Thursday, September 24, 2015

Do You Reckon God Is Real?

Recently, David Gregory, former moderator of the NBC News talk show, Meet the Press, was interviewed On the Record, by Greta Van Susteren.  Much of Greta’s interview focused on Gregory’s new book, How’s Your Faith?  An Unlikely Journey.   In the book, Gregory recounts his  personal journey of faith prompted by what he calls a “spiritual longing that [he] felt a decade ago that realized that the bigger journey…was around some really big questions…Who am I? Who am I trying to become?  What is expected of me?  that can only be answered through a search for God…” Gregory’s journey was launched in greater earnest after President George W. Bush asked him, “How’s your faith?”

David Gregory with Greta Van Susteren, On the Record
Greta’s interview with David Gregory included an insightful question, one that I’ve been considering for a couple of months as reflected in my writing (See “Local Churches and Spiritual Awakening”).  Her question* was this:  “Why do you think that some people have faith and some people don’t?”   Gregory’s answer: “I think it’s ultimately a question of where God is.  People have a hard time understanding that God is close.” 

If he could join in Greta’s interview of David Gregory, A.W. Tozer, now with the Lord, might say in reverent awe, “God is very near.”  In fact, if the interview were to shift so that we could listen to this great pastor, preacher, author, magazine editor, and spiritual mentor, Tozer might share at length about faith in God as he wrote in The Pursuit of God.  As you read carefully and meditatively the following excerpts** from the writing of A.W. Tozer, I hope they will stir you as they have me to realize (real-ize) God’s nearness and His pursuit of us:

“God and the spiritual world are real.  We can reckon upon them with as much assurance as we reckon upon the familiar world around us. Spiritual things are there (or rather we should say, here) inviting our attention and challenging our trust.

A.W. Tozer (1897-1963)
“The sincere plain man knows that the [physical] world is real.  He finds it here when he wakes to consciousness, and he knows that he did not think it into being.  It was here waiting for him when he came, and he knows that when he prepares to leave this earthly scene it will be here still to bid him good-bye as he departs.  By the deep wisdom of life he is wiser than a thousand men who doubt. He stands upon the earth and feels the wind and rain in his face and he knows that they are real.  He sees the sun by day and the stars by night.  He sees the hot lightning play out of the dark thundercloud.  He hears the sounds of nature and the cries of human joy and pain. These he knows are real.  He lies down on the cool earth at night and has no fear that it [will]… fail him while he sleeps.  In the morning the firm ground will be under him, the blue sky above him, and the rocks and trees around him as [they were] when he closed his eyes the night before.  So he lives and rejoices in a world of reality.

“With his five senses he engages this real world.  [In order to live, he] has been equipped [to move about, to reason, and to make decisions for his survival and productivity] by the God Who created him and placed him in such a world as this.  [But what about God and the spiritual world?]

“The Bible assumes as [an obvious] fact that [we] can know God with at least the same degree of [certainty] as [we] can know any other person or thing that comes within the field of [our] experience.  The same terms are used to express the knowledge of God as are used to express knowledge of physical things:

O taste and see that the Lord is good… Psalm 34: 8a
All Thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces.  Psalm 45: 8
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me… John 10: 27
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Matthew 5: 8

“These are but four of the countless such passages from the Word of God.  And more important than any proof text is the fact that the whole…of the Scripture [points] toward this belief.

“What can this mean but that we have in our hearts organs by…which we can know God as certainly as we know material things through our familiar five senses?  We [function in] the physical world by exercising the [abilities] given us for that purpose, and we possess spiritual [abilities] by means of which we can know God and the spiritual world [provided] we will obey the Spirit’s urge and begin to use them.

“Our trouble is that we have established bad thought habits.  We habitually think of the visible world as real and doubt the reality of any other.   We do not deny the existence of the spiritual world but we doubt that it is real in the accepted meaning of the word [real.  That is, something that exists, or IS, regardless of whether we or anyone can see it or think it into existence.  In other words, something real “has being in itself.”]

Returning to Greta’s question to David Gregory, about why some people have faith and some do not, Gregory elaborated, “I think there are things that get in the way….”  With this assertion, A.W. Tozer would agree:

“The world of [our five senses] intrudes upon our attention day and night for the whole of our lifetime.  It is clamorous, insistent, and self-demonstrating.  It does not appeal to our faith; it is here, assaulting our five senses, demanding to be accepted as real and final.  But sin has so clouded the lenses of our hearts that we cannot see that other reality, the City of God, shining around us.  The world of sense triumphs.  The visible becomes the enemy of the invisible; the temporal [becomes the enemy] of the eternal.  This is the curse inherited by every member of Adam’s tragic race.

