Sunday, April 24, 2011

Images of Easter

Sun rising in the east;
In spite of the cross, life goes on.

Morning dew glistening on the flowers in the garden.
Women making their way to Jesus’ tomb
to ready His body for its long, long rest.

What happened to the tomb?
Something’s wrong!
No! Something’s right!
Stone—rolled away; Jesus’ body—gone.
Angel-like men standing there with a message:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?
Jesus is risen just as He said He would.”

Stunned, frightened, bewildered women race
To tell the disciples the story.

What does it mean?
Jesus wins.
Death loses.
Satan is thrown down.
Life is greater than death.
Hope is greater than despair.
And the living Jesus stands ready to share
that life with all who believe.

Easter in a nutshell … uh, tomb-shell:

Jesus Christ is Lord!

Hallelujah! Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Your Name Is on His Cross

Few words speak more powerfully to my heart on Good Friday than these words of the apostle Paul to the Romans: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners,Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:6-8).

God shows his love for us … While we were still sinners … Christ died for us

Plural pronouns – us and we. Christ died for us all. His blood covers the sins of everyone who trusts Him for salvation. So when we speak of His death, we can speak in plural pronouns.

But Christ’s death is very personal as well. Christ died for you. Christ died for me. There’s a popular Christian song that’s been sung for years: “When He was on the cross, I was on His mind.” I don’t know about that. I’m not so sure and tend to doubt that John McCallum was on His mind when He died on the cross. I didn’t have to be because His death was large enough to cover so many more sins than mine. But His death is still personal. It applies to individuals who trust Him. And we could put our names in this text: “You see, at just the right time, when John was powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone did for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while John was still a sinner, Christ died for John.” And you can put your name there too.

And that’s why I like a story I’ve told so many times in the past. It’s not a story in the Bible but it’s a story that teaches a truth fundamental to the Bible. It was delivered in the form of a play. Terry Young saw this play in seminary and told the story in his book, Compelled by the Cross.

A carpenter named Simon and his family lived in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. The Roman government put out bids for the construction of crosses. Some carpenters were quick to bid the job. Simon was reluctant. He much preferred making tables and cabinets. He preferred objects of beauty to objects of torture and death. He had no intention of making a bid. But Simon’s son was learning the trade and he begged his father to bid one cross so he could have the experience of building it. Simon reluctantly agreed. He was awarded a contract to build one cross.

Simon gave his son the job. And his son worked very hard on that cross. He cut the wood and planed it and sanded it and built a solid and sturdy cross. The government paid them their money and took the cross of their hands.

Some weeks later, Simon’s son came running into their home. He was out of breath and his face was streaked with tears. “What’s wrong, son? Why are you so upset?”

“Daddy, are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on in Jerusalem today. The Romans are crucifying Jesus.”

“I am aware of that, son. But why does that upset you so? We’ve seen others die on a cross and we’ve seen prophets crucified too.”

“But daddy, this is different. They’re killing Jesus on my cross, on the cross I made in our shop.”

“You can’t know that, son. Crosses all look pretty much the same. You could never be sure that Jesus’ cross is yours.”

“But I can, daddy, I can. When I was finishing the cross I was so proud of my work that I did what artists do when they finish a work. I carved my name on it. And when Jesus fell on the street under the weight of it, I saw my name. Daddy, my name is on His cross.”

And that’s about as good of news as there is. Your name, my name is on His cross. The price He paid with His death, He paid for you and me. What He did covers our sins and makes it possible for us to be saved. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians: “He who knew no sin became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.”

If you don’t remember anything else on this Good Friday, remember this: your name is on His cross. Jesus died for you.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Secret Church: FBC Style

In his book, Killing Fields, Living Fields: The Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church—the Church That Would Not Die, Don Cormack tells this story: In the village of Siem Riep, Cambodia, Haim, a Christian teacher, knew that the youthful black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers now heading across the field were coming this time for him …. Haim was determined that when his turn come, he would die with dignity and without complaint. Since “Liberation” on April 17, 1975, what Cambodian had not considered this day? …. Haim’s entire family was rounded up that afternoon. They were “the old dandruff!”, “bad blood!”, “enemies of the glorious revolution!”, “CIA agents!” They were Christians.

The family spent a sleepless night comforting one another and praying for each other as they lay bound together in the dewy grass beneath a stand of friendly trees. Next morning the teenage soldiers returned and led them from their Gethsemane to their place of execution, to the nearby viel somlap, “the killing fields” ….

The family was ordered to dig a large grave for themselves. Then, consenting to Haim’s request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother, and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit. With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel.

