God of the Valley

In times following global tragedies like the terror attack in Manchester, England, or when we experience personal trauma, it can seem like God is distant. He isn’t present. He isn’t paying attention. He doesn’t care.

Bette Midler summed this up perfectly in her epic hit, “From a Distance,” which proclaimed that, from a distance, the world was blue and clear, beautiful and harmonious, while on the ground we were all at war. While her song sounds beautiful enough to sing as a special music presentation at church, it paints a picture of a God who likes the view from above, and does not engage with the struggles of man.

The reality is that God is not only aware of world affairs, our personal struggles and the pain of the real world, but He is also working through these events to bring in a better world where we will no longer suffer.

Daily Wire podcaster Andrew Klavan discovered this first hand. In his book, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, he related an experience where he was listening to a New York Mets baseball game on the radio while contemplating suicide. The Mets had won in the last inning, thanks to the heroic effort of a Christian baseball player, who in the post game interview, said, “Sometimes, you just have to play through the pain.”

During the above-posted interview on my radio show, Klavan said that when he heard those words, it was as if the Lord told him, “You have to play through the pain. You are needed.”

That moment was one of the key moments that led to his conversion to Christianity. Reflecting upon that moment, and the moments of his life that led him to Christ, Klavan noted that people live in the real world. There is violence, problems, death, suffering, and fear. In order to reach people, we have to start by meeting them where they are. That involves an acknowledgement of the reality of their situations, but also showing them that God is present during times of pain and suffering, and that he is using that pain and suffering to bring them into a place of glory.

That’s why, even after his conversion, he continued writing suspense-thrillers. That is also the approach he takes with his daily podcast on the Daily Wire.

In times of tragedy, catch-phrases like “give it all to God” don’t carry much weight. What does carry weight is ministering to people during times of tragedy. That involves being there, listening to them, and reminding them that they are not alone.

Woody Allen once said that 85 percent of life is showing up. Let’s show up. Let’s be there for our families, friends and neighbors. Let’s minister to them during times of distress.

And when we find ourselves in distress, let’s remember that God is always present, and always active. He is God when we stand victorious on the mountaintop. He is also God when we struggle through the darkness of the valley. He is the God of the mountain, and He is God of the valley. Trust Him, and know that it will all work out.

Mourning for Manchester

It’s every mother’s nightmare. Her teenage daughter goes out and never returns. Following news of the suicide attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, Charlotte Campbell immediately began to call her daughter, Olivia, who attended the concert. No answer. And such has been the case since the attack happened.

Monday’s terror attack on the concert claimed the lives of 22 people, and injured many others. Some concert attendees are still missing. Campbell hasn’t given up hope. She tells British television that she has been calling her daughter’s cell phone, but it goes straight to voicemail. She fears that her daughter is one of the many who are in critical condition in a hospital, or worse.

This scene has become all too common in today’s world. Terrorists attack a concert venue in England, or Paris, drive a truck into a crowd at a parade, attack a train, or violently attack a cartoon newspaper. The world responds with Facebook filters and hashtags. Yesterday, we were all Paris. Today, we are all Manchester. Once upon a time, we were all Charlie Hebdo.

The frequency of these attacks coupled with the ease of showing concern on social media has almost dehumanized these events, but the reality of this attack has struck Campbell directly in the heart. She longs for her daughter. She wishes she were home.

In the days ahead, we’ll learn more about this attack. We’ll learn of the attacker’s background, his allegiances, and whether this attack was connected to a terrorist organization.

We’ll also hear those who call for a strong military response, as well as those who tell us violence is not the answer. We’ll be told not to judge. We’ll be told to pull our heads out of the sand. We’ll find ourselves in a heightened state of security, and the politicians will blame the other party.

None of this will undo the attack. None of it will bring healing to Ms. Campbell. So for once, let’s respond the right way.

Let’s start by praying for the victims of the Manchester attack. Pray for the healing of those wounded, and comfort for the families affected.

