Are you a Pharaoh or a Nebuchadnezzar?

The Bible has its share of villains whether it’s King Herod, Pontius Pilate, or Judas Iscariot.  Even King David plays the role of villain before repenting of his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah.  There are two Old Testament villains who stand in stark contrast to one another who can teach us a lot about Christianity.

Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar are two of the baddest guys in the Bible.  Both enslaved the Israelites.  They both contended with two of the greatest heroes of the Bible – Moses and Daniel, respectively.  The difference is that Nebuchadnezzar learned his lesson while Pharaoh did not.

When you read through the account of Exodus, you will see a lot of heart hardening on Pharaoh’s behalf.  Every time Moses performs a miracle Pharaoh hardens his heart.  At first it may appear that he acknowledges the power of God but then he will quickly go back on his word.  This happens repeatedly during the first several plagues that strike Egypt.

After a time though there is a slight change.  Instead of Pharaoh hardening his heart, we’re told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  This thought may make some of us uncomfortable but it’s important to remember that this hardening of the heart is not arbitrary and it only happens after many times of Pharaoh doing it himself.

It appears as though Pharaoh crosses a point of no return, a place where he will never repent and God turns his sinful heart against him in order to bring about the destruction of Egypt due to the hardness of Pharaoh.  History tells us that after Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the Red Sea, the nation is no longer the world power that it had been.

Compare this to Nebuchadnezzar.  By all accounts Nebuchadnezzar was more ruthless than Pharaoh as he conquered a large part of the Middle East.  Pharaoh was considered a god in Egyptian religion but Nebuchadnezzar’s word was just as unquestioned.  Pharaoh killed a lot of Israelite baby boys before Moses but there were still those who defied him.  When Nebuchadnezzar called to execute all of his wise men for being unable to interpret his dream, nobody questioned him in this.

The ultimate difference between the two men is that Nebuchadnezzar ultimately humbled himself after being humbled.  Pharaoh was put in his place time after time through the plagues and yet even after the death of his own son he went back on his word and sent his army out after the Israelites.

Nebuchadnezzar was humbled on multiple occasions as well.  His wise men were shown to be foolish.  Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused to bow to the idol he created and they walked away from their punishment unscathed.  Nebuchadnezzar didn’t learn his lesson completely from these incidents but one could argue that God at least kept them on his mind after each subsequent failure.

Eventually it would take a seven year madness to humble Nebuchadnezzar.  God humbled him just as He did with Pharaoh.  But Nebuchadnezzar decided that he was no longer going to fight against the Lord’s will and he thereby humbled himself.

Christians and non-Christians alike have similar choices to make.  When we mess up – and all of us will – will we humble ourselves and learn from those mistakes like Nebuchadnezzar or will we proudly and stubbornly harden our heart and continue to do things our own way?

God can use a man, even one as wicked as Nebuchadnezzar, when they repent.  On the other hand, Pharaoh got exactly what he had coming to him for defying God and ignoring His hand at work.

Shuffling chairs on the Titanic

There’s an expression – shuffling chairs on the Titanic – that is meant to express frustration and futility.  The idea is that the task is pointless because the ship is going down and it doesn’t matter what seat you’re sitting in.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to use this expression to sum up my summer – really most of my year – but I do feel as if I’ve put a lot of effort into some futile tasks.  I’ve written some about my illness this summer (and one of those posts was lost in a server move – see below.)  The short version is that I was diagnosed with colon cancer this summer.  Two operations, almost a week in the hospital, and lots of bills for my insurance company to pay and I’m pleased to say that I’m cancer free.  Praise the Lord for this and for providing great doctors to take care of me!

The strange thing about this summer is that my struggle with cancer hasn’t been my frustration.  I didn’t enjoy surgery or all of the doctor’s appointments and I’m still physically recovery from losing 18 inches of my colon a month ago.  However, I always had complete faith that everything would be alright in that regard.

My frustration and sense of futility actually comes from my web ministry.  About two months ago I decided that I needed to upgrade my servers.  Spreading Light Ministries has become a network of sites totaling more than two dozen domains and each year I’ve been adding half a dozen more or so.  This meant that it was time to upgrade.  Unfortunately my upgrade was a disaster.  Things were sold to me as an easy switch from one system to another.  After they already had my money I discovered that things were not an easy switch and I never would have agreed to such an upgrade if I knew it required me to manually move my sites and reconfigure each one.  This required about three days of constant work.

