Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fire=God+His People

I don't know why I waited so long to post this; it's been eight months since it has occurred. It might have been that we have been in shock, it might have been because I'm finally ready to write about what happened. Writing is always more personal to me than talking; I've talked to plenty of people about what happened but writing this makes it much more intimate.

But it is time.

Christians, including myself, can trick themselves into thinking that the sorrows of this world will somehow not camp themselves on our doorsteps. We believe since we give our lives for God and the Body of Christ somehow that we are spared from the nightmares of this world.

God never promised us Disney World. He promised us he would never leave us nor forsake us. He promised us all things would work out for our good. But he never promised to remove the pain and suffering of this world.

So yes, even as a Christian it still sucks when your house burns down.

On Sunday September 4th my family and I returned from teaching Sunday School at Shoreline South. We had had no rain for literally months and as we drove back to our house we noticed with a dreadful feeling in the pit of our stomachs the fierce 35 - 40 mile per our winds. The conditions were eerily similar that caused the first fire in 2008 which came within a thousand yards of house and burned many of our neighbors homes to the ground.

My wife went to drop off our son with a friend in Smithville, TX and as I was in our house preparing lunch I smelled smoke. I followed my nose and went outside and was greeted to the sight of a huge column of black smoke in the North West sky. I called my wife and told her to get home and I went in the house to start packing.

Sure enough, as we argued with our neighbor across the street that she needed to leave (she survived the first fire along with us and thankfully listened to us and left) the Sheriff came by and using impolite language notified us that we needed to vacate henceforth immediately. Having packed one suitcase for each member of the family (My wife, daughter, son and Grandmother) we loaded the care and headed out.

Side note: If you are ever in that situation forget the clothes. They can be replaced. I would have grabbed pictures and the true valuables like the lamp that had been in the family since the late 1800's. Clothes can be replaced. Grab the things that can't be.

We went East on Highway 71 and stopped at the La Cabana restaurant parking lot where the fire evacuees where congregating for moral support and, as the fireman were using the adjacent gas station a place to try to gather desperately desired information on which streets were burning and which weren't.

We watched with dismay as the fire moved further and further South West until it was obvious that we could not stay at the restaurant and we would not be going back to the house. It was then that the miracles started.

We received a phone call from a really good friend of ours that she wanted to put us up in a hotel for two nights. Grateful, we took the assistance and headed for San Antonio as it was nearly impossible to head North or West. The card was crowded, my wife was driving and we had my son's five month old Basset hound sitting on the backseat floorboard between my legs. On the way to San Antonio his gastric juices in his stomach decided that they did not like the constant motion and he proceeded to projectile vomit a gallon of fluid all over my legs.

Raising my hands to God I shouted, "Really!!? Really God!!?"

The First Miracle

After we stopped so I could change my clothes we got to the hotel and then took the dog to my wife's nephew in San Antonio. As we preceded to get ready for bed my wife had this exchange with my daughter:

"Go change into your pajamas."
"I have none"
"What do you mean you have none?"
"I have no clothes."
"What the #@$ do you mean you have no clothes. I gave you a suitcase and told you to pack your clothes." (Yea, yea I know, you NEVER swear at your kids).
"I didn't pack clothes."

At this point I must declare that my daughter Gabbie gets the 'Thinking on your feet decade of the year award'. As a family we (I use the 'royal' we here) decided several years ago to work on being debt free. I limited her clothing budget and had informed Gabbie that her designers clothes would be coming from 'Target' this year. She was none too happy with this decision. Hence when my wife opened the suitcase and had found that Gabbie had filled it with pictures and not an ounce of clothing she was showered with tears of gratitude. And of course when all of her Aunts and lady friends at church found out what she did they took her out and proceeded to buy her all those expensive clothes. I haven't figured out if she was very, very clever or very very caring. I think both.

We were at the hotel in San Antonio through Monday and were being told that even if our house was still standing that we would probably not be back for weeks. We started getting offers from my business partners, friends and family that would stay at their home in the interim. Words cannot even begin to describe what the psychological impact is of having no place to live or the comfort in knowing that you have such loving friends and family that they would allow you to come and upend their world, which is what happens when two families collide in such a living situation.

Then Second Miracle.

A business associate/friend of ours had unfortunately separated from her husband. Hearing our predicament he called to inform me that he reconciled with his wife and had a fully furnished two bedroom apartment in North Austin that he was going to break the lease on instructed us to get our butts down there and move in. We did.

Pastor Ken, my pastor and head of the Children's ministry at Shoreline met us at Walmart 11:30 p.m. that night with a handful of gift cards. Knowing me all too well he gave me a wonderful piece of advice that I so desperately needed to hear.

