Monday, August 20, 2018

Truth is Truth

In a television interview with NBC's Chuck Todd, President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed that “truth isn't truth.” When Chuck Todd made the statement that "truth is truth," Rudy Giuliani countered, "No it isn't truth. Truth isn't truth." If truth isn't truth, then what is truth?

The dictionary states that truth is “the quality or state of being true.” But as I looked at another definition that is listed in the dictionary I read, “A fact or belief that is accepted as true.”

When you ask a Christian what is the truth you will get some different answers but most of the time there will be something like this; "My church teaches the truth."

To answer the question, what is truth, I’m afraid that I have to tell you that no denominational doctrines individually, nor all of them collectively, constitute the truth. Did you hear me? None of them constitute the truth… unless they are centered in, informed by, and presented with the love of Christ.

In Ephesians 4:21,22 (NCV) Paul wrote, "I know that you heard about Him, and you are in Him, so you were taught the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught to leave your old self—to stop living the evil way you lived before."

I want us to go back to the dictionary definition. The one that I actually think most of us mean when we use the word truth. Truth is a fact or belief that is accepted as true. All humans believe in the truth….as long as we used that definition. Paul added a layer of meaning when he wrote, “you were taught the truth that is in Jesus.”

We as Christians should believe and teach the truth. Not the truth that is a fact or belief that is accepted as true, but the truth that is in Jesus. What exactly does that mean?

You may remember that Jesus once said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:32 (NCV) Then a little later in John 14:6 (NCV) He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The only way to the Father is through me."

I hope that you see that truth isn’t just a bunch of abstract factual information to memorize, quote, and argue about. Truth is a person, and His name is Jesus. So what is the “truth” like when it is preached outside of Jesus? For one thing, truth apart from Jesus is merely raw data void of personality and character. It doesn’t have a face, a heart, or a personal desire for you. Secondly, truth apart from Jesus is emotionally brutal because all it can do is impose guilt and arouse fear. It cannot save, heal, or transform the heart.

As a matter of fact, preaching a list of doctrinal truths and behavioral standards while failing to preach Jesus as the Truth actually kills. I know that is a bold statement but I have seen it happen. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV) we read, "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Paul is telling us that the bare facts of the truth, preached without Jesus as the living, loving, compassionate center, have the effect of killing people on a spiritual, emotional, and relational level. Truth that does not magnify Jesus can only drive people away from God in despair or produce in them a spirit of condemnatory Pharisaism.

We read in John 1:14 (NCV), “The Word became a human and lived among us. We saw his glory—the glory that belongs to the only Son of the Father—and he was full of grace and truth." Grace and truth! Why is that combination so important? Truth without grace can only heap shame upon sinners, but grace combined with truth brings healing.

We don’t merely need truth—the bare bones of doctrinal facts -- we need the truth as it is in Jesus—the living example of God’s love and grace.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Making Pizza

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 15, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.

The sounds of youthful conversation and laughter echoed down the hall. I walked through the corridors of the church to investigate. As I approached the fellowship room, I could hear more clearly. The cheerful noised seemed to be coming from the kitchen. What was in the kitchen that could create such joy and happiness in a group of kids?

When I poked my head into the room, I saw that the youngsters were busily working away as they talked and giggled. There were large mixing bowls on the counter, and the kids were kneading mounds of dough with their hands. Flour seemed to be everywhere; on the counter, on the floor, and on the kids. They were preparing for a homemade Chicago style deep dish pizza party that evening.

The kids were part of the Jesus First youth group. They were hosting an End of Summer Student Dedication party. They had invited area school-aged kids to an evening of pizza, fun, games, singing, and worship to mark the end of summer vacation and the beginning of a new school year.

After the pizza dough had risen, the kids were back in the kitchen placing the dough in a dozen large pans. I was amused as I watched them put the dough in each pan and try to spread it out over the bottom and up the sides. The dough wasn’t cooperating, but eventually there was dough in every pan; ready to become a Chicago Style deep dish pizza. When the rest of the kids arrived, the pizzas were ready to be made.

The kids paired up, and each pair was responsible for building a pizza. They started by pressing a nice thick layer of Mozzarella cheese into the dough. Next, they covered the cheese in tomato sauce followed by toppings such as olives, onions, peppers, and mushrooms. To top off their pizza creations, they covered everything with another layer of Mozzarella cheese. When all of the finished pizzas were ready to be placed in the ovens, it was time for fun and games.

Pastor Tony lead out in lively, uplifting songs with the kids eagerly singing along. One of the evenings favorite activities was the cocoon race where each participant was wrapped tightly in a sheet, then tried to make it to the finish line as quickly as possible. The cheering and laughter filled the fellowship hall in a cacophony of noise.