To make matters worse, my upgrade was anything but an upgrade.  My new server just didn’t work right and my sites kept becoming inaccessible.  Tech support was good when I called them but things kept crashing about every other day and I didn’t feel as if I should be required to inform them of a problem that they should be monitoring.  In the end I just couldn’t stick with the service as it was far too unreliable.  I ended up switching to a new company that I had done business with before but not for servers.

My new server has been much more reliable and I’m feeling comfortable with where I am at.  However I am still not 100% back to where I was two months ago.  A few files were lost because I restored my backups from June and anything that I had written since then was inaccessible with the crummy server.  If it seems like I’m venting a bit of frustration, well I am.

Christians are not immune to frustration.  It doesn’t mean that we lack faith.  It doesn’t mean that we question God’s goodness.  It simply means that we are human and we live in a fallen world.  Last week I preached that God is still good and I really do believe that despite fighting cancer at a young age.  But we all get frustrated at times.

I have taken this new server move as an opportunity to update a few sites.  Some of it is a necessity and some is just practicality.  But the truth is that I’ve been doing a lot of work and I haven’t really been able to create anything new.  Two months have gone by and there is really nothing to show for it despite all of my work.  That is why I feel like I’m shuffling chairs on the Titanic.

Fortunately, I don’t believe that I’m on a sinking ship.  In the end, this will be more like changing the wall colors in a room that otherwise didn’t need to be painted.  Perhaps it was unnecessary but at least I’ll have a new, brightly colored room in the end.  At least that’s the goal.  Hopefully in a week or two and things move into fall, I’ll have some new great content to add once again.  And hopefully this will be the last digital move that I have to make in a long, long time.

Peace that passes understanding

It is easy to say that a person has faith as a Christian.  But often this is said when there is no stress and no actual call for faith.  Real faith amounts to trusting God when times are difficult – when you fear losing your job, when you have relationship issues, when there are medical problems.  I consider myself to have a decent amount of faith even in the toughest of circumstances but I will be the first to admit that my faith is not complete and that it waivers from time to time.

There are times that I have experienced a faith that is so complete that I know it is not my own.  I have been swept up in a peace that passes all understanding and can only come from God.  I don’t share any of this to brag about my own great faith because it is not about me at all but about God.

I’ve had some medical issues this spring.  This can be traced back to back problems that I had in the fall and really goes back over three years when I developed a hernia.  In short, I’ve been dealing with issues on and off for three years now but I say this without complaining.  Things have come to a head this spring however.  Right at Easter time I discovered that my ongoing back issues were the result of a ruptured disc that I’ve apparently had for many years and was unaware of it.  Therapy has helped alleviate the pain a great deal and I’m very thankful for this.

Just as I was getting better from my back issues (it was literally the day after my chiropractor cut my treatments back) I found myself in the emergency room.  Without being graphic, I’ll say that it involved bleeding and a bathroom issue.  I expected to discover a minor issue that I’d be given medication for and then be sent on my way home.  Instead, I ended up passing out in the bathroom of the emergency room.

This was the first time that I’ve ever passed out and I must say that it was a very surreal experience.  One minute I was awake, the next moment I was surrounded by doctors and nurses in a hospital bed where they were hooking up IV’s and monitors.  As I was stabilized, it became apparent that what I thought was a minor issue was going to involve at least spending the night in the hospital.  My passing out was a result of dehydration and minor blood loss.  The doctors would be running multiple tests to determine the cause of my problem.

At this moment, despite not knowing what was really going on, I found myself overwhelmed with peace.  I was exactly where I needed to be.  If I had waited to get checked out, as my first thought had been, in all likelihood I would have passed out at home.  There’s no telling what the effects would have been on my body but I’m certain that it would have at least scared my wife to death and of course I’d have ended up in the hospital anyway.

