Monday, November 28, 2016

Fat Dogs

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  - James 1:27

Likanson is second from the right.
There are two children missing from this picture
As is always the case when I travel to Haiti, I end up in a conversation that is convicting to my American Christianity.  For a decade, Gayle and I have supported a particularly poor Haitian family, one that is considered poor even in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  This is a family of a father, mother, and nine children, ranging in age from 21 years old to 3 year old twins.  All eleven of them live in a house that measures less than 150 total square feet, with one bed and a dirt
floor.  Were it not for our meager financial support, they would certainly be facing the threat of starvation.  Even with the support, they still have to worry about sickness (they have all had malaria, dengue, and other tropical illnesses), clean water, mudslides, assault, and other issues that rarely cross our minds here.
The puppy

During our trip last week, we were checking out the progress on an expansion to their house, when a puppy happened to walk by.  Doing what Americans do, I picked up the puppy, handed it to my son, Sam, and took a picture.  After all, who can resist a puppy!?  Our Haitian friends watched this with wonder, and the oldest son. Likanson, asked in his broken English, "Do Americans like dogs?".  Sam quickly answered, "yes", to which Likanson replied, "Haitians hate dogs".  He then added the piercing question, "Are American dogs fat?".  Sam answered, "yes, many of them are fat, especially compared with Haitian dogs.".  Likanson's face revealed his heart. 
Haiti Street Dog

As a background to those who have never traveled to a third world nation, dogs are considered pests and scavengers, who compete with the humans for food.  They are treated with contempt, and often chased away with sticks or rocks.  Most of the dogs we see in Haiti are on top of trash piles, trying to get any morsel of food they can find.  In scripture, we see that this battle between man and dogs for food has lasted for thousands of years in poor nations.  In Mark 7:27, Jesus says, "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
School Kids

When Likanson asked about fat American dogs, what he was really thinking was this: "In Haiti, my brothers and sisters are starving.  My community cannot find enough food for everyone to share.  But, in America, even the dogs have an over-abundance."  He holds this view, not as a critique of Americans, but in awe that a nation could possibly be so wealthy that even dogs (detested animals to them) are fat (and often clothed).  I do not bring up this story as an accusation toward American animal lovers.  I have a spoiled dog myself.  Instead, I bring it up to point out the vast economic chasm that exists between America and most of the remaining world. 

School Kids
Before leaving America, I announced our intentions for this trip, especially in light of the devastation left behind from Hurricane Matthew last month.  I had scores of people offer donations to help the cause, and ended up receiving over $12,000 in donations.  To put that in perspective, with the average Haitian earning around $500 per year, we raised 24 times an average annual salary in 2-3 weeks, without really breaking a sweat!
This takes me to the scripture I led off with at the top of this page.