"Art, you've sown into many relationships for the last twenty years at Shoreline and now it is time for you to reap your harvest. Reap it." When you have trouble receiving from people, like I do, circumstances can come along that will make it real simple; 'poof', you have nothing.

The realization of what was happening to our family began to finally sink in that night as we stood there in Walmart, dumbfounded as what to even begin to buy. Looking back at it now were most definitely in shock.

A week later we confirmed the fact that along with 1600 other families in Bastrop county we had lost our house. We were finally allowed in to see it about a week later and it was beyond devastating. I want to personally thank those blessed volunteers who appeared out of nowhere to console my wife as she stood and looked at the total destruction of her personal life. My son and myself who was with her (my daughter Gabbie had wisely decided to pass on the visit) had nothing to offer her at this point. We were struggling to comprehend the damage ourselves.

We had a 1996 Lincoln in the driveway whose battery was dead and therefore it burned. It just didn't burn; it melted. The hard metal rims on the car (not aluminum) melted into puddles of metal (my son and I kept them as souvenirs).  The FEMA engineer that we met with told me that for that to occur the temperature of the fire at our house probably exceeded 2500 - 3500(F).  For sustained periods of time.

The Third Miracle. 

The third miracle to occur was probably the most wonderful. When I was a very young man God told me he was going to make me a very wealthy man as I grew older. In my youth I of course interpreted this as meaning cold hard cash.

Anita Strychalski is a name that will always be spoken well of in the Powell family. Tasked with the job of helping us get back on our feet, she was relentless in making sure that our immediate and long term needs were being met. The church announced that if anyone wanted to help the Powell family out to please call her cell.

Her phone rang so much that for several days she had to send all the calls to voice mail just so she could use her phone. God indeed had made me very wealthy; with friends who cared and a Body of Christ who loved us.

God's Fire

We are indeed back on our feet. It has not been easy. We still have furniture to buy (thank you so much Caroline Domin for loaning us the furniture; we love you!). During the last six months my daughter has chosen to finish her last year in junior high in Smithville so Monday through Friday she lives with another family who are friends of ours and she is greatly missed. Our son is still trying to adjust with the fact that he will not be graduating with his childhood friends. My wife still struggles with the loss of thousands upon thousands of pictures we will never recover. My Dad was diagnosed with Kidney cancer.  

We have gone through the fire. Literally. But God has pulled us through. I have had a chance to see what is inside both of my children during these trying times and I am humbled by the grace and strength I have seen both of my teenagers posses.

My teenage son was out with his friends helping to pass out supplies to victims of the fire a day after he learned that his house and all his belongings were gone. 

Barely a month after the fire my daughter suffered an acute appendicitis and she posted this on her Facebook page from her hospital bed a day after the surgery:
Fire = God + His People
And all this time she told us she was no good with math! This is one equation where she was entirely correct. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rocks and the National Debt

Recently there has been much hoopla made concerning the debt ceiling and the recent deal struck between Republicans and Democrats to raise the limit on Uncle Sam's credit card but with corresponding cuts in government spending. I'm not going to get into the political implications or whether it will solve the long term issue.

What I want to talk about is what the existence of a 14 trillion dollar debt (yes, that is $14,000,000,000,000) says about our society, about our culture and about Christians living in that culture.

I started gardening three years ago. We have three acres of land behind a public park and to help deal with the stress of owning a business, teaching Sunday school and raising two teenagers (and they are good ones, can't imagine what having difficult ones is even like) I began to plant vegetables and discovered I have a 'green' thumb. I'm still in the learning stages and I am getting more and more produce every year. I enjoy it, it's inexpensive and it helps me keep my sanity.

My pile of Rocks with my beautiful 5'6" Daughter
The soil where we live is very dark and very rich. But it is filled with rocks. I use raised beds to make sure the roots can grow deep into the ground (I've pulled tomato plant roots out of the ground that were six to eight feet long). So I proceeded to manually clear rocks out of the ground. As you can see by my growing pile (3 feet high in the center and about 10 feet in diameter) I am not exaggerating. The area I have marked off for the garden is approximately 30' x 20' and I have only cleared two thirds of the sectioned ground. Count a 'french dam' I made in the middle that is eighteen inches deep, foot wide and twenty feet long and filled with aforementioned rocks and you are beginning to get the idea of what I am talking about.

All by hand and a garden hoe*.

Now I know some of you think right now that I am just plain nuts. Why not get a tiller and be done with it? Well, because a tiller wont really solve the problem. It will move the rocks around but its not going to get rid of them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What we need to know is why the rocks are there in the first place.

