Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cave Prayers

In his book, The Pressure’s Off, psychologist Larry Crabb uses a story from his childhood to illustrate our need to delight in God through adversity:

One Saturday afternoon, I decided I was a big boy and could use the bathroom without anyone’s help. So I climbed the stairs, closed and locked the door behind me, and for the next few minutes felt very self-sufficient. Then it was time to leave. I couldn’t unlock the door. I tried with every ounce of my three-year-old strength, but I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I felt again like a very little boy as the thought went through my head, “I might spend the rest of my life in this bathroom.”
My parents—and likely the neighbors—heard my desperate scream.
“Are you okay?” Mother shouted through the door she couldn’t open from the outside. “Did you fall? Have you hit your head?” “I can’t unlock the door!” I yelled. “Get me out of here!” I wasn’t aware of it right then, but Dad raced down the stairs, ran to the garage to find the ladder, hauled it off the hooks, and leaned it against the side of the house just beneath the bedroom window. With adult strength, he pried it open, then climbed into my prison, walked past me, and with that same strength, turned the lock and opened the door. “Thanks, Dad,” I said—and ran out to play.
That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work. When I get stuck in a tight place, I should do all I can to free myself. When I can’t, I should pray. Then God shows up. He hears my cry—“Get me out of here! I want to play!”—and unlocks the door to the blessings I desire.
Sometimes he does. But now, no longer three years old and approaching sixty, I’m realizing the Christian life doesn’t work that way. And I wonder, are any of us content with God? Do we even like Him when he doesn’t open the door we most want opened—when a marriage doesn’t heal, when rebellious kids still rebel, when friends betray, when financial reverses threaten our comfortable way of life, when the prospect of terrorism looms, when health worsens despite much prayer, when loneliness intensifies and depression deepens, when ministries die?
God has climbed through the small window into my dark room. But he doesn’t walk by me to turn the lock that I couldn’t budge. Instead, he sits down on the bathroom floor and says, “Come sit with me!” He seems to think that climbing into the room to be with me matters more than letting me out to play.” When I sit with God and wait for Him to unlock the door I learn more about Him than I ever would.[1]

If you have ever gone through a season of trial and adversity then you know what it’s like to feel trapped by the circumstances of life. Perhaps you’ve been confined to a sick bed, placed in financial straits, crushed between conflicting sets of responsibilities at home and work, or just felt like there was no escape from the circumstances that have you hemmed in.

For Larry Crabb his trails were like being locked in a bathroom, for David it was the experience of living in a cave. You remember the story, don’t you? David is the heir-apparent to the throne of Israel. But Saul still wore the crown. In his envy, rage and insecurity Saul began to hunt David like an animal. “Wanted! Dead or Alive” posters with David’s mug shot are posted on every palm tree in Judea. David was a fugitive, who had to improvise. So by 1 Sam. 22 David is hiding from Saul in the cave of Adullam.      

Caves are interesting places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live in one. They’re cold and damp. There are dangerous drop-offs and confusing labyrinths where you could easily get lost. I’m sure that David wasn’t tempted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign there! And every night he laid his head on the most comfortable rock he could find he knew that somewhere outside, Saul and his army were scouring the countryside looking for him. If they found him, it would mean instant death.

This was not the program that David had envisioned when as a teenager. After all, kings live in palaces, with servants waiting on them, eating good food, and enjoying all the luxuries that life can give. Kings do not live in dangerous caves with the bats and other creepy crawlers! Where was God’s plan in all of this? David felt so abandoned by God that he wrote in Psalm 142:

“I cry out loudly to God, loudly I plead with God for mercy. I spill out all my complaints before him, and spell out my troubles in detail: As I sink in despair, my spirit ebbing away,you know how I’m feeling, Know the danger I’m in,the traps hidden in my path. Look right, look left—there’s not a soul who cares what happens! I’m up against it, with no exit—bereft, left alone. I cry out, God, call out: ‘You’re my last chance, my only hope for life!’ Oh listen, please listen;I’ve never been this low. Rescue me from those who are hunting me down; I’m no match for them. Get me out of this dungeon so I can thank you in public. Your people will form a circle around me and you’ll bring me showers of blessing!” (Psalm 142:1-7, MSG)

Did you catch the last part? David felt like he was in a dungeon. But caves are effective classrooms in the school of faith and prayer. Spurgeon observed that David prayed when he was in the cave, but later when he was in the palace, he fell into temptation and sin with Bathsheba. He adds, “The caves have heard the best prayers.” One of the main courses in the school of faith is learning how to handle trials. So David as a young man, waiting to be king, found out that class met in a cave.

