Loss is Never Easy

I didn’t know Kobe Bryant – or any of the other people who were in the helicopter with him when it crashed. Nor did 99.99% of the people who are grieving today at the loss.

Grief does not demand closeness.

People grieve when a president, a well-known actor or actress, a legendary writer, or a respected businessperson passes away. They don’t have to be of your political persuasion or even from your country. You don’t have to know them personally. When certain people die it’s as if something is taken from us. Part of our collective self is diminished.

But there has to be something more than grief. After all, at it’s base, grieving is really about me. We grieve because the loss affects us in some way. To be more than a self-centered act there must be more.

We have to turn our grief into something that makes a difference.

For the Christian that means linking our grief to something that transcends the moment; the situation. It means going beyond our grief and finding not only solace but hope.

What we will find beyond our grief is eternity. That’s where hope lies and that should motivate us to use our grief for a higher purpose.

Kobe Bryant didn’t get into that helicopter expecting the unexpected. But the unexpected happened. It does every day. Hundreds of times a day.  Most of the unexpected events in our lives amount to very little but some are life and death. And we need to be focused on something higher.

One thing that is true for all of us is that life is uncertain, but death is certain. The Bible teaches that in several passages using ordinary illustrations to help us see.

Our days on earth are a shadow (Job 8:9).

My days are like a shadow that declines; and I am withered like grass (Psalm 102:11).

What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes away (James 4:14).

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass wither, and the flower thereof falls away (1 Peter 1:24).

In the scope of eternity, the length of life isn’t long. That’s why making sense of loss is so important.

I wonder if Kobe or any of the other people with him had ever heard the gospel? Had anyone ever told them that God loves them? Had they ever come face-to-face with Jesus?

That is the only way that our loss and our grief make any lasting sense. It has to be more than about us or even about them. It has to be about where they – and all of us will spend eternity.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

A Christian Response

Las Vegas, Nevada – 58/500+
Sutherland Springs, Texas – 26/20

That’s how many people were killed and wounded at two terrible shootings in our country between October 1 and November 5. In 36 days.

84/520+.

I’ll leave the political debate to others. My concern is from another perspective. Since the vast majority of my audience is made up of Evangelical Christians, the issue for us, most of who are far removed from either Nevada or Texas, is how do we respond?

How should Christians respond to horrific events in our culture?

After the shooting in Las Vegas I suggested five Christian responses in a blog published on October 2. You can read it here.

The five responses I gave following the Las Vegas shooting were:

-Hate is Wrong
-Sinful Anger is Not an Option
-Revenge is Out of the Question
-Prayer is Always Good
-Self Inspection is Appropriate
-Forgiveness is Always Right

Those are still good points. Let me add three more.

Recognize the Awfulness of Sin

This is a bottom line issue and the bottom line is that men are sinners (Romans 3:23) and sinners do terrible things. Sure not all sinners do such extremely bad things, but we are all capable of the most horrific actions. It’s time that we faced the reality of the awfulness of sin (James 1:15). There’s nothing good about it. It’s like a cancer that eats away at your life until there is nothing left. The sin that was committed in Sutherland Springs should cause us to take swift and fierce action against any sin in our own lives.

Recognize Your Own Deadly Potential

The problem is that we downplay sin. It’s not so bad. At least my sin isn’t so bad. So we keep it and it lives in the deep recesses of our lives. And all the while it’s worse than we can even imagine. The step from lust to adultery, from anger to hatred, from hatred to murder is much smaller than we think. The deadly potential for unspeakable sin lies deep in all of us – just ask King David (2 Samuel 11-12, Psalm 51). We are not as far from Devin Kelley as we would like to think.

Rejoice in the Grace of God

But then there’s grace. Praise God for grace! It is only the grace of God that keeps any of us from committing more horrific sins than we do. It was grace that took a sworn enemy of Christianity like Paul and turned him into the greatest missionary of the church. It was grace that took a slave trader like John Newton and changed his heart so that he wrote one of the most enduring hymns of Christendom. And it’s only the grace of God that will help us cope with the terrible sins in our culture. And in that grace we can and should rejoice.

As you grapple with the awfulness of sin and your own potential for sin and the wonderful grace of God, remember to pray for the people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Responding to Violence

Another shooting. More violence. More deaths. It’s getting to the place where it doesn’t surprise us anymore. We almost expect it.