“[What is missing is] the saving work [of God’s grace through Christ which] must first be done in the heart…  The spiritual [abilities] of the unregenerate man lie asleep in his nature, unused and for every purpose dead; that is the stroke which has fallen upon us by sin. They must be [awakened] to active life again by the operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; that is one of the immeasurable benefits which come to us through Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

“But [even the] children of God themselves [purchased through faith in the shed blood of Christ]:  Why do they know so little of that habitual conscious communion with God which the Scriptures seem to offer?  The answer is our chronic unbelief.  Faith [erases the clouds from the lenses of our hearts] and allows our spiritual senses to function.  Where faith is defective the result will be inward insensibility and numbness toward spiritual things.  This is the condition of vast numbers of Christians today.

“A spiritual kingdom lies all about us, enclosing us, embracing us, altogether within reach of our inner selves, waiting for us to recognize it.  [We don’t have to imagine it any more than we have to imagine a long-lost person or object; we simply recognize the spiritual kingdom because it is real.]  God Himself is here awaiting our response to His Presence.  This eternal world will come alive to us the moment we begin to reckon upon its reality.

“As we begin to focus upon God, the things of the Spirit will take shape before our inner eyes.  Obedience to the Word of Christ will bring an inward revelation of the Godhead (John 14: 21-23).  It will give acute perception, enabling us to see God even as is promised to the pure in heart (Matthew 5: 8).   A new God consciousness will seize upon us and we shall begin to taste and hear and inwardly feel the God Who is our life and our all. 

“Why do some people come to faith in God while others do not?”  Certainly not because God is far from any… that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…' (Acts 17: 27-28).

Although I believe God is near to each person, I also realize from experience that the journey to “find Him” is not an easy one.  God desires to have personal relationship with us, but has chosen not to overpower us like automatons.  Instead, God has created us with a free will and also a yearning that can only be satisfied when we establish relationship with Him.  Again, Tozer’s words strike a familiar chord within me, based on my journey of faith:

“Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him…and the secret cause of all desiring as seeking and praying which may follow.  We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit.  No man can come to Me, said our Lord, except the Father which hath sent me draw him, and it is by this very prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming.  The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him; and all the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand: Thy right hand upholdeth me (Psalm 63:8b).”

In keeping with a God that pursues us, David Gregory says, “I didn’t really have an experience of God’s presence as a teenager?” then adds, “Without knowing it, there was a certain sense of spiritual longing that was happening for me then that I wasn’t able to access ….”  

We can assume that David Gregory’s pursuit of God continues; as does mine, and I hope yours as well.  We are not left to imagine God, but to reckon and realize (real-ize) God—because He is real.  May we be driven by God’s gift of the hunger to feed upon His Word (Psalm 19: 7-11) as the Bread of Life (John 6: 35).  Bread to nourish us with His wisdom for the daily challenges of this world (e.g. Proverbs 3: 5-6; Isaiah 30: 18-21; Isaiah 40: 28-31); and “living water” (John 4: 10) to quench our spiritual thirst as we rely on His promises of the Eternal Life He offers when by faith we put our trust in Christ (e.g. John 14: 1-6).  How is your faith?

* Actually, I must take issue with the premise of this question.  My longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Allen Monroe was fond of saying, “All men are men of faith.”  In other words, we all exercise faith in certain people and things in order to function—faith in chairs we sit in, the brakes in our cars as we apply them in busy traffic, etc.  The question is not “Are we people of faith?” but rather, “Why do some people come to faith in God while others do not?”

** Excerpts from A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God (Regal, 2013), as modified for brevity and ease of reading.

Acknowledgement:   I thank God for my friend in Christ, Brad Will, who regularly encourages my faith in God, and who is responsible in recent months for leading me to drink from the spiritual well of A.W. Tozer.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Taking in the Treasures on the Towpath Trail

Last week, I was blessed with the opportunity to pack a lunch, load up my bicycle, and drive to the John Glenn Grove trailhead just south of the City of Massillon, in Stark Co., Ohio.  This nicely landscaped park is the staging area where motorists become cyclists or pedestrians and enter a sort of time portal afforded by the Ohio-Erie Towpath Trail.    

