Does God control everything?

In the fall of 1931, a bright young scholar named CS Lewis took a ride in a motorcycle side car. The motorcycle was driven by his brother Warnie, and they were headed to the zoo at Whipsnade near Bedfordshire England. It was on that ride that CS Lewis became a convert to Christianity. 

Lewis’ mother had died of cancer when he was 9. At age 14, he had rejected God.  In WWI, he’d been wounded. When he started teaching literature at Oxford in 1925, he was a committed atheist. 

But at Oxford, he realized that the literature that he loved the most came from writers like George Herbert, George McDonald, and G.K. Chesterton, who were all Christians. It was full of beauty and life and imagination. By 1929, he realized that he believed in a general God, but he wasn’t happy about it. He wrote, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

But Lewis could not believe in a personal God. What concerned him was the idea of God sending Jesus to die for our sins. What could that death thousands of years ago mean for our lives today?

It was then that Lewis started having conversations with other Christian professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. One evening they were walking through the college park, talking about mythology until early in the morning. Lewis felt that myths, “though breathed through silver,” were, in the end, just lies. Tolkien suggested that the beauty of Christianity is that it is a myth that happens to be true. That there is a universal hunger planted in human beings by God, evidenced by all the world’s mythologies.

Jesus Christ was the one to whom all the myths were pointing. 

In Jesus Christ, God really did walk the earth, die, and rise again.

Nine days later, Lewis was still thinking about that conversation with Tolkien and Dyson when he got into the side car on the motorcycle driven by his brother. 

Lewis later wrote, “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did.”

It is hard to believe in a God who controls everything, especially when that God is so gracious that he gives up control so that we might freely choose him. But God can use all things to draw us to him.

For Moses, it was a burning bush.

For Paul, it was an encounter on the road to Damascus.

For CS Lewis, God used literature, friends, and a motorcycle ride.

What are the ways God might be using to draw you to him right now? 

Falling apart at the seams

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked, “Is America falling apart at the seams?” He wondered, for example, why traffic deaths were up in 2020 when the number of miles driven had gone down.

Why were people driving more recklessly? 

Brooks said the evidence of the unraveling of our social fabric is everywhere. People are having more fights on airplanes, drinking more, and having more overdoses.

He speculated that much of the stress is temporary and related to the pandemic: people wouldn’t be punching flight attendants if there weren’t mask rules and a deadly virus to worry about. But then, depression, suicide, and loneliness were major concerns before the pandemic.

This Sunday I’m preaching from Philippians 4, where the Apostle Paul famously said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Paul was under house arrest when he wrote that.

And he’d been beaten, flogged, run out of town, imprisoned, and shipwrecked before that.

And we think Covid lockdowns are confining.

Life wasn’t easy for the folks Paul was writing to either. Being a Jesus follower could get you killed.

Paul was not a contented person by nature. Before his conversion, he passionately persecuted Christians, and now he followed Jesus even more passionately.

Paul said he had “learned to be content.”

The magnitude of the Gospel, what God had done in Jesus Christ, had become the overriding reality in Paul’s life. So much so that he could sing hymns in prison at night with his feet locked in the stocks.

There’s no easy way to learn that kind of contentment.

You have to do more than say you believe and show up for church when you’ve got nothing better to do. You’ve got to worship and study and reflect on the beauty of Christ. You’ve got to do those things so much that they become the default settings of your heart. Then, when you find yourself in a crisis, or wake up in the night with worry, your heart will take you to the one who came to weave us back together.

Everything happens for a reason…right?

At age 35, Kate Bowler was living her best life.

She’d just gotten her dream job as a professor at her alma mater, Duke Divinity School. She had a new baby and a loving husband who happened to be her childhood sweetheart.

That’s when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.  

What made Kate different from every other person who receives a devastating diagnosis is that Kate had spent years researching the history of the Prosperity Gospel for her PhD dissertation. The Prosperity Gospel is a way of understanding the Christian faith that says God wants to shower you with blessings—health, wealth, happiness—all you have to do is claim them. The Prosperity Gospel appeals to our need to make sense of the hurts and failures of life. It also fits perfectly with the American dream that says anything is possible.

In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate tells of her struggle to live despite a terminal diagnosis. I’m reading parts for the third time now, and I’m still crying one minute and laughing out loud the next.

If you ever struggled to know what to say to a sick or dying person, you need to read this.

If you’re struggling to come to grips with your own diagnosis, you need to read this.

But even better, we all need to read this.

The whole country should take a day off and read it together.

It just might lead to a Great National Reset, where we collectively reflect on why we are so angry with each other when the truth is every one of us has a terminal diagnosis. It’s just that some of us haven’t got the word yet. We need a person of faith like Kate who is humble, irreverent, and funny to remind us that…

Faith is still possible.

Love is real.

And life is still worth living.

Father’s love

A few years ago, there was a movement to remove “paternalistic” language from the Bible. Some objected to calling God “Father” or “Son,” arguing that since some people had fathers who abused or abandoned them, calling God “Father” might be a barrier to faith. Others objected to certain passages that were used to marginalize women and minorities. The movement led to translations of the Bible that were more gender neutral. We still need to be sensitive to these concerns. 

The problem with making things gender neutral is that you can neutralize the truth.   

Now, my own father was not perfect. He could be moody, lose his temper, and boy, could he swear. Remember Ralphie’s old man in A Christmas Story?

But every day of his life, my father told me he loved me. It gave me confidence to go out into the world and meet life’s challenges. My heart goes out to everyone who has to face life without a loving father.

The Gospel writer Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth. Mark begins with the fully grown Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens were torn open, and God said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus had been one with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all time…they were loving each other before the creation of the universe. The persons of the Trinity are the essence and the source of pure love.

Yet Mark tells us that God the Father said, “I love you” to Jesus. 

There is something in each of us that longs to hear our father say, “I love you.”

If Jesus needed to hear it, how much more do we need to hear it?

This is one great reason why Jesus was baptized: not just for his sake, but for ours.

In Baptism our heavenly father says to us, “I love you,” as he longs for the day when we will say to him, “I love you too.”