Leadership is not about being served, but rather serving and sacrifice. That’s a far cry different from the world’s perspective and even James and John’s perspective at that time. Jesus ultimately informs them that those positions are not for Him to grant, but rather His Father. So He does not fulfill that request, but neither did He rebuke their boldness in asking.
            The episode immediately after this involves a blind man named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus, like James and John, calls out to Jesus wanting Him to do something for him. Jesus replies in the same way He did to James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus asks for his sight.
            Now in one sense that can seem like a bold request. It required faith to believe that Jesus could do a miracle. Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus’ other miracles and believed that Jesus would do one for Him. So there is an element of boldness in that he believes Jesus can do a physical miracle, but Jesus could do so much more. I’ve often wondered if Bartimaeus sold himself short on this one. Jesus just asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” That seems open ended and Jesus' two disciples were willing to ask for the highest seats in the kingdom after Jesus said that. The thief on the cross asked to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom and Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But Bartimaeus asked only for his physical sight. Jesus, in His mercy, granted that to Bartimaeus, but I wonder if Jesus was ready to do far more in His life.
            What about you and me? Do we sell ourselves short in our prayers? Are we crying to the Lord asking Him to do something for us, but He’s willing to do so much more? Might He be saying to you right now, “What do you want me to do for you?” What will be your reply?

            And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Mark 10:53

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Beauty of God

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”             Psalm 27:4

My wife and I recently took in the sights, sounds, and smells of fall at Itasca State Park. I’ve grown to look forward to this fall activity, though there are years it doesn’t come to pass for various reasons. The trees filling the park explode with color in the fall: red, orange, pink, yellow, etc. It’s a smorgasbord for the eyes. I love it!

When you behold something beautiful you sometimes get entranced by it. Have you ever witnessed a sunset that captured your attention or looked upon a mountain scene and just been in awe? Even manmade beauty can captivate us, whether it be a painting or a beautiful home or a finely crafted vehicle.

Now think about David’s words in Psalm 27:4. David had a request for God. He desired to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life so he could unceasingly gaze upon the beauty of God. I wonder if we often forget that attribute of God. God is beautiful. That sentence doesn’t come close to conveying the extent of God’s beauty. I don’t think human language has the words to convey the beauty of God. David longed to unceasingly gaze upon the beauty of God. He realized that to look upon God’s beauty would forever captivate him.

We get that privilege in eternity. When people think of Heaven and eternity many concepts and images come to mind, but have we forgotten the glory of God’s beauty. In our eternal home, we will behold the most beautiful sight in the universe. Nothing else compares. We will behold God Himself in all His glory and beauty. If a sunset or fall colors captivate us, what will the immeasurable beauty of God Himself do for us? We will be captivated for eternity!

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD...”

As believers in Jesus Christ, we will have that privilege. Oh, what a day that will be!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Angry with God

Have you ever been angry with God? I have– on more than one occasion. 

When I was fresh out of seminary, I had grandiose visions of how I would reach the world for Jesus Christ. I would grow a church to thousands of people who would be reaching friends and family for Jesus on a regular basis. I received my first call to a church in Bismarck, ND, and I began planning how I would grow that church. The church had sold some of their property just before they extended a call to me and I was a little disappointed. I figured we would need that property for the growth we would experience. When I arrived, the church was averaging around 55-60 on Sunday mornings.

Over the next 6 years I prayed, provided outreach events, enhanced the Sunday morning worship, modified the church interior, discipled men in the church, added programs, and by the time I left, I had managed to grow the church to about 35-40 (and, no, I didn’t forget to add a zero to those numbers). I was angry. I was trying everything I could think of to serve the LORD and it seemed like He was working against me.

Let me introduce you to Uzzah. We find him in I Chronicles 13. David had recently conquered Jerusalem and wanted to bring the ark of God there where he had established his home. He took a newly constructed cart, which had never been used, as the vessel to carry the ark of God. A throng of Israelites rejoiced in a celebratory parade ahead of the ark of God. Lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals, and trumpets echoed through the land; their melodies ringing forth praises to God and singers filling those notes with words of exaltation. The parade continued toward Jerusalem until the oxen pulling the cart stumbled. In a preemptive act, Uzzah, who was guiding the ark, stuck his hand out to steady the ark. The moment he did that, the LORD struck him dead.

Suddenly, the celebration stopped. Imagine that scene. The music, singing, dancing, the joy of the people as they move along the road and then all of sudden Uzzah drops dead and the party’s over. The musicians drop their instruments to their sides, the dancers' feet now rooted in the ground, and the singers stand with their mouths open but no sound.

Now I highly doubt Uzzah sought to dishonor the LORD by his act. It was more likely done out of ignorance than anything else. He was trying to do a good thing after all. He wanted to make sure the ark didn’t tip, fall, or get damaged. And David probably commissioned Uzzah for that post. David didn’t want anything to happen to the ark. But now Uzzah’s dead.

