soldier-and-childIf you’ve ever been in the Army (or have been around those who have been), you probably know what “TDY” (Temporary Duty) is. It’s when you’re assigned somewhere for duty other than your permanent duty station – you guessed it – temporarily. This might be a few days or a few months; it might be relatively easy or an extreme hardship; maybe  for training or simply filling in wherever the army says the need is. Any which way, it’s part of military life that you’re in your country’s service, and while you can put in requests for certain assignments, you ultimately go where your orders take you, like it or not.

There are parallels to our lives as Christians in this. First, in the bigger view,this world is not our “permanent station”.  The apostle Paul tells us that “our citizenship is in heaven.”[1] The author of Hebrews tells us of heroes of the faith like Abraham, who was looking forward to “that city whose architect and builder is God”, and many others who “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”[2] Those of us who are Christians are in the service of the King in enemy-controlled territory. We can go AWOL (absent without leave) like the prophet Jonah did, but we can read in the Bible how that turned out for him.[3] Or, like Paul, we can be “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us”.[4]

Second, on the more immediate view, wherever you find yourself in this world is a temporary duty station where you represent the King. Not that you can represent, or that you should represent. If you call yourself a Christian, then you do represent Christ everywhere you are. The only question is how you represent Him. So what would happen if we accurately represented Him more often? Would there be less cheating and fewer cliques and bullies at our schools if our students acted justly, opposed the proud, and defended the weak? Would there be less “office politics” at our jobs if we lived with integrity beyond reproach? Would there be fewer broken homes if we husbands loved our wives “as Christ loved the church” and saw our children as a “blessing from the Lord” entrusted to our care for a brief time? Would there be more sportsmanship at sporting events (on and off the field) if we saw our opponents as fellow humans created in God’s image and inherently worthy of respect? Is this the easy way? No, but the right way usually isn’t the easy way. Perhaps that’s why the apostle Paul told Timothy to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” In the next verse he tells him that no soldier gets involved in civilian affairs, for he wants to please his commander.[5] Indeed, we are on our Commander’s business at all times, and it likely will be hard at times, but also worth it.

I remember leaving Basic Training in my Class A’s (army dress uniform) that I was supposed to wear for the flight home. I was instructed to not do anything “stupid” that might disgrace the uniform. As Christians, we are always “in uniform”.  That’s why Paul told the Corinthians “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”[6] So how do you view your current “assignment”? Do you think of it as a little taste of hell to suffer through, or as an opportunity to be a light in a dark place? Are your coworkers/classmates/teammates just people to put up with, or are they quite possibly the reason for your being stationed where you are in the first place? Don’t miss the opportunities God grants you because you thought you were “off duty”.

[1] Philippians 3:20, NASB.
[2] Hebrews 11:10, 13, NASB.
[3] Jonah 1, NASB (The whole book’s only 4 short chapters – just read the whole thing).
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:20, NASB.
[5] 2 Timothy 2:3-4, NASB.
[6] 1 Corinthians 10:31, NASB.

The Truth that Won’t Budge

the truth shall make you freeI heard some sobering statistics in church this past Sunday: 78% of Americans overall, 64% of American Christians, 94% of teenage Americans overall, and 91% of teenage American Christians don’t believe that objective truth exists.[1] This represents a staggering disconnect with reality. You might question why I would say the majority of the US population is disconnected from reality, but I would ask in return, “What is truth?” Truth is correspondence with reality, and reality is painfully objective. If you don’t believe that, go find a big rock and kick it barefoot, and see which gives way: your subjective idea that it won’t hurt, or the objective solidity of that rock. No matter how much you might want to believe something is true, it either is or it isn’t; and no amount of belief, desire, “positive mental attitude”, or temper tantrums on the part of you (the subject) can change that truth about the object (unless you go and change the object). That’s because truth is rooted not in the subject but the object. That’s what it means for truth to be objective.

We actually can’t live like there is no objective truth. It simply conflicts with reality too much for anyone to live like that consistently for any length of time.  In fact, this idea that something “is what it is”, is the Law of Identity, one of the fundamental laws of logic considered to be self-evident . The Law of Non-contradiction then builds on this to say that “it is impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” For instance, I cannot be both sitting at my desk and not sitting at my desk at the same time. The Law of Excluded Middle then says that there is no middle state between existence and nonexistence. These logical truths build on ontological  truth, or existence. An object is ontologically true if it exists, and statements about it are logically true if they are not self-contradictory and accurately correspond to that existence – that is, to reality. But in all of this, the subjective interpretations of the person observing an object never come into play. These fundamental laws of logic in effect anchor us to an objective understanding of reality – even when reality interferes with our desires.

However, maybe the disconnect isn’t with physical reality. Perhaps the majority of Americans in this generation haven’t forsaken all objective truth, just the objective truth that they can’t see, touch, hear, and smell. Are moral truth claims simply subjective then? Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.”[2] If God exists and is the Creator of all, doesn’t it make sense that whatever corresponds to the reality He made would be consistent? He is, after all, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”[3] That’s why I’m not surprised when scientists find that the universe couldn’t have existed eternally, but had to have a beginning. God, the One who began it, told us it had a beginning in the very first 3 words of the Bible, His direct revelation to us.[4] I’m just glad scientists are finally starting to catch up to what Christians (and Jews before) have known for thousands of years! Moral truths are no different. All commands, such as laws prescribing behavior, are grounded in the authority of the one issuing the command. As much as I might like to at some places, I can’t just put a traffic light where I want. I can’t reroute traffic at the intersections on my commute that always back up. I can’t because I don’t have the authority, but the city does. Likewise, there are laws the city can’t change, but the state can. There are laws that apply to all states in our union, and help define what it means to be an American versus a citizen of another nation. Yet there are also laws that apply to every nation. Lying, stealing, murder – these are things that are wrong regardless of nation, culture, or time. But is that really surprising if these moral laws are grounded in the unchanging nature of God?

I have to wonder what Christians mean when they are telling people  that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”[5], and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”[6] if there is no objective truth. Does Jesus change to match each person’s interpretation of Him? What exactly is setting us free if truth is different for each of us?

The church in the book of Acts was accused of “turning the world upside down”.[7] Is it any wonder that the American church isn’t doing that today when there’s such a minimal difference between us and the rest of the world’s culture? With statistics like those above, we’d turn ourselves upside down right along with the world if we actually started living the faith we claim. Then again, with statistics like those, maybe we need to be turned upside down.

[1] Bill Parkinson, sermon titled “Believe because it’s true”, preached at Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock, AR, July 12, 2015. See the video or download the mp3 here.
[2] The original quote from Augustine’s work “On Christian Doctrine” is “…but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”, although it is commonly condensed to the phrase I used above.
[3] “Hebrews 13:8, NASB.
[4] “In the beginning…” – Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[5] John 14:6, NASB.
[6] John 8:32, NASB.
[7] Acts 17:6, ESV.

Good Investments

Apostle Paul - Rembrandt 1635We all like to make good investments. We like to “buy low, sell high” in the stock market, have a solid retirement plan, remodel and “flip” houses for profit, and maybe even sell those childhood baseball cards for a small fortune. We like to see a good return on our investment.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul tells Timothy about a different, and arguably, far more important kind of investment: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”[1] I see 5 lessons to take away from this verse.

  1. Entrusting to faithful men what we have heard means first of all listening with intentionality so that we can rightly pass on what we have heard. After all, you can’t pass on what you don’t have yourself.
  2. This is no secret society or club of Illuminati. On the contrary, Christianity is the model of transparency. The things Paul wanted Timothy to pass on were not “secret knowledge” like the Gnostics professed to have, but rather teaching shared in the open with many witnesses.
  3. Discipleship is no light task. The Greek word used for “entrust” here, παράθου (parathou), means to set something close beside or before someone, or to deposit it with them for safekeeping. In fact, in some of Jesus’ last words on the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit”[2], the word translated there as “commit”is the same root word. This is not a passive endeavor for either the teacher or the student. It’s an active handing over of a serious trust to the future guardians of it.
  4. Real discipleship  builds the deep roots necessary for multiple generations to follow. Notice the 4 generations of Christians mentioned in this one short verse: Paul (1) has faithfully taught Timothy (2), who is to teach faithful men (3), who will also be able (or competent) to teach others (4). Notice also that this is not describing Sunday morning with several hundred people listening to Pastor Timothy’s teachings directly, and maybe inviting others to come listen as well; this is intensive training such that those learning can then teach also. As Colonel Moore explained to his recruits in the movie We Were Soldiers after tagging their squad leader as “dead” in that training scenario, “You learn the job of the man above you, and you teach your job to the man below you in rank.” If your church’s pastor were suddenly thrown in jail, or martyred, would there be a line of mature believers ready to step up and face the same consequences? If not, think about what you can do to remedy that problem.
  5. Like money deposits, this investment should earn interest and bear fruit. Like the parable of the talents[3], God wants multiplication, but should at least to get interest on the deposit He has made in our lives. We have more ability to study God’s Word in our phones today than most pastors have in many countries, or had through most of church history. We have been given such a huge deposit of resources, will we just bury it and show God at the end of our days only what He gave us to begin with? How much judgement will we be under that we have more resources at our disposal than any other generation in history, and most of us do nothing with them? I say this not to guilt people into anything (for that motivation won’t last anyway), but rather to wake people to the opportunities at hand. Don’t let them slip by!

