Death Is All Around

Here in Oklahoma, as of yesterday, 763 people have died of the COVID-19 virus. According to the White House Corona Virus Task Force, our state has the twelfth-highest rate of new cases per capita. One can only speculate as to the reasons for the increase in new cases and deaths. Super spreading events such as the return to university campuses, off-campus parties,  and political rallies have been blamed. What will happen when football season gets underway?

At the same time, nationwide, almost 180,000 people have died of the virus. Medical researchers are predicting that the number of deaths will exceed 200,000 by the end of the year.

My wife and I are concerned for college classmates of ours who are hospitalized with the virus. We are praying for their recovery.

This week I heard a university instructor say that for the students of this generation, the current national health emergency will be the psychological equivalent of the Great Depression. This generation of young people will be marked for life by the specter of death.

In a sense, death has always been lurking. During the thirties, for many, it was the threat of starvation. In the forties, it was war. In the fifties the possibility of nuclear destruction threatened civilization. In succeeding decades, if it wasn’t civil unrest, it was terrorism that prompted the fear of death.

Does the Christian message offer any consolation? For every generation, including our own, the New Testament offers words such as these: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). Paul lived under a cloud of foreboding and he faced the possibility of martyrdom when he wrote: “Christ will be exalted in my body whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. … I desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:20-21, 23).

When he said, “to live is Christ,” he was declaring his purpose in life. It was Jesus Christ who gave meaning to his life and a mission to fulfill. When he said, “to die is gain,” it was his assurance that he would gain heaven because of the saving grace of God. To depart this life to be with Christ is better by far, Paul stated with confidence.

I have not kept count of the many funeral services I have conducted. In forty-seven years of pastoral ministry I have stood with grieving families at hundreds of gravesides. At committal services it has always been my practice to remind the living that their loved one is not in the casket. For those whose trust is in the Savior, to be absent from the body is to be immediately present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

The “dead in Christ” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) are not extinguished. They are not annihilated. They are as alive as he is. They are with him in heaven. When the early martyr Stephen was dying, he prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Jesus stood to welcome him to heaven (Acts 7:56). When the thief on the cross prayed to Jesus, the Lord answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

The spirits of those who have been justified through the blood of Jesus are with the angels and with all whose names are written in the Book of Life in heaven. They are there with Jesus the mediator of the new covenant (Hebrews 12:22-24). Promises such as these take the sting out of death.

The other day Connie and I were reading in Revelation about the return of Christ and the final judgment. There is a beautiful scene in Revelation 20:4. The apostle John saw in a vision of heaven, the souls of those who will have given their lives for their faith in Jesus. They are described as having been faithful in their worship of Jesus and rejection of satanic counterfeit religion. They will have taken their stand for the testimony about Jesus and the true word of God.

They will have died on earth. They are seen as alive in heaven. They will fulfill their mission for Christ on earth. Their identity and destiny will be preserved in Christ in heaven.

These days, death is all around us and is on everyone’s mind. Those whose faith is in the Son of God can say, even when life here is uncertain, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

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Moments of Truth

Several things happen in authentic Christian worship. Each of them can be, and should be, a moment of truth.

There is the gathering. When people come together for worship, it is based on the common understanding that Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life. Meeting with other people in his name testifies to a belief in the truth as it is revealed in Jesus. The assembly supports this.

Private prayers of preparation before entering into corporate worship accord with the fact that God knows the intentions of our hearts. We commit ourselves to him and ask for the grace to worship him in spirit and in truth.

Hymn singing reinforces our understanding and love of God and the gospel. The texts that are sung in the music of the church should always be true to the doctrines of Holy Scripture. Many times I have been moved to tears as I have rejoiced in the truth as I have sung a hymn text that expressed the majesty and beauty of the Christian faith.

Churches that recite the historic creeds of the Christian faith discover that they share a common confession of truth with all believers everywhere. Reciting a creed can have the same effect  as the singing of a hymn to God, encouraging reverence,  and strengthening faith.

The teaching ministry of the church in sermons and small group Bible studies is for the purpose of teaching the truth. The Bible is true, and the church’s teaching ministry explains the meaning and relevance of Holy Scripture, showing the way to fellowship with God.

Corporate confession of sin and the declaration of forgiveness are moments of truth. God desires truth in the inner being of our hearts. In confession there is no room for pretense, only truth before an all-knowing God. In confession of sin, fellowship with God is restored.

The Lord’s Supper is an act of remembrance, witness, thanksgiving and anticipation. In receiving the bread and the cup, believers are reminded of the truth of the gospel, that Christ Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures. We bear witness together to our faith in him. It is a Eucharist, or thanksgiving, for his sacrifice. The Lord Jesus also said that his people should think of his second coming every time they receive communion.

From the very beginning of the church in the first century these have been expressions of Christian belief. They are moments of truth. They are encounters with Jesus who declared himself to be the truth.

