Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fear vs Faith

Fear. It is with us from our very beginning moments after delivery. It fills many in the final days of life. At our birth, we may not be able to articulate the words, but certainly the fear stems from several questions related to our new setting:  “Where am I? Why is it so bright? Why I am so cold?” Nearing death, we may be able to articulate the words, but rational answers may be as distant as they were when we were newly born.

Fear. It is often very powerful. It is often irrational. I am not making light of the reality of someone’s fear, but consider how fearful we can be of something like a spider. Most any spider is less than the size of an average adult’s hand, and yet despite the massive size advantage that human’s have, many humans have a very real fear of these smallish creatures. Such a fear is largely irrational based upon the facts, but that does not diminish the reality or the power that fear has.

Fear. So what comes to mind for you? What is your greatest fear? How did you come to have that fear? What triggers it now? Perhaps it is emotional. Perhaps it is financial. Or perhaps something else. Perhaps a certain fear has gripped you for years. Or maybe it has been a recent development. As the previous paragraph stated, fear is irrational, so perhaps none of these questions makes sense. All that is certain for you is fear.

Fear. This past Sunday, I preached on the fear of two individuals from Mark 5. One was an important official, the other a nameless woman. Both had their reasons for fear (a dying daughter, further ostracism), but both overcame their fear by having a faith that allowed Jesus to do more than they had first imagined. Certainly, both wanted health restored (for Jairus, his daughter; for the woman, her issue of blood), but Jairus also developed an understanding of Jesus that was counter to what his usual friends and coworkers thought, and the woman received peace with God. Why? They pushed through the fear of the moment by exercising a faith that they were unaware they, themselves, possessed.

Fear. Of course, one kind of fear is warranted. A fear, or reverent awe, of God is commended throughout the Bible (see Psalm 111.10, cf. Proverbs 15.33). This kind of fear is rational because of the greatness of God, especially considering the relative nature of that greatness to humanity (maybe something like what the spider thinks about us). However, some people fear God as one who is full of spite, instead of fearing Him as the one who loves beyond our faults (1 John 4.18). To revere God, to hold Him in awe, is to fear Him in a way that can deepen our faith in Him. Again, this is the kind of fear we are to have to allow us to gain wisdom and live our lives as He wishes.

Faith. Faith is the true opposite of fear. Thus, as we learn to exercise our faith, we are able to overcome our fears. This does not mean that our fears cease to invade our minds, but it does mean that these negative fears do not have to be in control. Only one kind of fear can reside in your mind at any given time – a fear of circumstance or a fear of God. Paul writes that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8.37). A conqueror is one who may have had fear, but has learned to overcome it. As a follower of Jesus, we place our trust in the One who conquered for us, and yet those whose faith is in Jesus are called more than conquerors. Just as Jairus and the bleeding woman in Romans 5 exercised their faith, we will find that when we exercise ours, not only do our fears subside, but Jesus can provide a greater hope than we might have first imagined.

Faith or fear? Life is filled with many choices, and considering the outcome of a choice is often very wise. Such is true for the choice between faith and fear. While choosing faith in Jesus over fear is certainly easier said than done, the eternal benefits far outweigh any short-term costs. I hope you will remember that. I hope I remember that too.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Thinking Critically

This past week’s sermon was about the demon-possessed man from the Decapolis region in Mark 5. When studying the passage, a few issues become apparent rather quickly.
  • The man is a menace and represents virtually everything that the Jews would consider unclean.
  • The source of the man’s strength is the strong man that Jesus could bind (cf. Mark 3.27).
  • The demons, the people, and the man all “beg” Jesus for something.
  • The man follows Jesus by not physically following.
  • Jesus calmed the storm on the lake, and now in this man’s life.
  • The people who witness the calming (both on the lake and in the man) are more fearful at the end of the story than they were before the miracle.
A few other items are important in this story as well. Others may seem important, but perhaps too much emphasis is given (e.g. the difference in the name of the place in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). (You can view a possible explanation for the difference in the post on the church’s blog.) It is this last point that leads to the purpose of this post. As a student of the Bible, I must begin by saying that it is important to reconcile the Bible, as best we can, with itself, to history, to science, etc. But for me, the starting point in the Bible, not elsewhere. What I mean is that we should hold the Bible as our source and reconcile science against it, for instance, not the other way around. (Incidentally, when done in this fashion, the Bible and science are not opposed, but we simply cannot (or do not yet) understand how to properly reconcile them together.)