What are you investing in? Money that may not be worth the paper it’s printed on someday? Stocks that may crash? Houses that will deteriorate and fall (or get bulldozed for a new parking lot…)? God has a very different “portfolio” – one Paul invested in 2 millennia ago, and that initial investment is still paying dividends in the form of an unbroken line of believers, saved from their sin and granted life, thanks to those who were faithful and “able to teach others also”. Will you be one?

[1] 2 Timothy 2:2, NASB.
[2] Luke 23:46, NASB.
[3] Matthew 25:14-29, NASB.

“For Such a Time as This….”

Esther before King Ahasuerus

The word “apologetics” refers to presenting evidence and making a reasoned defense of the Christian faith and comes from one of the Apostle Peter’s letters where he tells his readers to “…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence….”[1] The word “defense” there is ἀπολογίαν (apologian), and refers to a verbal legal defense offered in court. Emotional pleas will not suffice in court. Rather, compelling evidence is required. J. Warner Wallace has pointed out the contrast between Paul’s statements that “some were called as evangelists, and some as teachers”, and so forth[2], and Peter’s statement here that we are all obligated to know not only what we believe, but also why we believe it, and be able to explain the truth to those who ask.

But today, I want to show the connection between this verse and a different one. The book of Esther tells of a young Jewish girl named Esther, who is picked by King Ahasuerus of the Medo-Persian empire to be queen. A decree is issued by one of the king’s advisers to have all of the Jews throughout the empire massacred, although it’s not known at that point that the queen is Jewish. Now, it was a death sentence for anyone, even the queen, to approach the king unsummoned unless he granted clemency. And so we come to this somber warning from her uncle Mordecai: “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Esther replied “thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”[3] I think we can take away 3 lessons from Mordecai ‘s warning, and a fourth from Esther’s response.

  1. There are many that will not listen to any preacher, but they they will listen to you. As Queen Esther had the ear of the king, you have the ear of people that might never step foot in a church, might scoff at any TV or radio sermon, and might be highly suspicious of those they consider “professional Christians” (i.e. preachers, missionaries). You as their friend/colleague/teammate have a bigger impact than you might imagine. You put a face to Christ that may be the only counter to the Christian stereotype they may have created in their mind.
  2. Preachers can’t go where you can go. For better or worse, we spend a lot of our time at our jobs. Even if a workplace isn’t hostile to Christianity, there’s still a job to do, and chatty visitors interfere with that. But you’re already at the right place when the right time hits to make the case for Christ. For me, it’s sometimes been talking to a colleague in the parking lot after we closed up for the day. Other times, it’s just been a simple question regarding a sarcastic remark of theirs, and it was enough to give them pause, and see a different perspective briefly. Preachers can’t be the needed light in every dark corner, but we can.
  3. If you don’t make the case, God will still accomplish His will, but there are consequences in our lives. Just as God didn’t need Esther, He can bring other people into someone’s life to deliver the message you could have, but that may mean years of unnecessary hardship in that person’s life. It also  won’t be the blessing in your life that it would’ve been, or contribute to your spiritual growth. On the contrary, repeatedly turning away from opportunity hardens our hearts against future occasions to serve God.
  4. Finally, know the cost on the front end, and be prepared to pay it. For Esther, it was possible death. For you, it may be ridicule or job loss. For Christians in other countries, it’s still sometimes  imprisonment, beatings, and even death.  But Jesus never told us it’d be an easy life; a rewarding life, a life of joy in spite of trials, a life of peace through storms, but not an “easy” life. But remember, even a long life on earth is vanishingly insignificant compared to eternity. Can we be so selfish as to rest in our assurance of an eternal home with Jesus while other people’s eternal lives are at stake?

We Christians have had an easy time of it in America for several generations. Most of us (myself included) have never had to sacrifice much to be a Christ-follower. I can’t say I look forward to persecution, but I also have to acknowledge that almost every book in the New Testament tells me to expect it… if I’m fully living out what I say I believe. But in trials God reveals incredible opportunities. And so I’m yet hopeful for those of us who live in such times such as these.

[1] 1 Peter 3:15, NASB
[2] Ephesians 4:11, NASB
[3] Esther 4:14-16, NASB