Then in panic, one of Haim’s youngest sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared. Haim jumped up and with amazing coolness and authority prevailed upon the Khmer Rouge not to pursue the lad, but allow him to call the boy back. The knots of onlookers, peering around trees, the Khmer Rouge, and the stunned family still kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family. “What comparison, my son,” he called out, “stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?” After a few minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family. “Now we are ready to go,” Haim told the Khmer Rouge.

Few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians’ bodies toppled silently into the earthen pit which the victims themselves had prepared, their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.

And this kind of thing still happens to Christians in so many places in our world—always has. Churches are burned. Christians are harassed, persecuted, and martyred. Many believers have to meet in secret places just to fellowship with each other and worship Christ. Jesus said that the world would hate Christians because they hate Him. He was right on the money. Those of us who live in the West and who rarely face persecution much deeper than a little ridicule or job loss forget how costly it is to be a Christian for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

Secret Church is helping to change that. If you’ve read David Platt’s book, Radical, then you’ve heard of Secret Church. Platt’s congregation, the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, began doing Secret Church a few years ago. They get together on a Friday night from 6:00 pm to midnight. They do intensive Bible study, they worship, and they pray for persecuted believers and the countries in which they live. Brook Hills has over 1,000 attend their Secret Church so they meet in their spacious sanctuary.

Platt got the Secret Church idea from his experience in mission trips to countries where the church has to meet in secret lest the government or zealous citizens shut it down and do harm to church members. Such churches meet when they can and they meet for hours at a time usually in crowded, uncomfortable digs—everything from a house with drawn curtains to a cave.

I was intrigued with the concept, so we decided to try Secret Church at our place and with our people. It seemed like a good thing to try in the holy season where we contemplate Christ's suffering for us. Now we tweaked the format a bit from Brook Hills. We met last Friday, but we shortened the time frame from six hours to four. We met in our church bus barn to provide a more “secret” feel and to create discomfort for those in attendance. We did our part by choosing a room with scant light, concrete floors, no heating or cooling, no bathroom, and crowded conditions. God did his part to make us uncomfortable by sending windy, chilly night so that some wrapped themselves in a blanket to stay warm. We did provide chairs and we got as many in the barn as we would fit. I had no idea how many would come. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we ended up with 25 or 125. We ended up with just over 80, and we couldn’t have accommodated any more in that space.

So how did we fill up four hours? We decided our Bible study them would be to teach the Old Testament and its story. We broke it into four segments. Each segment included a worship song, Bible study, and information on and season of prayer for a country in which the church is persecuted. Some of those presenters shared some persecuted believer’s story out of that country. Around the two hour mark we took a break to enjoy a bowl of rice and the Lord’s Supper (see picture above).

Probably for the first time in the 175 year history of First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, we took the cup by dipping our bread in the juice. I was responsible to get the equipment for that, so I looked for some kind of glassware that had a wide enough circumference for dipping. I was proud of what I found … until it was gleefully pointed out to me that I had chosen margarita glasses for the Lord’s Supper. I’d think they’d be proud that their Baptist pastor didn’t know what a margarita glass looked like. Interestingly enough, my wife knew what they were (hmmm).

One of the highlights of the night was an exercise in which I asked everyone to close their Bible. I mentioned how in many of these countries where the church is persecuted, Bibles are hard to come by and confiscated if found by the authorities. Consequently, they are most precious. So I asked our folks how much Bible we could come up with if we had no Bible in our hands. From senior adults to children, our people started quoting Bible verses. Honestly, we had something from most every book. (My apologies, though, to Obadiah and Nahum who were glaring omissions in our memory work. We’ll try to do better next time, fellows). Still, I was proud of our people. And there’s just something about hearing children quote long passages of Scripture that stirs the heart. That was one my favorite segments.

When we were done with our four-hour study, people were saying, “Does it have to end so soon? “That four hours just flew by.” “I would have stayed even longer.” “Let’s do this again.” I think Secret Church did us some good. Our people became aware in tangible ways of the plight of our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ and will now be more faithful to pray for them. Most gained some fresh insight into the Old Testament. And we came away more grateful for our blessings and our freedoms, and, I pray, more willing to use them to help those in need. If we do this again, I would do some things differently, but all in all, it was a pretty cool way to spend a Friday night.

Secret Church. Thanks, David Platt and Brook Hills, what a great idea!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Here's to Anna: As Special as They Come

We knew this day was coming. In fact, three years ago, the doctors said she could go most any day—three years ago. And nothing speaks more to Anna’s stubborn determination and will to live than that. She was put into hospice care. She got better. She got out of hospice care. And then close to a year ago or so, she got worse and went into hospice care again. But she hung on. Good days, bad days, and she hung on. She got to where her pain was great and she couldn’t eat, but she hung on. Of course, she didn’t do this by herself. Her loving family and caregivers, a devoted medical team, and numerous friends all played a part in Anna’s ability to keep on fighting, keep on living. And while her quality of life may not have looked like much to you and me who have known better, it was much to Anna.