The truth is that we should explore the differences. But to do so requires more than a cursory look at the Bible. It requires trying to understand the presuppositions we bring to the text. Much of this is based upon cultural differences, which are not only true of the space between most who will read this and the Middle East, but the time difference as well. For instance, my study during this current series is as much about the culture as it is the text. In some ways, the culture dominates the text, and despite having read and studies the book of Mark (and the life of Jesus before), I am learning so much about Jesus, His message, and His mission that I have not known before.

Regarding the idea of differences, we should explore them – deeply. But we must also keep the main thing the main thing. Regarding the difference in the places mentioned in Mark 5.1, the main thing is Jesus healing a man, not necessarily the exact location. The fact that it was on the east side of the Sea of Galilee is important (non-Jewish territory), and practical matters, such as the pigs running into the sea, suggest the place is closer to the sea (i,e more likely Gadara or Gergesa) than not (i.e. Geresa).

But the bigger story is of a man who could not be controlled by others (he broke out of shackles, Mark 5.3-4) nor could he control himself (crying out and cutting himself, v. 5). Luke 8.27 says the man wore no clothes, but after the demons leave, we find the man sitting sitting near Jesus, clothed, and “in his right mind” (v. 15). The man who was feared by society for being out of control was now charged (by Jesus, v. 20) to go throughout the region to share his story now that he was not only self-controlled, but also was in his right mind.

What does that mean? It is one thing to be out of one’s mind, it is another to be in one’s right mind, but it is yet another to use the mind we have been given. The reality is that many people have their right mind, but are more under the control of others, like the man was before he was healed. Our culture today is largely focused on keeping people from engaging their minds. Instead of teaching how to think we are often told what to think. Any disagreement often means extreme criticism by those who respond by what they have been told rather than what they have deduced. Make no mistake, we all do this to some degree. None of us researches every detail we hear or read. And all of us have bias to certain sources or materials. But we have been given minds of our own in order to think for ourselves and make decisions based upon our own conclusions rather than being force-fed our thoughts, feelings, and even our actions.

The reality is that unless society begins to think critically again, our culture will be further controlled by the (imposed) sentiment of the day and, like the demon-possessed man in the story, our ability to think and reason will be all but lost. A level of control will enforced upon society, but short of another act of God, the idea of self-control will likely be lost for many years to come.

So, think critically...about the Bible, about culture, about life. To have the freedom to use our minds is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. But we must use that freedom wisely, otherwise we may just lose it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Responding to the Storms of Life

A Tale of Two Storms

And a great windstorm arose...

When a wind as powerful as that comes and causes the concern it does, you simply don’t forget. Years later, the recollection of a storm like that is still etched into one’s mind. The impressions of those moments could not be forgotten. One minute the wind is so bad and with the water seemingly coming from everywhere, the concern was not just over property, but for life. It wasn’t just about the storm itself, it was about the effects of being in the storm. It wasn’t about how bad the storm was, or how much might be destroyed, but whether life would be sustained. In fact, some were fearful of dying and yelled at God for not caring. Yet, ultimately no one was hurt. And just as quickly as the storm came, the storm was gone. And yet, many still did not believe in the power of God, nor in the person of Jesus. As we sit here today, it is hard to fathom that after experiencing something like that, the people in the storm wouldn’t believe in the Jesus as the Son of God. But the fact is, that they were more afraid after the storm passed than they were during the storm itself!

But that is why Jesus said they didn’t have any faith? Wait. What? Oh, you thought I was talking about the storm this past week in Fairfax. No, I was telling the story from Mark 4.35-41. Consider again the parallels.

A great windstorm arose in Fairfax and on the Sea of Galilee.  The impression of this storm will not be forgotten anytime soon, like the one on Galilee is still considered.
  • The water was pouring down in Fairfax, like it was pouring into the boat on Galilee.
  • The storm caused a concern for property, but also created a concern for life.
  • Most were sleeping when it happened; Jesus was sleeping while it happened.
  • Some may have yelled at God during our storm; the disciples did yell at Jesus during theirs.
  • No one was hurt in either storm.
Despite Gods mercy sparing the lives of all citizens, and most personal property damage being minor, many will not respond in faith, just like the initial response of the disciples.