When the pizzas had finished baking, it was time to eat. I had my reservations about pizza made entirely by the kids, but they turned out great. Each pizza was more than two inches of Chicago style goodness and flavor. It didn’t take long for all of the pizzas to be devoured. After everyone had a full stomach, the evening concluded with object lessons about school, friendships, and sticking together. Then the adults gathered around the students and prayers were offered for the success of the new school year.

I enjoyed being a part of the pizza party. I liked the idea of preparing the kids for a new school year by dedicating and blessing them; By letting them know that God and the church want them to have a successful school year.

Some of the kids were excited for school to start again so that they could see their friends and make new ones. Some were sad to see the end of summer vacation. Others were nervous about changing schools and the unknowns of a new school year. When I was in school, I was always excited for a new school year to start. But it has been a long time since I was in school.

Spiritually, many Christians are like those students who aren’t excited about going back to school. They don’t want to have to study. They enjoy summer vacation and don’t want to to be required to study and learn. God knows that not everyone is interested in learning, but He says that “if you really want to gain knowledge, you must begin by having respect for the Lord. But foolish people hate wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7 (NIRV)

King David was the type of student who wanted to go back to school. He said, “Lord, teach me what you want me to do, and I will live by your truth. Teach me to respect you completely.” Psalms 86:11 (NCV) God wants excited and eager students. In 2 Timothy 2:15 (AMP) Paul wrote to young Timothy, “Study and do your best to present yourself to God approved, a workman who has no reason to be ashamed, accurately handling and skillfully teaching the word of truth.”

We should never get tired of studying and learning from God’s textbook, the Bible. It outlines God’s commands for successful living and wisdom for our life’s journey. Just like a student who refuses to study and learn will not be equipped to be a success when they grow up, if we as Christians don’t study the text that God has given us, we won’t be successful.

Gentle Reader, Are you excited about going to school? Do you love studying? When was the last time you took the time to study God’s Word in depth? You don’t want Jesus to say, “you don’t understand, because you don’t know what the Scriptures say, and you don’t know about the power of God.” Matthew 22:29 (NCV) Instead, ask God to “teach me how to do Your will, for You are my God. Allow Your good Spirit to guide me on level ground, to guide me along Your path.” Psalms 143:10 (VOICE)

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Character of God

I like listening to a podcast called Theology in the Raw. It is a daily radio show hosted by Preston Sprinkle. He is a professor at Eternity Bible College in Boise, Idaho. Each weekday he does his best to take a fresh look at what the Bible says. Putting down his own opinions and traditions, Preston tries to address each issue by looking at what scripture truly has to say about each topic.

In talking about his teaching style Preston says, “rather than telling students what to believe, I point them to study scripture to form their beliefs. I mean, really comb through the text and soak themselves in the biblical narrative to gain the massive view of God that Scripture beautifully sets forth.”

For several weeks the podcast has been doing an in-depth study on the doctrine of hell. The majority of the time has been spent looking into the question, is annihilation a biblical view of hell?

To give you a bit of background, the college that Preston teaches at, Eternity Bible College, is the educational arm of Cornerstone Community Church in Wildomar, California. Eternity Bible College’s statement of beliefs says, “We believe that after death, the souls of unbelievers remain in conscious misery until the Second Resurrection when they shall appear at the Great White Throne Judgment and shall be cast into the Lake of Fire, not to be annihilated, but to suffer everlasting, conscious punishment.”

After reading the statement of belief, I was surprised by the recurring theme of the podcasts on hell: Without a doubt, the annihilation view of hell is an evangelical option.

In the podcast, Preston asked for dialog via e-mail. I sent him the following e-mail. “I recently started listening to your podcast, Theology in the Raw. I enjoy the way that you really dig into the scriptures.
I appreciate your insistence that the weight of evidence; i.e., the number of verses that talk about an end to the wicked vs. those that seem to indicate something eternal. It seems to me that the white elephant in the room when Christians discuss this topic is something that you alluded to but then seemed to pass right over.  That is conditional immortality. If man's immortality is conditional, then Eternal Torment cannot be what the Bible teaches. If man's soul is immortal, then annihilation cannot be correct. I would love to hear you delve into this topic with the thoroughness that I have heard in your podcasts on hell.

One comment you made in the podcast was that our emotions shouldn't come into play when we study the topic of hell. I would like to disagree respectfully. The subject of Eternal Torment is also wrapped up into the character of God. We all have slightly different views on the character of God depending on our background and our experience, but my view of His character does affect how I discern scripture. Eternal Torment doesn't fit with my view of God's character, and I think that if most Christians really thought about their view of His character they would realize that Eternal Torment isn't compatible with their view of God either.

I appreciate a fresh voice that actually studies the scriptures instead of totally relying on church tradition.”