Now some of you will argue that it really doesn't make a difference why the rocks are there. They need to be moved. But what if I had told you that I had hired a bulldozer to mix several tons of rocks into the ground thoroughly with the soil and that was the land that I chose to grow my garden. Then I would indeed be insane.

That is exactly what we did with the national debt. We kept electing politicians who promised us free medical care when we got older, a paycheck till we die, cheap pharmaceutical drugs for life, food stamps for everyone who even thinks they need them, free lunches for our kids at schools (and we can fight two wars at the same time!), etc, and then wonder why we have a 14 trillion dollar debt. We allowed our government to run this debt up so that we would not have to help those less fortunate than ourselves and allow government agencies to take care of people we should have been taking care of so we could live our lascivious lifestyles without paying higher taxes. Now we balk at paying back money we spent and did not have.

We made our bed but we have absolutely no intention of laying in it. 

Christians are suppose to be the salt and light of this society.  We are not to live as the world lives but Godly, Holy (separated unto God) lives. Where were we while all this was happening? We were lining up at the trough with our 'Prosperity' message that God wanted to make us all rich and have half a million dollar homes with a luxury sports car in the driveway. Jesus wasn't about sacrifice, he was Santa Clause with an unlimited platinum credit card to make all of our material wishes come true. 

What is absolutely despicable is that even as we all made large amounts of monies in the decades of the 1980's and 1990's we spent it frivolously. My guess is right now in the Church probably ninety seven percent of the congregation cannot write you a $1000 check even if their very life depended upon it. I am in that category.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this has got to stop. We have to show our society how to change its spending habits and to be lenders and not borrowers. We have to be faithful stewards of God's money. Stewardship is the management of resources that are not your own. In the 1970's many Christians led the way with the environmental movements that showed us we were not being good stewards of God's planet (I am not an advocate of Global Warming. Having said that, I strongly believe in the frugal use of resources and I am against industrial pollution).

The Church needs a financial revolution. It needs to begin with ourselves.

Two years ago I started digging rocks in our finances. Rock by rock I am paying down our debt. Rock by rock cutting out expenses. Rock by rock cutting out excessive eating out. It has required major changes in the spending habits of our family. I would like to tell you that my family all jumped aboard wholeheartedly and was in total agreement. My life unfortunately is not a sitcom where everything gets resolved in 30 minutes. It has not been easy, but we are getting there and the family is beginning to see the light. Well, a little bit anyway. Within the next two or three years, Lord will it, we should be completely, 100% debt free.

The national debt debate is far from over. Part of the deal that the Republicans have made with the Democrats is that a bipartisan panel must come up with more cuts between now and the end of the year. It is almost certain we will hear much, much more about this in the coming months.

What we do with this debt will tell future generations all they will need to know about our character. Did we bring out the tiller and move things around and put more fertilizer over it and hoped it would go away? Or did we start taking out the rocks, one by one and with the clear understanding that it may not have helped us but saved the ones to come?

I am going out to dig some more rocks.

*(Digression: thanks for corrupting the word 'hoe'! Just like the word 'gentleman' which originally meant a landowner not a nice person and so now I cannot use the word 'hoe' without my teenagers giggling).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What does Easter, Rob Bell and Osama Bin Laden have to do with each other?

Spring is my favorite time of the year, and nothing to do with the weather. I live in the deep South (only three hours from the Gulf of Mexico) and truth be told if it wasn't for the Easter Holiday, winter wins hands down. If you have ever lived through 21 consecutive days of 100+ degrees winter is a welcome respite.

However, Easter reigns in the hearts of most Christians as their favorite holiday and rightfully so. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the grave. The fact that a man claimed he was God in the flesh and then backed it up by appearing to many people after he died (including more than 500 in a single incident) is still the most historical electrifying incident to have ever occurred.  I am not going to use this opportunity argue the historical evidence of said event (there are many who have done a better job anyway such as Josh McDowell). You may have guessed this by the title and you're wondering what, pray tell, does Osama Bin Laden, Rob Bell and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ have to do with each other? Good question. Glad you asked.

Time Cover
Rob Bell is a wonderful pastor who has gone astray. Throwing a theological bomb he declares in his new book, Love Wins: A book about Heaven, and the fate of every person who has ever lived, that there is no hell and that everyone who dies goes to Heaven, regardless. First of all I would like to know what Bible he is reading because I've looked in every translation and hell is spelled out pretty clearly. I'm just a layman and even I can tell you that Pastor Rob Bell is in direct conflict with the Word of God. So does he believe the Bible or not? If he doesn't believe in hell then what other parts of the Bible does he have trouble with? The divinity of Christ? I digress.