Let’s continue by praying for our leaders, as the Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”

If our desire is to live a quiet, peaceable life, in all Godliness and honesty, our leaders are going to have to find a solution to combat global terror at its core. There are many complexities to this issue, and no decision will be simple. Pray God gives our leaders wisdom and foresight.

Then, let’s recognize this attack for what it truly is, evil. This attack was not caused by a lax security system, nor was it caused by ineffectual government. It was caused by evil men. Recognizing that will remind us that evil is in the world, and will remind us that our real enemy is not those who differ from us, but rather those who want to kill and oppress us.

Recognizing this evil means recognizing the Spiritual component of this evil. Seeing that this evil was ultimately birthed by our true enemy, Satan, we then recognize that only God can win this battle. Thus, the battle is the Lord’s, and we trust Him fully.

And finally, let’s remember that nothing is guaranteed. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today isn’t guaranteed. We don’t know how much time we have left, nor do we know how much time our neighbors have left.

Seeing that time is short, and we don’t know how much is left, let’s redeem the time by solidifying our relationships with the Lord, and by doing His work.

And make the most of the time you have with your loved ones.

May God bless you and comfort you in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Gov. Abbott signs SB 24, church/state controversy reignited

Governor Greg AbbottFormer Houston Mayor Annise Parker drew national outrage in 2014 when attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed sermon notes and audio from pastors who had organized a petition to force the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) to a public referendum. Pastors who organized the petition said the HERO ordinance violated religious freedoms.

The pastors had collected the signatures needed, but several thousand were rejected when it was discovered that one of the pastors who collected the signatures was not a registered voter. With the signatures disqualified, the petition failed, and HERO was set to be enacted.

That’s when the pastors sued, and during the discovery phase of the suit, lawyers representing the city subpoenaed the pastors’ sermon notes to see if those pastors had violated the law by discussing, promoting, or giving instructions regarding the petition during worship services.

The resulting fallout had pastors, pundits and politicos criticizing the city of Houston to the point that Mayor Parker ordered the city’s attorneys to withdraw the subpoena. The pastors scored a victory, which led to a legal victory, which led to an electoral victory when Houston voters overwhelmingly rejected HERO.

Sunday, at Grace Community Church in The Woodlands, Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a victory lap as the governor held a bill signing ceremony for SB 24 during worship services. SB 24, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), prohibits local and state government entities from subpoenaing sermon notes, audio or video from pastors, and further prohibits those pastors from being forced to testify about their sermons.

The bill, seen as a response to Houston’s 2014 subpoena, went into effect immediately, however, the way the governor signed the bill reignited the debate over the separation of church and state.

Current law prohibits churches from influencing political elections, or the passing of legislation. While churches can weigh in on issues (such as abortion or same-sex marriage), they cannot lobby in favor of legislation on those issues, nor can they endorse candidates who support their views on the issues.

While President Donald J. Trump’s recent executive order instructing the IRS to stop enforcing the law that bans church involvement in the political process, critics note that the executive order can just as easily be reversed in the next Presidential administration, exposing politically active churches to prosecution, or loss of their tax-exempt status.

The separation of church and state is one of the pillars that upholds the freedom of the American republic. Historically, whenever the church takes control of the government, persecution against non-adherents follows. Whenever the government takes control of the church, blasphemy and heresy follow. Both situations become ripe with corruption.

That’s why Rev. John Leland, a Baptist pastor who preached in Virginia and Massachusetts, strongly advocated for the separation of church and state, supported James Madison, and was instrumental in promoting the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In promoting the separation of church and state, Leland wrote:

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

That was the goal of the separation of church and state. Churches would not run the government. Government would not run the churches. Man would be free to serve God in a way that satisfied his conscience.

Churches should participate in the market place of ideas. When government seeks to regulate religious speech, it seeks to take control over the church. However, if churches become “dark money” organizations for political parties, they have not only violated the separation of church and state, they have also deviated from their God-given mission.