Listen to verse 11, “David was angry because of the LORD’s outburst against Uzzah.” Sound familiar? David had a great plan to honor and serve God. It was a good thing bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem, wasn’t it? Yet, Uzzah is dead and David is angry. David even named that place “Outburst against Uzzah.” How is that for letting something go? Every time he heard the name of that place he would be reminded of the time God didn’t meet his expectations.

David not only became angry, he became afraid of God. This was not a healthy fear of the LORD, but a fear that made David want to keep his distance from God. He ended up leaving the ark at the house of another man because he didn’t want to bring the ark to the City of David.

Isn’t David’s reaction a lot like ours when God doesn’t meet our expectations? We become angry and ultimate distance ourselves from God. When God doesn’t act as we expect Him to, we decide we better just keep our distance. Prayer and time in the word become minimal or irregular at best. And we name that incident in our life where we feel God let us down. “That’s where God let me down. I’ll never forget that place. 'Outburst against Scott,' I’ve called it.” And that moment can began to define our future relationship with the LORD and our life in general if we let it.

It would be three months before David came to a place in his life where he again wanted to bring the ark, and essentially God, close to home. What had changed? He realized that God didn’t hate him or even his plan. God wasn’t against him, but he had disobeyed God. He was trying to bring the ark to Jerusalem in his own way rather than in God’s way. The ark needed to be carried with poles by four priests. Men whom God had chosen for the priesthood. When David did it God’s way the procession went forth joyfully and without incident. Well, David’s wife, Michal, did have a little issue with how David celebrated the arrival of the ark, but that’s a story for another blog.

Are you angry with God right now? As a result, are you distancing yourself from Him? Take some time and read I Chronicles 13 and 15 and ask the LORD what He wants to teach you. Don’t keep the LORD away. Bring Him close to home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Other People Matter

As I read my devotions this morning in 2 Samuel 11, something caught my attention that I hadn’t noticed before (at least I don’t remember noticing it before). Many are familiar with this tragic story of David and Bathsheba. And when we read it, we tend to focus on a few main characters. They consume our attention. There is David who committed adultery with Bathsheba, there is Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband), there is of course Bathsheba herself, and then there is Joab who carries out David’s plot. But with our attention so fixed on these characters, we miss a key player. I’m not talking about the messenger sent by David or the Ammonites who actually fire the arrows that kill Uriah. I’m talking about “the servants of David among the people.”
These men are mentioned in verses 17 and 24. These verses inform us that these men died as a result of carrying out David's plot to kill Uriah. It wasn’t only Uriah who died. After Joab carries out David’s plot, he sends a messenger back to David, telling him of the result: “some of the king’s servants are dead. Uriah is dead also.” Joab makes sure to tell David that his plan cost the lives of other innocent soldiers besides just Uriah. Because of David’s cover up there would be other widows in Israel besides just Bathsheba. And these other widows wouldn’t have the king ready to take them as wives and provide for them like he does Bathsheba. It is also likely that some of these men had children and now they would grow up without a father because David didn't want his image to be marred in Israel. David’s cover up affected more than just Bathsheba.
Now look at David’s response to Joab, “Do not let this matter displease you, for the sword devours now one and now another.” In other words, “Don’t worry about it, Joab. Everybody has to die sometime. I’m OK with it.” 
David’s reply reminds me of a line spoken by Lord Farquaad in the movie Shrek. Lord Farquaad holds a competition to select a hero to go and rescue a princess, whom Farquaad will marry, from a Dragon’s lair. The winner will get the “privilege” of saving the princess for Farquaad, but if the hero fails the contest runner-up will go, and then the one after that if necessary, and so on and so forth. Farquaad then declares, “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.” Sadly, that is King David in this episode. In order to carry out his cover up and acquire Bathsheba as his wife he was willing to sacrifice not just Uriah, but "some of the king's servants" as well. David essentially declares, “In my effort to cover my sin of adultery and claim Bathsheba as my wife, some of you may die, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
When pride consumes us, we become willing to sacrifice others in order to maintain our personal image at all costs. Our cover ups end up hurting others and we are OK with that as long as we still look good. The raw selfishness of such thinking seems grotesque for us to imagine, and yet we embrace such thinking at various times in our lives. God forgive and God help us.
Christ contrasts such thinking to the highest degree. Rather than thinking of Himself at all cost and sacrificing others, Jesus thought of others at all cost and sacrificed Himself. God wasn’t alright with sacrificing all of humanity to maintain His justice. His love demanded another way, and so He sacrificed His Son, Jesus Christ. He maintained His justice and demonstrated His love for us at an inexpressible cost to Himself. How opposite of David and us.
We will sin at times as believers. We will do things that negatively affect our image and make us look bad. But the answer is not sacrificing others to maintain our image. We must model Christ. We must be willing to humble ourselves and sacrifice whatever image we’re trying to protect, to spare hurting others.
The servants of David among the people,” actually matter. They aren’t insignificant in this episode. May “some of the kings’ servants who died in battle” be a constant reminder to us that other people matter to God and must never be sacrificed to feed our ego.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Slave of Christ Jesus