This is where Bin Laden comes into play. I would love to see Rob Bell or anyone for that matter who does not believe in hell please explain how this guy is going to get into Heaven. He murderously, with forethought and malice, planned the execution of nearly three thousand civilians whose major crime was showing up for work. Most of them had probably never even had heard of Osama Bin Laden before that day. He not only took credit for the killings, he bragged about them.

Even with what I call the 'good-ole-boy' methodology of deciding who makes the cut to Heaven he falls way, way, way short. Nowhere near say Hitler or Stalin (and probably the only reason not is his inability to acquire a nuclear weapon) but the gulf between Osama and let's say Mother Theresa is just too wide to be bridged. If you think I'm exaggerating just remember the images of the people jumping out of the Twin Towers to their death so they would not be burned alive. How you can say that a man who was directly responsibly for that atrocity (and many other smaller ones) deserves Heaven and not a bullet to the head is incomprehensible.

Having said that, what people really struggle with, including Pastor Rob Bell, is a judgmental God. The underlying theme in people's inability to see evil, sometimes when it is standing right in front of them (say for instance Western Civilizations tendency to ignore Sharia Law) is the inability to see evil within themselves.

Let me explain.

People misinterpret God's reasoning for sending his only Son, Jesus. Jesus lays it out starkly clear in this parable (Jesus words):
"Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a wine-press in it and built a tower. And he leased it to the vine-dressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the vine-dressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vine-dressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vine-dressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-dressers?" They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vine-dressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons." (Matthew 21:33-42)
Jesus is telling the Israelis (specifically at this point the religious leaders of that time) that God has come and he is going to take the covenant they to date have enjoyed and will give it to another people who will actually bear fruit (Christians).

Now before you get all comfortable with the fact that you are not an Israelite remember that in the Old Covenant God made a pact with the Abraham and his decedents and nobody else. If you were outside of the Jewish religion you were basically screwed. But that covenant did not work out, people still rebelled so God made a better way; a covenant based on Grace, not the Law.

If your a Christian you may be saying, 'Yea, good thing I wasn't one of this religious Pharisees! Those guys were so bad!".  Let's take this parable a step further. When I read that parable for the first time I wasn't thinking of the Pharisees. I was thinking of myself. God created us, gave us this beautiful world with plenty of resources to take care of ourselves and everyone around us and how do we behave? Despicable is a word that comes to mind. We are like the vine-dressers, rejecting God's son and trying to claim the Earth and the Universe as our own. We reject God's ways.

This is why we have trouble accepting the reality of hell because we have trouble accepting the evil in our hearts that denies the loving creator of this Earth and Universe the honor and glory he so richly deserves. We are still trying to kill his Son and steal our existence from God (Atheism, Gnosticism, Socialism, Communism, Neo-Darwinism and all the other 'isms'). God had every right to come to this Earth and destroy the wicked vine-dressers of this Earth.

This is why we point our fingers and wag our tongues at the murders, adulterers, swindlers, Charlie Sheen's and Miley Cyrus' of this world so that we do not have to look at the greater evil that resides in every one of our hearts.

That is the miracle of Easter. That God loves us so much that instead of his righteous judgement he offers a sacrifice none other than his Son to pay our debt and wipe the slate clean. But we must come on his terms, not ours. We must repent (turn away from) and acknowledge that we are the wicked vine-dressers who deserve death and it is then we can receive the life that Jesus offers through Grace.

I do not know Ron Bell's heart; no one does but God. I have a feeling though that what he is struggling with is what everyone struggles with when it comes to the existence of hell. I think it is not the idea of a God that would send people to hell but the idea that they themselves are wicked enough to deserve such a place.

We are and we do.

Nope, I've changed my mind. Winter is my favorite season. Through the busyness of spring and then summer and the madness of fall there comes a time of peace and quite and all of nature and man rests. Yes its cold and yes many things die. But, apologies to Ron Bell and his ilk, there is a helluva spring coming.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Did God Cause The Disaster in Japan?

When I was an active insurance agent nearly all of the company contracts contained the phrase 'Acts of God' as a disclaimer for disasters and large unforeseen events such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other destruction caused by nature. That it is in the mind of man that such events are triggered by a vengeful God is an interesting observation in of itself.

Most ancient civilizations postured, rightfully so, a hostile relationship with God. Their acts of worship were meant to appease their God(s) and to keep his wrath at bay.* Even modern day religious beliefs try to reconcile large scale suffering with a punishing God as evident with the Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, blaming the disaster as punishment because Japanese politics were tainted with egoism (selfishness). Sadly even those who should know better, as in Evangelical Christians, tried to associate the Indonesia resistance to the Gospel with the horrific tsunami that killed over 230,000 people.