And then Tuesday came. Death showed up at Anna’s door and started knocking. It wasn’t the first time he showed up, but this time he stayed until he got what he came for. That rubber ball named Anna who had bounced back time and time again, well, there wasn’t any bounce left anymore. It was time. The best thing to do was to make her as comfortable as possible and let her go in peace. After years of successfully pushing against the door when Death tried to barge in for Anna, everyone finally quit pushing, including Anna. And early Thursday morning Anna died—in a setting she know so well, right next to her mom and her dad and her dog Eli. On the surface it looked like Death finally won. But Death didn’t win. Jesus scooped up Anna in His strong arms and took her home to heaven.

Anna was born 23 years ago with a degenerative brain disorder of some sort—problems from birth, early surgeries, one issue after another her whole life through. The kid took a pharmacy full of medicine over the course of her life. She was poked and pricked and prodded time and time again. She had tubes for this and tubes for that. I’m not sure, especially near the end, that even one system of her body functioned as it was supposed to. And yet she lived to the fullest through it all. She was special needs. Check that—she was just special. The girl had a zeal for life matched by few persons I have known.

You’re probably thinking, “How could she live a full life in her condition?” Some of us think a hangnail is a major crisis, a bad hair day the end of the world. So how could she enjoy life with all her problems? Well, the answer to those questions was on her face. The girl was always smiling. She reminds me of Buddy in the movie Elf who said, “I like smiling; smiling’s my favorite.” Anna liked to smile; she enjoyed making others smile too.

And why shouldn’t she? The girl was loved deeply and well. I can’t imagine her being in any other family than the one she was in. In Psalm 139 David prays: “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. You know me full well. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That goes just as much for Anna as it does for you or me or anyone else born with all systems on go. Anna was fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and He could have chosen no more perfect womb in which to knit her together than in her mother Amy’s. No mother and father and brother could have loved her more or loved her better. They accepted her as she was and loved her as she was. They didn’t hide her in her room. They didn’t act like turtles and draw into their shells. They included her in whatever they did. They exposed her to their large swath of friends who in turn became good friends of Anna too. They understood Anna. They didn’t expect her to be something she wasn’t. And they watched over her with the tenacity of a mama, papa, and big brother bear. They could laugh with her and even at her when she did or said goofy stuff. They cut her slack when she got mad and pouty but they still expected her to behave. They made sure she lived her life. They let her run her race.

In spite of the fact that the majority of parents with a special needs child wind up in divorce court, James and Amy did not. They figured it out. They made it work. They and their son Adam realized that it wasn’t about them; it was about Anna and how to best care for the one who couldn’t care for herself. And did they ever care for her: church, school, Special Olympics, prom, high school graduation, loads of friends. They gave Anna everything she needed and more. Every kid should be so blessed. She smiled because of her family.

She smiled because of Jesus. There was a time when moms and dads were trying to get their children up to Jesus. Jesus was doing some teaching at the time, so the disciples tried to shoo those parents and kids away. “The Master’s much too bush with grown up concerns to bother with your snotty-nosed, sticky-handed rug rats. Make an appointment!” Jesus heard the commotion, stopped what He was doing, and said, “I want those children to come to me and don’t you dare stand in their way, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. And if you grownups don’t receive the kingdom like a child, you’ll never make it in.” Then Jesus took those children in his arms and blessed them. Jesus loves children.

In light of that, I don’t know why some die so young, or why some are abused and hungry, or why some like Anna are born with maladies that keep them from living what you and I consider a normal life, and why some suffer as they do. Anna sure dealt with some suffering. I don’t understand these things, and it troubles me. But I do know this: I think it’s safe to say that everyone in this room who knew and loved Anna would admit that if we hadn’t had Anna just as Anna was, our lives would be diminished. Anna just as she was added so much to all who knew her. It’s easy to think, “Well, if she had been normal things would have been so much better.” But how do you know that? How can we say that for sure? We’re all sorry Anna had to struggle the way she did through her life, and we all feel for James and Amy and Adam and the struggles and the sleeplessness and the weariness they’ve had to bear, but Anna was a miracle, just as she was. She was a gift. And just because she couldn’t do all the things most kids can do, she was no less loved by Jesus.