Furthermore, any law that forces a man to violate his religious conscience is a law that violates the very essence of man, and the three founding principles of our nation. So, with SB 24 in place, and Gov. Abbott’s and Lt. Gov. Patrick’s victory lap behind us, let us press onward to a world where man is free to believe, churches are free to preach, and where government governs well, and as little as possible.

Charly’s attempt to engage culture

Over the past two decades, Christians and churches have sought to engage popular culture through music, movies and even through news media sites like The Stream.

Following the observation that movies bear more influence on American culture than the pulpit, the Kendrick Brothers and Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., produced a series of movies that gave us box office hits like “Fireproof” and “Courageous.” The movies, flanked by correlating Bible study curriculum for churches and small-groups, were tools in reaching many.

These efforts have led to the conversion and discipleship of many nominal church goers and fence riders, however, cracking the shell of the culture at large presents a challenge. While individuals are being reached through these efforts, the public at large is not.

My proof? In 1986, Top Gun was a box office smash. Americans lined up around the corner to see Maverick pursue his quest of graduating at the top of his Top Gun class. The movie, which featured many action scenes featuring the F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles, wooed many young men into joining the Navy under the auspices of becoming fighter pilots.

Recruiters, seeing the opportunity, set up recruiting booths outside movie theaters, signing young men who were excited about the opportunity to fly the F-15 into hostile air to intercept Russian Migs. A cultural phenomenon was born.

Historically, the only time a Christian movie has generated a large-scale response was following the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” A heart-felt and detailed depiction of the Gospel is bound to elicit a reaction. No doubt about that. However, aside from the anecdotal stories of the criminal who confessed to a crime for which someone else was convicted, there was no shift in American culture. A large number of professed conversions came from that movie, but America’s culture still trended toward unGodliness.

If the purpose of Christian movies is to create conversions, or to call marginal Christians back to faith, then those movies are accomplishing the goal. However, if Christian movies are designed to sway the culture at large, we are missing the mark. And, until this week, I’ve wondered why.

Sunday night, my wife and I enjoyed some “date time,” where we sit down and watch a movie via Amazon Prime or Hulu. We found a romance movie called “Charly,” about a New York woman who visits family in Salt Lake City and meets a young Mormon, and the two fall in love. Charly convinces Sam, the young Mormon, to be more spontaneous. Sam leads Charly to convert to Mormonism.

The plot was good, the acting was good. The depictions of family and the importance thereof were good. What turned me off to the movie was when the film would unabashedly preach Mormonism. There’d be a Sunday School scene non-germane to the plot. The main character would try to preach it to his love interest. Those scenes disrupted the plot, and raised my antenna. I spent the rest of the movie looking for the Mormon innuendos.

Now, I mean no disrespect to my Mormon friends, but as a Baptist pastor, I have several, deep, theological differences with the Mormon religion. Having those differences brought to the forefront of my mind, I began to wonder if non-believers had the same reaction to Christian films as I was having to “Charly.”

Are Christian filmmakers hindering their influence on the culture by inserting outright Christian preaching into Christian movies? I don’t know, and I have no complaints.

However, as we produce Christian movies, let’s set our purpose before writing our script. Are we looking to influence society to adopt our values? Or are we looking for mass conversions. If mass conversions are the goal, then by all means, insert explicit Bible teachings. Do a movie about the Gospel, like “The Passion of the Christ.”

However, if the goal is to influence societal values, maybe embedding Christian values into the plot is a better way to go.

The Sun Also Rises

ErnestHemingwayPreface: During my college days, I lacked the proper appreciation for the education that was afforded me. Therefore, over the past several months, I have been reading up on the classics that I missed out on by skipping English class. My latest venture has been in the works of Ernest Hemingway.

