Is the 1 as Important as the 99?

There is a popular worship song sung in many churches today about the overwhelming, never ending, reckless love of God, that he would leave the ninety-nine to search for the one, based on an example Jesus uses in Matthew 18.  From that story, is very easy to draw a correlation to grieving the loss of the one.  According to another passage in 2nd. Peter, it’s not God’s plan that any person should perish, mortally or eternally.

This has been yet another violent week of senseless homicides.  Three more mass shootings, bringing the year-to-date total of such shootings to nearly 250, depending on your definition of “mass”.  And as is usually the case after senseless and unexplainable tragedies like this, social media begins to buzz about all the culprits, bad guns, bad video games, bad drugs, bad parenting, etc., etc..  Gun control advocates bang the drum for tighter gun laws while gun owners defend their rights to possess anti-aircraft weaponry.  Left-wing vs. right wing, race against race, all claiming a stake at the expense of the yet-to-be-buried victims.  It is an unfortunate scene that plays out continually with no solution, just a lot of divisional blame.

These mass shooting victims are given much publicity, perhaps rightly so.  Seems like in each case we are given the names of all involved, their photos so we can put a face with a name, and even their background stories.  I know this to be true as I reside in Las Vegas and I visited the numerous memorials after the mass shooting here on 1 October that claimed 58 lives at a music festival. Anytime multiple deaths occur in a violent or tragic act,  media is quick to cover the story and sensationalize it for ratings or for certain social or political agendas.  But what about the everyday homicides that go largely unreported nationally whose names and images are never shown?  Are they any less important because they died alone and not with many?

In 2018 there were in the U.S. approximate 40,000 deaths due to guns.  Nearly two thirds were victims of suicide while about 15,000 were victims of homicide.  A drug deal gone bad, a home invasion, a road rage incident.  The same year about 350 people were victims of mass shootings, defined as three or  more victims of one incident.   For that year mass murder victims represented only a little over 2% of all murder victims by gunfire.  The more recent shootings are being described as Hate crimes.  But in essence, aren’t all murders considered hate crimes?  Why else would a person be so compelled to snuff out the life of another for any reason other than hate?  I’m quite certain that my assessment will be misinterpreted unfairly, but each and every victim of violence is a mother or a father, a spouse, a child, a relative who leaves behind a grieving family whose hearts have been ripped out by senseless cowardice, hate and evil.  It matters little whether they lost their loved ones in a lone act or a mass shooting.  The pain is the same, the loss is immeasurable and the tears, though not seen on a national platform are just as real.

Jesus gave us a glimpse into his humanity as he stood at the grave of his good friend Lazarus.  In the shortest recorded verse in the Bible, we are told Jesus Wept.  He knew that through his Father he had the power of life and death in his hands and at his command, and he delayed his visit just so he could put that power on display when he raised Lazarus from days of death.  And yet he wept.  It is recorded that many were there at the grave mourning, including his friends Mary and Martha.  Jesus saw their tears and was deeply moved with sorrow and compassion for them.  In my days working for a mortuary in Indiana I can tell you that when you are with people who are grieving, it is very easy to feel moved yourself, even though you never knew their loved one, simply because you can feel their pain.  Jesus, in his humanity, must have felt the same.  If then, we believe that he never changes, surely he is just as moved at the death of a sole teen in Chicago as he is with the 23 in in a Walmart.  In our bickering, our blame throwing and our side-taking after such events, we must not lose sight of that fact.  Surely God mourns the one as much as he does the ninety-nine.

We live in a world where hate exists.  It can’t be denied or ignored.  Whether that hate is motivated by race or theology or ideology or social status, innocent bystanders on all sides are going to be lumped into subgroups, being deemed guilty by association, having their individual uniqueness totally disregarded.  There is a heavy spirit of unrest in our country as factions always present before, become more agitated and aggressive.  It is in these times that we in the faith must be careful not to get caught up in this era of hate, but instead put into practice love, peace, and inclusiveness.  If the body of Christ becomes divided or splintered over differences to the point that individual character is no longer considered or defended, then the great falling away described in scripture will be a much easier tack for the dark spiritual forces playing us like grand puppeteers.  We must cut the strings of hate that control us and allow God’s love, hope and peace to be forefront in our lives, our communities and yes, even our churches.  Don’t get so caught up arguing over 2% and totally disregard the 98% unmentioned but who bring the same tears to our Heavenly Father.  It’s not his will that even one should die.

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Has the Salt of the Earth Lost its Taste?