“We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

Pastor Randy Faulkner


Alternatives to Worry

People are worried. Parents are worried about sending their children to school. Teachers are worried about the health risks of being in the same classroom with children who might carry infection. Many people are worried about unemployment. Everyone seems to be worried about the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Here in Oklahoma there is considerable worry about whether or not there will be football on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Ryan Aber, writing in our local paper said, “A fall without football, or even more a full school year without football, could be devastating to college athletics in the short term.”

Speaking of devastating, the effects of worry itself can be devastating. I am privileged to serve on the board of directors of  a faith-based counseling ministry. Throughout the last several months, our therapists have been busy caring for many clients who have been struggling with the emotional effects of anxiety.

Jesus’ words have been on my mind. To those who trust in him as savior, to those who call themselves his disciples, he said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25) In other words, if we do not have the power to control a few minutes of time or a few inches of stature, it makes no sense to worry about the great issues (such as a global pandemic) that lie beyond the scope of our control.

In  a few sentences in this discourse, the Lord Jesus Christ repeated the statement “Do not worry” three times. As an antidote to worry, the Lord told his followers to think about God and to acknowledge his ultimate control over our lives. If we do this we will recognize that the God who feeds the birds and gives the flowers their beauty, is perfectly capable of caring for those who trust in him. “How much more valuable you are than birds!” Jesus exclaimed.

This is a reason to be thankful. “Your Father knows” (v. 30) what you need. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, reminds us: “The preface to the Lord’s Prayer, which is ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ teacheth us to draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence, as children to a father able and ready to help us; and that we should pray with and for others.”

I need this encouraging word from Jesus.  “Your Father knows.”The collection of prayers called Valley of Vision has a simple prayer that is meaningful to me: “Teach me the happy art of attending to things temporal with a mind intent on things eternal.” That is a prayer worth praying, especially when life is full of distractions, disappointments and disruptions. “Your Father knows.”

So today I invite you to read Luke 12:22-34. Read it again as if for the first time. Our Lord’s words offer real alternatives to worry: meditating on God and his loving care for his children and thankfulness for his faithful provision for our daily needs.

“Thou hast given so much to me/ Give one thing more — a grateful heart;

Not thankful when it pleaseth me;/ As if thy blessings had spare days,

But such a heart whose pulse may be: Thy praise.”  (George Herbert)

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Something We Would Rather Forget

I write to remind you of something you would rather forget. One year ago this week (August 3, 2019) a young man drove over 600 miles from the Dallas area to El Paso, Texas, with murder in his heart. He had written a 2300 word diatribe, posted online, repeating racist slander against Hispanic people whom he claimed were “invading” America.

His white-supremacist rant repeated ultra-nationalist ideas which have been a rhetorical staple of bloggers and some pretty famous politicians. The language used by these writers and speakers referred to our neighbors to the south as animals, thugs, and rapists. He embraced this hate-filled demagoguery and acted on it.

We remember how he entered a Walmart store in El Paso with an AK-47 rifle, intent on killing as many people of Hispanic descent as he could. He shot and killed 23 human beings that day. Racial hatred led to mass murder.

This incident raises questions we’d rather not think about. Has bigotry become public policy? Does U.S. immigration policy dehumanize immigrants, refugees and brown-skinned people?  Is it only a matter of degree, from dehumanization, to a tolerance of tribal warfare and ethnic cleansing? Is the mass shooting in El Paso a portent of things to come?

No one reading this would say that it is right to murder peaceful citizens and foreign guests. Mass shootings are  abnormal and unacceptable by any rational standard. Murder is wrong. Human life is sacred, a gift from our Creator.

But events like this raise the question, yet again, of our Christian responsibilities in politics and the importance of compassionate immigration policies. They force us to think about the sources of hatred and bigotry in public life, and of the regrettable divisions in American society. Events like the El Paso tragedy call attention to the powerful effect of the words of leaders. Words, like beliefs, have consequences.

Somebody failed to teach that boy, that young murderer, some better words which have always been foundational. Maybe we need to be reminded of these words as we remember El Paso.

  1. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Jesus said that. When he said it he was quoting the ancient law given by God. It is foundational to all human life. This applies to individuals. Does it also apply to nations? I believe it does.
  2. “You are to love those who are foreigners” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). God told Moses to teach this to Israel because they, of all people, should remember how it felt to be exiles and strangers in a foreign land. Xenophobia has no place in a Christian’s life, or in our national life, if our polices are informed by the values of the Bible.
  3. “From one man he (God) made all the nations” (Acts 17:26).  Biologically, there is only one race, the human race. Charles Darwin popularized theories of race and of white supremacy. If human beings are not the special creation of God, and if evolution is true, then racism is one of its logical outcomes.

The El Paso murders force us to think about these things. They remind us of the dangerous trajectory of racial prejudice. They call us to remember God’s Word which says that every human being is a relative of ours. We are all equal in value before our Creator, who is “rich in mercy toward all who call upon him” (Romans 10:12).

Pastor Randy Faulkner