In James' epistle, in a single verse, he defines a true, "pure", "undefiled" believer by his actions.  In other words, if you claim to be an authentic Christian, there are two characteristics that should define you to the rest of the world, and set you apart from those who are lost.  I will discuss them in reverse order. 
My favorite selfie ever
  1. To keep oneself unstained by the world.  We all know that there is an ongoing battle between the spirit and the flesh within each of us.  The things that I know I should be doing, I choose not to do, and the things that I know I should not be doing are very appealing to me (Rom. 7:15-17).  No amount of trying real hard can get us over this hump.  As Paul says in Rom. 7:25-25, "Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  Only through Christ's victory over sin and death can we live righteously, but as James points out, once we are saved, we are expected to live apart from the stains of the world.  Combining these two scripture passages, we see that in order to display authentic Christianity, our lives should be defined by righteousness, but with an understanding that that righteousness can only come through the power of the Spirit placed in us, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  One thing I would add is that righteousness is defined by God alone, not by man.  We tend to add our own asterisk to certain situations so that God's will matches our personal preferences.  God's will is defined in God's word.  Anything we add or subtract voids the truth because it becomes God's word PLUS my word, based on my interpretation, to accommodate my own flesh.  (Rev. 22:18-19)
    Bowls of rice and
    beans bought by our
    own folks.  We had
    Enough to provide
    about 20,000 meals.
  2. Precious
  3. To visit orphans and widows in their distress.  To understand the magnitude of this statement, one must understand the context of history when this was written.  In the first century, women and children did not have the opportunity to work for themselves.  The only hope a woman had in those days was to marry the right guy so that he could support her, while she, in turn, provided a home and family for him.  If the husband/father died, the widow and her children were immediately in crisis.  There was no social security check, no life insurance policy, and no government welfare program.  Unless someone came to their rescue, the widow and children were in danger of starvation (I Kings 17:10-12).  However, if someone did decide to take care of them, they did so with the understanding that the widow and orphan children had no means to pay them back.  The message here is clear.  While speaking specifically of widows and orphans, James is instructing us to minister to those who could not possibly return the favor, ultimately in the fashion that Jesus chose to die for each of us, knowing that we can never repay Him.  
    Thanksgiving Day, Haiti Style
This is why I love going to Haiti, and why many of you love ministering to someone, wherever that may be.  It is the opportunity to invest in someone who can never invest in me in the same way.  In my American abundance, if I can share just a fraction of that surplus with a child who is starving, what better picture of the gospel message can I display?  Our Savior saw our desperate condition here on earth.  He saw the sin we fall prey to, the pride we embrace, and the world in which we live, and chose to leave the splendor of Heaven to rescue us.  We were literally starving spiritually, and He gave us the bread of life.  As Paul put it so eloquently, 
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.   -   Phil. 2:5-8
Sam with Kids
 In my daily routine at home as a parent, or at school as Headmaster, my desire is that my privileged children would understand the importance of serving others and giving from their surplus.  HCA is a blessed people, and it is so easy to get snuggled up in our comfort zone and forget that much of the rest of the world is in crisis.  As we pass Thanksgiving and approach Christmas, I challenge you to seek out someone who fits the "widow and orphan" mold and invest in them, expecting nothing in return.  As a Christian, that is what God requires of us, along with personal holiness.  And, I don't know about you, but as an American, I want to be known for my selfless, sacrificial giving, not for my fat dog.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. - Psalm 145:4

During the past six days, HCA has been able to enjoy the truth of God's plan for generations to carry on the convictions and successes of our past through the youth of our future.  Last Friday, we celebrated our annual Grandparents' Day.  It was a wonderful event, with over 400 of our grandparents in attendance.  I am so grateful for their wisdom and standards in this present life, and for the unconditional love they show their grandchildren.  As we reminded them that morning, the Bible says that "Grandchildren are the crown of the aged" (Prov. 17:6).  And, make no mistake about it, these grandparents wear their "crowns" with much pride!

In today's world, we have lost the value of the command to honor our parents, and too often, older folks feel forgotten or taken for granted.  I hope that each of our grandparents felt that they were loved and honored last Friday morning, and that they see great worth in the educational environment their grandchildren enjoy each day at HCA.  I loved interacting with them, and quickly saw how our current families at HCA got their spiritual depth and high character standards, passed down from the previous generation.

Six days later, HCA was invited to participate in the Hickory National Day of Prayer event, held on the square downtown.  What a blessing it is to live in a nation where prayer and freedom of religion are foundational to our culture!  For the past few years, Hickory Christian Academy has been selected to lead the Educational segment of the annual prayer event.  Our chapel praise team led worship, we read scripture, and then dozens of students grabbed the microphone to pray for God's mercy and grace to be on our nation, and especially on the younger generation, as they grow into tomorrow's leaders.  I was so proud of our students (joined by students from other Christian schools CFA and ROC).  I can honestly say that when I was their age, I didn't even know how to pray, so to hear them share their vision, desires, fears, and dreams to the God of the universe, in front of their peers is amazing, to say the least. 

It is assumed that there is little to no remnant of Christianity left in our children's generation, but I am refreshed when I spend time with kids who see themselves as the spiritual future of our nation and culture, and I realize that God is still sovereign and on the throne in the hearts of those who seek Him.  The parents of these kids deserve much credit for planting the seeds of the gospel in their children's hearts, and I am thankful to have been given a "watering can" at HCA to help these students continue to grow in grace. 

When we chose to take our high school students to this event, we cancelled on-campus chapel for that day.  Not to be outdone, the middle school students took it upon themselves to hold their own worship and prayer time.  I was not in attendance for the middle school chapel, but I heard incredible things about the leadership and heart of these students.  Their desire, at 12-14 years old, to worship and pray, even when the school did not formally set them up to do so is a blessing to me, and again, gives me great hope for the future. 

So, I say all this to say that I believe HCA is playing a key role in the spiritual foundation of our little section of North Carolina, and I am proud to be associated with such wonderful young people, parents, teachers, coaches, and staff.  Thank you to each of you for the work you put into raising this generation to be the next leaders in our culture.  And, thank you for listening to your parents and grandparents, as they shared wisdom and values with you as you were growing up.  One generation to the next...that is the way God designed it to be. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Spirit vs. Flesh

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of [Jesus] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

There is much talk these days about the deterioration of American culture, and so much finger pointing about who is to blame for our current mess, that I thought I would share some things that I believe God has shown me in recent days.  It seems that we have become so comfortable with sin in our nation that all lines have been blurred, and all boundaries have been removed.  In our race toward "freedoms", we have ended in indulgences.  This should not be all that surprising as scripture warns us, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9)  The path of humanity will always continue in a confusing and sinful direction when left to its own volition.  Flesh cannot heal flesh.  Only Spirit can do that. 

One critical point to make is that Christians need to refocus and decide whom their king really is. Churchgoing people are some of the worst to rely on a government election to fix spiritual issues.  It should be a foregone conclusion that none of the current (or past, or present) presidential candidates is the answer to the spiritual freefall in our culture.   Neither is any single person, nor group of people, the primary enemy.  Again, the Bible is clear on this subject.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. - Eph. 6:12
But, with all the confusion on what is or isn't sin, and what is or isn't acceptable behavior, I find it important to continue to seek scripture for clarity (as opposed to human opinion).  Now, before we enter into this conversation, there are some preconceived ideas that must be addressed.  First of all, we will go under the assumption that God exists.  Second we will assume that the Bible is actually communication from God to all of humanity, spoken through a select few writers, over a span of thousands of years.  We are confident that this is true for many reasons, not withstanding the fact that the message over all those years and multiple authors is amazingly consistent and accurate across thousands of recovered ancient documents. 
Please understand that if either of these points is in doubt, then there is no basis for determining sin.  If God does not exist, then no one has the ultimate authority to determine what is right or wrong.  Lying is sin because God says so.  Murder is sin because God says so.  Adultery is sin because God says so.  If left up to man to determine, one may think adultery to be sin, while another finds it perfectly acceptable.  Who is to say which is correct?  God is the ultimate authority.  Secondly, if the Bible is not an authentic word from God, then our faith has little to stand on.  How would we even know that Jesus existed, and what words He spoke?  If we cannot take scripture literally, then we are left in the impossible position to determine which parts are figurative or inaccurate, which leads us back to each man's interpretation. 
So, going on our assumption that the Bible is truth. let's look at our current culture in light of scripture.  What we see is a rush toward acceptance of any lifestyle or behavior.  The argument is often made that, "While I may be committing sin, aren't other things sinful as well?  Who is to say that my sin is greater than yours?  Doesn't God hate all of them equally?  Besides, most of the lists of sins are in the Old Testament anyway, and Jesus freed us up from being held accountable for those in the New Testament, right?"
There are dozens of dangerous holes in these arguments, but I will point out just a couple.  Paul tells us in Romans 6:15-18:
What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  May it never be!  Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?  But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you become obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
The grace that God has given us through the shed blood of Christ is not to be taken for granted or adulterated in licentiousness.  The problem is that most people have no clue of the price that was paid for their sins, so instead of humble thankfulness, we respond with arrogant entitlement.  Studying scripture and understanding the nature of our Savior leads one to love Him to the point of complete submission, resulting in righteousness.  Having a distant "head knowledge" of Jesus, but no real relationship with Him, often results in a celebration of the flesh, disguised as living in "grace".  As Paul tells us in Galatians 5:16-18,
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.  For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
Take special note of the phrase, "so that you may not do the things that you please.".  We must understand that our flesh (every one of us) craves sin (see Rom. 1:24-32, I Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, Eph. 5:3-6 to see if you qualify as a sinner).  We must also understand that apart from the Spirit's rescue, we are powerless to fight it.  Each person on earth is born in sin, and in greater detail, every person has certain sins which are more powerful in their lives than others.  Some are born with a special tendency toward bursts of anger, some are born with tendencies toward gossip, some toward lying, some toward sexual sins, and so on.  You don't have to think too hard to know which one has you captive. 
A true Biblical Worldview says that I recognize my sin nature, I admit that certain sins (ultimately all of them) hold me captive, and I know that my own sinful flesh (nor the sinful world around me) cannot free me from this addiction, so I surrender myself to Christ, asking Him to rescue me from myself.  I also know that even after the blood of Christ covers me, the battle between flesh and spirit will continue to rage within me, but my ultimate desire is to reject the flesh and embrace the spirit. 
It really comes down to that last phrase: embrace the Spirit.  We can talk all day about whose sin is worse, and who is hypocritical in their approach to sin (all of us, by the way).  Let's face it, when Christians address the sins of the world around them, we have a hard time determining who is really saved sometimes.  In the Bible, we see Jesus addressing sinners every day of his ministry in a very patient and loving manner, but still finishing with the phrase, "Go and sin no more".  In other words, He exhibited grace, while keeping a standard of holiness.  But, we see the sins of our neighbors and we gossip about them, slander them, and belittle them.  It is critical that we focus on our own holiness, before pointing out everyone else's sin (Matt. 7:1-5).  When we go there, we are not embracing the Spirit, but embracing the flesh instead. 

So, that is what it all boils down to.  What are you embracing?  The argument over what is defined as sin was over about 2000 years ago.  The new testament lists of sinful behavior referenced above are pretty clear.  In addition, the question over whether you and I are personally sinners is also very apparent.  We are.  So, the real issue in each of our lives, and in society as a whole, is our response to our sin problem.  Are we embracing the spirit, or are we embracing the flesh?  If I know that I am a serial gossip, do I parade that fact around with pride, and ask everyone to love me anyway, even though I might be gossiping about them as well?  Or, do I understand that God is offended by that behavior in my life, causing me to repent and desire cleansing that can only come from His great grace and mercy? 

For me personally, I am the greatest sinner I know.  I can think of no one else who falls short of God's glory more often than me.  However, that fact produces humility and shame in my heart.  I don't want to try to defend my sin nature.  I want to change.  I want to grow in my faith.  I want to know my Savior in a deeper, more intimate way.  And, I understand that when I hold fast to my sin, I cannot gain in my relationship with God, because, in His holiness, he cannot fellowship with sinful man.  If I pridefully embrace my sins, I will never open up the door for Christ to restore me into beautiful fellowship with the Father.

Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and you cannot look on wickedness with favor. - Hab. 1:13a

Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith. - Hab. 2:4

In summary, here are some key points:

1. Humanity is caught in sin.  Always has been.  Always will be. 
2. We should fully expect a world without Christ to act sinfully.  It is our nature, like a duck to water or a pig to mud.  Anything else would be abnormal.
3. Christians, of all people, should be the leaders in knowing scripture, understanding their own sin nature, grieving their own spiritual failures, and repenting of their behaviors.
4. We all have a choice to embrace flesh or spirit.  God asks us to embrace spirit, as defined in His word.
5. The Church's response to the sins of our culture needs to be focused on loving others well, and pointing them to righteousness; not griping, gossiping, and arguing with them, which further alienates the lost world to the church.  I agree that truth is at stake here, but you will never win the truth war with bitterness.  Let God be angry with sin, and pass judgment as He sees fit.  We have been called to truth in love.

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ. - Eph. 4:14-15

Our desire at Hickory Christian Academy is to be a true reflection of Jesus Christ, understanding truth, loving a lost world to repentance, and maintaining personal holiness in our daily lives.  Each of our sin natures hinders this process, but ultimately, that is what we are embracing.