A Unifying Storm

Back in February, I began to map out the current sermon series I am preaching based upon Marks account of the gospel. At that time, I slotted the passage of Jesus calming the storm as the text for Sunday, July 10th. Well, as only God could direct it, a major windstorm came through Fairfax early Thursday morning, July 7th. In Mark 4.37, the Bible says that a great windstorm arose, and I can only imagine what that wind might have been like on the open sea, yet I doubt the winds were 136 mph like they were here last week. We certainly experienced our own great windstorm in Fairfax which caused a great deal of tree damage, and major damage for a couple of businesses, but very little personal property damage overall. 

My original sermon thoughts are posted on the churchs blog as usual, but given the actual storm, I thought I would take a look this week at why we are so fearful of all of the storms in our life – weather-related, physical (health), emotional, relational, financial, etc. Storms will come, but our response to these storms reveal our true character. For Fairfax, the result of the storm has been that a community has come together to help one another in any way possible. Much work remains in the cleanup process, but a great deal has been done through the unified efforts of the citizens in Fairfax, Atchison County, and others who have come from far and wide to help.

But a great deal of fear spread through the town during those early morning moments on July 7th. Similarly, the disciples with Jesus on the boat on the night the storm arose on the Sea of Galilee (while Jesus was sleeping) were fraught with fear as well. However, in their case, the disciples were more afraid after the storm than before. Why? Because of the great power of Jesus.

Our Fear of Storms

Again, we all face storms of many kinds. Whether the storm is physical, emotional, relational, financial, spiritual, weather-related or other, storms are unwelcome for a variety of reasons. Let me share six reasons briefly.

Tension – We don’t know what the outcome will be, how long it will last, etc. Thus, we have stress.

Extreme – Storms are often violent, and sometimes extremely violent. The week prior to this storm we had a gentle rain all day, which most people appreciated greatly. More rain may have fallen on July 2nd than on July 7th, but the extreme (and unexpected nature of the storm on the 7th) is what created the fear.

Rash – Storms often arrive quickly, are reckless, and are irrational. One of the strangest aspects of this past storm (as many observed) is the effect of the wind to large trees, but how certain items (such as the grill pictured here) were unmoved despite being some 20-30 feet away. 

Relentless – This aspect of a storm is part of the reason for our tension. Storms seem to last longer than we first think they might and make a bigger impact than we initially expect.

Overwhelming – Upon seeing the storm develop or watching it happen or living through it, we are often overwhelmed with what to do or how to respond.

Ruin – The outcome. This is what is left behind in so many situations – especially major storms. Sometimes, the ruin isn’t as bad as we might anticipate, but we still had the other five parts (tension, extreme, etc.) which lead to our fears.

In the passage I preached from this past week (Mark 4.35-41) ruin is the only part that was not a part of the disciples’ story. In verse 39, it says there was a great calm. Yes, a great wind arose and eventually a great calm came, but to move from the storm to the calm it required the greatness of Jesus.

If you will look back at the first letter of each of those six words, you will notice those letters form the acrostic TERROR, which is another type of storm that has become much more real to Americans over the past 15 years. In just the last few months, we have watched terror unfold in Paris, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and elsewhere on the international scene. Within the last two weeks, we have seen terror in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in Dallas, Texas.

Terror instills a constant state of those items above, and eventually brings about a lack of faith. Jesus rebuked the disciples for a lack of faith (Mark 4.40), which was evident because of their fear. Many suggest that the opposite of faith is doubt, but this passage shows that fear is more likely the true opposite of faith. And many people of faith are letting fear control them because of the terror around us. But that is ultimately the point of a terrorist - to get you to be too afraid to do anything. And Jesus said, that it was the devil who came to steal, kill, and destroy, but He comes to give life abundantly (John 10.10). So to give in to fear (or terror) is to give in to what the devil wants you to believe.