She loved Jesus too. She liked to come to church when she could. She liked to pray to Jesus or to have someone pray for her. I will always remember Tuesday afternoon. She had been sleeping under the influence of strong medicines, but she woke up long enough for me to pray for her. I prayed the 23rd Psalm and she just locked eyes with me soaking in those life-giving, hope-giving words. She couldn’t parse them, probably couldn’t explain them, but she understood them at the level that matters most. The Lord was her shepherd. He had helped her all life long. And He was going to get her through the valley of the shadow of death and take her to His house where she would live forever. Right after we prayed she smiled.

So I wasn’t surprised when I got the call about her death Thursday morning and went to the house and found Anna, lying in bed, with a smile on her face—just the softest, kind of a Mona Lisa smile, as if she’d caught a glimpse of heaven just before she passed from this life to the next. And we can be confident that that is where she is. Jesus loved her. Jesus died for her sins and rose from the dead. She believed in Jesus. She loved Jesus. And she is with him today. No more needles. No more tubes. No more medicine. No more stomach pumps. No more wheelchairs. No more suffering or sorrow or pain. As much as Anna enjoyed her life on earth in spite of all the hardships, we can only imagine how much she’s going to enjoy life in heaven—seeing Jesus face to face, being reunited with her papa and other family. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s even played a little catch with her big buddy Ryan White who died suddenly a year ago in a car wreck. One thing’s for sure though: she’s still smiling.

All of us who knew and loved her will miss her. Her family will miss her most of all. They will grieve as they should grieve, but they will grieve with hope. They also know Jesus, so they live with the hope that since Anna is with Jesus and Jesus is with them, they will never be too very far apart. And then one day, Anna will meet them at heaven’s gate. I can see it now: Anna speaking to them in the clear diction that eluded her own earth: “Welcome home. Let me show you around. And do you mind if we skip?”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Oh, For the Good Old Days

I get nostalgic this time every year for Razorback basketball—real Razorback basketball—NCAA Tournament Razorback basketball. Oh, for the good old days! Even though many people are too young to remember, Razorback basketball used to be big-time. My freshman year at the University was Eddie Sutton’s first year as head coach. Nolan Richardson followed him. And from Eddie’s first year to Nolan’s last (1974-2002) the Razorbacks made 22 NCAA Tournaments (many of those were years when only 48 teams were invited). We appeared in 9 Sweet 16s, 5 Elite 8s, 4 Final Fours, back to back Championship Games in ’94 and ‘95, and won the National Championship in 1994. Altogether the Razorbacks have participated in 29 NCAA Tournaments (ninth in NCAA history) and 6 Final Fours. But the Eddie and Nolan years were the best and most consistent. And there was a stretch from 1990 through 1995 when the Razorbacks won more games than any other team in the NCAA. That’s right—more than North Carolina, more than Kentucky, more than Kansas, more than Duke.

And talk about fun. Eddie Sutton had the triplets (Moncrief, Brewer, and Delph). Nolan Richardson had the “40 Minutes of Hell” intimidating, in your face, press ‘em off the bus, race up the court, run and execute, teams that won and won big. Nolan had players like Day and Mayberry and Miller, Williamson and Thurman and Beck. Dang, I miss players like that. I miss teams like that! How I long for the good old days.

But an NCAA investigation, infighting between Nolan and Frank Broyles, and inept intervention in the whole mess by the Chancellor at the time, ended in Nolan’s angry resignation/firing, and a subsequent lawsuit Nolan filed against the University. It was ugly.

And the basketball that followed was even uglier—nine years in the great basketball abyss—no division or conference championships, only three NCAA appearances adding up to only one NCAA win, two coaching changes that took us pretty much nowhere, and finally we descended to what NCAA Tournament observers dubbed “a bad loss” for a potential tournament team. Oh, for the good old days!

And maybe those days are on the way. Mike Anderson has come home to be our coach. Mike coached as Nolan’s top assistant for 17 years at the University. Most of the banners that hang from Bud Walton are there in part because of Mike. Here’s hoping he can bring us some more. And with his hiring, Razorback Nation has moved from clinical depression to Razor-mania. There’s every reason to believe Mike will be successful. He’s been successful in head coaching stints at UAB and Mizzou. And he knows that it can be done here, and he knows what it takes to get it done here. After nine years of darkness and oblivion, it feels like the sun is shining on Arkansas basketball once again. Or at least, I can see the dawn of a better day. Can I get a “Hog-elujah!”?

Anyway, since tonight is the National Championship game, I was just feeling a little nostalgic. And for you Razorback fans out there, here are the highlights of that great game against the Dukies in 1994—back in the good old days, back when the Hogs were feared, when the Hogs won tons of games, when Arkansas basketball ruled. May those days return soon!

Just click on the link to join in my nostalgia: