Monday, June 29, 2015

Forgiving a Killer

When I first saw the horror of another mass shooting flash across my screen, like so many others I crumpled in disbelief. “A church . . .” I thought, “that could have been at my church.” Truly, there is no safe place anymore. Not even the house of God, where Scripture is read, prayers are sent heavenward and souls changed.

As the story unfolded I began to I wonder what went through the kid’s mind as he sat in the basement room at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC receiving the hospitality of those who had so many reasons for suspicion and fear. I wonder, as he heard them read the Bible and pray and welcome him into their lives, if he thought for a moment about not killing them. According to news reports, Dylann Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to me.” Almost.[1]

Yet, this young man gave in to the hate and racism that blackened his heart long before he pulled the trigger. Unspeakable evil like this has no rational explanation, except maybe demonic possession, and anyone who denies human depravity is, well, in denial. Anyone who thinks we as a human race are progressing toward utopia has forgotten that racism is to social progress what cockroaches are to nuclear fallout—extraordinarily resilient.

But, you know what was more baffling to the media and the watching world than even nine dead bodies? The forgiveness that poured forth from the victims’ families. Did you see the video — them pleading with Dylann Roof through tears? They said they forgave him — the emotionless, gaunt figure who, days earlier police said, “screamed profanities and hate speech while shooting with deadly accuracy.” And the crimson pools that stained the floors didn’t stop him from noticing that their blood was the same color as his.

One after another, the relatives of the slain, begged Roof to turn to God. One after another, they prayed for his soul. One after another, they forgave him. It was neither expected nor explicable. Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world and nonsensical to common human nature. Such forgiveness in humanity is when we tread closest to the example of our Lord Jesus who cried from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

One thing that we learn from this crisis is that forgiveness in the face of evil is often more shocking than the wicked deed itself. Somehow, through the power of Christ, the one offering pardon is able to absorb the evil being doled out and transform it into something greater. Forgiveness stops the cycle of hate and destroys evil by agape.

As one journalist wrote, “In a world where evil can seem unstoppable, these families from Charleston have demonstrated that there is still hope. Hope not only in the good fight against racism, prejudice and evil, but hope also in the good that overwhelms evil.
Good sometimes overcomes evil via counter-intuitive forces: compassion, mercy and forgiveness.”[2]

I’m not trying to sounds trite here, but I’ve often thought that forgiveness may be the most powerful choice God endowed upon humanity. Through the practice of pardon we can be like Jesus and unleash the Gospel on a hurting world. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). -DM  

[1] John Ortberg, “The Almost Alternate Ending in Charleston,” Leadership Journal June 2015
[2] John S. Dickerson, “Charleston Victims Wield Power of Forgiveness,” USA Today, 22 June 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Heaven for Real?

His Italian mother named him after the gospel writer, Mark, in the hopes that he too would tell the gospel truth. It is ironic that later when he wrote a bestselling book on his world travels cynics nicknamed it, Il Milione: The Book of a Million Lies. And Mark, whose mother hoped would grow up to tell the truth, was called Marco Milione.

13th century Europeans found it impossible to believe Mark’s tales of faraway lands. He claimed that, when he was only seventeen, he went on an epic journey lasting a quarter of a century, taking him across the steppes of Russia, the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, the wastelands of Persia, and over the top of the world through the Himalayas. In Mongolia he witnessed the horrifying funeral of Mangu Khan where 20,000 prisoners of war were buried alive to accompany the powerful prince into the afterworld.

He was also the first European to enter China. Through an amazing set of circumstances, he became a favorite of the most powerful ruler on planet earth, the Kublai Khan whose vast domain eclipsed that of the ancient Roman Empire. Marco saw cities that made European capitals look like roadside villages. The Khan’s palace dwarfed the largest castles and cathedrals in Europe. Made of gold-coated cane, each piece was held together by ropes of silk, so that the whole palace could be disassembled and moved at the whim of the Khan. Yet it was so massive that its banquet room alone could seat 6,000 diners at one time, each eating on a plate of gold.
Marco saw the world’s first paper money and marveled at the explosive power of gunpowder. It would be the 18th Century before Europe would manufacture as much steel as China was producing in the year 1267. He saw a postal service whose speed would not be equaled until the Pony Express some 600 years later. He became the first Italian to taste that Chinese culinary invention, pasta. As an officer of the Khan’s court, he travelled to places no European would see for another 500 years.

After serving Kublai Khan for 17 years, Marco began his journey home to Venice, loaded down with gold, silk, and spices. And, tucked away in his pocket was a recipe for making pasta! The Khan had sent him on his way with a guard of 1,000 men. By the time they reached the Indian Ocean, 600 had drowned or died of disease. After a harrowing two-year journey, a ragged Marco barely limped home, most of his riches lost along the way. People dismissed his stories of a mythical place called China. His family priest rebuked him for spinning lies. When further troubles landed Marco in prison, he dictated his fantastic yarns to another prisoner who had been a writer of romantic stories. His book was entitled The Travels of Marco Polo. But a skeptical public dismissed it as Il Milione: The Book of a Million Lies.