Does God have you hold up in a cave today? Are you feeling like there is no way out of the trial you are in? Then maybe we should take a page out of David’s book. Note that David’s focus is not, “Deliver me so that I will be happy again.” So often, that is the implied (if not stated) aim of our prayers. “I’m unhappy in these trials. Deliver me so that I’ll be happy.” But that’s the wrong motive for prayer. David wants to be delivered “so that I may give thanks to Your name.” Some versions translate it, “praise Your name.”

David wants to extol God’s power and faithfulness and mercy in the company of the saints. In other words, he wants God to answer his prayer so that he can glorify God. In the other psalm from the cave, David twice repeats the refrain (Ps. 57:5, 11), “Be exalted above the heavens, O God; let Your glory be above all the earth.” That is always a solid ground for our cave prayers.

If your troubles do not lead you to go deeper in faith and prayer, you’re missing the lesson of the cave! Let your loneliness, gloom, and despair make you cry out to the Lord to bring your soul out of prison, so that you may give thanks to His name! The Lord knows you’re there. Let the cave hear your best prayers!

[1] Larry Crabb, The Pressure’s Off (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2002), 222-223

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Clean Hands, Empty Heart

On Nov. 14, 2012 NYPD officer Lawrence DePrimo, was on regular counterterrorism duty in Times Square. The evening air was chilly and no one noticed the homeless man propped up against a building on 42nd street, except for officer DePrimo. The first thing that the officer noticed was that the homeless man had no shoes or socks on. The officer later said, “It was freezing out, and you could see the blisters on the man's feet. I had two pairs of socks, and I was still cold.” When the officer saw that pitiful sight his heart was moved with compassion.

He left his beat and then then returned with a pair of $100 boots he bought at a nearby Skechers shoe store. The officer said, “I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let's put them on and take care of you.” The officer squatted down on the ground and proceeded to put socks and the new boots on this man. It just so happened that about that time a tourist from Arizona who witnessed this random act of kindness took out her cellphone and snapped a photo. When she uploaded it to the internet it became a sensation.

The lady who tagged the image said, “I have been in law enforcement for 17 years, and I was never so impressed in my life . . . The reminder this officer gave to our profession in his presentation of human kindness has not been lost.”[1]      

I don’t know if that police officer was a believer in Christ, but I think his actions speak louder than any sermon I have ever preached on compassion and love. Like the old preachers said, “There are actually five Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and You. By the way, most people will not read the first four.”

When I read what kind of life the Scripture calls us to I am often ashamed of my own hardness of heart. We may even make excuses for not helping others in need. “I’m too busy.” “They are just lazy and need to get a job.” “I can barely pay my own bills, so how can I spare any money to help.” I know all those excuses are pretty lame. But I’ve used them and so have you, if you’re being honest. But look at what the Bible says about professing Christians who ignore the plight of others:

1 John 3:17-18 says, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

James 2:15-17 adds, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Ouch! John questions if we have the love of God in our heart and James says our faith is about as lively as a cadaver when we turn a blind eye to others in need. That’s pretty stern stuff, but it’s true. The overriding principle in both verses is this: if we have clean hands, then our hearts are probably empty of faith and love. Show me the hands of Palmolive model and I’ll show you evidence of a heart that is devoid of the compassion which moved Jesus to touch the lepers and feed the masses.      

What if Jesus had the same attitude about coming to Earth and dying on the cross? Just imagine the Son turning to the Father and saying, “I know you love the humans, but just look at them murdering, stealing, and blaspheming. They are dirty sinners that will never change. Think of how often they have grieved us. And you want me to die for them? We’d be better off erasing them and starting over!” I’m glad Jesus doesn’t think like us. He is able to love us through a layer of mud and sin.  