Today marks one week from the tragic shooting in Parkland, FL that claimed another seventeen lives as the country’s latest mass murder.  While my heart aches for all those involved as I mourn with those who mourn, my spirit is heavy as I read the predictable responses of insensitivity to the blood soaked bodies of young, innocent martyrs who will never get their opportunity at Life, Liberty or the Pursuit of Happiness because they were quite literally caught in the crossfire of binary opposition and bipartisan loyalty valued more precious than their lives. My God, what have we as a free nation become?

I am quite certain that there will be those who read my blog today who will attempt to paint me as a “leftard” or “libtard” or any one of other convenient labels used to defuse any rational dialogue; while I am not a leftist, I’m also not concerned with the labels applied to this or to me.  I am deeply troubled that the lives of these children who are precious in the eyes of God, will be swept under the rug of personal liberties by the broom of Second Amendment demagoguery in the hands of wealthy profiteers whose collective voices and financial influence speak volumes over the cries of those not even old enough to cast a vote yet or otherwise defend themselves. More disgusting to me is that many of these will be my Christian siblings in the faith, touting self-defense against a non-existent tyrannical government, citing Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union as reason enough to possess weapons that to date have only been effectively used in perpetrating heinous evil against children we have failed to adequately protect.  Things ought not to be this way in America!

So I am forced to look inward as I struggle for answers.  Have I aided in these tragedies by my silence or inactivity?  Am I fulfilling the laws of scripture in loving my neighbors as much as or more than I love myself?  In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth; if we lose our saltiness, we become worthless and are good for nothing but ground cover.  How do we maintain our taste? In the same manner we are called light, but we shed no light if we keep our light dimmed or hidden under a lamp shade.  The answer to this is found in another passage that reads that the world will know we are believers and followers of Christ and his teaching when they witness how we love and support each other.  This is not a love that is exclusive to believers; in fact Christ said to love our enemies and any who pose a threat to us.  He said how easy it is to love someone who loves you in return, but true religion is loving on the unlovable.  But when these arguments arise over the social ills of humanity and how to Biblically address them, we can’t even adequately love or respect each other-we in essence lose our saltiness and worse we shed what little light we have left poorly on authentic Christianity.  I fear if things don’t change we are going to have so much to answer for some day and will have nothing of merit to offer as a defense except an amendment to a Bill of Rights for a bordered plot of land that no longer exists.  Have we become that earthly minded that we have completely disregarded Kingdom obedience?

An influential young leader once asked Jesus how he might obtain Heaven, and Jesus responded with the parable we have all heard about the Good Samaritan.  It is so widely adopted that the term “good Samaritan” is almost a generic term now.  At the heart of the parable was the question, just who exactly, is my neighbor.  I can’t begin to address the disdain Jews held against those of Samaria.  But the lesson for us is that in his time of great need and distress, it wasn’t the church who came to his aid, nor the local government, but it was he who was viewed as an enemy who took up the cause of attending to the man’s wounds and paying for his care.  The neighbor was the person who showed kindness, compassion and mercy to the victim of the crime.  He paid from his own pockets for the care needed and held back no expense in restoring the victim in a show of true faith and Godly love.  That should be the response of all believers when faced with defending the defenseless; our personal rights and welfare, if we bear the title of Christian, must become secondary to meeting the needs of those who befall tragedy.  I realize how unpopular a statement this is and that it will not be well received because, after all, we are Americans and we have rights.  To that I must reply, at what age do those rights become applicable?  Do we have rights upon birth?  Do we have rights only if we vote in elections?  Do we have rights only after we reach the legal age to purchase a weapon?  And if so, then upon whom does the care and custody of those with no rights befall? What reasonable explanation can be offered to the parents of a child who did not come home from school as to why there were no controls in place to secure the safety of their children?  Why has the love of Christ and its manifestation been stifled by the “me first” self-preservationist attitudes of those more fearful of intrusion than reliant on God’s sovereign hand of protection?

The whole of the gospel is love, pure, untainted, unsoiled, non-partisan, unselfish Christ-like love. The old song says “What the world needs now is love, sweet love-it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”.  Those lyrics are just as true today as they were back when.  But that love can’t be regulated or legislated.  And it can’t be manufactured as Biblically mandated except through the supernatural transformation of a relationship with Jesus, the Christ.  But if we who have access to this supernatural gift are too fearful to express it when needed the most because of divisive labels and hateful rhetoric within our own family ranks, then God have mercy on a society that will never get better, and forgive us for looking the other way when our children pay the ultimate price as we cling to our automatic weapons, just in case. In that instance, the salt of the earth has lost all of its flavor worthy of nothing more than being discarded and trampled.