As I was stabilized and the doctors and nurses cleared out, I found myself humming “God is so good.”  At this point my ears were still sort of ringing and my tongue felt like three times its proper size.  Every logical, human response says that I should have been freaking out at this time.  But instead my thought process led me to “God is so good.”  This is a peace that has no earthly basis and can only be from God.

My tests ended up showing that I have a large polyp in my colon.  The size is unusual to begin with but furthermore doctors usually don’t even begin checking for polyps until the age of 50 which gives me some time before a normal scan would even be done for this.  As it was explained that this polyp would have to be removed and there was a slight chance that it was cancerous, I continued to feel the peace of God about the situation.  The surgery would require a week long recovery in the hospital which I wasn’t looking forward to but I’d do whatever was necessary.  Once the biopsy results came back, I’d then schedule surgery to have it removed.

My biopsy results came back that the polyp was benign but the doctor wanted to send me to another specialist who could better handle my problem.  The doctor I was referred to turns out to be one of the top rated doctors in the country for this kind of problem.  Instead of cutting me open from the outside and having a week long stay in the hospital, this doctor can do my surgery as an outpatient procedure.

Because of the size of this polyp, there is still a chance of cancer despite the biopsy coming back clear.  Fortunately the procedure is the same whether this polyp is cancerous or not, it has to come out.  Either way I will have to closely monitor this from here on out.

As I await surgery in a couple of weeks I continue to have a peace that passes understanding.  I know that God is with me no matter what my circumstances are.  Cancer is one of the most frightening words that a doctor can say and I don’t like hearing it any more than any other person.  But even in the worst case of scenarios, I know that God is still good.  In my consultation with the surgeon, he said multiple times that I was extremely fortunate to catch this when I did.  And that is the way that I feel as well.  I am not unlucky or smitten by God to have this problem.  Instead I am blessed to have caught this problem and God will see me through it with His peace.

Why Jesus thirsted on the cross

As Easter approaches this week, of course Christians are going to focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I personally prefer to break Jesus’ death and resurrection into two parts.  Easter should be focused on celebrating Jesus’ resurrection and shouldn’t dwell on the brutalness of Jesus’ death.

There are many ways to approach Jesus’ death on the cross and from my years of preaching I’ve learned that one sermon can’t cover every aspect of Jesus’ death.  I recently had an odd thought cross my mind as I was looking at Jesus’ death however.  Why did Jesus thirst on the cross?

Obviously we know the physical reason that Jesus thirsted.  He was put on trial in the middle of the night and was taken from Annas to Caiphas to the Sanhedrin to Pilate to Herod and finally back to Pilate in a matter of hours.  By noon was hanging on the cross when darkness fell over the land.  Jesus would have been thirsty for no other reason than the fact that He had had nothing to drink.

The real question is why it is significant that Jesus’ thirst was one of the details of the cross that was recorded by the gospel writers.  “I thirst” is one of the Seven Last Words from the Cross as Jesus’ final statements are known as.  Is Jesus’ thirst a simple reflection of His humanity and a display of the frailty of His body in His last moments before death?

I could be wrong but I believe that there is much greater significance in what takes place because of Jesus’ thirst.  When Jesus declares His thirst, He is perhaps no more than minutes away from death.  If simple thirst was the issue, He could have gone a few minutes longer, knowing that He would soon give up His spirit.  But I believe that what takes place before Jesus’ thirst and immediately after He declares His thirst is quite significant.

Before this, Jesus has asked “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  It is a repeat of the words of the prophetic Psalm 22.  That is the moment that the sins of humanity are laid on Jesus and He is separated from God the Father.  As God the Father looks down upon His Son, he now sees sin.  Jesus is sinful in the eyes of the Father at this moment.

After Jesus declares His thirst, a sponge with wine vinegar is brought to His lips.  We might want to focus on the drink itself but that is not what caught my eye as I studied this passage this year.  It is a hyssop plant that the sponge is attached to.  David mentions cleansing with hyssop in Psalm 51.  It is at least one of the Psalms that he wrote after his sin with Bathsheba was discovered.  A hyssop plant is used for cleansing.

Likewise, this plant is raised to Jesus’ lips.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees God face to face and cries out “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  An angel then flies over to him and touches his lips with a hot coal to essentially atone for his sin.