At first glance, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, was a pointless novel following the misadventures of Jake Barnes, a World War I veteran working as a foreign correspondent in Paris for a New York paper. His misadventures go from dining in restaurants, to drinking in bars, to having coffee in local cafes, to his fruitless pursuit of the Lady Ashley, (or Brett, as her given name is).

There’s a love interest between Jake and Brett, but due to some undefined injury, Jake cannot consummate a romantic relationship with her. So, he aimlessly eats, drinks, and wanders in Paris, repeatedly coming into contact with Brett, who always seems to be in a relationship with someone she doesn’t love.

Seriously, that is the plot for, like, 75 percent of the book. The day ends, Jake and his “friends” go out to eat, then out to drink, then out for coffee. Then, the next day comes. The same routine ensues, until Jake and his friends take a trip to Spain to go fishing, and then to watch the bull fights in Pamplona.

Upon reaching the end of the book, my first thought was, “What was the point of all that?” Did Hemingway really waste two weeks of my time to tell me a series of bar and fishing stories? I mean, seriously, the book only described my last two years of college.

Perhaps the book was autobiographical. Perhaps Hemingway wrote the book merely to explore his own thoughts, emotions and struggles. Hemingway himself drove an ambulance in World War I, was seriously wounded, and worked as a journalist in Paris. He was a known drinker, carouser, and lover of pleasure.

Perhaps, unlike authors Ayn Rand or Harper Lee, Hemingway was not writing to convey a certain wisdom upon us. Perhaps his writing was a selfish attempt to self-counsel, and to work out his own insanity.

Or, perhaps there was meaning to The Sun Also Rises. Starting with the title.

The Sun Also Rises could be a tongue-and-cheek jab at Jake’s lifestyle of late night drinking and carousing. A lifestyle like that does not witness many sunrises. Usually, the sun is already up, the man begins his day, and continues until long after the sun has set. No doubt Jake saw many sunsets, but not many sunrises. Having witnessed many sunsets, perhaps the title is a reminder to Jake that “the sun also rises.”

Or, perhaps there is more meaning to The Sun Also Rises, and that Hemingway is more covert in conveying his messages to us.

The Sun Also Rises takes place in Paris during the roaring 20s, as young veterans of the first World War seek meaning to life, but wander aimlessly as members of “the lost generation.” Indeed, having won the war, one would expect the 1920s to be a time of great hope and prosperity. And to an extent it was, but after having survived the bloodshed and ensuing famines and plagues of World War I, many wondered, “What’s the point?”

In a time of great hope and prosperity, the lack of meaning and purpose lead many down a road of hopelessness and despair. Though the allies had won the war, the sun was setting on the glory of France and western civilization. Dreams had been shattered during the war. Friends and family lost, lives ruined. The sun was setting.

This was captured in the hopelessness that Jake felt in The Sun Also Rises. He could never marry the woman he truly loved because of what the war had done to him. His abilities were limited, and he was relegated to being a foreign correspondent in Paris. After life in Paris, Jake knew that life would never be the same if he were to return to his hometown in the mid-western United States. His sun was setting.

Yet, through the labyrinth of bars, cafes, restaurants, inns and bullfight arenas, Jake comes to clarify his feelings toward his friends, Brett, and his career. As the novel ends, he begins to find peace in this clarity, thus, “the sun also rises.” In this clarity there was hope, and reason for optimism. His wounds were not miraculously healed, nor had his dreams come true, but there was peace and clarity, and therefore hope. “The sun also rises.”

While The Sun Also Rises is completely devoid of spiritual insight, there is still a lesson to be learned.

Victory and prosperity do not equal happiness. The Sun Also Rises takes place during the prosperity of the 20s in the aftermath of victory in World War I, yet the characters found themselves depressed and hopeless.

Happiness does not come in wealth or achievement. If you cannot be happy now, you will not be happy if you obtain more. Happiness comes in having purpose, and living your life by that purpose. That purpose is found in the Lord, for He was the one who created you with it. Learn this precept, and you will see that the sun also rises.