So when was the last time you reached out and touched someone in need? That toothless homeless guy that sits on the street corner with the sign, “Dreaming of Cheeseburger,” is probably looking for more than just a handout. The single mom who can’t pay her light bill is a mission field you can reach. The elderly person who sits at home alone just needs a sacrifice of time. 

Christ has commissioned us to be His hands and feet in a world filled with people who need a gentle touch to remind them of God’s love. While we don’t help others to be put in the limelight, you never know who might be watching and what impact a simple act of compassion and generosity might have on them. Jesus reached out and took the outcasts by the hand (Mark 6:53-56) and if our witness is to resemble anything like that our Master it will require us digging into our pockets, rolling up our sleeves and walking across the street to meet the ones that life has beat up.

[1] Dylan Stableford, “NYPD Officer Photographed Giving Boots to Barefoot Homeless Man Melts Icy Hearts Online,” Yahoo! News, 29 November 2012 < http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/nypd-boots-homeless-man-photo-145219581.html> accessed 5 August 2013. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Buddha's Pinky Finger Can't Trump the Empty Tomb

Siddhartha Gautama, who would one day become known as Buddha ("enlightened one" or "the awakened"), lived in Nepal sometime during the 6th to 4th century B.C. While scholars agree that he did in fact live, the events of his life are still debated. Early in his life, he was troubled by the evil and suffering he saw in the world and desired to find a way to end mankind’s ills by discovering the secrets of the universe.  

According to one version of his life story, after seven years of living an ascetic lifestyle he decided to let his entire pursuit for truth end in success or death. Siddhartha proposed to sit under a fig tree until he found spiritual enlightenment or died of starvation. The gods, knowing that Siddhartha was close to the critical moment of illumination rejoiced, except for Mara, the evil god of desire who tried to tempt Siddhartha in various ways to break his concentration.

Siddhartha touched his hand to the ground and asked the Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment, which it did, banishing Mara. And soon a picture began to form in his mind of all that occurred in the universe, and Siddhartha finally saw the answer to the questions of suffering that he had been seeking for so many years. In that moment of pure enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.  

For decades, the Buddha shared his teachings all across northeastern India. Barefoot in his robes, he was still walking the roads when he was eighty, but old age was upon him. His back hurt, his stomach was often in pain. He told a trusted disciple, “I am old, worn out like a dilapidated cart held together with thin straps.”

Buddha became ill near Kushinagara—a remote village near the border of Nepal—when he was offered a meal which would prove deadly. The food was spoiled and the guru was poisoned. Buddha died peacefully in grove of trees. Legend says that the earth shook, and the trees suddenly burst into bloom, their petals falling gently on his still body as his spirit entered nirvana.

Some historians believe that after his cremation a few of Buddha’s bones were saved, one of which was a finger bone. The Buddha's finger bone is one of the most sacred relics in Buddhism. Supposedly, monks carried it from northern India to the Shaanxi Province in China about 200 years after the Buddha's death.

Buddha’s bones along with the finger were eventually given as a gift to the emperor of China during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The Tang, devotedly Buddhist, built a sepulcher for the bones, buried deep under the ground beneath a high tower. But when the Tang Dynasty fell, they closed up the vault filled with riches and, for all purposes, threw away the key. Later dynasties were less enamored of Buddhism, and the vault was officially forgotten.

It wasn’t until 1981 when the tower from the Tang Dynasty crumbled to the ground and a complete modern reconstruction was begun that the hidden chamber beneath it was unearthed. The finding of Buddha’s long lost finger and other bone fragments was a sensation to Buddhists everywhere, and the bones are now visited by many Buddhists in China’s Famen Temple.1

The same cannot be said of Jesus, for he has no temple, tomb or mausoleum. As the angel said when the women ran to tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6). The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the crowning proof of Christianity. Everything else that was said or done by Christ is secondary in importance to the resurrection. Christians either have an empty tomb or an empty faith because everything stands or crumbles with the resurrection.  