When Jesus declares that He is thirsty, ignore the actual thirst part for a moment.  What transpires is a hyssop plant is raised to His lips.  This occurs just after the sins of the world have been laid upon Him.  Jesus is in need of cleansing and the hyssop plant which David asked for his cleansing is raised to Jesus’ lips, the same location that Isaiah was cleansed of his sin.

This isn’t to pretend that there isn’t other significance to Jesus’ thirst or the wine vinegar or anything else in this passage.  But aside from those other possibilities, I believe that Jesus is cleansed of the sins of the world that has been laid upon Him when the hyssop plant is raised to His lips on the cross.  Moments later He will declare that it is finished and He’ll give up His spirit.  He has taken the sins of the world and they have been cleansed.

Should Protestants care who is pope?

For the last two weeks, one of the major news stories all over the world has been the resignation of the pope.  This is arguably the most important story in the world as 1.2 billion people identify themselves as Catholic and thus should have a vested interest in what is going on in the church.  And of course they should have an interest in who the next pope will be.  History tells us that speculation is almost completely fruitless as likely “frontrunners” for pope are far more difficult to predict than frontrunners of an election.  And in case you don’t recall how well people have done in predicting that, 2012 had no less than five different leaders for the Republican nomination to run for president.

So, this is in no way an attempt to speculate on who will be pope.  The broader question to ask is, should I, as a Protestant, even care who is the next pope?  The easy answer would be no, because I am not Catholic and therefore the selection of pope will have no bearing on me one way or another.  The truth though, is that I am always concerned about who the pope is and you don’t need to be religious at all to have a vested interest in the pope.

The pope has the ability to sway the thoughts and opinions of more people in the world than anyone else.  Of course of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, not all can be considered “good” Catholics as not everyone will listen to the pope.  For instance, the church has taken a stand against abortion and there are still plenty of pro-abortion Catholics.  Secondly, the pope heads an institution in the church that is quite unchanging.  It is unlikely that any pope in the foreseeable future will change any longstanding beliefs and traditions that impact millions of people.  Nevertheless, the potential is there.  Should the church change its stance on a major issue such as homosexuality, the ramifications would be far reaching and ultimately affect far more than just Catholics.

As a Protestant, I have even more interest in who the pope is and what he will do.  For better or worse, the Catholic church symbolizes the universal church for many people.  When the church does something or says something, it often speaks for all of Christianity.  Certainly not every priest is a pedophile (likely a very, very small minority), nor is every Protestant minister without grievous sin, but in the eyes of many outsiders Christianity is full of perverted leaders.  The Catholic church is what shapes the perception of Christianity for many people because they do not know the differences between Catholic and Baptist and Presbyterian.

While I do not hold to many Catholic beliefs, the Catholic church is often in line with conservative Protestant churches on social issues.  In many ways, the battles over social issues have already been fought and popular opinion has swept away any sense of morality or upholding what the Bible teaches.  Nevertheless, should the Catholic church shift from a conservative position on any social issue, conservative Christians will not only be a minority but will find themselves badly outnumbered and possibly even open to persecution.

There are some who look upon the Catholic church as evil and will even try to call the pope the antichrist (or the false prophet of Revelation.)  I believe such speculation is foolish and serves no purpose.  I do believe that anyone who teaches anything other than “salvation by faith alone” is in error.  To that extent I believe that the Catholic church is in error as it upholds works and dogma alongside the importance of faith and scripture.

Nevertheless, no matter what one thinks of the Catholic church and the pope specifically, I believe that it is our duty to pray for the selection of the next pope.  This will be a man who wields more influence over the world than any president or world leader could have.  He has the power to hold the church in a conservative position or to allow it to be washed away with the tides of popular opinion.  Protestants don’t agree with Catholics on issues of faith and many will question whether the pope can be saved while holding to Catholic dogma, we must still recognize the influence that the position holds.

God can use a person to accomplish His will whether they are saved or not.  Without any insult intended to Catholics or the position of pope – if God can speak through Balaam’s donkey, through false prophets, and through Caiaphas the high priest of Jesus’ day, God can certainly accomplish His will through the pope as well.  And that will have ramifications on Catholics and Protestants alike.  So be in prayer that God would place the right man in leadership regardless whether you follow the pope or not.