Slave: a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them (
Doulos (Greek): Slave. “Hence we have a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders it, which he has to perform whether he likes or not, because he is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of his owner.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)

Slave and slavery are terms rightly repulsive to our ears. The horror of slavery past and the sad reality in parts of the world of slavery present sickens us. No human has the right to “own” another human. In our country today, we laud the principles of liberty, freedom, and equality (though we don’t always exercise those principles as effectively as needed).

Slavery in the first century was a prevalent reality. Some estimate that 1 in every 5 people in the Roman Empire were slaves. And slaves were disdained by most. Many Rabbis considered calling someone a slave as the worst insult you could make. A slave had no standing in society. A slave owned nothing, had no plans of their own, and no freedom to do what they wanted. A slave only had the option to obey their master.

So with all of this baggage, why in the world did the apostles and early Christians adopt this term “slave” as one of the primary descriptions of who they were as believers in Jesus Christ? The term is used about 150 times in the New Testament, but you will rarely see it translated “slave” in your English translations. Only the Holman Christian Standard Bible and one other translation accurately translate the term “slave” every time it is found in the New Testament. Yet, "slave" is the unequivocal meaning of the Greek term according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Most English translations use the term “servant,” but that’s not the meaning of doulos. Doulos means slave. Throughout the New Testament we see the apostles refer to themselves as slaves of Christ: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,” “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ,” “James, a slave of God,” “Simeon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ,” “Jude a slave of Jesus Christ,” and in the Revelation “His slave, John.”

Why does God, by His Holy Spirit, inspire these authors of scripture to so frequently refer to themselves as slaves? And is it beneficial for our translations to avoid that term and use “servant” instead? I believe it actually damages our understanding of scripture to avoid the term slave so often. The writers knew what a slave was and the negative connotations associated with that term. They understood that a slave had no rights. They understood that a slave was purchased by someone else. They understood that a slave owned nothing. They understood that a slave was duty bound to their master whether they wanted to do something or not. And that’s why they referred to themselves as “slaves of Jesus Christ.”

When I think of a servant, I think of a hired hand. I think of someone hired to carry out a duty or a task. They are required to perform their duty, but they are still free then to pursue their own activities. The person they serve doesn’t own them. That person doesn’t get to call the shots in every aspect of their life, only in the areas for which they have been hired. That’s the picture I have of a servant, and I think that’s the picture of discipleship for many. We view ourselves as servants of the Lord. He has some assignments and tasks that He wants us to carry out and we need to do those assignments. We need to read the Bible, pray, go to church, and share the gospel among other things. We are servants of the Lord and so we need to add those items to our agenda. But that’s where the problem lies. I still have an agenda. I’m just adding God’s assignments to my agenda. I’ll make sure I get God’s assignments done, but then I have my own agenda I also want to accomplish. Slaves don’t have their own agenda, only the master's agenda.

Peter, Paul, John, James, Jude, and even Mary didn’t view themselves as servants with their own agenda. They viewed themselves as slaves with only God’s agenda. They didn’t have the option to fit God in their schedule. They only had God’s schedule. They obeyed whether the task was difficult or even painful. They were slaves of the Lord and He called the shots. That’s the view of biblical discipleship. We only have God’s agenda. God owns us. He bought us at the extremely high price of His Son’s life and shed blood. As believers in Jesus Christ we are slaves of God.

But also recognize that this slavery is different from the oppressive and abusive slavery known in world history because our Master is far different from any human master. Jesus told His disciples in John 15:15, “I do not call you slaves anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father.”

Though we are slaves, we are also our Lord’s friends. A master doesn’t tell his slave the reason behind his order. He doesn’t give his slave the big picture and explain his plan. He simply expects the slave to obey. But Jesus gave us the big picture. He shared His plan to redeem humanity. We’ve even seen the end of the story in the book of Revelation. We are not merely slaves, but friends and ultimately heirs with Christ. Yet, we must never forget this fundamental identity as the Lord’s slaves.

When you read your Bible and see the phrase “servant of Christ," just remember that it should literally read “slave.” Let the meaning of that reality churn in your heart for a while. As slaves of Christ we have no agenda but His, we have no master but Him, and we own nothing because it’s all His. Paul's words to the believers in Corinth are just as fitting and needed for us today, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body," (I Corinthians 6:19b-20).