It’s a lot like life

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by Mike Hellum

So I get the “Last Word” this week. The Last Word is the section at the end of the newsletter that links to this week’s column or blog. That means I have just a few sentences to catch your attention and motivate you to come back tomorrow and read the rest of what I wrote.

Come to think of it, the “Last Word” is a lot like life, and what we encounter every day in our attempts to be a witness to our faith. Just like I only have a few sentences to catch your attention here, I frequently have a short window to catch the attention of others, too. Because of the books I read, people are frequently curious. They may comment at times when there’s not much time for an extended conversation so I’m learning to have a short comment about what I’m reading that invites conversation. Or if the timing isn’t there for a conversation, at least I can get a bug in their head about what I believe, and why it should interest them.

1 Peter 3:15 says we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. On top of that, Jesus says in Matt. 5:13 that we are the salt of the earth. One of the characteristics of salt is that it stings when rubbed into wound; I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus is driving at here. He probably meant it as a metaphor for a preservative and a seasoning agent. So not only should we be ready to give a reason for the hope within us, but it should be “salty” (i.e., interesting). Have you ever considered coming up with a brief testimony, an answer that makes people want to come back and know more?

When I read books like the one I just finished reading (one of the New Atheist’s diatribes against God), it stands out all the more clearly the hope we have in Christ. I invite you to come up with a brief and interesting personal testimony that you’re ready to give at all times. It not only makes your life easier, but you’re doing your neighbor a huge favor. Make it compelling, because it is. So did I catch your attention? If you actually read this far, I invite you to stand up and shout, “I believe in Bigfoot, UFO’s, and the reincarnation of Elvis Presley!” But you might want to have a brief and salty explanation of why you did that, too.

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How to finish well, Part 2

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By Larry Short

In last week’s Last Word I introduced a very interesting exchange I had on my Facebook wall and blog with two “deconverted” (formerly Christian, supposedly, and now nontheist) friends. This week, I will present conclusions I drew from this experience.

So, other than my own edification, what was the result of my extensive Facebook and blog conversations with my two “non-theist” friends? (Which involved, for me and I’m sure for others, a significant investment of time, effort and emotional energy.)

I don’t know the complete answer to that question (yet), though there are some things I am encouraged about. I have re-established the original relationship with Friend A, the friend from high school, and he has agreed to meet me for coffee next time I am in his home town (probably in July). His position seems fairly intractable, but I am hopeful that at least by showing him the love and respect of Christ I can be the appeal of God to him to return to the fold, before it is too late.

And I still pray for Friend B, the woman in Chicago, although her case seems very hopeless indeed. She has apparently experienced a great deal of hurt and has gone to a very dangerous place as a result. When I realized that she mainly was in it for the sake of argument and apparently enjoyed the satisfaction of striking out against God and others, I mostly stopped responding to her mean-spirited, moralistic and critical comments in order to focus my hopes on Friend A.

I am also encouraged that others who read my responses, especially responses to mean-spirited comments, seem to have been edified by observing that they remained gentle and respectful, which was my goal (but easier said than done!). I realize that intellectual debate rarely changes anyone’s mind, and that Christ is best seen reflected by our character.

Pastor Martin speaks often about the imperative to “finish well” as believers, and how few of us really do so. One huge lesson I’ve learned is how critical it is for us remain connected to Christ, our Vine. There is nothing wrong with having doubts and seeking honest intellectual satisfaction of the basis for faith. I love how Christ patiently put up with Thomas’ doubts, and how after “proving” himself to Thomas he said: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

You and I are in that group, blessed in ways I’m sure we cannot yet imagine, because we have staked a claim of faith on Christ, even though we have not (yet) had the opportunity to see His resurrected body. In order to remain alive and healthy, it is imperative that our faith continue to blossom and grow within us. And in order to do this, we MUST keep connected to Christ. If we wander from the fold (and we all do, in many small and sometimes larger ways), according to 1 John 1:9 we MUST repent, which means turning back to where we went wrong, seeking and accepting Christ’s forgiveness, and starting again.

In both of my friend’s cases, it is very clear to me that their journey of “deconversion” began not with an intellectual reassessment, but with a failure to stay connected to Christ. When they strayed off the straight and narrow path, rather than repent, they just kept going in an effort to justify themselves. Ultimately they began to believe the lie that their quest really was an intellectual one, and de-invested themselves of their faith.

Every day I see greater wisdom in a key truth expressed by Jesus in Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The thing that we invest in is what will end up taking over our hearts and lives. If we stay connected to the Vine, investing in our faith, we will finish well.

But if we invest heavily in our doubts (or in any one or more of a myriad of other things in which Satan, the world and the flesh continually tempt us to invest, whether that be money, or leisure, or other people, or sex, or addictions, or whatever), we endanger ourselves by straying too far off the path and not being able to find our way back.

The good news for straying sheep is two-fold: 1) God promises in Romans 8 that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus,” that “all things work together for good for those who love him,” and that “he who began a good work in you shall see it through to the end.” And 2) We have a Good Shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 in the safety of the fold and go after the lost sheep who strays into dangerous places!

Praise God for his grace and mercy, shown daily to each one of us.

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How to finish well, Part 1

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By Larry Short

Pastor Martin asked me to share about a recent experience I had interacting with two “non-theist” (which I guess is kind of like atheist) friends, and others, on my Facebook wall and then on my blog. I’m still processing what I learned through this experience, but I’m hoping it can be an encouragement to others.

The Young Adults Ministry is currently studying Romans, and when we were in Romans 4 I posted to my Facebook wall a quote I liked from a Bible teacher, Jon Courson, on the nature of faith:

You go to a doctor whose name you can’t pronounce. He has degrees on his wall that you have never yourself verified. He gives you a prescription that you can’t read, and you take it to a pharmacist that you have never met. He gives you a chemical, a drug that you …don’t understand. And he puts it in a bottle you can’t open!

It’s faith, man! People practice faith continually, every day.

The question is, if you can have faith in the doctor whose name you can’t pronounce, and take without hardly thinking about it the medicine he prescribes, then why can’t you exercise faith in the God who created the universe (and you in it), the One who loves you so much that He came to this earth and died in your place … who simply asks you to accept that historical, verifiable, undeniable fact and its implications?

A great quote, right? Well, I have two Facebook friends, both avowed “non-theists,” who began responding immediately. Both say they were once Christian. Friend A is a 40-something friend from Darlene’s and my high school days, who attended our church youth group. He later had a falling away after marrying a Mormon (even though he knew it was wrong to do so), then experiencing a divorce. He says he had doubts all along, but the experience led him to re-examine the Bible. He said that in doing so he determined that it was inconsistent, and he drew conclusions about the character of God that made him decide to reject Him.

Friend B is a 30-something woman who used to be a Christian radio talk show personality in the Chicago area. Her falling away coincided with a pretty significant personal trauma and moral crisis in her life (well documented by Chicago newspapers and bloggers), but she now claims as well that her “deconversion” was the result of research and intellectual re-examination.

Basically, the debate started when Friend A responded to my “faith” posting, saying that God was not trustworthy and that if he was really there and really cared for us, he would prove himself to us beyond a shadow of a doubt. Friend B then responded to that and challenged his reasoning (basically saying there were better reasons than he was giving to be a non-theist). Their back-and-forth went on for some time and grew quite uncivil at points, I thought.

Other friends (including some Elimites) jumped in at various points and asked questions or raised objections. Pretty much anyone who contributed was subjected to harangue by the woman in Chicago.

At first I kept out of it, but after the wall posting grew to an unwieldy size, and in an effort to change the venue, I promised I would respond to the various objections raised, but would do so in a more thoughtful way on my blog. Then for a week or so after that, I posted a 7-part series on my blog seeking to respond to the various supposedly intellectual objections to faith raised on my Facebook wall, as well as to address what I saw as some of the real issues buried beneath the objections.

By the way, much thanks is due to my “real” friends (as opposed to Facebook friends), Mike Hellum and Larry Nelson, for helping me frame my response!

The debate intensified even further on my blog. Those seven postings generated a total of 62 responses, mostly from my two friends. (Friend B was responsible for a majority of those. Darlene asked me, “Doesn’t she have a job or anything better to do?” I still don’t understand why people who repudiate a belief in God seem so invested in getting others to do the same.)

You can read the original Facebook wall post (and its 49 comments), if you dare (you may need to be my Facebook friend to do so, but I think most of you already are) … and anyone can read the equally scintillating subsequent conversation on my blog.

The exchange was a healthy one for me, challenging me to be better equipped in order to meet the mandate of 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Our faith, while it is faith, must be rationally-based and supported by a foundation of trustworthy evidence. Too many Christians simply believe because they’re expected to, because they were told to (perhaps at a young age), or because everyone else they know does. But there are compelling empirical, philosophical and rational bases for Christian faith, and each of us who interacts with non-Christian friends and neighbors should understand what those are. Not only will it be encouraging to us in our own faith journey, it will help equip us to respond to the challenges of the world in which we serve as ambassadors.

(I can recommend a few great authors, for those of you who are interested in more: C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, John Piper and Josh McDowell are a great place to start.)

Continued next week: Conclusions I have drawn from this experience.

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