It is said that on his deathbed, his family, friends, and parish priest begged him to recant his tales of China lest he rot in hell for his lies. Setting his jaw and gasping for breath, Mark spit out his final words, “I have not even told you half of what I saw.”

The story of Marco Polo reminded me of the travels of another explorer—the apostle Paul, who perhaps went further than any human in history. According to Paul, the Lord gave him a vision an undiscovered country, heaven. He wrote about it in 1 Cor. 12:2-4:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

Much like Marco Polo, Paul, who is not even willing to refer to himself, is saying here, “I have not even told you half of what I saw.” In fact, Paul goes on to say that in order to keep him humble and to keep him from thinking he was special for being given a glimpse of glory that God also allowed Paul to be tortured with a thorn in the flesh!

For many skeptics out there the idea of heaven is nothing more than lie cooked up by religious people to exert power over the na├»ve masses. The April 16, 2012 issue of Time magazine advertised the theme “Rethinking Heaven.” Toward the end of the main article, the author profiled the secular viewpoint of heaven with the testimony of Stephen Hawking, regarded by many to be world’s most brilliant physicist and astronomer. Hawking claimed, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when it components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. Heaven is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.”[1]   

What’s most amusing about Hawking’s response is that he doesn’t realize that his position about the non-existence about heaven is not a scientific one, but an opinion based on faith in his materialistic worldview. Since heaven cannot be measured or examined through the scientific method then he can’t say with absolute, scientific certainty that there is no heaven.

So how can we know that there is a heaven? Well, the long and the short of it is that Jesus told us that heaven is a real place. Moments before his own crucifixion and death, Jesus gathered around His disciples and told them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus says it and that settles it. He’s the foremost authority on all things theological. Not only is His track record flawless, but He demonstrated His audacious claims by backing it up with indisputable proof—signs and wonders and an empty tomb (Acts 2:22-24).

I like how R.C. Sproul commented on Jesus words by writing, “As he approaches the moment of his death, he says to them: "Trust me. Trust the Father. He has a huge house with many rooms in it." And he says, "If this were not so, if this were just fantasy, if this were just emotional wish projection, if this were a fairytale or human superstition, I wouldn't have told you this. Keep in mind that if Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he is the greatest theologian who ever walked the planet. He doesn't make theological mistakes, nor does he approve of theological error. He would not allow his disciples to go through the rest of their lives holding to a belief that was false. He says: "Your hope for life after death is not groundless. It is not a false hope. If it were a false hope, I would have told you. I would have corrected it.”[2]

When people deny the existence of heaven, they deny not only the written Word of God, but they also are calling Jesus a liar. Sorry, Stephen Hawking, I don’t care how many degrees you have on the wall, I’m trusting in the sinless Son of God, not the speculations of a scientist who commits their never-dying soul to “the great perhaps.” If Hawking and others of his ilk are wrong about eternity then they are the ultimate losers. -DM

[1] John Meacham, “Heaven Can’t Wait,” Time, 16 April 2012. 
[2] R.C. Sproul, “How Do We Know There Is A Heaven, And How Should It Effect Our Lives Now?” Christianity Today, 26 February 2013 <> 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Earthly Fathers and The Heavenly Father

As a 17-year-old Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy and Ruth Graham, was involved in a car accident. Speeding carelessly down a windy mountain road, Anne smashed into her neighbor, Mrs. Pickering. Anne was too afraid to tell her father about the accident, so for the rest of the day she kept avoiding him. When she finally came home, she tried to tiptoe around her dad, but there he was, standing in the kitchen.

Anne tells what happened next: I paused for what seemed a very long moment frozen in time. Then I ran to him and threw my arms around his neck . . . I told him about my wreck—how I'd driven too fast and smashed into the neighbor's car. I told him it wasn't her fault; it was all mine. As I wept on his shoulder, he said four things to me:

1) “Anne, I knew all along about your wreck. Mrs. Pickering came straight up the mountain and told me—and I was just waiting for you to come and tell me yourself.” 2) “I love you.” 3) “We can fix the car. The car is replaceable, but you are not.” 4) “You are going to be a better driver because of this.”

Anne reflected on that moment by writing, “Sooner or later, all of us are involved in some kind of wreck—it may be your own fault or someone else's. When the damage is your fault, there's a good chance you'll be confronted by the flashing blue lights of the morality police. But my father gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to experience the loving, forgiving embrace of my Heavenly Father.”[1]

That story has a powerful principle that every father needs to take note of—namely, that our kids first learn about the heart of our Heavenly Father from their earthly father. Dads, whether we realize it or not, we are modeling before our kids what the heart of a father looks like. As children grow up and begin learning how the Bible describes God as our Heavenly Father, they will naturally form their first theological sketch of God based off what they saw in us!