Casting Sanctimonious Stones

failure-cast-the-first-stone

Last week many of us were somewhat shocked to read that Israel Houghton and his wife Meleasa have divorced after nearly twenty years of marriage.  Together they formed New Breed and have won numerous awards including several Grammys.  Israel is also the Worship Leader for Joel Osteen’s church.  The author of Friend of God and other Worship standards heard in many churches today implied through his confession on social media that he had stepped out on his marriage a few years back and had broken the trust and the covenant he made to his wife and to God. His confession was to serve as an apology to his fans, a request for mercy from the church and a warning to believers everywhere that those of us involved in ministry are vulnerable to vicious attacks by the enemy, and subsequent attacks by unsympathetic siblings in Christ.

As you might imagine the social media outlets were lit up in response to the news.  Most I’ve read showed mercy and love to the Houghtons, careful not to judge lest they become victims of their own indiscretions. But others were quick to condemn their marital failure citing scriptures and offering Monday morning quarterback type feedback to a situation they have never faced, the ugliness of divorce in the church. It’s simply amazing to me how we can be so merciless and judgmental when it comes to publicized failures within the church body. We place God on our lap like a ventriloquist puppet and utter “Thus sayeth the Lord” quotes just as damaging as the practice of stoning in Biblical times. We hide behind a scripture all the while holding the heaviest stone we can loft. What we fail to realize is that the Houghtons and others like them have already been stoned by the unrelenting attacks of  spiritual warfare.

Do not misinterpret my sentiments-I strongly believe that vows made to each other and before God to love in good times and bad, better or worse until parted by death are sacred and should be entered into solemnly and broken only with great angst.  The fact that divorce within the church is nearly the same as outside it is another issue for another day. But it’s highly hypocritical to stand in judgment over things one has not personally encountered, especially when each of us have our own skeletons hidden away.  Jesus was very clear about this in John when He uttered the famous quote about “he being without sin casting the first stone”. Israel made it clear that he and his wife had attempted for several years to overcome the demons of his indiscretions-there had been some attempt at restoration.  Only those closest to them know why it wasn’t successful enough to save the marriage. We have no idea the lengths they went through, the prayer, the counseling, etc. It is disappointing indeed but there are some insights I’d like to offer with all humility.

When I played ball back in the day we would scout the opposing team.  We knew who their best defenders were and we knew who their leading scorer was and how he was going to get his points. So we would key our defense to that player to limit his effectiveness on the court and enable us to overcome the opposing team by rendering their offense ineffective. Pastors, clergy and worship team members are leading scorers.  That is in no way to imply we are more important as each member of the body plays a role, but simply more visible. Our job is to encourage, exhort and lead others into the courts of praise through music and through the spoken Word. When one of us fails it has a ripple effect through those who look to us as spiritual leaders.  Consequently we ae always in the cross hairs of the enemy who is just waiting for the right moment, the right compromising decision, that area in our armor that is most exposed to damage if attacked.  With most of us that would be our marriage or our families. What better victory for our adversary than a pastor having an affair of a musician addicted to substance abuse or, fill in the blanks. It can be a crushing defeat for many.

This should also serve as a warning that we may not be as strong as we believe.  An alcoholic who has been sober for ten years is fooling himself to think he can walk into a bar and still not feel the tug of the addiction and the temptation for just a sip. I’m convinced that some in ministry feel they are so “spiritual” that they are beyond temptation and they drop their defenses. Do we need to mention Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker or King David?  The lust of the eyes is a powerful narcotic that can fool the strongest to think they can have just a taste without doing any damage. We need not look any further than the Apostle Paul, the inspired author of most of our New Testament as he lamented that even he was vulnerable to temptation. Our own unrighteous nature should always be a sobering reminder to be on alert against the one who knows how to attract us most.

If anything of comments I read is true it’s that God indeed hates divorce.  He hates anything that results in the destruction of our relationship to Him and He hates anything that causes His children unnecessary pain. There’s nothing more hurtful than broken trust between a husband and wife and nothing that takes more time to heal from than the injury of rejection.  And as someone engaged in visible church ministry, I can assure you there is certainly nothing more distracting. The only thing worse than battling your own demons of failure is trying to dodge the stones being cast by those you have blessed previously.  The Houghtons and those like them deserve our compassion and our prayerful support as they enter their season of restoration. If you’ve never been there, you would not want to walk a mile in the same shoes-trust me on this.