Tuesday, November 22, 2016

God's Grace and Our Gratitude

Not long ago I came across an incredible story about a Colorado boy, Robby Smith. On March 3, 2009 Robby was just a toddler when he fell into a creek near his house. It just so happened that when the emergency call was placed that that a fire engine was passing right by the creek where Robby was drowning. When rescuers arrived, Robby was unconscious and hypothermic. His life was hanging by a thread. Amazingly, first responders were able to resuscitate Robby with CPR and rescuers got him to the hospital where he fully recovered.  

Now, several years later as an eight-year old, Robby told his mother that he wanted search for the brave men and women who saved his life that day. Robby was reunited with the team who pulled him from the creek and standing before them with tear-filled eyes the boy said, “I just wanted to say thank you, because of you I am alive today.” One of the firemen who was interviewed commented that this was the first instance he could personally recall of a rescue victim coming back just to say, “Thanks.”[1]

Image result for robby smith saved by firefighters
                     Robby and team who rescued him.

Image result for robby smith saved by firefighters
                               A future firefighter?

Robby didn’t have to work himself into a thanksgiving mode, because he understood what it was like to be saved from death. How much more should this kind of gratitude apply to us, as those who have been saved from sin and Satan by our Lord Jesus. Gratitude is the firstborn child of grace. When was the last time you knelt before your Lord and said, “Jesus, I don’t want to ask you for anything today, I just want to thank you for saving a sinner like me.”

In Colossians 1:12-14 Paul makes the connection between our experience of grace and our expression of gratitude, “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (emphasis mine)

What could be better than to be plucked from the fire, born-again, forgiven from sin and heaven-bound? Too many times we forget that as God’s blood-bought church we are wealthier than the Wall Street fat cats. Spiritually, we are co-heirs with Christ and recipients of a heavenly inheritance that cannot be taken away by disaster, depression, disease or even death.

Image result for thanksgiving Jesus

When you received Christ, you became a stockholder in the riches of heaven and the benefits are out of this world! In an instant, you received a redeemer in heaven and the promise of a residence in heaven, a resurrection body in heaven and one day, a glad reunion in heaven.     

Donald Whitney wrote in his book Spiritual Disciplines: “God has never done anything greater for anyone, nor could He do anything greater for you, than bring you to Himself. Suppose He put ten million dollars into your bank account every morning for the rest of your life, but He didn’t save you? Suppose He gave you the most beautiful body and face of anyone who ever lived, a body that never aged for a thousand years, but then at death He shut you out of Heaven and into hell for eternity? What has God ever given anyone that could compare with the salvation He has given to you as a believer? Do you see that there is nothing God could ever do for you or give to you greater than the gift of Himself? If we cannot be thankful to Him who is everything and in whom we have everything, what will make us grateful?”[2]

[1] NICOLE PELLETIERE, “Boy Seeks First Responders Who Saved His Life as a Toddler to Thank Them,” ABC NEWS, 23 February 2016 <http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/boy-seeks-responders-saved-life-toddler/story?id=37117751>
[2] Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014), 146. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Practical Atheism and Thanksgiving

Let me ask you an odd question, “What does an atheist do on Thanksgiving?” I know it sounds like the beginning to a bad joke, but I’m being serious. The atheist believes that we are alive on planet earth because of a cosmic accident. They assert that we owe everything to time + matter + chance and that through the process of evolution we went from goo to you via the zoo. 

                  Image result for thanksgiving rockwell

The reason I bring this up is because of a perplexing quote that I came across in Bart Eharman’s book God’s Problem. In it Ehrman explains that one reason why he no longer believes in God is because he could not reconcile the concept of an all-loving and omnipotent God with a world of evil and suffering. However, ousting God from his heart created a gaping hole in his life.  

Ehrman admits that his atheism presents a dilemma of who to thank: “The problem is this: I have such a fantastic life that I feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it. I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.”[1]

                          Image result for ehrman god's problem       Image result for ehrman god's problem

Can it get any more depressing than that? All those degrees, book deals and academic prestige, yet empty inside as a soap bubble. In short, you might say that the unbeliever has much to be thankful for, but no one, or no God to be thankful to. It was G.K. Chesterton who cleverly remarked, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.” Interesting—the skeptic recognizes that life is an incredible gift, yet His worldview denies a Giver. He feels the need to express gratitude but why?  

The Apostle Paul makes an insightful comment in Romans 1:21 that at the heart of unbelief and rebellion is a spirit of ingratitude: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The humanist thumps his chest thinking that he is the measure of all things.   

Yet, even the ingrate should follow the advice of a church sign I saw once around the Thanksgiving season which read, “Be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.”

While no man or woman of faith would intellectually deny God, we do practically. Practical atheists don’t necessarily deny God’s existence; they just live as though there is no God.

R.C. Sproul gives this definition, “Practical atheism appears when we live as if there were no God. The externals continue, but man becomes the central thrust of devotion as the attention of religious concern shifts away from man’s devotion to God to man’s devotion to man, bypassing God.”[2]

When Abraham Lincoln first proposed Thanksgiving as a national holiday way-back in 1863, he too noticed that often people are guilty of practicing practical atheism:

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”[3] [emphasis mine]

                           Image result for lincoln thanksgiving

Are you guilty of grumbling? I am. Have you forgotten God’s common grace which showers you daily? I have. Do you find yourself uncontended and wanting more? Me too.

I am reminded of a story about a vendor who sold bagels for 50 cents each at a street corner food stand. A jogger ran past and threw a couple of quarters into the bucket but didn’t take a bagel. He did the same thing every day for months. One day, as the jogger was passing by, the vendor stopped him. The jogger asked, “You probably want to know why I always put money in but never take a bagel, don’t you?” “No,” said the vendor. “I just wanted to tell you that the bagels have gone up to 60 cents.”

Too often, as believers, we treat God with that same kind of attitude. Not only are we ungrateful for what He’s given us—but we want more. Somehow we feel that God owes us good health, a comfortable life, material blessings. Of course, God doesn’t owe us anything, yet He gives us everything including His Son, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).

                                             Image result for give thanks to the lord

Thanksgiving is a sure-fire antidote to practical atheism, because it properly turns the focus off us and puts it on God. Thanksgiving minimizes those thoughts about what we don’t have, by maximizing our thoughts on what we do have. Like the old song says, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”[4]  -DM

[1] Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question (New York: Harper One, 2008), 128. 
[2] R.C. Sproul, “What Is Practical Atheism?” Ligonier Ministries. 12 Jan. 2015 <http://www.ligonier.org/blog/
[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation 97 – Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer,” 30 March 1863, The American Presidency Project <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=69891>
[4] Johnson Oatman, Jr. “Count Your Blessings,” 1897. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Surprised By A Silver Cup

I recently read an interesting news item about a woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who fell asleep on the couch after her husband had gone to bed. An intruder sneaked in through the sliding door, which the couple had forgotten to lock, and crept through the house. He entered the bedroom where the husband was sleeping and picked up the television set. The sleeping man woke up, saw a figure standing there, and whispered, "Honey, come to bed." The burglar panicked, put down the TV, grabbed a stack of money from the dresser, and ran out.

But, the thief was in for a big surprise! The money turned out to be a stack of Christian pamphlets with a likeness of a $20 bill on one side and an explanation of the love and forgiveness God offers to people on the other side. Instead of the cash he expected, the intruder got the story of God’s love for him.[1]

When I read that story, my mind went back to another story of surprise, when Joseph’s brothers found something unexpected in their luggage. You’ll recall that the story of Joseph is one of God’s providence and the struggle of forgiveness. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, picked up by merchants and taken to Egypt. Through a series of providential events and interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph ascends to the office of Prime Minister. Using his administrative skill and wisdom, Joseph helps Egypt prepare for a seven-year famine.

However, lurking under this great success story is Joseph’s unfinished business with his brothers. Then one fateful day, the brothers who once sold him as a slave show up in Egypt. Because of the famine, Joe’s brothers come to Egypt, the land of plenty, looking for a handout of grain. Its poetic justice that Joe happens to be the man in charge of Egypt’s granaries.

Now with the tables turned, Joseph is the one in power, although his brothers don’t know its him. Joe could have his brothers executed, but he doesn’t. Instead we read in Genesis 44:

“1 And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack. 2 Also put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his grain money.” So he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.”

The brothers are barely down the road when Joseph’s steward stopped their caravan, searched their sacks and found the silver cup in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers tore their clothes (the ancient equivalent of pulling out one’s hair) and soon found themselves back in front of Joseph, fearing for their lives. Just like that thief who got the tracts instead of the cash, Joe’s brothers never saw the silver cup coming!  

Image result for joseph silver cup

I have often wondered why the Bible records this strange scene. But when you begin to study this in-depth you see that Joseph is framing his brothers as an elaborate test of their character. Years ago, they had sold Joseph into slavery and covered up their treachery to Jacob with some goat’s blood and a fake story. Now Joseph has a chance to test his brothers to see if they have changed. Joe recreates a similar scene that led to his enslavement. By placing the silver cup in Benjamin’s bag and then having it uncovered, Joseph was testing to see if his brothers would do the same thing again—would they throw the youngest son under the bus in order to save their own skins? However, we see that God was breaking down their hard hearts.

In this story we also see Joseph’s struggle to forgive. Here was a man who seems like he can’t make up his mind at times. He welcomes his brothers, weeps over them, enjoys a meal with them and then plays a trick on them. On one hand their presence reopens an old wound of heartache that never healed. On the other hand, they are his brothers and he desperately wants to reconcile with them.

I think this offers an insight about grace and forgiveness—namely that it’s easy to talk about in theory, but exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Forgiveness vacillates within us. It is anger intermingled with love, mercy that is often times fighting back the desire to see justice. We can make two steps towards forgiveness and then take three steps back. Joseph was in the process of forgiveness and he would eventually get there, but this is something for us to remember as well. Forgiveness is a journey that moves our heart from wanting to curse our wrongdoers to being able to bless them. If you are struggling to forgive, then keep trying. Don’t wait on your heart to get ready to forgive. Start the process with your actions and your feelings will catch up. -DM            

[1] Anne Cetas, “Surprised By Grace,” Our Daily Bread, 30 March 2016 <http://odb.org/2016/03/30/surprised-by-grace/> 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Plant. Water. Harvest. Repeat.

In 1912, medical missionary Dr. William Leslie went to live and minister to the Yansi tribal people in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 17 years, he returned to the U.S. a discouraged man – believing he failed to make an impact for Christ. He died nine years after his return.

But in 2010, a missions team led by Eric Ramsey with Tom Cox World Ministries made a shocking and sensational discovery. They found a network of reproducing churches hidden like glittering diamonds in the dense jungle where Dr. Leslie was primarily stationed.

With the help of a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot, Ramsey and his team flew east from Kinshasa to Vanga, a two-and-a-half-hour flight in a Cessna Caravan. After they reached Vanga, they hiked a mile to the Kwilu River and rowed in dugout canoes to cross the half-mile-wide expanse. Then they hiked with backpacks another 10 miles into the jungle before they reached the first village of the Yansi people.

Based on his previous research, Ramsey thought the Yansi in this remote area might have some exposure to the name of Jesus, but no real understanding Christ or the Gospel. They were unprepared for their remarkable find.

“When we got in there, we found a network of reproducing churches throughout the jungle,” Ramsey reports. “Each village had its own gospel choir. They even wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.”

They found a church in each of the eight villages they visited scattered across 34 miles. Ramsey and his team even found a 1000-seat stone “cathedral” in one of the villages. He learned that this church got so crowded in the 1980s – with many walking miles to attend — that a church planting movement began in the surrounding villages.

“There is no Bible in the Yansi language,” Ramsey says. “They used a French Bible, so those who taught had to be fluent in French.” Apparently, Dr. Leslie crossed the Kwilu River once a year from Vanga and spent a month traveling through the jungle, carried by servants in a sedan chair.

                                                     Dr. William H. Leslie, M.D.
                                                              Dr. William Leslie 

“Dr. Leslie He would preach the Bible and teach the tribal children how to read and write.” Ramsey notes. In fact, Dr. Leslie started the first organized educational system in these villages.

When Ramsey returned home he did some additional investigation and discovered Dr. Leslie was affiliated with the American Baptist Missionary Union. The American Baptist Missionary Union was founded in 1814 by Adoniram Judson, who was the first missionary sent from the United States to Burma.[1]

                                       Image result for dr. william leslie missionary
                                                             Yansi church in Congo

If there is one thing we learn from Dr. Leslie’s legacy it is what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 3:6-8, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” God has called us each to specific tasks in the harvest of souls. Some of us are planters, some are waterers and some are harvesters, and our job description may change from day to day. A planter may not see the seed he buries in the ground come to fruition, it may be harvested by another.

Just so, we may not see the rewards of our Kingdom labors in time, but only in eternity. Dr. Leslie may have not been “successful” in man’s eyes, but clearly he used his life to plant seeds that would grow after his time. In the same way, let’s labor for eternal rewards, knowing that our God will not forget even the smallest deed done in His name (Mark 9:41). -DM  

[1] Mark Ellis, “Missionary died thinking he was a failure; 84 years later thriving churches found hidden in the jungle,” God Reports, 19 May 2014 <http://blog.godreports.com/2014/05/missionary-died-thinking-he-was-a-failure-84-years-later-thriving-churches-found-hidden-in-the-jungle/>