Sunday, June 30- Daily Bible Verse

John 7:14-18 Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’ Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.

Sunday, June 30- Why Does God Give Us Free Will?

     A Senator was struck by a car and killed. The next thing he knew, he was in heaven, meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. “Welcome to heaven…but there’s a problem. You weren’t all that good when you were alive…but you weren’t all that bad, either. So we’re not sure what to do with you! Therefore, you’re going to spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you’ll have free will to decide where to spend eternity.” So St. Peter escorted him to the elevator and hit “basement”. The doors opened…and he found himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was a clubhouse and standing in front of it were all his friends and co-workers. Everyone was dressed beautifully. They all ran to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They then played a friendly game of golf, followed by a marvelous dinner- lobster, caviar and the finest champagne- hosted by the devil himself, who proved to be a very charming and friendly guy. But then, it was time to go. Everyone bid him a fond farewell and waved while the elevator rose out of sight. When the doors opened, he was back in heaven, where he immediately joined a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They had a great time and, before he knew it, another 24 hours was up and St. Peter was back. “Well, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now you have free will to choose your eternity.” The Senator thought about it for a moment, then said, “I never thought I’d say this but, even though heaven was delightful, I think I’ll choose hell.” So St. Peter escorted him back to the elevator and back down he went. But when the doors opened, he found himself in the middle of a barren land covered with garbage and burning sulphur. All his friends were still there, but now they were dressed in rags and picking up an endless supply of trash. The devil came over. “I don’t understand- yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?” The devil smiled and said, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today…you already voted! “
     Today, we FINALLY continue our current 6-week sermon series entitled 6 Hard Questions. It grows out of countless conversations with countless people- all of whom are wrestling with understanding how the realities of this world interact with the truths of Heaven. The first week, we asked, “If God is Merciful, Why is There Suffering?” Week 2, the question was, “What About Contradictions in the Bible?” The 3rd week, we asked, “Why should I bother praying?” Today, the question is, “Why does God give us free will?”
     Free will is a tough nut to crack. Do we HAVE the free will to truly make out on choices, or is everything already predestined? What does the Bible say? Well, it tends to dance around the subject, too. Proverbs 16:9 In their hearts human beings plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. We plan our course, but God establishes our steps. Got it? Clear as mud, right? Even that great theologian Forrest Gump struggled with this topic when he said, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both, maybe both happening at the same time.”
     How many of you believe that we have free will? OK- how many of you believe that our choices are controlled by God’s preordained plan? Look at free will versus predestination this way- a cruise ship leaves New York bound for London. Its destination has been predetermined and you will NOT change that. On the cruise ship are hundreds of passengers. They’re not in chains; their activities aren’t predetermined for them. They are completely free to move about as they will- eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, whatever. But all the while, the cruise ship is still carrying them steadily toward a predetermined destination. Both free will and predestination are present, and they don’t contradict each other. So it is with our free will and God’s sovereignty.
     God’s sovereignty and our free will are like two ropes going through holes in the ceiling and over a pulley above. If I want to support myself by those ropes, I have to hold tight…to BOTH of them. If I only hold tight to one and not the other, I fall. So, with a childlike faith, we cling to BOTH ropes, fully confident that, one day, we’ll see that those two strands are, in fact, one piece.
     Humans have been debating free will and predestination for as long as there have been…people. Therefore, a 20-minute sermon simply isn’t enough time to even lay out a decent argument, let alone offer some reasonable answers. But when we look at the topic of free will, we’re NOT referring to the freedom to make mundane daily decisions.  I decide to drop my keys- is that decision a major player in the discussion of free will? No. There is instead a more nuanced understanding of free will…a theological understanding, that theologians call soteriology, the study of salvation. Today, we’ll focus more on that side of things. So for us, today, “free will” isn’t concerned with those mundane daily choices we all make. Instead, it’s concerned with the choices we make that affect our relationship with Jesus Christ, our salvation.
     This is the Sunday before the 4th of July- when we remember and celebrate our freedom to choose. The quintessential document that spells out the freedom that is the cornerstone of our nation is, of course, the Declaration of Independence. It begins this way, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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.”