So what is the truth?

The tendency for man to account horrific events to God is partly based upon truth. Our relationship with God under the old contract (Old Testament) was tenuous at best. Man in his fully fallen state was and is not pretty. At one point God was so disgusted with our behavior he hit the reset button and with the exception of one family (Noah) wiped mankind from the face of the Earth. He then established a covenant with one race of people (the Hebrews) and minus a very few exceptions everyone else was pretty much screwed. God instructed the Israelis to wipe out entire cities and even commit acts of genocide, ordering them to kill even the women and children. The God of the Old Testament was not the nice genteel old grandfather figure that is so often portrayed in movies and sadly even in the Church.

You can make the case that before the birth of the Christ there are natural catastrophic events (such as the Flood) whose direct cause can be linked God. But not all. I would be hesitate to blame every natural disaster that has occurred to God in Heaven as their is no evidence that he initiated every one of them and the ones crediting God in the Bible are few and infrequent; Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, etc. Many of the prophecies of destruction listed in the Old and the New Testament have more to do with what humans do to each other as opposed to what nature does to man.

Secondly, anything that occurs after the Cross is not from God. Through Jesus, God has made peace with man. He declares this from the birth of Christ which is declared by Angels to be 'Good News' to all people and that 'God has made peace to all man'. It is inconsistent that God would send his only Son to pay for our sins and then still be in the business of the wholesale slaughter of man. The old contract (Old Testament) has been replaced with a new contract (New Testament). The Gospel is indeed 'good news'.

So if God has made peace with man then why did the earthquake in Japan happen?

The problem lies within our understanding of two words; salvation and redemption. We intertwine them until their differences are no longer discernible. In fact, you will hear Christians say something like 'God has saved us and redeemed us.' God has saved us but redemption will not be complete until Jesus returns.

God has saved us from the law of sin and death. Those who believe upon Jesus are no longer going to hell for their sins. It is nothing we do, it is the free gift of God. "You are saved by works and not by faith lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) In fact if you want a quick way to separate Christianity from the rest of the religions of the world, that verse alone will just about do the job. However Christians still sin and sometimes spectacularly. Unfortunately there are still consequences for that sin. Christians are saved, but true redemption is completely fulfilled with the death of our flesh. 

The results of sin is the equivalent of dropping a rock in a pond and watching the ripples spread out; where and when the impact stops no one really knows. If you have ever been on the receiving end of the consequences of what someone else did then you know what I am talking about. To make matters more difficult God seems reluctant to intervene. He has allowed the Hitler's, Stalin's and Husein's of this world to prosper with horrific results. We have made our proverbial bed and he seems content for us to lay in it. He may be redeeming us but it is the redemption of the Cross; through pain and suffering.

Nature is in the same boat. When we sinned entropy enter the world and the Universe has been falling apart ever since. Not only does God rarely intervene but Jesus promises in Matthew 24:8 that the end times will be like labor pains; the disasters will get closer and closer together and more and more violent. Does that sound eerily familiar? It should, there is growing evidence that is actually occurring. Whether this is because the human population covers much more of the Earth or whether the frequency is really increasing seems moot. Jesus predicted it two thousand plus years ago.

Revelations hints that there will be huge, global catastrophic events that will take place and some argue they have already occurred (WWI, WWII, The Bubonic Plague, Spanish Influenza, etc). Again, it is not clear in Revelations that God actually triggers every one them but whatever position you want to argue it cannot be argued that he allows them to proceed.

Which puts God in a really bad light and I think really brings out the real question that people are asking about the Japanese Earthquake and other natural disasters.

God, why did you allow these terrible things to happen?

Which is actually a very good question. But it is the wrong one. God did not allow these things to happen. You did. I did. Everyone who has sinned (which is everyone and if you exempt yourself you just lied). God created the Earth and the Universe and when he did it was perfect. It was good. When we decided to choose the Knowledge of Good and Evil over Life (i.e. 'I will live my own way God thank you very much') sin entered the Universe and when it did it brought death or as scientists refer to it; entropy. (Romans 5:12). Earth and nature have been a wreck ever since.

Jesus will return one day and when he does he will set the Earth back to its original glory and redeem those who believe with incorruptible bodies. It will be a sight to behold. But when you hear of the next earthquake or natural disaster that kills don't look to the heavens for answers as to why, look in the mirror.

*Civilizations that endorsed religious philosophies such as Pantheism (i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism) worship a more benevolent force but their belief systems struggle with reconciling pain and suffering and events like what happened in Japan.