A few days later on the podcast, Preston referred to my e-mail and answered the question, “What role do emotions play in interpreting the Bible?”

He stated, “The reason why I try to stay clear from emotions when interpreting the text is primarily because the annihilation view often gets accused of being built on emotional arguments only. I’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘well it's obviously not in the Bible, people just want that view because they can't stomach eternal conscious torment.’ Let’s try to set our emotions aside and look at what the biblical text says apart from emotions. I don't like the fact that people write off annihilation without even looking at the Bible. So that's my main point in saying that it shouldn’t be based on emotions.

I do agree though that whether you like it or not, your emotions do play a role in interpreting scripture. That’s just a fact. Human emotions and background and baggage and culture and gender; all these things go into interpretation. They shouldn't dictate your interpretation, but they do contribute to it and shape it. I don't want to say that no, we just read the Bible with no emotions. I don't think that’s possible. We're human beings that have emotions. I just don’t think our views should be dictated purely by emotions.

This commenter said something really interesting, and I agree with this, that if our view of hell is incompatible with the character of God, then that should mean something. If my emotions regarding the nature of hell, say the eternal conscious torment view, stem from my view of God. I look in Scripture and see the character of Christ, the character of God and the Holy Spirit and that shapes my emotions and therefore my emotions have sort of an allergic reaction against eternal conscious torment; not because of just my emotions but because that view conflicts with what I know about the character of God, then I do think that that should be considered. That's different. I would call those theological emotions. These aren’t just raw emotions like, I don’t like that I will dismiss it, I like that I will take it. We can’t just pick and choose what we want to believe based on emotions, but I do think that as we reflect on the character of God certain doctrines should line up with what we know about God.

I would put the burden of proof on those who would say that the character of God in the Bible, the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, necessitates that he would keep alive people for billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of years so that he can torment them and then he is just getting started. That doesn't make sense to me when I look at the character of God. But again, I need biblical support specifically for why the view is or isn't correct.”

If you ask most Christians what hell is, most will tell you that it is a place where the wicked go when they die and are tortured in fire for the rest of eternity. This traditional view of hell is not one of disembodied spirits, but of resurrected, living people whom God has made immortal, so they can endure physical and emotional torment for all eternity.

But today there are a growing number of evangelical Christians who reject the majority doctrine of hell known as eternal conscious torment. These Christians are embracing a historical and biblical alternative known as conditional immortality. This idea is also known as annihilationism.

Many church fathers of the first four centuries of the Christian faith held this view. In the first century, Ignatius said the Lord suffered “that He might breathe immortality into His Church.” After all, “were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.” Second-century Irenaeus was clear: life “is bestowed according to the grace of God,” and whereas the saved “shall also receive length of days for ever and ever,” the lost instead “deprives himself of continuance for ever and ever” and “shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.”

Although this view was eventually replaced by what is now the traditional view, a growing number of conservative evangelicals promote it today as the doctrine of conditional immortality. According to this view, in the end God will grant immortality only to those who meet the condition of being united to Christ in faith. The risen lost will instead be annihilated: denied the gift of immortality, dispossessed of all life of any sort, and die the second death, never to live again.

I recently purchased the second edition of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. It outlines four different views of hell. The book highlights why the church still needs to wrestle with the doctrine of hell. Four leading scholars introduce the current views on eternal judgment, with particular attention being given to the new voices that have entered the debate.

In the annihilation section, the book outlines four main points. As we go through these points, you might want to take some notes and write down some texts. We will not have time to go through them all this morning.

Point Number 1 - Scripture consistently teaches that the fate of the unsaved is to die, to perish, to be destroyed forever—in ways those words are ordinarily understood.

Peter says the reduction to ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the death of their inhabitants is an example of what awaits the ungodly. (2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7). He compares the future fiery destruction of the wicked to those who perished in Noah’s flood (2 Peter 3:6–7). Jesus indicates that God will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:4). He also tells a parable in which weeds are burned up (Matt 13:30). Jesus then interprets his parable, saying the wicked will likewise be thrown into a fiery furnace (Matt 13:40–42), alluding to Malachi’s prophecy that the lost would one day be reduced to ashes beneath the feet of the righteous (Mal 4:1–3).

The book goes on to say that, “We have been trained—intentionally or unintentionally—to overlook the plain meaning of some of the most famous Bible verses. Paul says, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Jesus, too, says “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Overwhelmingly the Bible uses death and destruction language to describe the final fate of the lost; fifty verses in the NT alone.

Point Number 2: Scripture consistently teaches that human beings are mortal and will not live forever unless God grants them immortality. This he will grant to the saved but will withhold from the lost, who therefore will not live forever.