Am I exempt from fear? Not at all. I need to continue to develop my faith so that I will not yield to fear. Ideally, none of us would succumb to fear. This is true for so many reasons, but let me let me close with four simple reasons I believe it is much better to live by faith over fear.
  • Abundant living requires faith. Fear requires nothing and steals whatever is left.
  • Faith remains calm in the midst of the storm, but fear will always produce panic even without a storm.
  • Faith leads to freedom, but fear will also keep you imprisoned.
  • And faith will always lead to worship, while fear usually leads to failure.
For one who claims to follow Jesus, fear should really not be an option. Again, I am still learning how to have faith over fear myself, but in times of crisis, when fear is close-by, people are watching to see how others respond. A good leader will respond with an eye towards the future (because of faith) while most will simply lament what was (because of fear). More importantly, one who claims to believe the power of God can show that their faith in the God who can silence the storm overcomes any fears which s/he might have. This faith, in turn, can cause others to learn to trust that God through their own storms as well.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

No More Independence (Day)

As our nation’s 140th birthday fades like the smoke of the fireworks, I have to wonder if this nation has ever been more divided. A nation that began as a united front to end the tyranny of another nation has, over 240 years, become so divided that it causes me to question if we might be better called “The Divided States of America.”

In many ways The United States of America has grown since its inception, but in contrast we have also cast aside so much of what has been valued for many years. We have forgotten the sacrifice of the millions who gave their lives to make possible the freedom we have today. But each year, even if for just a few days, a modicum of sentiment is stirred, and a day such as Independence Day is certainly one of those days.

However, the reality is that America has largely stopped celebrating Independence Day for the more foolish intent of celebrating a day of the month. You may think this is an overstatement, but consider how many times you have heard “Happy Independence Day” instead of “Happy July 4th.” Some will say I am splitting hairs, but we do not say, “Happy January 1st” or “Happy 3rd Monday in February” or “Happy 4th Thursday in November.” Why? Because the holiday is not about a date, it is about a purpose. (The one exception, though it is remembered, not celebrated, is 9/11, which has never had a formal name adopted – the name is the date. I am also aware of Cinco De Mayo, and while date is certainly celebrated by many Americans, but it is not a traditional American holiday.)

The purpose for Independence Day is to celebrate the birth of a country, but we promote the date. Imagine if someone, on your birthday, said “Happy [Month] [day of month]” as in “Happy September 23rd.” You might question their intent or, at least, find it odd that they would acknowledge your birthday in such a way. But that is exactly what we do by promoting the Fourth of July over Independence Day (though America has no such feelings about that matter). However, concern is that as we settle to celebrate a day, we fail to teach the next generation the truth of our independence. And not the kind of independence that tosses responsibility and blame back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon, but the independence and strength that comes from being united as a nation.

As has often been said, unity is not uniformity. We will have differences. We will have debate. And in the end, disagreement will still be present. But we do not have to let the debates define us as a nation. Debate can bring growth and understanding even though consensus is not achieved. Truly, we must, as a nation ask ourselves the following.

  • Will the differences and the disagreements prevail, or will we, as Americans, find a purpose to keep us united?
  • Will we stand strong together despite our differences or will we end up losing whatever independence we have left because we choose to be divided?

The issue of celebrating the date over the purpose has been a pet peeve of mine for years. The reality is that no holiday is more American than Independence Day. I am not sure another holiday could be. But now, within ten years of celebrating a quarter of a millennium as a nation, I wonder if we will make it to that celebration. Truly, if we, as a nation, wish to honor a date, instead of its reason, then maybe we no longer deserve the independence represented by the date. When we cease to honor the reason, one day that reason will be forgotten, and then it may cease to exist altogether.

So, “Happy July 5th!” everyone.  I hope you retained some sense of Independence on Monday.  I hope you will continue to reflect on the freedoms that have been won by the blood, sweat, and tears of the millions in the past, and are preserved by so many today. If we forget these truths, and if we don’t pass them on to the future generations, the freedoms we take for granted now will vanish quickly. Let us truly celebrate our freedom and our independence so that the future generations will know that July 4th is not worthy of celebrating, but the Independence that was declared on that day should be celebrated and protected on July 4th and every other day of the year as well.