The Ohio and Erie Canal, and Towpath (Early 1800's)
The Towpath Trail follows the portion of the historic Ohio and Erie Canal that once extended from Cleveland to New Philadelphia.   The entire Ohio and Erie Canal provided a continuous inland commercial waterway connecting locations between Lake Erie and the Ohio River at Portsmouth.  The canal was constructed during the 1820’s and carried freight from 1828 to 1861 at which time railroads began to offer a more economical alternative.

"Reach for the Stars" memorial to Senator John Glenn
Soon after I had unloaded my bike and positioned my water bottle and snack provisions, I realized that the John Glenn Grove was designed to inspire its visitors.  My inspiration began as I walked my bike past a statue titled “Reach for the Stars”  in honor of Glenn, one of Ohio’s sons who served his country as a war pilot, astronaut, and  U.S. Senator.  As I studied the likeness of John Glenn with his outstretched arm reaching for the stars, I remembered the news of his heroic feat as the first astronaut to orbit planet Earth, in 1962, while I was a freshman in high school.   As I left the Glenn statue and entered the towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal, I realized the awesomeness of the “time portal” I had just stepped through.  Only one century separated the era of a man orbiting the Earth from the era of the Ohio-Erie Canal.

Ohio-Erie Towpath Trail near Massillon, Ohio
As I mounted my bike and rode down the shady canal towpath toward Navarre, Ohio, I was drawn by the historical significance of this unusual bike trail.  Following me on the left was a remnant of the Ohio-Erie canal, sometimes containing standing water, sometimes appearing swampy or even dry.  On my right was the Tuscarawas River which originates near Hartville, in Stark County, flows westward into Summit County and then southward through cities and towns like Massillon, Navarre, Bolivar, Dover, New Philadelphia, and finally, Coshocton where it joins the Walhonding River.   I felt the canal and the river guiding me southward toward the place of my birth, in Dover, Ohio.  I also remembered the place of my growing-up days as a farm boy on the banks of a tributary, the Sugar Creek (South Fork) which was just downstream from the town of Sugarcreek, location of my graduation from Garaway High School.

The Ohio-Erie Canal with Bottomland Deciduous Trees
The Tuscarawas Valley was not only my home during my early years, but it was the subject of a memorable field trip during one semester at Malone College led by my botany professor, Dr. Charles C. King.  We studied not only the flora of the valley but also its geologic history, and how the glaciers had scoured the landscape and rerouted the paths of the Tuscarawas and its tributary, the Sugar Creek.   As I bicycled around a bend in the towpath, with both the canal and river following in roughly a parallel fashion on either side, I reflected on God’s goodness in affording me an opportunity to study under “Charlie” King who loved the excitement of “interpreting the landscape” through knowledge of the geologic history and its influence on the current native plant communities.

Pale Impatiens (I. palida), Jewelweed (I capensis),
and Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)

Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
prefers wet soil of riparian areas

I decided to concentrate for the next few miles on native wildflowers and trees of the canalway.  I was not disappointed.  Much of the roughly 10-mile towpath trail from Massillon through Navarre to Bolivar is shaded by bottomland tree species like Silver Maple and American Elm.  Often the canal water was covered by a bright green layer of Duckweed (Lemna) or another related genus of these tiny aquatic flowering plants.  But most of my attention was drawn to the wildflowers growing along the banks of the canal and on slopes down to the river.  It was intriguing for me to imagine a canal boat in tow by horses or mules making its way up the canal amid a variety of summer wildflowers decorating the banks and slopes above.  I  photographed a few of the more notable ones (click on photos). 

Nichols Bakery, Navarre, Ohio
Scene from three eras:  Canal, Railroad,
and Bikeway; note Purple Loosestrife
 As I passed through Navarre, I was treated by the fragrance of baking bread at the Nichols Bakery.   Crossing busy U.S. 62 and cycling beside an active railroad, I was again impressed with the variety of forms of transportation bustling all around the towpath and canal corridor.   Readers of Oikonomia might recall that I have elsewhere written of an instance, now very common, where even the railroad has been deemed obsolete and, in many cases, has been replaced by bicycle trails (See “Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 "Serving with" Creation – Article #1: History is Important. 