God had warned Adam that “in the day” he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die (Gen 2:17). The Hebrew phrase translated “in the day” often just means “when,” and doesn’t mean literally within 24 hours any more than when one says, “When you eat too much, you get fat.” It is a true statement, but it doesn’t happen in one day. When God carries out the sentence of which he had warned, that sentence is clearly literal death.

He says that “to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and he evicts Adam and Eve from the garden so that they will not “live forever,” lacking access to the tree of life (Gen 3:22–23). So mankind fell into mortality; as Paul later writes, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Rom 5:12).

However, there is still hope. Immortality can be sought and granted (Rom 2:7). The tree of life, which would have sustained the lives of Adam and Eve indefinitely, reappears at the other end of the Bible in Revelation, where the saved—and they alone—enjoy its fruit (Rev 22:2). Paul says that resurrected believers will become immortal, made fit to inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor 15:50–55); Jesus himself says they, the sons of God, will be unable to die anymore, implying the lost will be able to die (Luke 20:35–36).

Point Number 3: Scripture consistently teaches that as a substitutionary atonement, Jesus suffered the wages of sin—death—in the place of his people. Those who reject his gift, therefore, will pay those wages themselves.

Jesus took the place of sinners and suffered what they would have suffered, in their stead. That fate was death (Rom 5:6, 8; 1 Cor 15:1–4; 2 Cor 5:15). Were there any lingering suspicion that what Jesus suffered was anything other than literal death, Peter says he was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Pet 3:18), and the author of Hebrews says that what was offered was his body (Heb 10:10). Those who must suffer his fate themselves will therefore likewise die, rather than live forever.

Point Number 4: Proof-texts historically cited as support for eternal torment prove upon closer examination to be better support for conditional immortality and annihilationism.

Isaiah 66:24 says of the wicked, “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” Alluded to by Jesus in Mark 9:48, this is often understood as meaning the fire will forever have fuel to burn, and that the worms will forever have food to eat. As that food and fuel, the living wicked will, therefore be tormented forever, or so the reasoning goes.

In reality, unquenchable fire burns up irresistibly (Ezek 20:47–48; Jer 17:27; Amos 5:6). So, too, undying worms and other unstoppable scavengers completely devour corpses (Deut 28:26; Jer 7:33).
Daniel is told that only the righteous will be granted eternal life, while the unrighteous will be raised to “eternal contempt” (Dan 12:2)—the Hebrew dērāʾôn refers to something held in contempt by others, not to something felt by those who are themselves contemptible (Isa 66:24). Jesus likewise limits “eternal life” to the righteous, suggesting that by “eternal punishment” he means eternal capital punishment—death forever (Matt 25:46). Paul confirms this conclusion, saying the wicked will pay the penalty of “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:9), alluding to Isaiah’s scene in which God’s enemies are slain and their corpses completely consumed. The phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal destruction” do not imply ongoing activity any more than “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” imply ongoing saving or redeeming (Heb 5:9; 9:12).

John’s apocalyptic, symbolic vision (Rev 14:9–11; 20:10) draws upon OT language and themes to communicate the final destruction of the lost: drinking God’s wrath (Job 21:20–21; Jer 25:15–33), fire, sulfur, and rising smoke (Gen 19:24, 28; Isa 34:9–10)—the latter of which is used elsewhere in John’s vision to predict the destruction of a city (18:7, 10, 15, 21; 19:3). John and God interpret the lake of fire imagery as symbolizing the “second death” of human beings (Rev 20:10, 14; 21:8),
Let’s take a look at these second death texts.  Revelation 2:11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”’ Those who overcome don’t experience the second death. We could say that another way. Those who do not overcome will experience the second death.

Revelation 20 mentions the second death two times. Revelation 20:6 “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” The second death has no power over those who reign with Christ.

Revelation 20:13-15 “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Being cast into the lake of fire is the second death.
Revelation 21:7,8 “And finally He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Hell is equivalent to the second death. God will not subject the wicked to eternal torture in the flames of some underworld or some remote region of His universe. They will be resurrected to face the record of their lives in one final reckoning; then they will be eternally annihilated “as though they had never been” (Obadiah 16). Here's the most remarkable thing of all: not one person needs to experience the second death because Jesus experienced it for all of us—and conquered it. He alone tasted the second death for every person, and He alone could not be held in it because He alone was sinless.

Once we understand the nature of the second death in contrast to the first death, we are ready to comprehend what Jesus endured for us as He agonized in Gethsemane and died on the cross. Both the first death and the second death are the result of sin, but the first is temporary and occurs by physical causes, such as disease or tragedy or old age. The second death, however, does not occur on merely a physical level, but on the psychological level as well, due to the lethal power of one’s guilt. The first death, in a sense, is not really death at all. Jesus called it sleep.