As of this afternoon the death toll in the Las Vegas shooting stood at 58 with another 515 people wounded. 573 people whose lives have been forever changed – and that doesn’t take into consideration the thousands of people – wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children, moms, dads, cousins and friends of the dead and wounded who have been dramatically impacted.

What are we to make of these life-changing events?

How should we respond?

People are going to have a variety of responses ranging from anger to sadness. And that’s understandable on a human level. However, for the Christian there are some appropriate ways to respond and they will take more than a human effort.

Those who don’t confess faith in Christ will struggle to understand this. In fact many Christians will struggle to respond in a Christ-like way. The struggle is not wrong as long as you end up in the right place.

So here are a few responses and how Christians should understand them.

Hate is Wrong

To be a little more specific – hatred of the shooter is wrong. You can hate the tragedy, or the conditions that drove him to act this way, or a society that has degenerated to this point, but to hate the individual, no matter how grievous their crime is wrong. Jesus taught us to not only love those who love us, but to love those who don’t love us (Matthew 5:43f). Hatred does not solve the problem, it exacerbates the problem (Proverbs 10:12) and leaves you filled with bitterness (Hebrews 12:15).

Sinful Anger is Not an Option

The Bible is filled with warnings about the dangers of anger (Psalm 37:8, Ecclesiastes 7:9, Ephesians 4:31, James 1:19-20), but apparently there is an anger that is not sinful (Ephesians 4:26), such as anger against evil or sin. But the overriding message of the Bible is that anger is not the solution in most situations in life, in fact in the vast majority of cases it is sinful. Jesus equated anger with murder in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22) so when our response is to be angry with the shooter, we have put ourselves side by side with him.

Revenge is Out of the Question

In a passage of the Bible that falls into the one of the hardest to obey category, we’re told that revenge is out of the question (Romans 12:17-21). As much as we would like to set things right by doing to the shooter what he did to so many innocent people, God says that we just can’t go there. Revenge is His option, not yours. Your only option is to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Prayer is Always Good

Prayer is appropriate at a time like this. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the families and friends of those who died or were wounded. Pray for the family of the shooter. Pray for the people who have been traumatized. Pray for the responders who had to deal with the shooting and with those who had been shot. Pray for the government officials who need to wrestle with this issue. Pray for a solution to violence. Pray for peace. Prayer is always good (Luke 18:1f, Philippians 4:6, 1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Self Inspection is Appropriate

When violence happens we are quick to focus on the person responsible for the violence to the exclusion of examining our own hearts. But how many times have we acted in hatred? How many times have we caused pain to another person? How many times have we allowed violence to control us? Times like this are good times for some self inspection. Again, the Bible has something to say about our hearts and it’s not necessarily good (Jeremiah 17:9, Matthew 15:18-20). A lack of self inspection usually leads to self-deception.

Forgiveness is Always Right

Always. Forgiveness is one of the distinguishing attributes of the Christian faith. We are to forgive regardless of the severity of the crime. It’s fair to say that without forgiveness there would be no Christian faith. It’s that important. God forgives us when we repent of our sin and express faith in Christ (Psalm 32:1-2, Luke 7:47-48, Ephesians 1:7, 1 John 1:9) and He forgives us for the innumerable sins we commit as Christians. How then do we withhold forgiveness from others? We are to forgive regardless of their offense (Matthew 6:15, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness is always right.

Responding to violence as terrible as this will not be easy. It will take more grace than you can muster. That’s why you need to rely on His grace. With the grace that only God can give, you can respond in a godly way.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

It’s Not About What You Want, It’s About What (God Knows) You Need

Life is not easy. We go through a thousand trials and wonder when we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think of people that God has placed in my sphere of ministry and the pain that they are going through – serious health issues, financial problems, loss of a loved one, family issues etc. etc. You probably have people in your circle facing the same things. You might be.

If that is your story – you’re not alone. How many times did the writers of the Psalms cry out, Hear me when I call, O God (Ps 4:1); God, deliver me! (Ps 70:1); God, don’t be far from me! (Ps 71:12). We can all identify with those sentiments. We’ve been there. And when we’re in that situation and we’ve cried out to God but nothing has changed – we wonder why God doesn’t help us. Is he ignoring us? Doesn’t He care?

Several years ago my daughter, a young mother, shared some of the Biblical truths that she had been learning from the Word of God.

I want to share some of it with you. She’s right on target.

If you are going through hard times, I hope this ministers to you in an encouraging, healing way.