Memorial plaque for Rep. Ralph Regula
Trail crossing at Ohio Rt. 21, Navarre, OH
At the Ohio Route 21 intersection, at Navarre, I paused to read a plaque in memory of former U.S. Congressman, Ralph Regula, another son of Ohio who was highly respected in the Tuscarawas valley.  The portion of the towpath trail on which I was riding was named the Congressman Ralph Regula Towpath Trail Park in his honor.

During the approximately five miles of towpath trail from Navarre to Bolivar, many scenic views greeted me along the trail, and glimpses of the agricultural landscape beyond the river corridor became more frequent.   At the Stark-Tuscarawas Co. line near Bolivar, the Tuscarawas makes a sharp, 180-degree bend and heads back northward for a mile or so before bending again sharply southward to resume its flow toward Dover-New Philadelphia.  But, my destination was the Dolphin Street/Rt. 212 trailhead.  Near the trailhead is where I would realize the greatest treasure of today’s bicycle trip:  the opportunity to share words of Truth from the Scriptures with an 89-year-old man.  I had known him indirectly in my early years through a dear friend from my school days at Dundee Elementary and Garaway High School.  

The years have changed our modes of transportation, our heroes, our ways of earning a living, and even our friendships; but, the answers to life’s greatest questions, “How do you find meaning and purpose in this life?” and “Where will you spend eternity?” remain the same.  The answers are found in God’s Word.  I pray that this man, and perhaps others in his family through him, will heed the words of Life I shared.  Words that God allowed me to bring to him on a bicycle on that August afternoon, along the obsolete canal and the ever-flowing river.

How about it?  What has been your most memorable bicycling experience?   Have you used an historic bikeway?   Most importantly, do you know where your path is leading in this life and into eternity?  The Bible leaves no doubt that God loves you and has an amazing plan for your life.  The following are just a few of the passages that emphasize the “path to eternal life” through faith, and also the importance of God’s redeemed children SHARING their faith with those who may not know:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
By this the love of God was manifested in us,
that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world
so that we might live through Him.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us
and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

                                                        1 John 4: 8-10

But what does it say?
--that is, the word of faith which we are preaching,
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord,
and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,
you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes,
resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses,
resulting in salvation.   For the Scripture says,

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him;

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?
And how will they hear without a preacher?
How will they preach unless they are sent?
Just as it is written
                     Romans 10: 8-11 (Uppercase words from Old Testament)

Related Articles:
Our Stewardship Is About God, Not Us  Oikonomia, October 31, 2011
What Are the Four Spiritual Laws?  Outline of the Gospel, a “sinner’s prayer”, and assurance of salvation.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Land Stewardship on Campus and a Holistic View of “Health”

I remember my first visit to a college campus.  Unlike high school where all of my classes were in one building, now I would have to walk across campus to separate buildings for classes in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and physical education. 

Today, many universities still house each major academic discipline in a separate building or at least on a separate floor of the same building.  Given that a university’s mission is generally to integrate the different disciplines of study into a meaningful whole, a physical separation of disciplines may not encourage students to unify the knowledge and understanding they are gaining from a diversity of academic disciplines.  Yet, such integration is essential if students are to acquire a truly “uni-versity” education.

Having taught biology at Cedarville University and having used the natural habitats and “built environments” of SW Ohio as learning laboratories, I have learned the importance of landscapes in acquiring a broad, holistic education. During my final years at Cedarville, some of my students and I considered how the physical structure of the campus landscape and buildings might be managed (stewarded) in a manner consistent with the aim of providing a “uni-versity” education.

Cedar Creek area can be developed for "health & wellness"
The Cedarville College campus of the 1950’s and ‘60’s had expanded onto gently rolling agricultural land on either side of a lazy meandering stream on its way to Massies Creek just downstream from the village of Cedarville, Ohio.  In the early 1970’s, the lazy stream was dammed to create “Cedar Lake” in order to enhance aesthetic beauty and provide a ready source of water in the event of fire.  During most of my tenure at Cedarville, the landscape downstream from Cedar Lake existed as a combination of pastoral landscape with a sheep pasture on gentle slopes surrounding a community of wetland shrubs and trees along the creek.