     There might be NO concept as deeply rooted in the rich soil of American ideals as the basic human right to liberty- “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. And yet we’re scarred by a history that contradicts those fundamental beliefs. Our past as a nation makes the discussion of things like slavery and liberty extremely hard. Slavery isn’t some abstract idea fully and easily divorced from real life’s biases and prejudices. It’s instead a fresh wound easily reopened to conjure up painful images of a dark past stained by oppression and violence. So discussions of free will are NOT as easy as they may seem, because free will offers us the capacity to choose. And when people have the capacity to choose, they also have the ability to change. And change, while essential, can be a scary thing.
     To muddy the waters even further, the late, great preacher Rev. C.H. Spurgeon said, “It has already been proved beyond all controversy that free-will is nonsense. Freedom cannot belong to will any more than ponderability can belong to electricity. They are altogether different things. Free agency we may believe in, but free-will is simply ridiculous. The will
is well known by all to be directed by the understanding, to be moved by motives, to be guided by other parts of the soul, and to be a secondary thing. He who in his soul believes that man does of his own free-will turn to God, cannot have been taught of God, for that is one of the first principles taught us when God begins with us, that we have neither will nor power, but that he gives both; that he is “Alpha and Omega” in the salvation of men.”
     So…if we have “FREE will,” then we must have “WILL”. So, what’s THAT? In its simplest terms, the will is the thing inherent within us that we use to make choices- choices based on preferences, pleasures, loves, affections, delights and desires. We might combine two or more of those desires, but any choice ultimately boils down to our preference. We choose what we find more valuable, enjoyable or pleasurable- what we most desire, what we most want, what we “will”. “Free will” ultimately boils down to a question of desires. What do we MOST desire? So in reality, the question ISN’T, “Can I REALLY do what I want?” Instead, the question is, “What do I want?”
      A young couple came into the church office to fill out a pre-marriage questionnaire. The young man, who had never talked to a pastor before and was quite nervous, told the pastor he didn’t understand the first question. The pastor read the first question out loud, “Are you entering this marriage of your own free will?” There was a long pause. “Son, it means is this YOUR choice? Are you getting married of your own free will?” The young man sat there for another moment, still confused, then looked over at his bride-to-be. She leaned in, pointed to the paper and said, “Put down ‘yes’!”
     We DO have a choice. We ARE free to choose as we wish. But the reality of our sinful nature is that we often choose poorly. If we were robots, unable to make any choice other than the ones we were programmed to make, or if God was simply controlling our every decision as if we were nothing more than marionettes, then life would have little meaning. We want to know that we CAN make free choices, and that those choices actually matter somehow. The beauty of building your life around the premise that we DON’T have free will is that if we’re not actually making choices then it’s also NOT really our fault when things go south. We can’t be blamed for our non-free actions. But if our choices matter, then we have to be willing to be held accountable for them. If we make poor choices, if we hurt other people, if we damage the public good, then we should acknowledge our mistakes, and make restitution…and we should learn from them. The fact that our will is free doesn’t also guarantee that it’s strong.
     Our emotions often overrule our rational decisions- we do things we don’t want to do, and we don’t do things we know we should do. It’s like we’re a monkey trying to steer an elephant. Sometimes the elephant goes where we want it to go, and we congratulate ourselves for our outstanding elephant-handling skills. But other times, the elephant heads off somewhere else, and we are left to frantically explain why we meant to go that way in the first place! So are we rational decision-makers…or are we monkeys pretending to steer elephants? Do we have a destiny, or are we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze?
     For centuries, philosophers and other great thinkers have been intentionally feeding the monkey, trying to get it to defeat the elephant. But that doesn’t seem to be working. So what if we stopped treating it like a battle and instead used our energy to forge a partnership between thee monkey and the elephant…between us and God? What if we feed BOTH the monkey and the elephant and focus on ways to help them better collaborate? The only way to understand God’s plans for us is to truly see Christ and to fully trust him. God’s plans for us are not abandoned to fate; our choices matter, and once we have committed entirely to His will, we can receive His guidance humbly and boldly.
John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
     How many of you ever wished you had more willpower? TV and movies have classically portrayed decision-making as an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. But when it comes to making choices, and the consequences of those choices, we need to understand that we are free to make our own choices…and fully responsible for those choices. God WILL hold us accountable. God IS a loving God, but He is also a sovereign God. And it’s HIS grace and the conviction and calling of HIS Holy Spirit that ultimately brings us to a repentant, changed heart. Not one fallen human will trust God…unless God first overcomes that human’s natural resistance.
John 7:14-18 Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’ Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.
     Hear those words- whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory. But those who seek the glory of the One who sent them are people of truth; there is nothing false about them.
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!
 Tomorrow- “The Pastor is on…Drugs?!”

Saturday, June 29- The Simplest Solution Is Often the Right One

     My dad was an interesting guy. He traveled for his job most of my growing up years, so it was not uncommon that we only saw him every other weekend, holidays and vacations. I remember one trip to Williamsburg, VA that last…18 months! So on the tone hand, it seems like I didn’t learn much from him. But on the other hand, I realize on nearly a daily basis that I learned a LOT from him.
     One of the MANY things I learned from my dad was that you should always test the easiest solution to the problem first- it is, by definition, the easiest possible one to check and it is often the right solution.
     The funny thing about this “pearl of wisdom” is that I have literally built my life around it. I took it to heart years ago and try to always apply it when faced with a problem to solve. It is one of the defining cornerstones of my life. And I thought my dad would appreciate knowing that fact. So a few years ago, about 2 years before he died, I was talking to him one day and told him about this great bit of wisdom he passed down to me that changed my life. I got done and said, “Pretty cool, huh?” He looked me in the eye and said, “I said that? Really?” All I could do was laugh!
     That approach was useful for the Nth time recently. One of the upright freezers in my church went out. It’s the one we use for our Caring Hearts Food Ministry and it almost brand new. My wife was at the church with some other folks, doing the monthly cooking for the ministry. When they were done, they went to put the food in the freezer…and found that it wasn’t working. So they moved the food to one of the other freezers and decided to tell “the guy” in the church who handles all of that.
     When she got home, she mentioned it to me and I…immediately got up, put my shoes on and headed across the yard to the church!! (Strap on the cape- it’s Superpastor time!!) My younger son and I went to “check it out”. Before we did anything, I made a mental checklist of the easiest solutions in order: 1. is it plugged in to the wall? 2. Is the breaker in the “on” position? 3. does something else plugged into that outlet work? 4. does the freezer work plugged into a different outlet? 
     And off we went. 1. Yes, it was plugged in. 2. I couldn’t find a breaker that was tripped, but I’m still learning the building. 3. No, something else plugged into that outlet did NOT work. 4. The freezer DID work when plugged in somewhere else. So, my “expert” diagnosis is that A. the freezer is fine (phew!), and B. either the outlet is bad OR the breaker was thrown and I simply didn’t find it.
     This whole thing has hit close to home recently…VERY close to home! With this…THING…in my head, the obvious solution is to cut my head open and get this…THING…out. That’s the OBVIOUS solution…but it’s NOT the easy solution. The EASY solution, as long as I can handle it, it to see a specialist who will try non-invasive, non-surgical methods of treatment. And THAT, my friend, is EXACTLY what we are doing right now!
Thanks, Dad!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!’
 Tomorrow- 6 Hard Questions: Why Does God Give Us Free Will?

Friday, June 28- “I Can’t Hear You.”

     If you had to choose between seeing and hearing…which one would you give up? I don’t mean to flippant with that questions- lots of people DON’T have that choice, and they lose one of those…or both. And, even though I am relatively blind without my glasses, I have recently come to understand just how much I take things like seeing and hearing for granted.
     I can NOT be any great surprise to anybody who knows me, but hearing is VERY important to me. I love music. I mean…I LOVE music! I have always loved music. As the baby of the family, I grew up listening to my parents’ music- Andy Williams, Mitch Miller, Lawrence Welk, Nat King Cole, etc. But I also grew up listening to my sister’s and brother’s music- Strawberry Alarm Clock, Iron Butterfly, Three Dog Night, Jim Croce, Led Zeppelin, etc. Having been a drummer my whole life (in pretty much every setting imaginable), I have listened to and played basically every type of music there is. And I love it. Not a big fan of rap, and also not a big fan of, as I describe it, anything recorded by someone named Merle, Conway, Porter or Blake! (But my wife LOVES to point out the Eagles are Southern/Country rock! Sacrilege!)
     I hear a song on the radio, and then I don’t hear it again for 20 years. But when I DO hear it, I say to my son, “Oh, here comes this GREAT guitar riff!” I am, in many ways, an auditory learner. If you put it in the form of song lyrics…I can remember it! (Case in point- I can’t remember a phone number for 60 seconds…no kidding…but I SURE remember “867-5309”!) So, to sum up, hearing is a MAJOR part of my life.
     Which makes my current situation hard to deal with. I have experienced minor hearing loss and ringing in the ears (it sounds like cicadas are constantly chirping in my head) for almost 2 decades. But I have learned to live with that and it really doesn’t affect my day-to-day life. But since my current situation (this…THING…in my head) has reared its ugly head, it has somewhat radically affected my hearing. Oh, sure- they test my hear using traditional methods and say, “Your hearing isn’t bad at all!” And to them I say, “Horse hockey!” If the sound does not originate from right by me, I can HEAR the sound…but I can’t always decipher the sound. In other words, I can hear that you are talking…I just have NO idea what you are saying. And the larger the room, and the greater the volume and quantity of sound, the worse it gets. Oddly enough, loud noises are TOO loud and actually hurt. Right now, at least, I can’t play thee drums and I can’t sing- two things I love to do.
     So the one thing I have depended on my whole life is the one thing that is most compromised. And I have to try and read lips. And I have to turn my head so that my “good ear” is pointing to the sounds. And I have to strain for comprehension. And I have to say, sometime several times a day, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you- I have hearing loss.” And I have to struggle to not let the hearing loss alienate me, because it’s so easy to simply pull out and not participate in…life.
     And in the end, I have to F.R.O.G.- Fully Rely on God. I have to trust that God will see me through this. I have to believe that, regardless of what happens from this point forward, I will continue to NOT walk this journey alone, but will instead have my family, my friends, my church and my God right there beside me. He was walked every step with me…He is NOT going to abandon me now! God is good, all the time!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!
 Tomorrow- The Simplest Solution is Often the Right One