When the Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), it does not merely mean the first death. Many die even though they are saved. When the Bible says of Jesus “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and that He went to the cross so that He “might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9), it does not merely mean the first death. The ultimate wages of sin is the second death. It logically follows that Jesus can only save us from what He has endured and conquered for us. If Jesus only experienced the first death, then he can only save us from the first death, and we must still face the second ourselves. However, the glorious good news is that Jesus faced the full, horrific reality of the second death.

Pay attention as Jesus and His disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is staggering under the weight of some invisible burden. The disciples can see that something is wrong. Jesus explains what’s happening to Him: “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Here He explains the nature of His suffering. Notice that He used the same word He had used earlier to describe the second death as distinct from the first death: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Again, the word here translated “soul” is psyche in the Greek text and that is precisely the word Jesus uses now to communicate what He’s enduring. In Gethsemane, Jesus says He is dying at the psyche level of His being. He is dying from the inside out, under the lethal power of our sin and guilt.

No physical abuse has yet been inflicted upon Him. And yet, He is dying! No blood has yet been spilled from His body by violence. And yet, He is bleeding! Luke tells us: “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He is bleeding through His pores due to the intense internal stress the shame of our sin is imposing on Him. Isaiah 53 offers astounding insight into what Jesus endured for us. Notice verse 6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Then verse 10 says “His soul” was made “an offering for sin.” And, finally, look at verse 12: “He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

This is nothing short of astounding because this means that Jesus entered the darkness of our sin and shame. He took it all into His own conscience as if He were the guilty party instead of us. From Gethsemane, Jesus is taken to the cross. Yes, nails were hammered through His hands and feet. Yes, His body was tortured. And yet, He never uttered a word about the physical pain, because His mental suffering was so intense that it nearly eclipsed His physical pain. I don't think that Jesus could see through to the other side of the tomb. He was afraid that sin was so offensive to God that their separation was to be eternal. At the cross he cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46

For a sustained period, as our guilt enveloped His heart in impenetrable emotional darkness, Jesus could not see life for Himself beyond the grave. But here’s the amazing thing: He was not trapped. His back was not up against a wall with no way out. There are two things He said before the cross that indicate that He was not trapped:

“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17, 18). “Do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).

Don’t miss what this means. Jesus faced the prospect of eternal death, and yet, because he loves you and me, He did not pull back. He was literally willing to die forever and never be reunited to His Father to save us.

This is the incredible truth the conditional immortality understanding of death and hell opens to view. This is the truth that the false doctrines of natural immortality and eternal torment block from view.
Not one person need experience the second death because Jesus experienced it for all of us—and conquered it. He tasted the second death for every person and He alone could not be held in it because He alone was sinless.

Jesus never sinned. Under the fiercest temptations to save Himself, He kept on loving all of us at any cost to Himself. That selfless love, maintained with unbroken integrity straight through Gethsemane and Calvary, was in perfect harmony with the law of God. By love alone, Jesus triumphed over the second death. Therefore, it was impossible for the second death to hold Him. His resurrection is proof of His victory over our sin, our guilt, and our death.

I’m amazed that Jesus could He love me so deeply, so passionately, so selflessly. Is this really what God is like? Can it truly be that the Almighty God of the universe is this incredibly loving?  The answer is YES!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Summer Picnic

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 8, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.

The sun shone brightly on the winding road as it snaked along the mountain’s crest. Magnificent views with varying degrees of hazy blues and greys in the distance were around almost every corner. Tall grass and weeds concealed old rusty guardrails. Occasionally, patches of wildflowers lined the edges of the road. It was a beautiful summer day, and I was going on a picnic.

I have always enjoyed picnics. When I was a boy living in Colorado, my family often went on picnics in the mountains. I loved being outdoors and was frequently too excited to eat much. My favorite food was watermelon that had been chilled by putting it in a cold mountain stream.

As we were driving to our picnic spot on top of the mountain, I thought, “I’m not a kid anymore, but I’m still happy and excited to be going on a picnic with my family.” When we arrived at the picnic area, family members had already found a great spot under a gazebo. It was a warm summer day, but with the shade of the gazebo and light mountaintop breezes, It was very pleasant.

We fried potatoes and onions on the camp stove, and they were very tasty with the hot dogs and black bean salad.  Of course, there were chips and cookies; it was a picnic after all. We spent several relaxing hours there, eating, visiting, and watching the miniature train as it passed by our picnic spot several times filled with happy waving passengers.

While we were on our picnic, we had a family Bible study from the book of Matthew. As we were reading and talking about the life of Jesus, I thought about a time that Jesus was at a picnic. The dictionary definition of the word picnic is, “an occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.” The picnic that Jesus was at was a meal eaten outdoors in the countryside.