Bible scholar Henry Morris wrote:

“Death is our greatest enemy. No man is wise enough to outwit death or wealthy enough to purchase freedom from death or strong enough to vanquish death. The grave always wins the victory and every person sooner or later returns to the dust. In fact, the inexorable triumph of death applies not only to people, but to all things. Animals die and plants die, and even whole species atrophy and become extinct. Cities and nations, like people, are born and grow for a season, and then fade away. Homes and automobiles and clothes wear out and must eventually go back to the dust, just as do their owners. Even the universe itself is running down and heading toward an ultimate "heat death." This universal reign of decay and death is called in the Bible "the bondage of corruption" (Romans 8:21). In science it has come to be recognized as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Also known as the Law of Increasing Entropy, this Law is now recognized as a universal law of science, with no known exception ever observed. It says, quite simply that every system tends to become disordered, to run down and eventually to die. Its entropy, which is a measure of disorder, always tends to increase. The universality of the reign of decay and death is the measure of the absolute uniqueness of the resurrection of Christ. All other men, even the greatest men and the holiest men, have died. Buddha, Mohammed, Zoroaster, Confucius, Caesar, Marx--men who made a profound impact on the world in one way or another--are all dead.”2  

This is where the resurrection separates Jesus from Buddha and any other religious guru. I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t it be much more difficult to follow Jesus and believe in His audacious claims to be the Son of God if the story ended at his grave? It would be a whole lot more improbable to believe in heaven if Jesus had a tombstone. Would you trust in a Savior who promised eternal life, but couldn’t find a way out of death himself? That would be like a lifeguard who couldn’t swim. If Jesus’ body is still in the ground somewhere then at best we are left with a martyr who lied about what He could do.

But the resurrection changes everything because it proved that Jesus has the power to make good on any promise that He makes. Before going to the Cross Jesus told his disciples in John 10:18, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Besides that, the resurrection makes Jesus Christ unique among the religious leaders of the world. The empty tomb is the ultimate trump card against Buddha, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith, because all those dudes died and stayed dead. Search the world and you will not find any remaining finger bones of Jesus to be venerated.  

Thomas Arnold, formerly Professor of History at Rugby and Oxford, one of the world's great historians, said, “I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better, fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died, and rose again from the dead.”3

Sir Lionel Luckhoo was known in the legal world as the greatest defense attorney that ever lived.  In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records has him listed with the most wins ever by a defense attorney with 245 consecutive murder acquittals. He was knighted twice by the Queen of England. Luckhoo, was an avowed atheist. Someone asked him if he had ever investigated the evidence for the resurrection and challenged him to apply his legal prowess to the New Testament. He accepted the challenge and at the end of his investigation he went from being an atheist to being a Christian. He said, “I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”4

Finally, In one of his books, Erwin Lutzer writes about meeting a Buddhist who converted to Christianity and he asked what convinced him to follow Christ over Buddha. He replied, “It’s like this, if you were walking along and came to a fork in the road and two men were there and one of them is in a casket with a sign overhead that reads, ‘Follow me and I will show an eight-fold path to reincarnation’ and another man was standing there with scars in his hands and feet and said, “Because I died and now live, you shall live also,” which man would you follow?”5     


1. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1998), 220-223.
2. Henry Morris, The Resurrection of Christ - The Best-Proved Fact in History”
3. Thomas  Arnold, Sermons on Christian Life, “Its Fears and Its Close” , 6th ed. London, UK: 324.
4. Ross Clifford, The Case for the Empty Tomb (Claremont, CA: Albatross, 1991), 112.
5. Adapted from Erwin Lutzer, Christ Among Other Gods (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 144.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Covered by the Blood

On November 26, 2008 a gang of Islamic terrorists stormed the historic Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, India. In the bloodshed and carnage, two-hundred lives were ended and hundreds of others were wounded. One group used a piano to block the doors of a hotel restaurant as terrorists tried to blow their way in with hand grenades and AK-47s. Others survived by barricading themselves in hotel rooms, where they were able to communicate with each other and monitor the rescue operation using smartphones.