Where the church is headed now

I am not catholic but the resignation of the pope today got me to thinking.  I was reading a commentary on the irony of the pope’s resignation.  The irony is that he has been labeled as conservative, or more accurately, a traditionalist.  But in resigning, he broke with longstanding tradition in becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.

The rest of the commentary had to do with the church’s resistance to embrace modern ideals.  This wasn’t an article that was for or against the idea, just rather a statement of fact.

This brought me to thinking about where the church is headed in the future.  Is the death knell being sounded for traditional Christianity?  I would emphatically state that the church is not dead nor is it dying.    Its influence upon modern culture may be waning however.

In the United States a majority of people still identify themselves as Christian.  I’d offer actual numbers but the numbers differ depending on one’s definition of Christianity.  And that is the first major problem that we have.  While many identify themselves as Christian, many of these same people don’t hold to the traditional ideals of Christianity.  So, one must question whether people who call themselves Christians but don’t act like Christians are really Christians.

The so called culture wars have been lost.  I am in no way saying that we give up and embrace things that we consider to be sin.  But there should also be some recognition of where we stand.  Gay marriage has been passed by a majority vote for the first time in the United States.  While several states had previously passed laws, it had never been upheld in a statewide vote before.

The issue of abortion has likewise become a losing battle.  Once it was a battle cry for Christians to stand against.  Now, the same issue has become a rallying cry for the other side as they see the pro-life agenda to be an attack of women’s rights.

So, let’s assume that those two battles that have unfortunately defined conservative Christianity for some time are now lost.  Where do we go from here?  The answer is that we go back to what we should have been doing all along.

I believe that we have been fighting political battles far too much.  And it’s obvious that these battles haven’t gained us much.  We have been fighting to change laws rather than change hearts.

There are good reasons to oppose the things that we’ve opposed.  I don’t want to self righteously declare that Christians know better than others because that sounds foolish and arrogant.  On the other hand though, we do not believe that these are arbitrary rules that we’ve created.  Instead, we believe that these rules come from God and that disobeying them will lead to consequences.

I’m not talking about hurricanes striking cities as a result of God’s judgment.  Instead, I’m talking about individual consequences.  A sinful lifestyle will have bad consequences for the people who lead such lives.  And that is where the church needs to stand.

Sin will lead to consequences of sin.  As society embraces more sinful lifestyles we will see the fallout from it.  Indeed we’re probably already seeing the fallout from it.  Rather than offer a lecture and a stern “I told you so” we need to act with love as the father in the story of the prodigal son.

There will be people who discover that the things that are now being accepted in our culture are empty and worthless.  And when people are ready to turn from sin, the church needs to be there and it needs to show the fulfilling life that is found in Christ.

This doesn’t happen by the church compromising its values.  We must continue to stand for what is right, no matter how unpopular it may be.  And eventually some will discover that a life of sin isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  When that day comes, we need to accept them with forgiveness and lead them to true repentance.

Setting Priorities

In Luke 14:28-30 Jesus says  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him,  saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”

One of the greatest difficulties in life is setting priorities and making a plan according to those priorities.  Personally, I can manage priorities for only about a week at a time.  Each week I know that there are certain things that need to be done and other things that I want to get done.  It’s a good week if I accomplish all of those things.  But to apply that same principle to a month or an entire year?  For me at least, it seems impossible to know how to pace myself.

There are some things in life that are relatively easy to plan for.  If your priority is to go to college, you know that you need to work in high school to have grades that are good enough to get into college.  If you want to go on vacation, you need to save for that vacation (or suffer the credit card debt after the fact.)

On the other hand, there are a lot of curveballs that life throws at us.  A friend of mine went to college to be an elementary school teacher, only to reach the end of the curriculum and have to do student teaching.  There she discovered that she didn’t enjoy the kids as much as she had anticipated.  Likewise, you may make a major purchase only to unexpectedly lose your job six months later.  Or have your house damaged in a storm.  Or deal with a serious illness.