By 2006, two additional campus buildings, the Engineering-Nursing-Science Building and the Stevens Student Center, had been erected, one at each end of the Cedar Lake dam.  The two buildings were connected by a sidewalk across the dam.  From this sidewalk, pedestrians could look down upon the quiet, pastoral and forested landscape.  At this time, my students and I began a cooperative effort with the administrators of the Physical Plant and the Grounds Department to develop the functionality and aesthetic appeal of the downstream landscape we began to call “Cedar Creek and Wetland.” 

In 2010, as our project began to blossom (literally), excavation began for the construction of a health sciences building on the west slopes above Cedar Creek.  I have outlined some of the progress we made between 2006 and 2011 in a previous Oikonomia, entitled “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen.”  During this time, the mission of our research effort was as follows:

The Cedar Creek and Wetland Project aims to apply ecological and biblical stewardship principles to manage runoff water on the Cedarville University campus, particularly adjacent to the Stevens Student Center and the new Health Science Building.  This aim will be accomplished through construction of a “basin wetland” surrounded by an upward-sloping landscape to be populated with suitably adapted plant and animal species.  In so doing, we aim to enhance stream water quality, plant and animal biodiversity, and aesthetic beauty while involving students in meaningful research experiences and conveying to the university community and visitors our intent to provide a landscape that models Cedarville University’s commitment to the biblical mandate to exercise good stewardship and care of creation.

Cedar Creek Area can contribute to health sciences mission
In short, we wanted to demonstrate that if land stewards at Cedarville University are intentional about following a biblical “land ethic,” then expanding the “built environment” of the campus should be compatible with conservation of soil, water, and plant-animal biodiversity.  It follows that when a university gives priority to “human health” it can enhance its mission by including the larger context of the “land health” of its campus landscape.   Specifically, efforts to enhance the “health” of Cedar Creek and Wetland surrounding the Health Sciences Building are justified by an understanding that “human health” includes not only medical but also environmental, emotional, and spiritual components that are nurtured by landscapes that reflect aesthetic beauty, health, and functional harmony.

By 2011, several of my research students had gained valuable experience from working on various phases of the development of the Cedar Creek and Wetland ecosystem.  (See “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen”).  Some of these have completed graduate programs or are completing them; others have been hired into positions involving land stewardship.  Although our efforts were bearing fruit in helping to educate and launch professional “creation stewards,” our efforts to enhance the diversity and “land health” of the Cedar Creek landscape had also taken a direction that was not deemed compatible with the vision of some decision-makers on campus.  Therefore, it was decided that many of the native wetland and prairie plant species we had established should be sacrificed to give way to a more uniform, easily maintained, lawn landscape regularly maintained by mowing.  Although some of us were dismayed, we were thankful for our progress in protection of the riparian zone of Cedar Creek and for the construction of a catch basin to buffer the stream against storm surges.

The direction of land management projects are always governed by the consensus of decision-makers, many of whom must face the realities of budgets and public opinion.  Yet these factors can change and we still hope that there may be a time when the Cedar Creek and Wetland area can be managed in a manner that “speaks” of the integration of “human health” with “land health."

Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden, Wooster, OH
The landscape of the Cedar Creek area on campus has retained numerous trees and herbaceous plant cover that encourage songbirds and small mammals.  As such, this site has the potential to offer a place of quiet reflection, rest, and renewal from the more bustling portions of the Cedarville campus.  In fact, The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) campus in Wooster is completing a project that may lead the way for other campuses including Cedarville University.

The OSU will soon showcase the Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden located in the OARDC’s Secrest Arboretum here in Wooster, OH.  According to Tricia James, assistant director of development, “Growing evidence suggests that the use of wellness gardens can be very therapeutic and improve overall quality of life.”  Interim director of the Secrest Arboretum, Joe Cochran, explained to Karen Skubik, writer for The Bargain Hunter, that “the garden features six pillars of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual.”  Kevin Rice, who has applied his education in landscape architecture from OSU to lead the wellness garden project, explained that the low-maintenance garden includes woody plants, perennials, ornamental grasses, and sedges.  Bright orange flowers are located in the “social” section, with seating still to be added, while blue-toned flowers provide a more reflective atmosphere for spiritual contemplation.  According to Rice, “A black gum (tree) grove will eventually create an overhead canopy in a more quiet area.”  Interpretive plaques will be installed to explain the theme of the garden as well as the multidimensional and holistic aspects of wellness.

Bright orange flowers are located in the "social section"
In summary, we have noted that a college or university campus landscape plays an important role in the institutional mission.  In this view, the campus is much more than bricks and mortar or ivy-covered walls that appeals to a prospective student’s concept of a home away from home.  Rather, a truly “uni-versity” campus is one in which the “land-scape” itself is managed intentionally in a manner that respects and values the soil, water, trees, and wildlife that characterize this “place” of learning.  For example, on such a campus, students may enter a building to study what it means to be a “healthy person” in mind, body, and spirit.  Then, as they leave the building, their notion of “human health” may be broadened and integrated as they absorb the sights and sounds emanating from a “healthy landscape” surrounding the building. 

How about this?  Have you thought about the importance of intentionally managed landscapes for human health and wellness in the more holistic sense of the term?  Perhaps you have knowingly or unknowingly benefitted from devoting time in certain landscapes and would care to comment on your experiences.  Or, you may wish to share how your walk with God is renewed by your attentiveness to both His written revelation in Scripture as well as His wisdom as revealed in creation.  Do you believe our spiritual, emotional, and physical lives are diminished to the extent that we underestimate the importance of finding time and place to regularly commune with God and feed upon His Word?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Local Churches and Spiritual Awakening

Readers of recent articles in Oikonomia are no doubt troubled as I have been by the seemingly increasing pace of the moral breakdown in America.  My first reaction to developments like the erosion of respect for law enforcement and justice, and the legalization of same-sex marriage was to blame the president for lack of moral leadership, and the Supreme Court for overriding the will of the majority by “legislating from the bench” (See “Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority”).  Then, God’s Spirit reminded me, convicted me, and caused me to look upward as it were to an even “higher court,” the throne of God.  My sharply pointing finger weakened, fell limp, and then turned to aim at my own heart, so often “prone to wander… prone to leave the God I love,” and so much in need of confession and repentance of sin in my own life.

My personal soul searching in recent weeks led to what I expressed in a second Oikonomia article, “IndividualAccountability and Spiritual Awakening.”  While I was finishing this article, the leadership of our church, West Hill Baptist Church, unbeknown to me, was meeting and prayerfully considering God’s leading for our local church in the community of Wooster and Wayne County in the midst of the increasing evidence of moral breakdown in our society.  The result of this time of prayer and submission to God on the part of West Hill pastors and lay leadership was an assembly of pastors from 15 churches in our area to participate in a prayer vigil, held at 1:00 pm on Sunday, August 2 at the Wayne County Fair Grounds.

Front-page account of prayer vigil

The purpose of this prayer vigil was not to point fingers, call out sinners, or assign blame.  Rather, the pastors who participated communicated by their presence that they have decided to “put a stake in the ground regarding what the church is and Who it represents.”  In the words of Pastor Mark Davenport, co-pastor at West Hill Baptist Church, as quoted in The Daily Record, “Let’s as churches pray for the churches.  The church needs to start loving people better, making our marriages better, making our relationships better.  These issues must be a priority,” he said, “if Christians are to minister to others.”

It was a humbling and moving experience for Abby and I to join over 1,500 others as we were led in prayer by several local pastors, each in their turn, from the Scripture in 2 Chronicles 7: 14 which states:

and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

As we sensed the presence of God’s Spirit, I thanked God for our local church and our pastoral staff that preaches and teaches the Word of God regularly both from the platform and by their living example of humility and godliness.  We also stood that day with many fellow believers with whom we have served, and for whom we have prayed, and who have prayed for us.  In all of this, I realized that although it is true that spiritual awakening in a nation begins and spreads when individuals mourn and confess their sins to God and repent, there is also an important responsibility of the local church and pastoral leadership to foster an atmosphere of humble submission and repentance within individuals which in turn can impact families and the community.  I pray that the ground on which we stood and prayed on August 2 will be the beginning of a spiritual awakening in our church as well as in the Wooster and Wayne County area, and across our nation.

Thomas Doohan's coverage in The Daily Record (continued)
I want to thank Thomas Doohan, Staff Writer of The Daily Record for attending the prayer vigil and providing an excellent account of the event.  You can read Mr. Doohan’s article by clicking on the graphics above and at right.  The article is linked here by permission of The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Individual Accountability and Spiritual Awakening

In the previous Oikonomia article, “Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority,” I confessed that my first reaction to the High Court legalization of same-sex marriage was to resent how five unelected justices could alter the definition of marriage when a large majority of Americans had opposed it.  I even blamed President Obama for not providing moral leadership in opposition to this “legislation from the bench.”

Then I realized that biblical morality is not ultimately upheld by the bench, the legislature, elite focus groups, or the will of the masses.  The Bible teaches that a nation rises or falls based on whether or not individuals and leaders respect God’s moral absolutes, or “ancient landmarks” (Proverbs 22:28; and, see Oikonomia, “Stewardship and ‘Natural Law’.”)  Throughout history, God has used a committed minority to provide moral leadership and spiritual revival.  According to many Christian leaders, America needs revival now more than ever.  Now, I wondered what it would take to bring another great revival.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
In the mid-1700’s, the Holy Spirit moved through men of moral conviction like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield who preached that salvation depends upon individual accountability to God, not family traditions or church membership.  The American Revolution and the founding documents of America were consistent with a biblical understanding of individual responsibility, moral conduct, and governance.  Later, the Spirit used leaders like George Finney (second awakening, 1790 to 1840) and Jeremiah Lanphier (third awakening, 1857 to 1859).  The latter began with a small prayer meeting in New York City.  Each awakening brought men and women back to God’s moral landmarks, and each influenced the social and political landscape of America.   

Today, many are praying for revival in America, believing it to be the only answer to our spiritual decline.  As I have sought revival in my own life, I am learning there are no quick answers or “how-to-do-it” steps to revival.  Rather, by remembering the principle of individual accountability, I am first seeking to identify those hindrances to revival in my own life.  I am becoming less prone to find fault or assign blame to others for moral decline in America.  Christ’s “Beatitudes” are teaching me about my spiritual poverty (Matthew 5: 3), the logical response to mourn and confess my sin (v. 4), and the need to exercise gentleness when I confront my neighbor who lives in rejection of God’s plan for him or her (v. 5).  On the one hand, I want to offer acceptance and compassion toward my “neighbor” (one is gay, one, a lesbian).   On the other hand, I must ask if I am helping my “neighbor” by offering only acceptance and compassion? 

Andree Seu Peterson, in an article, “
Compassion in the Midst of Evil, addresses this difficult balance:

All of us were at one time lost, and occasionally lose our way even now, and so we all want compassion, and must all exercise it too. The main ground rule seems to be that compassion must never wimp out into any sympathy for evil. That would do no good for you or for the one you’re trying to help.

The Apostle Paul, when speaking to the Greeks in Athens about the God of creation said, Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent….  Elsewhere, in Romans 1: 16, Paul professes that he is not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  And, in verse 21, he adds (emphasis mine), For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  While it may seem arrogant (and can look that way to those who reject God’s plan), Christians have been given the commission to be salt and light (Matthew 5: 13-16).  Salt can sting in wounds and light can reveal embarrassing flaws—but salt can also preserve against rot, and light can reveal deadly danger ahead. 

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes, Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (v. 16).   Today, Christ’s followers are enduring great suffering and even death to glorify God (See Christianity Shines in Dark Places,” Oikonomia July 11, 2015).  Am I willing to at least “die to my pride” so that my neighbor might be reconciled to his or her Creator?  After all, it’s not ultimately our government or the collective will of Americans that will steer us toward godly living.  Rather it requires our individual accountability to God and to our neighbor, in addition to being responsible citizens who will participate knowledgeably in government and hold our respective representatives accountable to exercise moral leadership as civil servants.

How about you?   How have you come to terms with offering acceptance and compassion to our “neighbor” versus challenging him or her to consider the claims of Scripture that will decide their eternal destiny?   I welcome your thoughts about our need for revival as a nation and within the evangelical church.  Perhaps you can suggest spiritual disciplines that are essential to the working of God’s Spirit in our lives to bring revival in the midst of our wandering, wanton, weary world.  What helpful resources in Scripture or extra-Biblical have you found helpful?   I am currently reading some articles from the
Gospel Coalition webpage (Search under “Church Life”/ “Revival”). 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority

According to many mainstream news commentators, a majority of Americans are in agreement with the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.  The supposed minority who disagree are challenged to exercise tolerance and get on board with the changing mores of our culture.  But, not so fast!  Consider two indicators that Americans who oppose the latest high court decision are not in the minority.