“After church last night, I was up thinking. We’ve been studying the prophets, many of whom were quite dramatic. Several, maybe more than I realize, came to a point in life where they begged God to let them die rather than face their circumstances, and the pastor was talking about how God met their needs by not giving them what they were asking for. It’s something I’ve heard before…God gives us exactly what we need. Sometimes, it seems like a trite statement and not very encouraging. Especially when what I am so convinced I need isn’t happening, and I think if God is so loving why isn’t He moving, doing, fixing, revealing Himself? Last night, I realized that statement – God gives us exactly what we need – isn’t such a small thing to say. As a parent, I am often begged, pleaded with, cried out to, asked by my kids for something that they are CONVINCED they NEED. And I know that they don’t need it, and in fact, it is not in their best interests to give it to them. Yet, I’m tired out – tired of saying No one more time, tired of the tears when they don’t get what they think they need, tired of being the unpopular mom, so I give in. I just want to see them smile, squeal with joy, hug me…even when I know that is short lived. I end up giving them what is not best for them. I imagine God in the same situation with me, yet He continues to say No to me and bears my tears, complaints, even anger and doubt because He knows that what I am asking Him for (even though I believe it to be the best thing) is not the best thing, is not what is needed.”

There’s a song by Laura Story (you can listen to it here). Part of it says:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering

All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?

What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?

I want to encourage you to take another look at your trials. To submit your trials to a loving God. To look at your trials differently. He’s working in your life. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need. And He knows what you need.

What if the trials in this life really ARE His mercies in disguise? What would you miss if you chose to avoid them?

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What if You Don’t Get Through This?

In our Adult Bible Fellowship classes at our church we’re going through Max Lucado’s DVD series You’ll Get Through This. Using Joseph as his model, Lucado emphasizes that when a Christian goes through hard times You fear you won’t make it through. We all do. We fear that the depression will never lift, the yelling will never stop, the pain will never leave. In the pits, surrounded by steep walls and aching reminders, we wonder: Will this gray sky ever brighten? This load ever lighten?

Lucado’s answer is:

You’ll get through this.
It won’t be painless.
It won’t be quick.
But God will use this mess for good.
Don’t be foolish or naïve.
But don’t despair either.
With God’s help, you’ll get through this.

This is not a new idea. The old hymn most of us sang as children (depending on how old you are!) said:

Be not dismayed what-e’er betide; God will take care of you.
Beneath His wings of love abide; God will take care of you.

God will take care of you, thro’ every day, o’er all the way.
He will take care of you; God will take care of you.

In other words, You’ll get through this.

As much as this appeals to me, I wonder about the person whose depression never does lift. About the family where the yelling never does stop. About the wife whose pain never leaves her.

What happens when the gray sky is never bright again or the load is never lightened?

It happens.

So what do we say? Have we been sold a lie? Is God not who we think He is? Has He failed us in some way?

I think there’s more to this than simply saying You’ll get through this. While I agree with a lot that Max Lucado says – trials won’t be painless, they won’t always be quick; God will use this mess for good, because that’s what God does; you don’t need to despair because you can get through it with God’s help; there’s more that needs to be said.

Here are a few thoughts.

1) It’s possible that Lucado means different things by the words he uses than I understand. When he says You’ll get through this he may include eternity in his statement (although his statement doesn’t make sense in eternity). If he’s including, not just this life but eternity then it’s true You’ll get through this.

2) It may be that we have the wrong idea of what it means to get through this. Did the people mentioned in Hebrew 11 get through this or did God fail them (Hebrews 11:32-38)? Getting through might look more like pain and suffering than healing and resolution.

3) It may not be God’s will/plan to remove all of your pain and suffering. Many Christians (Hebrews 11 again) throughout history have suffered and died without healing, without seeing a resolution, without knowing why God didn’t change things. Certainly we would not want to claim that God’s plan never includes unresolved suffering.

4) What we need to teach people is that the issue is not getting through our problems but how we deal with our problems.

The average person deals with his/her problems on their own, in their own strength, by getting even, by masking their pain, by venting their anger, by throwing their hands up in despair.

The Christian, on the other hand, should deal with their problems with God’s help, in His strength, by forgiving, by having a Biblical perspective on suffering and dealing with their pain accordingly (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Hebrews 12:1-11) , by rejecting anger, by trusting God. And most of all by accepting whatever comes into their life as coming from the hand of a loving God who knows what is best for them – even when none of it makes sense.