The point is that there are some things that we can plan for and others that we can’t.  There are times that we encounter speed-bumps in life and we need to maintain the course and keep our priorities and goals ahead of us.  Other times we need to recognize when our goal is not reachable or at least currently detoured.

I’ve recently read some of my previous posts regarding goals for Spreading Light Ministries.  I’m quite proud of the things that I’ve accomplished with the site but there are times that my goals have been laughable.  I’ve made reference to pages and sites that I hoped to launch in a month and they haven’t been launched four years later.  There are a multitude of reasons why and ultimately they’re not that important.

In the past month I have completely re-evaluated my online ministry.  There are times when I got away from my priorities.  Other times I had a new priority only to discover that it wasn’t as important or as successful as I had hoped.  In the last month or so I have shut down six websites with plans to close another two.  For the most part I’m not doing away with the content of the sites, just rearranging things in a more logical order under and a smaller footprint.  It does little good to have a dozen sites with fifteen pages each if I can logically reduce them into three sites with sixty pages each.

In church and in our personal lives, we should periodically evaluate our priorities.  We often do this when things are going well but it’s just as important when things are going well.  What worked for us in the past may not be serving us well now.  And even more importantly, it may not serve us well in the future.

This week I got to spend time with my mentor.  He was saying how much he uses Powerpoint in his sermons and presentations and ten years ago he never would have thought about it.  This isn’t someone who is afraid of technology either.  This is someone who had a job offer from IBM in the early 1960’s but ended up being drafted instead.  The point is that times change and we must be willing to adapt with it.

We need to remember that as Christians and a part of the church our main priority never changes.  Jesus Christ is always the main priority.  The difference is how we pursue Him.  Water hasn’t changed since creation but we certainly don’t get it the same way that someone did even 150 years.  We need to constantly be asking ourselves if our priorities are still in line with the direction God wants us headed in.

Why I hate the Christian gun debate

If you’re like me, you’ve seen so many articles about gun control and why it’s a great or terrible idea that your head is probably ready to explode.  My apologies for adding one more voice to the din.  On the other hand I haven’t read a single well thought out approach on the issue from a Christian perspective.  Mostly it has been “I’m a Christian so I’m a Republican, so I’m pro-gun” or “I’m a Christian so I’m a Democrat, so I’m anti-gun.”  Pinning this debate to politics is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in a while.  And that is saying a lot.

For starters, I’m not going to throw out a lot of statistics.  Statistics can be used and twisted to say anything that we want.  87% of all people know this.  (See what I did just there?)  There are obvious cases where statistics are important but as Christians we should know that we answer to a higher authority and not just what seems statistically right or what might be the most popular option.

And just because I’m sure that some will want to know my history on this issue – I grew up in a household with guns and held a hunting license for a couple of years before I decided that sitting in the woods in the cold without seeing any wildlife was pretty pointless.  I am currently a pastor serving in a pacifist denomination but I also serve under a bishop who served in the active military.  So go ahead and try to figure all of that out.

Unsurprisingly, the Bible doesn’t say anything directly about guns.  Guns came around centuries after the Bible.  But we are told about murder and how we treat our fellow man.  This really isn’t the issue of debate here.  I believe that we pretty much universally agree that murder is wrong and it doesn’t matter if it’s done with an assault rifle, a knife, or any other weapon of choice.

At the heart of this debate is an issue of liberty.  Do we have the “right” to own a gun?  According to the Second Amendment, which has been consistently upheld by the court system, the answer is yes.  Now the debate is whether we have the right to own any gun that we choose and what, if any, responsibilities we have that go along with those rights.  While it’s cliche and not directly from the Bible, the statement “with great power comes great responsibility” may be rather applicable here.  In other words, we have plenty of rights but that doesn’t mean that they should go unchecked.

The most applicable passage of scripture to this debate would be Galatians 5 where Paul writes about freedom in Christ.  Galatians 5:13 tells us: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”  While we are free to own and use guns we obviously should not be using them in a sinful manner.  This doesn’t apply directly as there aren’t many instances of Christians committing mass murder because of their freedom to own guns.

On the other hand, I think that the issue is more like alcohol.  There are plenty of churches that frown upon drinking of any kind and I would never want to advocate it.  On the other hand, we are never forbidden from drinking, only from getting drunk.  It is possible for a Christian to drink responsibly and not violate God’s commands.  However, that personal liberty may set a bad example for others and cause them to actually sin.  In such instances, Galatians 5 applies.  This same idea may be applied to gun ownership.  A Christian has every right, or freedom, or liberty, whatever term you want to use, to own a gun in the United States.  However, we must ask the question of whether that liberty comes at a price that we shouldn’t be willing to pay.

As Christians we are used to dealing with a lot of issues in black and white.  The Bible provides absolutes that we should follow.  Gun control is not a black and white issue because all guns are not created equally.  Many people are treating the issue of gun control as an all or nothing debate and this is just foolish.

There is a big difference between people who own a gun for hunting use (and most hunters own several guns for different hunting purposes), people who own a gun for self defense, and gun enthusiasts/collectors.  All three of these groups have guns for legitimate purposes.  There is a fourth group who own guns for nefarious purposes.  These people own guns with the intent to threaten or harm human life.  It might be with the goal of committing crimes or in order to form a militia to keep the government out of their business.  In either case the intention is not to follow the laws that are already in place.  Additional laws would seem to be a minimal deterrent to people who already don’t intend to follow the law.  It only allows for additional prosecution once those laws are broken.

The problem that we are encountering is making laws that can be properly applied to only one group without affecting the other groups.  It is not a secret that assault weapons are the ones that are being targeted in pending laws.  Assault weapons are not used by hunters and they are not the preferred weapon of those who want a gun for protection.  But there are many gun enthusiasts and collectors who own these guns and have never used them improperly and have no intention of ever using them to cause harm.  Should these rights be trampled upon just because there are a very tiny fraction of gun owners who desire to use  their guns to cause harm?  Or should these people be willing to give up their rights to own such a gun because there is a small percentage of people who abuse that right and cause a great deal of harm?  This is really the core of the gun debate.

As Christians we have a lot of freedoms but we also have many responsibilities.  American citizens likewise have many freedoms but also responsibilities.  Many times these freedoms and responsibilities are the same but there are times when they come into conflict.  We have seen government intrude into religion at times as it upholds the “rights” of others to not come into contact with Christian ideals – such as the removal of nativity scenes on public property.  Christians have upheld the freedom of religion while also fighting against the construction of an Islamic mosque.  We can’t have it both ways.  Our American freedoms say that people are free to worship as they please while our Christian responsibilities say that Christ is the only way to heaven and we cannot advocate any other way.

So the question that we must answer is whether our rights and responsibilities as Christians coincides with our rights and responsibilities as American citizens or if they are at odds with one another.  Can we stand for our American gun rights knowing that those rights will be abused by some for some very sinful actions?  Or do we stand by another Christian ideal that we are only responsible for our own actions and no matter what laws exist we cannot stop someone from sinning if they are determined to sin?  I don’t propose to have the absolute answer to this question but I wish that Christians would stop pretending like this is a black and white issue.

Why I don’t discuss theology much

As a pastor I love studying God’s Word.  I love it when after years I still stumble across new insights or things fall into place in a way that I never quite saw before.  If you’ve read the Bible for years you’ve probably noticed how you can read the same passage but get something totally different from it each time you read it.

Unlike a lot of Christians, I enjoy studying theology.  What I don’t enjoy is arguing about it however.  There are some basic sets of framework that help us interpret all of the Bible.  The best known systems are Calvinism and Arminianism but there are also systems such as dispensationalism and covenant theology.

Systems are valuable if you need to explain your theology quickly and you can say that you’re a Calvinist as easily as you might say that you’re a Baptist.  Whomever you are speaking to can get a pretty quick idea of what you believe.

Outside of the quick need to sum up my beliefs, I hate using the labels.  To proclaim that I am a Calvinist or an Arminian will immediately put up a wall between me and about half of the people I speak or write to.  Many will immediately want to tell me why I am wrong and they are right.  I have no problem defending my beliefs and I feel quite secure in them.  My experience is that many people adamantly hold to beliefs that they don’t really understand themselves but instead have just been taught to believe.  They can repeat arguments that they’ve been given but they can’t actually explain why they believe what they believe.  So if it comes to a debate, I feel pretty good about getting into one.

My problem with arguing theology is that it is typically unproductive.  These issues become divisive within Christian circles.  Unless it is a debate over how one is actually saved, I don’t think that theology is good to be divided over.  Every so often I’ll get an email concerning one of my articles telling me why I’m wrong or what I’ve missed.  For the record, I get more emails in agreement that someone likes my approach to theology.  But the people who disagree are more vocal.

Those who disagree with my understanding of the Bible and wish to provide me with the “right” answer are unlikely to listen to reasoned arguments anyway; they’ve already made up their mind.  People who are actually open to a discussion are unlikely to email me and instead they will do more research on the subject.

For clarity’s sake, I should mention that when I’m talking about theology here I’m talking about what might be termed systematic theology.  There are important social issues that divide the church – homosexuality, poverty, abortion, etc. – that are worth fighting over.  Not to downplay the importance of good theology but ultimately it doesn’t matter if you are a Calvinist or Arminian.  On the other hand, it makes a big difference in life concerning what you believe about poverty or abortion.

Theology is important because it helps us read and understand the entire Bible.  It colors the way we interpret many different passages.  I encourage everyone to study theology and determine not only what they believe but, more importantly, why they believe it.  Debating it with an attempt to change someone’s mind is probably going to be unproductive but you should at least be able to explain why you believe it.

Pruning

I happen to like gardening.  I can’t pretend that I’ve been very successful with it outside of planting some flowers but there is something about growing your own food that is appealing to me.  There are tons of gardening principles that apply to the Christian life.  A remember a few years ago I even thought about writing something regarding the similarities between gardening and our Christian walk.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll ever get around to writing all that I had planned on writing regarding gardening and Christianity but the topic of pruning has crossed my mind recently.  I’m working fervently on updating not just this website but many of the sites that I operate across the Spreading Light Network.  This has been a time consuming process to say the least.

Part of my updating has involved letting some things go.  At one point I believe that I was operating 40 or more websites.  Not all of these were a part of the Spreading Light Network but nevertheless there were a ton of sites.  And I owned the names to probably twice as many as were designed.  A lot never got built.  But there are some sites that I put considerable time into that I decided to let go.  The main reason is that they no longer fit the focus of my online ministry.  Or in several cases I’ve been able to combine them into other sites and reorganize things.

My point in all of this is that there will be times that we need to cut things out of our life in order to make room for new and better things.  We all have a limited amount of time, space in our house, friends we can keep in contact with, etc.  I had to carefully take stock of where I was at, what was working for me, and what could be let go of.  In my instance, letting go was literally a lot of work.

Pruning things out of our life shouldn’t be painless.  Cutting things out isn’t without its costs.  Spending more time with your family could mean getting passed over for a promotion.  Devoting yourself to studying the Bible more might mean less time in front of the television.  But what we need to remember is that we are pruning, we aren’t cutting down.

When you prune a plant there are typically two reasons.  The first is like one might do to a bush.  It has grown to a size a shape that you are pleased with and anything more than that is too much, so you cut it back and remove the excessive growth.  The other time to prune is to promote more growth.  On many kinds of plants there will develop what are sometimes called “sucker” limbs.  These are limbs that shoot off from the main trunk but nothing good will come from them.  They won’t bear fruit or they won’t leave the bush looking as nice.  The bigger issue, aside from just not being productive, is that these sucker branches steal valuable nutrients away from the rest of the plant.  But if you cut them off, the plant can spend that much more energy into growing bigger fruit or more flowers.

We all have some sucker branches in our life.  They are things that steal away our energy from doing something more productive.  And cutting these things out won’t necessarily be easy or painless.  But rather than thinking of it as cutting something out, consider it making room for something greater.  If you did something relatively simple such as cut out an hour of tv, think of it as an hour that you could spend exercising  reading a book, praying, or even catching up on sleep.  When you cut something out it means that you have room for something new.

I encourage everyone to take a look at their life and determine what could use pruning.  But before you start to cut that out, decide what you want to fill that area with.  This will give you motivation as you struggle with the loss of whatever you’re cutting out.  Remember, it’s all to strengthen another area of your life and improve it.