We find the story in Matthew chapter 14. Jesus’ cousin, friend, and fellow itinerant preacher, John, had just been put to death by King Herod. “As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Matthew 14:13,14 (NLT) Even though Jesus was in mourning and wanted to spend some time alone, when people came to him and needed help, he had compassion on them.

The crowd that followed Jesus that day was very large. “Those counting the people reported approximately 5,000 men—not including the women and children—sitting in the crowd.” John 6:10 (VOICE) “That evening the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said, ‘That isn’t necessary—you feed them.’”Matthew 14:15,16 (NLT)

“Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. ‘There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?’ ‘Tell everyone to sit down,’ Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted.” John 6:8-11 (NLT) At every family picnic that I have ever been on, everyone ate as much as they wanted. But as many family members, as I have, there have never been thousands of people at one of our family picnics.

This story shows us how much Jesus loves people. He was trying to get away from the crowds to rest for a while without interruption. But when the crowds wouldn’t let him mourn in peace, instead of getting upset, He felt compassion for them and ministered to them by teaching and healing. Then late in the day, He was concerned that the people were hungry, so He provided a meal for them. Our God cares about us. He wants to supply our needs. Christianity is not simply about spiritual matters. Jesus is also concerned about our physical needs.

There are many lessons to be learned from this picnic story. Nothing is too big for God. He is bigger than any problem we face. He wants us to address the problem, but He will multiply our efforts. But today I want us to focus on the compassion of Jesus and what He did about it. I recently heard a Christian pastor say, “feeding the hungry does not help them take responsibility for their lives.” I don’t disagree with that statement, but I look to the example of Jesus. The crowd that he fed had not been responsible. They traveled far into the countryside without taking food with them. But Jesus made sure that they were fed anyway.

In the book of Matthew, “church members” ask this question. “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty and not help you? When did we see you as a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and not help you?’ He will reply, ‘What I’m about to tell you is true. Anything you didn’t do for one of the least important of these, you didn’t do for me.’” Matthew 25:44,45 (NIRV)

Gentle Reader, All people are made in God’s divine image, all are passionately loved by God, and it’s a commandment from God that we love everyone as well. Even those who may not be making responsible decisions. “What if a person has enough money to live on and sees his brother in need of food and clothing? If he does not help him, how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 3:17 (NLV)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 1, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.

Every step that I took caused agonizing pain. The pain was deep within my left foot, stinging and burning, rushing like an igniting fire. Wincing, I tried to walk without stepping on the ball of my foot. But still, the pain seared through my foot, each step felt like a bomb exploding inside.

The pain had started a little over a week earlier. My foot was a little sore, but I didn’t think too much about it. I could touch the bottom of my foot and find the sore spot. I felt a small bump and wondered what was causing it. I thought that maybe I had a splinter in my foot or had stepped on a piece of glass.

We left town for a few days, visiting friends in North Carolina and attending my Aunt's ninetieth birthday party in Tennessee. The first two days were spent driving, and because I spent most of my time sitting in a car and not up on my feet, My foot felt better. I hoped the soreness would go away in a short time. But instead, by the time we traveled home, my foot was sorer than it had ever been.

My first day back at work was very busy. After being gone for four business days, lots of people needed glass replaced. My foot had gotten so painful, that I called the doctor’s office as soon as they opened. I was thankful that they were able to see me the next afternoon, but the rest of my work day was miserable. I couldn’t keep off of my feet, and the pain was awful. Not only did the ball of my foot feel like it was on fire, but the side of my foot hurt from all the time I spent trying not to put weight on the sorest spot.

When I went to see the doctor, he lanced the sore area and drained off the pus. He told me that I had a bad infection, and gave me a prescription for strong oral antibiotics and a topical antibiotic cream. Lancing the infected area and relieving the pressure made it feel better at once. Although it was still sore for several days, by the time a week had passed, I could walk on the foot without pain. I had no idea how I got the infection, but I was very happy to follow the doctor's recommendations and see the treatment eliminate the infection. I wondered what the outcome would have been in the pre-antibiotic era.

In the past, a cut or scratch could kill you. We all have an immune system that fights off infection. When you get an infected cut, your body fights off the infection, and while the healing process may be long and painful, you have a 90% chance of healing without antibiotics. But 10% of the people with an infection like mine would die.

Journalist Maryn McKenna learned the story of her great-uncle while researching her ancestry. She found a newspaper clipping from 1938 that included his story. He was injured at work when a brass hose nozzle fell on him. One of his scrapes became infected. After a couple of days, his shoulder began to ache, and he came down with a fever. Maryn McKenna wrote, “His wife and the neighborhood doctor struggled for two weeks to take care of him, then flagged down a taxi and drove him fifteen miles to the hospital in my grandparents’ town. He was there one more week, shaking with chills and muttering through hallucinations, and then sinking into a coma as his organs failed. Desperate to save his life, the men from his firehouse lined up to give blood. Nothing worked. He was thirty when he died, in March 1938.” Because of infection, his injuries, though not major, proved fatal.