First, recall that the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage by a narrow 5-4 decision.  Amazingly, this decision means that 1 vote overturned same-sex bans in 31 states and altered the millennia-long definition of marriage.  The same five justices had already struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  That instance of “legislating from the bench” meant that a 1-vote margin brought an end to a law that had been ratified by huge majorities in both the U.S. House (342-67) and U.S. Senate (85-14).  The highest court in the land had sided with the liberal minority of Americans against the will of a large majority of Americans and their elected officials. 

There is even more evidence that a liberal minority is revolutionizing America while conveying the false impression through liberal media that they represent the majority.  This evidence comes through a Washington Post-ABC News Poll published this month.  According to authors Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement,

In this poll, 63% of people say they are uncomfortable with the country's overall direction on social issues these days; four in 10 feel "strongly" uncomfortable about the nation's changes. 

Some core Democratic groups are finding a disconnect with the rapid change in social issues as well. Fifty-one percent of non-whites, a growing group of Democratic supporters, say they are uncomfortable with the pace of social change. Two-thirds of women also say they are uncomfortable, as are 50 percent of adults under age 30.

Even some liberals worry that expanding the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and allowing them to adopt children may push us rapidly down a slippery slope.  Already, Montana polygamist, Nathan Collier sees the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage as a gate-opener to legalizing polygamy so that he can legally marry his second “wife.”

Since the Garden of Eden, the Bible and history have repeatedly taught us that actions based on human reason, when contrary to God’s principles, will always yield a bitter harvest.  Adam and Eve reasoned that God was holding out on them and ate the only fruit that God had forbidden them to eat.  The result was spiritual and physical separation from God.   Genesis 3: 8 describes the nature of this alienation between God and mankind:

They heard the [familiar] sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and [for the first time] the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 

But when Adam and Eve heard God calling to Adam, the husband, they realized that their physical hiding had failed.  So, they tried to “hide” by playing the “blame game”—Adam blamed God for giving him Eve; Eve blamed the serpent that Satan used to deceive her.  But God’s response decimated their poor effort to deny individual responsibility for their action. 

Since the Garden, we have continued to rebel against God’s plan for His creation.  We have continued to “hide” our sin by blaming others, by “hiding” in groups, and by trusting in human reason, or “group-think” to justify disobedience of God’s laws.   The collective judgment of the masses, no matter how well intentioned or how popular, is still folly apart from submission to God.

Today, God still calls, “Where are you?” to men who are the stewards of His unconditional love toward women, and toward wives.  Instead, men often view women as objects of self-gratification, thus depriving themselves of true fulfillment and godly leadership, diminishing the key role of women in God’s plan, and leaving both themselves and women vulnerable to Satan’s lies. 

Just as Satan convinced Eve that she would find fulfillment in eating of the fruit, so he has convinced many women in the mid-20th century that they could be fulfilled sexually outside of marriage without the unwanted consequence of a baby.  If contraception failed, then abortion of the baby would “clean up the mess” so her life could go on without hindrance.  But last week, the latest bitter fruit of abortion became evident.  We learned that Planned Parenthood has begun marketing functional body parts of babies by modifications of abortion procedures designed to “protect life” or at least the parts needed.  What began with deception and departure from God’s plan for the sanctity of marriage and procreation has gradually led America down a dark and slippery slope to the horrendous reports in recent days.

Returning to the recent High Court legalization of same-sex marriage, my first reaction was to resent how five unelected justices could alter the definition of marriage as one of the foundations of our culture.  I blamed President Obama because he had already surrendered his moral leadership when he changed his mind and supported same sex marriage.

Then I realized that biblical morality is not ultimately upheld by the bench, the legislature, elite focus groups, or the will of the masses.  I believe the Bible teaches that a nation rises or falls based on whether or not individuals and leaders respect God’s enduring moral absolutes, or “ancient landmarks” (Proverbs 22:28; and, see Oikonomia, “Stewardship and ‘Natural Law’.”)  On the other hand, the ongoing social reengineering of American culture represented by the High Court decision reflects nonbiblical moral values.  These values are being imposed by a very different but committed minority as explained above.  The question Christians must ask is “Which minority will determine our future?”

According to many Christian leaders, America needs revival.  Historically, the power of God’s Spirit has brought awakenings through the repentance and prayer of a few committed persons—a very small minority.  In the next Oikonomia article, we will look further into how God has used and can still use a “moral minority” for His glory and for the benefit of a nation when men and women accept individual accountability before God as stewards of His Mercy and Truth.