So even if you don’t get through this in this life, trust that God has something for you in the pain and the sufferings of life.

Without being presumptuous, I’d like to suggest another perspective for those facing pain and suffering – or as Lucado says, for those down in Egypt (Joseph).

This has a purpose.
It won’t be painless.
It won’t be quick.
But God will use this mess for good.
Don’t be foolish or naïve.
But don’t despair either.
With God’s help, you’ll be better for it.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Keeping Perspective

It’s important to keep life in perspective. In fact, perspective is everything.

This week my Facebook page is filled with the colors of the French flag as people identify with the French people in their hour of suffering. Blue, white, and red are evident in abundance. And that’s as it should be.

However we cannot allow the evil that resulted in such tragedy to dominate our hearts and minds. It’s too easy to throw up our hands in despair or – on the other side, to let anger and even hatred fill our hearts. It’s a matter of perspective.

What should our perspective be in the face of such evil and suffering? Here are a few things that should dominate our thinking.

>We have a God of grace and mercy

Our focus is not to be on evil but on good, and as Jesus reminded us only God is good (Matthew 19:17). That means that He is to be our focus. He is to be the One who dominates our hearts and minds. In a time of suffering, confusion and turmoil we are to see His Grace and His Mercy. He is the One who puts it all into perspective.

>Light dispels darkness

It’s a universal truth. Light will always dispel the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome light – light always overcomes darkness. That’s true in the physical realm and it’s even truer in the spiritual. Whenever a great tragedy happens it seems like we are being engulfed by the darkness. But as long as we carry the light (Matthew 5:14-16) there is hope for those in darkness. Light puts the darkness into perspective.

>Love conquers hate

Someone posted on Facebook this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. As counterintuitive as it seems we are called to love the hater who took so many innocent lives because only love can drive out hatred. We’re not only commanded to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39) we’re commanded to love those who bomb us and take the lives of our sons and daughters (Matthew 5:43-48). As hard as that is – it’s how Jesus loved us (Romans 5:8). Love puts hatred into perspective.

>Jesus is the answer

It’s tempting to think that bombs and killing are the answer. But they’re not. Humanity has been bombing evil (often a matter of perspective) since anyone can remember. And it’s still here. It just changes form – and names. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the evil or concede defeat. I’m just saying that force is not the ultimate answer to evil. It will always come back. The ultimate answer is Jesus Christ and that’s where Christians need to focus their time, energy, and resources. Jesus puts the entire world into perspective.

Empathize with the French people. Pray for them. Show your support for them. Mourn those who were lost. But keep it all in perspective.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

It’s About Living

A rather odd occurrence has happened in our county (Berks County, PA). In the span of less than four weeks two evangelical pastors have been involved in fatal motorcycle accidents, one killing the pastor the other killing the pastor’s wife and leaving the pastor in critical condition. Many people are asking hard questions – questions that don’t have easy answers. It was the topic of conversation among the tellers when I stopped at the bank this morning.

As Christians we often turn to the words of the Apostle Paul in times of tragedy; if I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more. I don’t know what to choose. I could keep on living and doing something useful. It is a hard choice to make. I want to die and be with Christ, because that would be much better (Philippians 1:21-23). We find comfort that our loved one is in a far better place. And that is a profound truth.

But it’s easy to miss the emphasis of the Apostle in this passage – if I live, it will be for Christ. His point is living, not dying. For me to live is Christ! Yes, dying brings us into a better place, a better relationship, a better future. But before death is life and God wants us to know how to live.

At the moment it seemed like coincident. Early this morning I received word of one of the accidents that had taken place last night. On my way into the church I turned on my radio hoping to get more information. As I searched the dial landed on a Christian radio station so I listened because the pastor was preaching from this exact text. At the end of his sermon he challenged his listeners to complete this sentence: For me to live is ________________.

It would be a good exercise for all of us to fill in the blank.

For me to live is retirement
For me to live is my children
For me to live is the weekend
For me to live is golf
For me to live is my portfolio

What is life for you?

The question that every one of us has to answer is; What are you living for? What is the point of your life? Most things that people live for are not wrong but they should not be the essence of your life as a Christian.

For the Christian there is only one answer that completes the sentence: For me to live is Christ! He has to be first. He has to be the focus. He has to be that which supersedes everything else. It has to be Christ.

To live life for anything less is to waste the most valuable part of life.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve