Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fireworks and Liberty - 7/19/2017

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 19, 2017, issue of The Mena Star.


On the 4th of July, my wife and I were invited to a cookout at my cousin’s place. They recently purchased a house and acreage that sits on the top of a high hill. The property has commanding views of the Ouachita Mountains to the south and the Kiamichi Mountains to the west along with the broad valley below.

After watching a beautiful sunset and being entertained by our own private fireworks show, we sat on the deck and watched fireworks from one end of the valley to the other. There were so many fireworks that we didn’t know where to look next. It was truly a spectacular sight.

As I watched the fireworks and thought about what the 4th of July celebrations meant, I wondered why we shoot off fireworks to celebrate Independence Day. Since I have a small personal computer, aka a smart phone, with me at all times, I looked up the history of fireworks and the 4th. I found out that fireworks were set off on July 4, 1777, to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence one year earlier. The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote that “The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

When, we as Americans, think about the Fourth of July, we think about liberty. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. One of the most remembered lines is, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I have been noticing that although Americans want liberty, they are becoming less likely to want to extend liberty to others.

When I was in school, I was taught that the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since the Pilgrims arrived millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a place where everyone was free to practice his faith.

Unfortunately, this isn't true. The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600's was a response to the persecution they had experienced in England, but the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not tolerate opposing religious views. Their colony was a dictatorship that allowed no dissent, religious or political.

People who disagreed with the official theology of the colony were banished. Catholics and other non-Puritans were banned. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for standing up for their beliefs. The Puritans did not understand the principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed so much to secure for themselves, they were not equally ready to grant to others.

True religious freedom in America started with the vision of one man, Roger Williams. Governor Bradford of Massachusetts wrote that Williams fell "into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him." In October 1635 Williams was tried by the General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. He was then ordered to be banished. In the spring of 1636, Williams and a number of his followers from Salem began a settlement. He called it "Providence" because he felt that God's Providence had brought him there.  He said that his settlement was to be a haven for those "distressed of conscience.”

Roger Williams believed that any effort by the state to dictate religion or promote any particular religious idea or practice was forced worship. He colorfully declared that "forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God."

Are your feelings on religious liberty like those of Roger Williams, or are they more like the Puritans?  The Puritans believed in religious liberty. They just didn't believe in it for others.  If you haven’t thought much about religious liberty – and we seldom do if our liberties aren't being taken from us – spend some time today thinking about it.

Do you believe in religious liberty for those with whom you disagree? What about other Christian denominations with different practices? What about the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hindu or the Wiccan? What about the agnostic or the atheist. Do you believe in religious liberty for them?

If you do believe in religious liberty for all, you will not make disparaging or hateful remarks about anyone. John Wesley said, “Condemn no man for not thinking as you think. Let everyone enjoy the full and free liberty of thinking for himself. Let every man use his own judgment since every man must give an account of himself to God."

It is a good thing to do what we can to stand up to those governments that are trampling on the liberties of Christians around the world, but will we be as vocal when the liberties of others religions are taken from them.  If we truly believe in religious liberty, we must be advocates for anyone whose liberties are threatened.

God wants all to come to repentance and be saved, but He will not force us to come to him. Free will to obey or disobey is not only biblical but essential to man's relationship to God.  He wants us to love, obey, serve, and worship Him and to do so by choice. God allows us to choose Him or to chose not to follow Him. Joshua told the Children of Israel, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:14,15 (NRSV)

Gentle Reader, God doesn’t want any obedience, worship, or love that doesn't come willingly from the heart. He wants you to willingly choose to serve Him. If God so freely gives liberty – even to do what is wrong – we should be willing to give religious liberty to all.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dearly Beloved - 7/12/2017

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 12, 2017, issue of The Mena Star.


Last week I had the honor of officiating at my niece’s wedding. It was a lovely ceremony, and we had a wonderful time visiting with family.

In my wedding talk I asked the question, why are we here? Why do we spend lots of money on dresses, tuxedos, flowers and a special venue? When you think about it, the whole thing is a bit weird. Why do we have the wedding traditions that we do? Why do we have a wedding party, a veil, special flowers, dresses, and cake? What made my niece decide to come to a chapel and stand on the stage looking fancy; to be stared at by friends and family?

The marriage ceremony has been important to nearly every society, religion and culture for thousands of years. Throughout our lives we have many important moments, but why is marriage so important that we mark it with a special ceremony and want to share the ceremony with our friends and family?

It is because of love. No matter what you believe, love is the great unifier. Love is the universal truth. In the Christian tradition, we know that the Bible says that, “God is love.” 1 John 4:8 (KJV) It also tells us that, “Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NLT)

The week before the wedding, my niece wrote, “I often get caught up in the busyness of life, and it is easy to focus on all the wrong things; But if you focus on love, your whole perspective changes!”

Weddings are wonderful, joyous events. There is a lot of time and expense involved in preparing for a wedding because it is such an important symbol of a loving relationship. Marriage is the most intimate of all relationships. When God wanted to express the love He has for His people; He could not have chosen a more powerful image than the church as His bride.

In Ephesians 5:25 (NKJV) the Bible tells us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” When a bride and groom are in love, they can think of nothing else but each other. That is the kind of love God has for His church, His people.

The symbol of marriage between God and his people also occurs in the Old Testament.  In Isaiah 62:5 (NLT) it says, “God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.”

In the New Testament, the symbol of the bridegroom is used in a story found in Matthew 25, where it says that God’s kingdom is like ten young women who took oil lamps and went out to greet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were smart. The foolish women took lamps, but no extra oil. The smart women took jars of oil to refill their lamps.

The bridegroom didn’t show up when they expected him, and they all fell asleep. In the middle of the night, someone yelled out, “He’s here!” All ten women got up and got their lamps ready. The foolish women said to the smart ones, “our lamps are going out; lend us some of your oil.” They answered, “there might not be enough to go around; go buy your own.” While they were out buying oil, the bridegroom arrived. When everyone who was there to greet him had gone into the wedding feast, the door was locked.

Who does the bridegroom represent in this story? Jesus is the bridegroom, and the parable refers to his second coming. Jesus wanted us to know that He will return at an unexpected time. The bridesmaids knew the wedding was near; they could read the signs, but five of them were unprepared. When the bridegroom came, they weren’t ready.

Revelation 19:7,8 (NLT) says, “Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to Him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and His bride has prepared herself. She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear. For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people.” No earthly honeymoon can be even remotely close to what Jesus has in store for his bride. In 1 Corinthians 2:9 (NLT) we learn that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”

During the time that Jesus lived here on the earth, a man would never consider getting married unless he had a house ready for his new bride. Jesus has promised us that he will prepare a place for his bride.  We can find His promise in John 14:2,3 (NKJV) where it says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

Gentle Reader, Jesus has promised to prepare a place for you. It will be more awesome than anything you have ever imagined. The most beautiful places on Earth will be nothing compared to what Jesus is preparing for you. When a bride and groom are passionately in love, they can think of nothing else but each other; it is an obsession! God has passionate love for His bride, and He desires us to have passionate love for Him. Today Jesus is asking for your hand in marriage.  What will your answer be?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Empty Cupboards - 7/05/2017

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 5, 2017, issue of The Mena Star.

No one likes to go to their cupboard and find it bare. When I was a child, I loved to listen to records. I still remember a record of nursery rhyme songs that I listened to over and over. One of the songs was ”Old Mother Hubbard.” The song began, “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard, to give the poor dog a bone; When she came there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none.” I always felt sorry for the poor dog. I don’t know why I didn’t feel sorry for Mother Hubbard.

I am a volunteer at a local food pantry. The food pantry purchases a lot of the food that they distribute from an out of town food bank. Once a month the food bank brings our order on a truck. The food bank changed our delivery time from the first Wednesday of the month to the fourth Wednesday. Because of the change, the food pantry was open for almost two months without being restocked. The cupboards were almost bare. Today the food pantry received a shipment, and it felt good to help restock the shelves. The next time the food pantry is open, there will be plenty of food to distribute to those who need it.

The Bible has several empty cupboard stories. I like the one that we find in 2 Kings chapter 4; the story of a widow with empty cupboards. The widow came to the prophet Elisha and said, “my husband, is dead. You know he honored the Lord. But now the man he owes money to is coming to take my two boys as his slaves!” Elisha answered, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” The woman said, “I don’t have anything there except a pot of oil.” Then Elisha said, “Go and get empty jars from all your neighbors. Don’t ask for just a few.” 2 Kings 4:1-3 (NCV)

I find it interesting that Elisha didn’t tell the widow to ask her neighbors for food or money. Instead, she was to ask for containers. Imagine with me what her neighbors were thinking. “What in the world is she going to do with all these containers?” I imagine that the widow was wondering the same thing herself. But she believed in God, and she trusted God’s prophet, Elisha. She could have said, “that’s crazy, my boys and I are starving, and my creditors are going to take my boys as slaves, and your solution is for me to borrow containers from my neighbors. How can that possibly help our situation?”

God gives us what we have, and then tells us that if we use what He has given us, no matter how seemingly little or small in our eyes, we have what we need. He has given each one of us talents and gifts and strengths and abilities. The story of the widow teaches us that we have to make them available to God; and even though they seem small and insignificant, He can do great things for us.

Once they gathered the containers, Elisha told the widow, “go into your house and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and set the full ones aside.” So she left Elisha and shut the door behind her and her sons. As they brought the jars to her, she poured out the oil. When the jars were all full, she said to her son, “Bring me another jar.” But he said, “There are no more jars.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told Elisha. And the prophet said to her, “Go, sell the oil and pay what you owe. You and your sons can live on what is left.” 2 Kings 4:3-7 (NCV)

God will use what little we have in a great way if we will let Him. But first, have to be willing to give God all of the little we possess! If we put what little we have in Gods hands, it’s not limited by our capabilities anymore; it is only limited by how much we think God can do. It is limited by how many containers we have rounded up. In the story of the widow, when there were no more jars, the oil stopped flowing.

In Luke 18:27 (NKJV) Jesus says, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” The widow and her sons were in an impossible situation. Their cupboards were empty. But God had a way to take care of their impossible situation. The only thing that limited them was the number of jars that they had borrowed.

In Mark 9 there is another story of a family in an impossible situation. Their son couldn’t speak, and he would foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid. Since he was a baby, he had a spirit that would often throw him into the fire and sometimes into the water, trying to destroy him. The father came to Jesus and said, “I have run out of options; I have tried everything. But if there’s anything You can do, please, have pity on us and help us.” Mark 9:22 (VOICE) Then Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Mark 9:23 (NKJV)

Gentle Reader, all things are possible when you place them in God’s hands. If your cupboards are empty, put the empty cupboards in God’s hands. Ask Him to take care of your impossible situation. God doesn’t need what we have to produce more for us, but what He is looking for is for us to trust Him with what we do have. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” Psalms 34:8 (NKJV)