However, one man who emerged from that terrible experience shared his amazing survivor story. An Indian-born English actor, Joey Jeetun, described how he and some friends were eating dinner in the hotel restaurant when they heard gunshots. Someone grabbed Joey and pulled him under the table. The assassins came striding through the restaurant, shooting at will, until everyone (or so they thought) had been killed.

Joey recalled, “After about five minutes the shooting stopped and I opened my eyes. There were dead people next to me who had been shot in the head.” Somehow, Joey was miraculously alive. After his rescue, an interviewer asked Joey “How was it that everyone at your table and in the room was dead, and yet you were alive?” Joey’s answer was amazing, “I suppose it’s because I was covered in someone else’s blood, and they took me for dead.”

Those words echo what the Lord spoke to Moses the night he would set Hebrew slaves free from Egypt.  He told them to spread the blood of slaughtered lambs around the doorposts of the houses, because that night the death angel would pass over Egypt.   “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike and when I see the blood I will pass over you” (Ex. 15:12-13).

That blood prefigured the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).  As the apostle Peter wrote, “You were redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19).What happened to Joey is a fitting metaphor of God’s gift through Jesus Christ to each one of us. Because He paid the penalty for our sin—because we are covered in the blood of his sacrifice—we may have eternal life.

This is the message of Good Friday. There on a Roman cross the intersection of God’s love and justice met in a climactic moment. The Sinless One stood in the place of humanity, bearing all our sin and shame. Why blood? Because, life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11) and without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). Through his Son’s blood spattered Cross, God provided the perfect sacrifice His holiness demanded.

1. Ravi Zacharias, Has Christianity Failed You? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 42.

2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/3534612/British-survivors-of-Bombay-massacre-describe-scenes-of-carnage.html

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A King's Kid

The article in The Washington Post on September 16, 2009, began with these words: “The king folds her own laundry, chauffeurs herself around Washington in a 1992 Honda, and answers her own phone. Her boss's phone, too.” The article was about Peggielene Bartels, secretary to the Ghanian embassy in Washington D.C. for 30 years. She's originally from Otuam, Ghana, a small city of about 7,000, and her story is a fascinating one.

When the 90-year-old king of Otuam, Ghana, died, the elders did what they always have done: a ritual to determine the next king. They prayed and poured schnapps on the ground while they read the names of the king's 25 relatives. When steam rose from the schnapps on the ground, the name that they were reading at that moment would be the new king—and that's exactly what happened when they read Peggielene's name.

So now Peggielene is a king—yes, a king, not a queen (when she pointed out to the elders that she is a woman, they replied by saying the office of king is the post that was open). When she goes back to Ghana, she has a driver and a chef and an eight-bedroom palace (though it needs repairs). She has power to resolve disputes, appoint elders, and manages more than 1,000 acres of family-owned land. “I'm a big-time king, you know,” she told the reporter. When she returned for her coronation, they carried her through the streets on a litter. She even wore a heavy gold crown.[1]

Paul Schwartzman, the reporter, wrote, "In the humdrum of ordinary life, people periodically yearn for something unexpected, some kind of gilded escape, delivered, perhaps, by an unanticipated inheritance or a winning lottery ticket. Well, Peggielene got the unexpected.” The truth is, if you have come to Christ then your whole identity has changed.

Look at what Paul said about the ordinary believer in Christ, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). For those in Christ, our identity has been radically changed. Once we were the Devil’s children, living in sin because that was our true spiritual heritage (1 John 3:10). By grace we have been transferred into the family of God and given a brand-new identity. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Notice there is a crucial limitation here as well. This change of identity is only for those who have “faith in Christ Jesus.” Why is this important? Because often you will hear people thoughtlessly say, “We’re all God’s children,” as if to imply that everyone on earth is a child of God. But that is not true! There isn’t a single verse in the Bible that teaches such a thing. A more biblical way to say it would be that we’re all God’s creation, but only those who trust in Christ are truly God’s children. Without faith in Jesus there is no entrance into God’s family.

[1] Paul Schwartzman, “Peggielene Bartels: Secretary by Day, Royalty by Night," The Washington Post, 16 September 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009091503393.html>