In just a few short years the new wonder drug, penicillin, would have been available and his infection would have been easily treatable. I’m thankful that I live in a time when infections are not usually life-threatening. My doctor ordered a bacterial culture of the pus from my foot and determined that it was a staph infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, “staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.” Around 30% of the population carries Staphylococcus bacteria.

There is another infection that has affected 100% of the world’s population. The Bible tells us that, “Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 (NCV) and in Isaiah 64:6 (NLT) we learn that “we are all infected and impure with sin.” And this infection can be fatal. “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23 (KJV) But fortunately for us, it doesn’t have to be fatal. There is an effective treatment. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 (NKJV) Peter tells us that God “is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.” 2 Peter 3:9 (NLT) To keep the infection from being fatal, we must believe that Jesus can save us and we must repent; “feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right.” (Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary)

Gentle Reader, “when you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Galatians 5:19-23 (NLT) We have all been infected with sin. Don’t let it be fatal; let Jesus save you from your sin and allow the Holy Spirit to produce good fruit in your life.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Carriage House

My An Arkie's Faith column from the July 25, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.

The two cars drove through the driving rain on narrow winding county roads. The rain had been falling for some time, pounding hard on the windshield as the wipers worked hard to keep up. The tidy, well-groomed farms with fields of corn, soybeans, and cotton flashed by. The drivers of the cars were too focused on the narrow black velvet ribbon that wound before them, dark with rain, to be able to appreciate the rural scenery. They had been driving for two days and were nearing their destination. After spending most of their time in heavy interstate traffic and the occasional traffic jam, it was good to be just a few miles away.

A few minutes later they turned onto Fork Road, following the directions on the GPS. The innkeeper had told them that the GPS would tell them that they had arrived at their destination well before they reached it. Sure enough, the GPS said “you have arrived at your destination,” with their lodgings nowhere in sight. They continued down Fork Road to the end of the road and continued through a gate to the Fork Farm and Stables.

They tried to follow the innkeeper’s directions, looking for the big barn. Their lodgings, the carriage house, was supposed to be just past the barn. Through sheets of rain, they saw an imposing building in the distance. It looked like a lodge, and they knew that there was a lodge on the property. As they drove past the “lodge,” they saw that it was a world class equestrian facility. It was far too fancy to call a barn. Sure enough, just past the barn, they saw the carriage house. Thankful to finally be able to relax, they ran through the rain into the house. After drying off, they looked around. The massive wood beams were beautifully cozy. The spiral staircase led upstairs two the attic bedrooms. The warm wood walls angled upward highlighting the charming rooms.

When my wife and I decided to take a trip to rural North Carolina with my sister and her husband to visit friends, I made reservations to stay in the Carriage House at the Fork Farm and Stables. The Fork’s title originated from its location at the confluence of the Pee Dee and Rocky Rivers. It has a long and interesting history. Records from 1748 show that the Colson’s were the first family to settle in the area. In 1771, Mr. Colson was issued a permit for an “Ordinary” or inn where food, drink, and lodging were available to travelers. It was the first licensed tavern in North Carolina.

Colson’s Ordinary was on The King’s Highway, the main road from Charleston to Salisbury. A Revolutionary War battle was fought in the area, and George Washington was a guest of the Colson’s. In 1999 the property was purchased by Jim Cogdell, who turned it into a working farm with world class equestrian facilities with arenas for showcasing dressage and jumping. Three sporting clay shooting courses bring people from a large area to The Fork. There is also duck, quail, dove and deer hunting on the property.

The morning after we arrived at the Carriage House, I woke up refreshed after a great night’s sleep. As I walked outside, I took in the beauty of my surroundings. There were lush green pastures separated into several different areas by gracefully curved board fencing. Beyond the pastures were large wooded areas. The impressive stables with their impeccably manicured landscaping were close by. Two horses came to the fence and whinnied to get my attention. As I was stroking one of the horse's neck, two young fawns appeared from behind the stables. They leisurely made their way to the wooded area behind the pasture.

As I was watching the sunrise and drinking in my beautiful surroundings, I thought about how this place had surpassed my expectations in every way. I had reserved the house for us because in this rural area there are no motels close by. The place looked nice enough in the internet photos, but many places look nicer on the website than they do in real life. Every part of our experience had exceeded our expectations. When it was time for us to leave, we wished that we could stay longer.