In his book, The Case for Grace, Christian apologist Lee Strobel contends that many of the world’s most ardent skeptics and atheists rejected the biblical concept of a loving Heavenly Father because they had such a broken and soured relationship with their dads. Strobel adds, “Many well-known atheists through history including—Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, John-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Voltaire, H.G. Wells, Madeline Murray O’Hare and others—had felt deeply disappointed with their fathers making it less likely they would want to know a Heavenly Father.”[2]   

Evangelist and scholar Josh McDowell, also struggled to overcome the long shadow cast by his violent alcoholic father. Josh admitted, “I grew up believing that fathers hurt. People would tell me, ‘There’s a Heavenly Father who loves you,’ That didn’t bring joy. It brought pain because I could not discern the difference between a Heavenly Father and an earthly father.”[3] It took Josh years to work through his issues and discover the truth about God’s unconditional love for him.   

Positively or negatively fathers play the most significant role in the spiritual development of their children. Men let’s not forget our high and holy calling to be the shepherds of our household. In Ephesians 6:4 we read, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I wonder dad have you asked yourself lately, “What have my kids learned about God by watching me?”

Men we should be driven to our knees daily, because of the weight of this incredible responsibility. We cannot do this job alone. We need God’s guidance, grace and wisdom to be suitable examples of God’s character to our kids. -DM  

[1] Anne Graham Lotz, Wounded by God's People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 155-156.
[2] Lee Strobel, The Case for Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 18.
[3] Ibid., 18-19.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Father's Answered Prayer

The thermometer had been reading my son’s temperature above 102 degrees for four days. The highest it spiked was 104.2. After two trips the doctor’s office it was apparent that the pediatricians, well-trained as they were, were just guessing at this point. Tests came back negative for strep or ear infection. They didn’t know what was wrong with him, “It’s most likely just a virus,” they said, “If he still has a fever in a few days, bring him back in.” “Why,” I thought, “So you can tell me again what you don’t know, just to charge us again for another visit?” We were merely treating symptoms at this point.

There is nothing more helpless than those moments as a parent when you can’t do anything to alleviate the sickness of your child. You would gladly take their place if you could. The sight of a little one, who is usually bouncy and giggly, being reduced to a languishing rag doll on a couch, will rip your heart out every time.

When it was evident that the physicians offered little answers, my congregation began praying for God to touch my son’s body and bring healing. It didn’t look like it would happen when on the fourth night of the ordeal my wife woke up with him at 2 AM. His fever was at 104. As I lay in the darkness listening to the whimpering child and noise of activity in the kitchen I started praying one of those desperate “hail-Mary” prayers:

“Lord you know our situation. Daniel has had this fever for four days. There are no human solutions to this. We don’t know what’s causing it. There is no medicine available. Lord, he needs a touch from you. Your hand is not too far that it can’t reach and your power undiminished from the day of creation. Lord, will you make my son better? And will you do it in such a way that there is no question that it was by Your mighty hand that the fever was taken away? Lord, I’m going to try and sleep now. I am leaving this in Your hands, because You have the night shift. Amen.”

My son went to back to bed around 3 AM with a fever of 104. When he woke up, there was no fever. I know medically some will say that his body fought off the infection and that his fever broke. A skeptic would look for natural causes. However, I know different. The power of prayer is real and the Great Physician still makes house calls. Earth petitioned and heaven answered. Man’s inability was met by God’s omnipotence.

This recent situation reinforced my faith in an unfailing God and taught me some simple lessons about prayer. First, be persistent. Keep praying even when it doesn’t seem to be working. Jesus, told us to “Ask, seek and knock” (Matt. 7:7), but He never specified how many times or gave a quota. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking.

Second, be bold. No prayer is too big for God. He has never met a need He couldn’t supply, a disease He couldn’t cure or an impossible situation He couldn’t use for His glory. I simply came to God out of my complete bankruptcy and He answered in such a way that it was evident no doctor or drug could take credit. Remember, Jesus told us that our miniscule amount of faith could move mountains (Mark 11:23).

Third, be thankful. When the answer came I didn’t have any trouble bowing my head and giving God all the praise. Having witnessed a move of God in a very personal way it heightened the need for worship. In fact I was reminded of the scene in John 4:46-54 in which Jesus healed a nobleman’s son from miles away. Jesus spoke the word and the boy’s fever broke that instant. John appends this concluding remark, “The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household.”

Jesus, I still believe you are the God of space and time; the Lord over disease and death; the One who merely speaks the word and the maverick molecules of the universe obey. Like the nobleman, I stand amazed at your works. Amen. –DM