Remembering MLK… An “extremist for love”

This is a 4 1/2 min. video that my friend Robb Emmett and I put together a few years ago while I was the pastor of Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago. I did the narration and another friend, Anthony Turner, read a portion of a “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” which was written by Martin Luther King Jr. As we celebrate his memory today, may we take his message to heart at this crucial time in our nation’s history and, as Christians, may we be driven not by our politics but by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, an “extremist for love.”.

When Angels Go Away…

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

The shepherds had just experienced the greatest sight and sound show in history. Suddenly, in the darkness and boredom of the Palestinian night, a great company (an army) of heavenly hosts appeared to them and the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them; an angel spoke to them (probably Gabriel) and an angelic choir sang to them! Talk about a spiritual high that could shrivel you into a clinker! Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped and things went back to its normal darkness. The all-important question is, What did the shepherds do then?

We have prepared for Christmas and experienced the brightness of Christ’s birth. We have decorated our homes, given and received gifts, prepared special meals, and connected with family and friends (though not as many as usual). We have lit our Advent wreaths, read our Advent devotionals, and experienced the light of Jesus enter into out dark world—I know I have as I continue my journey with cancer. And now, it’s over…the angels have gone away and it is dark again. The all-important question is, What do we do now?

Look at the shepherds—they acted upon what they had experienced and pursued Christ. What a great example to us because most of our lives are not spent listening to angelic choirs or experiencing beatific visions. Most of the church year is spent in ordinary time. Most of our lives are spent in the dark fields of everyday life contending with our jobs, our health, our family’s safety, and our finances. We cannot sustain the excitement of Christmas, but we can act upon what we have experienced and continue to pursue Christ when the angels go away.

Like the shepherds, we can take those powerful and visible moments of life when God shows up in all his glory, and work them out within the framework of our brokenness and against the dark backdrop of our daily lives by continuing to seek after Christ. Stay in God’s Word on a daily basis; continue to worship him; continue to seek, ask, and knock bringing all your concerns before him; continue to speak a word for him here and there, wherever you find an opportunity to share what you have seen and heard. Don’t get discouraged or become afraid as you face an uncertain future. “Are not five little sparrows sold for two pennies (one thrown in for free)? And [yet] not one of them is forgotten before God…Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6, 7)

So when the rubber band of spiritual experience snaps back to normal, continue to pursue Christ—like the shepherds did, when the angels went away.

NOTE: My latest book, The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer, has just been published and can be found on Amazon Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Peace. Isaiah writes that “in that day” when our Lord returns, he will judge the nations; “cool the pride of ruthless nations…and remove the cloud of gloom, the pall of death that hangs over the earth…he will wipe away all tears.” (Isa 25:7, 8) As the Prince of Peace, he will bring peace upon the earth and will rule with justice and equity. “His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule with perfect fairness and justice… He will bring true justice and peace to all the nations of the world.” (Isa 9:7) Isaiah also says, ‘He will keep in perfect peace all those who trust in the Lord, whose thoughts often turn to the Lord.” (Isa 26:3) Thus we look forward to this Kingdom of Peace and, in the meantime, we can have peace within our hearts amidst these tumultuous times as we trust the Prince and acknowledge him in all our ways.

Go to the menu portion of this blog to see the daily devotional thoughts for this fourth and final week of Advent. I hope these have been helpful.

Special note: My new book, The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer, has just been published. It is available at Amazon (also as a Kindle edition), Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors. Also available at Books in Print, Ingram Book Group, Baker and Taylor (Yankee Book Peddler). It is also available internationally with James Clark & Co., Mosaic Books in Australia, Ingram, and Amazon.com. This will be a good book to pass onto those whom you know who are struggling with grief, sickness, or discouragement. May God use it for his glory and the good of the Church.

Third Sunday of Advent

Tomorrow (or today, in some of the over 60 countries of the world where this blog is read) is the third Sunday of Advent. Historically, the pink or rose candle of our Advent wreathes are lit today. It is called the Gaudete candle in Latin, which means the “rejoice” candle. It is a reminder to us that no matter how dark the world, the darkness will not prevail; no matter how out-of-control things seem to be, God is the ruler yet. Thus we can rejoice in the “comings” of the Lord (that he came once and he will come again) and that such joy can be our strength. The presence of our Lord, our Emmanuel, has bracketed our sorrows with the hope that if the last hour belongs to him, we do not need to fear the next moment. (Helmut Thielicke)

Go to the menu portion of this blog to see the daily devotional thoughts for this third week of Advent. I hope these have been helpful.

Special note: My new book The Goodness of Affliction: Encouragement for Those Who Suffer has just been published. It will soon be available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Christian Book Distributors. This will be a good book to pass onto those whom you know who are struggling with grief, sickness, or discouragement. May God use it for his glory and the good of the Church.

Second Sunday in Advent

On this second Sunday* in Advent (adventus- arrival, coming) we light the first and second purple candles on our Advent wreath. The first candle is sometimes called the prophecy candle, because it represents the HOPE and anticipation of the coming of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets like Isaiah. The second candle represent FAITH and it is sometimes called the Bethlehem candle indicating that God kept his promise that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Be sure to click on the menu portion of this blog and find the daily readings and thoughts for this coming week. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Also, I have also published on my menu page a “Primer on Eschatology.” Don’t let this big word scare you. It is simply a list of different views on the end of things and the Second Coming of Christ. While Christians agree that Jesus Christ is coming back, the how, when, and where differ significantly. This primer is to help you find your own viewpoint and to better understand the others.

*I post my readings on Saturday, because for some who read my blog in places like Australia it is already Sunday.

Advent Devotionals

Today is the beginning of the Advent Season 2020, which (because it is a leap year) runs through December 24th. The first purple candle (three purple and one pink) on your Advent wreath is lit today signifying HOPE. Advent begins a four-week period of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The need for spiritual preparation reflects that Christ came to be born into our hearts by faith so that he might save us from our sin, and enter into every aspect of our own anxiety-ridden lives.

I have prepared this daily devotional to help you experience the Prince of Peace as he enters into the bedraggled and weary places of your life. It is my prayer that you may find your faith renewed and your hope restored.

Please go to the menu portion of this blog to find the devotionals for this first week.

Join Me on a Journey!!

ARE YOU READY??

Go to the MENU PORTION of this blog and check out the syllabus on Church History 101 and get the text. Then listen to the 6 lessons and view the resources available to enhance your study. There is no hurry to rush through this course (like you did in school) and feel like you are taking a drink out of a fire hydrant. Proceed at your own pace and LEARN SOMETHING.

Persecution and the Church… Then and Now

I am in the process of developing a Church History 101 course for those who want to learn more about the church since its inception. This course will be about the Early Church, from the first to the fifth-century. One of the things we will be looking at will be the persecution of many early believers. This will be the first of six courses that I will put up on this site. They all will be totally free. Here is a sampling:

Christians, at first, were not seen as distinct from the Jews in the eyes of the Romans. It wasn’t until Nero (around 64 AD) singled out Christians as those to blame for the great fire in Rome, which, by the way, many historians believe Nero himself had set. In this first mass persecution, many Christians died as scapegoats. This was to be the nature of the early persecution of the church—sporadic and local. It grew out of the animosity of the populace towards believers, rather than a deliberate government policy. Pliny the Younger, who was the governor of Bithynia (N. Turkey) and who wrote to Emperor Trajan for clarification on what to do with Christians brought before him by neighbors or local authorities simply because they were Christians. Trajan replied that Christinas should not be sought out, but if they were accused of being Christian and refused to recant, they should be punished. Those who were willing to worship the gods of Rome were to be pardoned and all anonymous accusations were to be ignored. It was the original don’t ask don’t tell policy. But there were still martyrs: Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, whose last words were, “I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” And then there was Polycarp, the aged Bishop of Smyrna, who said when asked to swear by the emperor and curse Christ, “For eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?” He was burned at the stake.

A more universal persecution of Christians did not begin until around 161 AD under Marcus Aurelius. Many more died, including the consecrated widow (worked for the church) Felicitas and her seven sons. She was asked to recant and she replied, “For while I live, I shall defeat you; and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you all the more.” Then, persecution suddenly ended in 180 AD when Aurelius died. It began again under Septimus Severus in 202 AD and many more more suffered death in the Coliseum, such as a 22 year old nursing mother, Perpetua, and her servant girl, Felicitas. They were whipped by gladiators, run through by a wild bull, and eventually put to death by the sword.

Then persecution abated for fifty years only to start up again in 249-251 AD under Emperor Decius—it was the first one that was empire-wide. Decius used a different method of persecution, because he realized that killing Christians had only succeeded in making more Believers, as the Christian apologist Tertullian had said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Some even volunteered to die, believing that all post-baptismal sins of a martyr were forgiven. Thus, Decius had Christians perform just one pagan observance and they would receive a certificate of sacrifice, with which they would be perpetually safe from harm. Some Christians bribed officials to get certificates without having to sacrifice. However, if they refused to burn incense to the gods, they were beaten and thrown in jail—no longer to the wild beasts. Origen, a famous church apologist, was arrested, tortured, and then released. He died a few hours later. Then there was the persecution under Valerian in 253-260 AD, and another under Diocletian in 284-305 AD. This was called the Great Persecution and it was designed to extinguish Christianity from the empire. It prohibited all Christian gatherings and places of worship, and all clergy should be hunted down. The persecution continued into the reign of Galerius and then suddenly stopped in 311. In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians for good.

It has been estimated that by 325 AD there were 7 million Christians (est. of a total population of 130 million- 40% of the world’s population) scattered throughout the Roman Empire and as many as 2 million martyrs. Why were Christians persecuted? Christianity was considered an “illicit sect” and was on a “no fly” list with the Roman authorities. They were considered dangerous and counter-cultural. They were considered “superstitious.” This word does not mean what you think it does. The Romans were superstitious in the way we understand it with all their gods and legends. But “superstitious” then meant strange, weird, odd, which was part of the reason Christianity was on the list as an illicit sect. Christians refused to worship the gods of the empire and that caused great consternation because of all the superstitions regarding the anger of the gods leading to crop failure or military defeat, etc. They were accused of being atheists because they did not worship an acceptable god (of the empire); they were accused of treason, because they would not burn incense to Caesar or recognize him as Lord; they were accused of immorality, incest, even cannibalism because at their “love feasts” they would call each other brother and sister, greet each other with a holy kiss, and eat the body and blood of Jesus.

After the persecutions were over and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the martyrs and confessors (those who suffered but who were not martyred) were loved, reverenced, idealized and venerated. They were appealed to as intercessors when praying to God. Their bones became relics of veneration. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea (787 AD) it was decided that relics must be placed on the altar of a new church before it could be consecrated. (Christian History, Issue 27.) These who “overcame by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11)—these became a stumbling block to many in their development of a Christ-centered faith.

Today, we are also awed by the stories of those early martyrs as well as modern ones, and for the suffering church in different parts of the world. It has been estimated that in the very first decade of the twenty-first century, 1 million Christians have died for their faith , and average of 100K a year. (JL Allen, 9 Nov 2012, National Catholic Reporter.) We read their stories and hear from various ministries how the church has grown through their witness. Remarkable! But let us not fail to recognize that persecution has also devastated once vibrant Christian communities, especially in the Middle East in particular. Millions have suffered and have been displaced from their homelands. They are facing intense pressure from poverty and starvation, continuing threats and abuse, torture and inhumane imprisonment, and grief over lost loved ones.

One representative of a ministry that deals with the suffering church writes, “Sadly, one-sided stories and perceptions of persecution do not merely blur reality, but they also do damage both to the persecuted and non-suffering church. When persecution is only told as a story of heroism, it blinds us to the reality that Christians living under persecution are human beings who desperately need our care and support… They should not be pressured to share only their ‘heroism’ or ‘miracles’ and to hide from us the depths of their suffering and tears. Similarly, it creates an illusion of an other worldly Christian experience that we do not see in normal settings. The outcome of this is that people think their personal stories and faith do not mean as much as the celebrated persecution stories. They forget that it is grace that saves us all and only grace that sustains all of us. A persecuted Christians is a sinner just like a non-persecuted one. Both need Christ’s redemption….We lack a theology of persecution in the contemporary church.”

The issue for us today is not to idealize persecution or to seek after it if it comes…when it comes…wherever it comes. Our main concern today is to ask “am I willing to live for Jesus”—and to pray for those who are suffering for their faith, whether they have victory stories or not, that they would be comforted and cared for by the Holy Spirit and his church. We can also support ministries that do not glory in the story, but who provide care and material support for our suffering brothers and sisters.

Get ready for the journey into CH 101!