It was nice to stay at a place that exceeded our expectations. The last time that we took a trip, the place that we stayed in didn’t meet our expectations. That is always disappointing. But I know that there is a destination that will more than exceed my expectations. In 1 Corinthians 2:9 (NKJV) the Bible tells us that, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” I am “looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness.” 2 Peter 3:13 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, my expectation of heaven comes from John’s description found in Revelation 21:1-4 (NCV) “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and there was no sea anymore. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It was prepared like a bride dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.’” Whatever our expectation of heaven is, God has promised that it will exceed our expectations. I’m longing for heaven; are you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Rainbow Cheerios

My An Arkie's Faith column from the July 18, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.

When my oldest granddaughter is riding in the car with me, she often asks if we can listen to the those Southern Stories. She is referring to a podcast that I like to listen to called Tales from the South. The podcast features true stories written and told by the Southerners who lived them, in front of a live audience.

One of her favorite stories is “Rainbow Cheerios” by Paul Strack. Paul started his story with the words, “Cool – You have Rainbow Cheerios!” He goes on to explain that on the night of April 26, 2011, tornadoes hit the Mayflower, Arkansas area. His 13-year-old daughter learned that her friend’s house had been destroyed.

He reached out to the family and asked, “what can we do to help?” What the family needed most was someplace for their teenage daughters Rachael and Taylor to stay for a few days. Paul recounted, “with three teenagers of our own, and a 10-year-old to boot, we have a pretty good understanding of the adolescent attitude. What was odd and completely unexpected, was the positively bubbly, effervescent attitude that these two brought with them. And to have this attitude after immediately being displaced was nothing short of remarkable.”

When Paul told them how sorry he was for their loss, Taylor replied, “Oh well, what are you gonna do? It’s just a bump in the road.” Rachael quickly chimed in, “Yeah, they will bulldoze our house, and we will get to rebuild. And anyway, Mom finally gets to get her new carpet.” He couldn’t believe their positive attitude.

The next morning at breakfast, Paul heard Rachael exclaim, “How cool!” Rachael repeated – “How Cool! You guys have Rainbow Cheerios!” In the podcast, Paul explained, “we often buy our more popular cereals in bulk and empty the contents into plastic containers so they stay fresh. (No, my own Fiber One is not one of these.) But we often do buy Fruit Loops. You know, those sweet and sugary rings full of all the colors of the rainbow. Cheerios have the Honey Nut version, the Frosted version, and the Banana Nut version and now even the Multi-Grain version, but no rainbow version. Except through the eyes of Rachael.”

Two days after her house was destroyed by a tornado, she was still able to find complete joy – in a bowl of multicolored cereal. Her attitude reminds me of the admonition found in James 1:2 (NIV); “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James goes on to explain, “you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:3,4 (NIV)

We are to consider the troubles that we are going through pure joy, not because the trouble is pleasurable, but because it helps produce patience within us. There is at least one good thing happening to us in the middle of our trouble. Our suffering is more than just pain. God has a purpose, and that purpose is always good. “We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work toward something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan.” Romans 8:28 (VOICE) We can consider all things joy because God is working in all situations, even the most painful, for our salvation.

When our lives are filled with trouble, sorrow, and grief; we must be able to look to the future to find the joy. Jesus is our example. “Now stay focused on Jesus, who designed and perfected our faith. He endured the cross and ignored the shame of that death because He focused on the joy that was set before Him; and now He is seated beside God on the throne, a place of honor.” Hebrews 12:2 (VOICE)

Joy is more than just feeling good. Joy has to do with the acceptance of our present circumstances and deciding to have a positive attitude. It is our positive assessment that God is still in control of our difficult circumstances, and in the end, all things work together for our good. “When my worry is great within me, Your comfort brings joy to my soul.” Psalms 94:19 (NLV)

Charles R. Swindoll writes, “the single most significant decision I can make today is my choice of attitude.” If you let negative attitudes such as anxiety, envy, anger, or bitterness dominate your mind, those attitudes will lead you to make decisions that will affect your life in negative ways. But if you choose with God’s help to have a positive attitude, your life will become positive as a result.

In 1988, Singer-Songwriter Bobby McFerrin recorded the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy," The lyrics say, “in every life, we have some trouble. But when you worry you make it double. Don't worry, be happy. Don't worry, be happy now.” Whenever you have trouble, avoid reacting negatively and instead choose to respond positively. You can’t control situations or people, but you can choose how you’ll respond to them.

Gentle Reader, “be joyful because you have hope. Be patient when trouble comes, and pray at all times.” Romans 12:12 (NCV) “I heartily recommended that you pursue joy, for the best a person can do under the sun is to enjoy life. Eat, drink, and be happy. If this is your attitude, joy will carry you through the toil every day that God gives you under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15 (VOICE) So, what are you gonna do?  When you hit a bump in the road where do you find your Rainbow Cheerios?