Tears, Prayers, and Faith: Thinking of Sutherland Springs

Phil Congdon, NBBC, November 7, 2017

Two days ago, as I was preaching, a few miles away in Sutherland Springs, a deranged man entered a church and methodically killed or gravely wounded most of the congregation. It’s hard for us to believe anyone would be so depraved they could do this. Every time we hear of acts of terror here and around the world, we wince, we grieve, we weep. In this case, both because it is so close by, and because the victims were gathered to worship the Lord, our sorrow is greater.

Our first priority must be to pray. Stop what you are doing, make time in your busy day, perhaps get together with a few others. Pray for those in the hospital, some in critical condition; pray for doctors and nurses who are providing their treatment. Pray for the grieving families of those who were killed, for the comfort that only God can give. Pray for healing for a shattered community, and the remaining members of the church. And pray for our nation to recognize the symptoms of spiritual need, and turn to God.

I know that ‘talking heads’ will raise issues like gun control and mental health after a shooting – as usual, they are sincere, but wide of the mark. According to the New York Times, costs of mental health in America exceed half-a-trillion dollars-a-year; if giving out drugs and talking could solve the problem, we would have long ago. Making guns illegal might prevent some senseless killings, but it won’t stop murder. I lived near Chicago for eight years; Illinois has very restrictive gun laws. And yet already this year, in Chicago alone, there have been 3201 shootings, 2644 wounded, and 557 killed. Something deeper than ‘gun law’ is the problem.

Let me be blunt: We are focusing on the symptoms, and ignoring the disease. Over the last generation, we have intentionally extracted God and faith from society, and we are suffering the results. When society can no longer discern right from wrong in obvious issues (partial birth abortion, selling aborted baby body parts, homosexual “marriage,” or men sharing bathrooms with girls), we have lost our moral compass. Remove God from society, and you remove moral absolutes; the vacuum will be filled with irrational and bizarre behavior. Psychology can define the problem, but never solve it. Governments can impose new laws, but never change the heart.

America, despite its rich heritage, has intentionally chosen a path that removes God and spirituality from the mainstream of life (academia, government, media, entertainment). Australia, where I lived for years, which has no ‘Christian heritage’ like America, still has “Scripture in Schools,” a program where groups (Christian and others) discuss spiritual issues with students. (Note: This has been under attack from anti-religious groups, so far unsuccessfully.) America effectively removed God from school years ago: In 1962 they removed prayer, in 1963 the Bible. We have forgotten God; these irrational and tragic killings are all-too-common reminders.

Is prayer and Bible-reading in school the solution for all society’s ills? No. But God and His Word are. While we cannot eradicate sin this side of heaven, we can shine the light of truth in darkness, and the good news of a God of love and forgiveness in a world of pain and hopelessness. So as you pray and weep for the families of Sutherland Springs, hold fast to the grace and truth of God, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2.4).

Living With Death

Phil Congdon, NBBC, November 1, 2017

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, but that another senseless killing is in the news. The mass shooting in Las Vegas is seared in our memories because of hundreds of videos, and the number of casualties, but I keep wondering if this is ever going to end. It’s the same all over the world – worse in many places than here. Trucks driving into crowds, bombs going off in churches or mosques or police stations or restaurants, knife attacks on city streets, shootings in nightclubs or on college campuses. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, reflecting on news of another murder, said “Death is always with us.” But on this scale?!

Since the turn of the century, we’ve been engaged in military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the years of those conflicts, almost seven thousand American soldiers were killed. Although no one knows for sure, the number of civilian deaths in those two countries is estimated at well over 200,000. That number continues to rise, with internal fighting and terrorism still rife throughout the region.

I’m old enough to remember the Viet Nam War; I vaguely remember reports of American casualties in those dark days. Over 58,000 U.S. military personnel gave their lives in a war that, in the end, resulted in more killing – the communist Viet Cong murdered tens of thousands of South Vietnamese citizens after we pulled out.

When we factor in genocides (Nazi, Japan, Rwanda, Sudan, etc.) and mass murders of citizens by their own governments (Soviet Union, China, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and North Korea today), the number of human beings senselessly put to death staggers the mind – tens of millions.

Now consider this: In America, since the Supreme Court legalized abortion, over 50 million babies have been killed. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 125,000 abortions worldwide every day – that’s 40-50 million killed every year. These casualties don’t make the evening news; no videos record the carnage. They may be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ – but they’re happening. We’re surrounded by death.

These paragraphs have been hard for me to write. They aren’t easy to read. Frankly, we’d rather not be forced to look at death. In particular, we cringe when death is the result of evil – at the hands of megalomaniacal tyrants or deranged sadists or greedy abortionists – something inside us screams for it all to end. Those who believe in God cry out for justice; those who don’t believe in God blame Him for doing nothing (figure that out!). But is there a value in us coming face-to-face with the reality of death?

As World War II was just beginning to ravage countries around the globe, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon in Oxford that he entitled “Learning in Wartime.” The writing was on the wall, so-to-speak; war was coming, and with it, the specter of many deaths. In that setting, Lewis said this:

War does something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why cancer at 60 or the paralysis at 75 does not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: And that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it.

 Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

I don’t know if war is on the horizon. I hope not, but if it did erupt, would it really shock any of us? Violent Islamic regimes are spreading their influence, especially in Africa. North Korea is led by an unpredictable (some would say unhinged) dictator who has been a god to his enslaved subjects since he was born. Middle eastern countries have their weapons trained on Israel. If war comes, it will force us to face death. Whether or not it does, death is always with us.

But there is a ‘silver lining’ to this ‘dark cloud’ of death – a ‘value’ in recognizing the sea of evil in which we live (1 John 5.19). It is the reminder that This world is not my home, I’m just a-pass’in through… The Apostle Paul said much the same thing this way:

But you, brethren, are not in darkness…for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness. (1 Thess. 5.4-5)

We are not as those who have no hope – not because we ignore death or pretend it doesn’t matter, but because we know we have been given victory over it. Again, Paul writes (1 Cor. 15.55-57):

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Keep your eyes on the Light of the World, and reflect the light of His life to those who are still walking in darkness.

The God Who Keeps His Promises

Phil Congdon, NBBC, October 4, 2017

This month we commence the second stage of our study through Genesis, the story of Yahweh and His dealings with Abraham. This fourteen-chapter narrative begins in Ur, a pagan city, and ends in Canaan, a land which God promises to Abram and his descendants. This begins a series of events, experiences, and encounters that jeopardize God’s promise, take detours from the path God wanted them to go, and lead ultimately to the greatest test in God’s ‘school of faith’.

There are some awesome lessons to pick up on as we work our way through this epic story. One truth every Christian should embrace has to do with a life of faith. Anyone who knows anything about Abraham knows that he is a ‘hero of faith’ – in fact, the greatest one. In Hebrews 11, while most Old Testament greats get a passing mention, just two – Abraham and Moses – get extensive exposure. Moses gets seven verses, Abraham eight. But if you think that means that Abraham is always a paragon of virtue, you need to read Genesis 12-25 again! Here we find a man who is a champion of faithfulness one day, then a wavering doubter the next.
There is a principle of faith we can apply to our lives here. A life of faithfulness to God is not an immediate achievement; no one suddenly and totally begins living a life of faith. Abraham didn’t. Instead, God patiently and persistently led Abraham on a journey through his life, and only in the end did Abraham finally realize that nothing is ‘too difficult for the Lord’ (Gen. 18.14), and trust Him completely. You and I are on that ‘journey of faith’ – and will be throughout this life. When you experience doubts, or fall for Satan’s deceptions, remember: You are ‘on the way.’ God is not finished with you yet! God always keeps His promises.

In a way, Abraham’s life is an apt ‘blueprint’ of the way God works in all our lives. No, God is not going to make a great nation out of you or me! But just as God called Abram from a godless society, in a world where he was prosperous and content, so too God calls each of us who have responded to Him in faith to leave behind that which – in this world – seems to mean everything to us: In Luke 14, Jesus calls His followers to put Him before their families, possessions, and even our own lives! Why?

When Abram left Ur, he could not have known even a smidgeon of what God had planned for him and his descendants. The full wonder of God’s redemptive plan would only come into focus more than two thousand years later, when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, came into the world. In Him the promise made to Abraham was finally realized: In you all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12.3). The effects of Abraham’s life stretch into eternity.

God has a wonderful plan for our lives, too. In Eph. 2.10 we read that we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Did you get that? God has already ‘prepared’ good works for us to do on our journey of faith. He’s called us. We’ve responded in faith. Now our lives, as we live them for Him, can have an effect that stretches into eternity. Are you trusting Him to use your life? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

 

Responding to the Tragedy of Las Vegas

Phil Congdon, NBBC, October 4, 2017

It’s less than two days since a gunman opened fire on a crowd of thousands of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 59, and wounding hundreds more. The video of the scene is ghastly: The sound of gunfire is like something you’d expect to hear in a battle zone. The senseless loss of life is deeply painful and sobering. This is a far-too-common occurrence in the world today, and makes us all wonder, ‘What’s happening?!’

The names of victims were not even known before a search for reasons, and partisan recriminations, began swirling. It’s normal for us to immediately seek for an answer – some human deficiency or sinister evil that caused a man to do such a heinous thing. Pundits have been fighting for the ‘high moral ground,’ claiming that if our laws were different, or our political policies were changed, this wouldn’t happen.

But deep down, we suspect that try as we might, there is no ‘fix’ for this increasingly violent and amoral world. We’ll blame it on politics, the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, a ‘lack of social justice,’ or even ‘climate change.’ But in so doing, we betray a lack of serious self-examination. What will it take before we stop looking outside ourselves for the cause of evil, and look within?

Sin. It’s the cancer of the world. The one spreading this killer virus is Satan, who introduced it into the human atmosphere in the Garden of Eden. Since then, history records an endless succession of sinful pursuits, spreading misery and suffering, sometimes killing millions, sometimes 59. But Satan’s ‘fingerprints’ are all over this, and until we recognize it, we’ll keep putting a ‘Band-Aid’ of human solutions on a spiritual problem.

The reason mankind resists the “sin diagnosis” is that it indicts us all – we’re all guilty. Scripture is clear: The best of us is still a hopeless sinner. And this drives us to the one-and-only solution to sin, the God who loved us enough to dispatch His Son to take our sin and its punishment – the worst it could inflict, death – on Himself. But if this be our need, then man is not the master of his fate, and we are beholden to our God.

The logic of our agony in the wake of Las Vegas is not that complicated. A society rejects God, and therefore His solution to the sin problem. We posit a world where ‘the fittest survive,’ and since we’ve survived, we must be the fittest! Everything happens because it happens, there’s no meaning or direction in life, we’re just space dust passing through time on our way to nowhere. It’s all dumb luck…or not. In Las Vegas, not.

This ‘creed’ gets us into a hopeless vacuum. We made our “god” a mindless, heartless, ‘force,’ and now we are left wondering who to blame. Poet Steve Turner captured precisely the conundrum of our despair:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
and when you hear

State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!

It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

We often underestimate the significance of our gospel as Christians – after all, most people don’t seem to want to hear about God’s love, Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin, then rising from the dead. They’re too busy for that…places to go, people to see. Perhaps going to a concert – like thousands on Sunday night. Then evil, sin, rears its ugly head, and we wonder ‘Why?’

I hope you will never apologize for sharing the good news of the gospel with someone. It’s God’s priceless gift of His Son to the world, and by believing in Him, a life is changed from eternal death (and hell) to eternal life (and heaven), and beyond this, delivered in this life from the hopeless meaninglessness of the ‘god of chance,’ to the joy of knowing God, who sent His Son that we might live, and live abundantly (Jn. 10.10).

The search for meaning in the Las Vegas killings will continue. Perhaps some connection with ISIS, or some financial pressure, or a lover’s betrayal, or some other unseen ‘reason.’ But if someone asks you, “What do you think caused Las Vegas?”, don’t fumble for some temporal solution – “If only…”  Instead, expose the ugly reality of sin, and the Solution to it: And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it (1 Peter 3.15, NLT).

Why Christians Should Support Israel

Phil Congdon, New Braunfels Bible Church, March 2, 2017

During his address to the nation on February 28th, President Trump spoke of middle east affairs, specifically the problem of Islamic terrorism, and declared his intention to “demolish and destroy ISIS.”  He then briefly added that he had “reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.”  Although it was only one phrase, it represents one of the most abrupt changes of direction from the previous administration.  For the last eight years, President Obama has given lukewarm support for Israel, at best.  His tacit endorsement of Israel’s foes culminated in his approval of a UN resolution condemning Israel in the last days of his presidency.

This raises a question which continues to divide American Christians: Should we, as believers in Jesus Christ, support Israel – and encourage our nation to support Israel?

On a purely ‘common sense’ level, I believe as a nation we should support Israel.   We should stand with Israel because Israel stands with us.  Israel reflects much of our western culture and values, unlike many middle east nations.  Despite claims to the reverse, Israel has always supported peace in the middle east (Israel recognizes the right of Palestinians to have their own state despite repeated attempts by Palestinians and other Arab nations to destroy Israel completely).  Despite having the strongest military in the region, Israel has never sought to conquer other nations (despite repeated provocations).  Israel has a strong human rights record – despite some isolated cases of violence against Christians.  Israel is a democracy, giving its citizens the right to have their say in the nation’s affairs.

But leaving all this aside, the more important question for me is this: Should I, as a Christian, support Israel?  For me, this question is not decided by comparing Israel with other countries around the world, and deciding whether to support her based on subjective qualities.  My support of Israel is directly related to God’s Word.

Although many theologians today have mangled the biblical teaching concerning God and Israel, any literal reading of Scripture is unambiguous.  In my study in the early chapters of Genesis, the narrative of creation, the flood, and the Tower of Babel all lead inexorably to one event: God’s choice of Abram.  The nation of Israel was created and grew with the mighty hand of God guiding and guarding them.  God’s promise to Abram was unconditional – that is, it was not dependent on anything Abram or his descendants might do. God promised, and that was that.  Listen to the words of Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

For Christians in particular, we rejoice because God chose to bless us through Israel.  Our Bible is a Jewish book, and our Savior is a Jewish Savior.  Our spiritual heritage is interwoven with the history, prophecy, and passion of the Jews.  It is true that Israel, today, does not recognize her Messiah; the nation is a secular, unbelieving (as to the claims of Jesus Christ) nation; but even this present reality is not a cause for believers to reject Israel.  In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul notes that although ‘some of the branches were broken off’ (i.e., some Jews were severed from the tree of blessing) and ‘wild olive’ branches (Gentile Christians) were ‘grafted in’ and shared in God’s blessings, we should never forget ‘our roots’:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, the root supports you. (Rom. 11.17-18)

Finally, I take God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12:2-3 literally: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

America is not, as a nation, following God.  Our sins are many, both of commission and omission.  We do not have any claim on God’s blessing – and should He extend it to us for many years into the future, it will be a sign of His great grace and mercy.  But if He does, it may be in large part because we have been a blessing, and not a curse, to His people Israel.