The Church has Stopped Being the Church


On a cool April evening in Edinburgh, Scotland, I stood with a group of onlookers waiting patiently for a glimpse of Prince Charles, who was in the historic city attending a government function at St. Giles Cathedral. While doing my best to keep warm as the temperatures steadily edged downward, I struck up a conversation with a genial, gentle-looking local, who appeared to be in his early forties. There had recently been elections in Scotland and he told me he worked in Edinburgh, for the Scottish electoral commission.

Seeing as we were standing outside a cathedral, it wasn’t surprising that our conversation switched quickly to religious themes. I mentioned the plummeting membership numbers in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and asked him what he thought the reason was[1.In the second half of the twentieth century, church attendance in the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland dropped by well over 50 percent. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, membership dropped by 7.5 percent.].

Religion has played an enormous role in Scotland’s history. Protestants battled against the teachings and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the church fought back with a vengeance. Martyrs perished within view of where I was standing. The great reformer, John Knox, born and raised just 40 miles east of Edinburgh—denounced the Queen of Scotland, railed against the unbiblical teachings of the Catholic Church and literally pounded the pulpit just meters away from where I was standing. Knox identified the Roman Catholic papacy as the antichrist of Bible prophecy and advocated that the Bible be the sole rule of faith and practice for Christian believers. Yet today only 50 percent of Scots even identify as Christian. Scotland is now a profoundly secular country.

I asked this stranger why he thought that was. His answer was straight forward.

“The church has stopped being the church.”

I asked him to elaborate.

“In the past, the church upheld the Bible,” he explained. “The church was unapologetic that the Bible was the Word of God and that people were to be guided by its teachings.”

“But now?” I asked him.

He pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose before answering.

“Today, the church is more concerned with social matters. What the Bible says and how the Word of God applies to our lives and how people ought to live…  It’s just not what the church majors in now.”

And what he said next really struck me.

“In trying to reach secular people, the church has itself become more secular.”

“But shouldn’t the church be trying to reach the lost?” I countered. “Shouldn’t methods change when society has changed so much?”

“Yes, of course,” he shot back. “No question. But the church no longer has a distinct, biblical voice. In trying to reach the world it has become like the world. It no longer stands for anything. The church has stopped being the church.”

The church has stopped being the church…”

As we talked it became apparent he was much less interested in seeing Prince Charles than was I. It turned out he was a Christian who attended a church not far from where we were standing. He described it as a church with a biblical focus, not extraordinarily well attended, but passionate about the Bible and fervent in faith in God.

We discussed methodology, and recognized together the challenge of reaching the varied minds of our complex, secular world. This man—whose name I never learned—acknowledged that the church needs to stay relevant in a changing world, but made what I thought was another important point.

“There’s nothing more relevant than the Word of God,” he said. “And when the church deviates from that, and waters down the Bible’s teachings, and abandons the Bible’s plainest statements because it wants to appeal more to the world… Well, look at what has happened in Scotland.”

I made notes about our conversation as soon as he moved along. I didn’t want to forget what he had said to me. I reflected on what he told me, and I had to conclude that he was right.  In Scotland, and in many other places, the church has stopped being the church. And when it does that, it consigns itself to irrelevance and impotence.

It’s true that when it comes to sharing the gospel, Scotland is a difficult territory—like the rest of Britain and the rest of Europe. And the rest of the modern world. And… But winning souls isn’t easy work and never has been. It wasn’t easy in the times of the early church, and with the devil at the top of his game, it shouldn’t be expected that it would be today. Yet it ought to be remembered that God hasn’t called the church to numerical success. He has called the church to faithfulness, and He has promised that as His people are faithful, “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14).

E.M. Bounds wrote years ago, “The church is looking for better methods. God is looking for better men.” And while today we’d express that sentiment in slightly different language, Bounds’ words hold true. We live in a world where people are distracted by so many things, many of them good. In much of our world, the Bible isn’t the go-to place for guidance about life. Jesus’ words aren’t the default standard for society. We’re in a serious battle with a skilled enemy for the souls of Earth’s inhabitants.

But if we’re going to see God’s work done, the church cannot stop being the church. The Bible is still the answer to the challenges facing our world. It is as relevant now as it has ever been. The teachings of Jesus still provide the only logical understanding of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going. There is still power in the Word of God. If the church compromises that, “Well, look at what has happened in Scotland.”

The police controlling the crowd were extremely good-natured and bantered with the locals and tourists who were gathered. Prince Charles soon emerged from an imposing stone building and climbed into a waiting limousine. As the car drove away, Prince Charles looked at me and waved! I’ll remember that.

But what I’ll remember most is the words of the amiable stranger who stood with me in the crowd and said some of the most important words a minister of the gospel might ever reflect on.

“The church has stopped being the church.”

Knock and It Shall Be Opened

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Before Jesus left the Earth, He commissioned His disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The church’s God-given mission is clear: Evangelism. Of course, evangelism takes on myriad forms. The definition of evangelism I receive when I googled the term was, “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.”

The word “evangelism” used today comes from a Greek word meaning “messenger”—the same Greek word from which we get the word “angel.” An “evangelist” in ancient times was a messenger who brought a message of victory or of some other political of personal message that brought joy. Looking at it through that lens, the meaning of our modern word evangelism becomes clear—and attractive.

I’ve asked many groups what they think are the main reasons that more people don’t share their faith. The two main reasons I’ve heard over the years are, that many believers don’t feel as though they know enough to be able to confidently share with others, and—perhaps more significantly—the fear of rejection.

Nobody enjoys having someone reject what they have to say. But it’s worth knowing that there are plenty of people in your neighborhood who are willing to say “yes” rather than “no” to an invitation to know more about the Christ of the Bible.

Keeping in mind the “myriad forms” of evangelism that exist—not only public preaching but also personal witness—It Is Written teams have been blessed recently to see that there are still many people who are willing to study the Word of God.

A recent It Is Written evangelism emphasis event—called Spark—in Arden, North Carolina, resulted in dozens of people in the local community requesting Bible studies. It Is Written Associate Speaker Eric Flickinger shared with church members about the difference one person can make in sharing Jesus with others. After It Is Written’s Spark training and the church service, more than 30 church members were trained specifically how to reach the community through door-to-door work. After dividing into teams they went into the community to practice what they had just learned. When they returned, they had exciting stories to tell.

Kathy was amazed and encouraged that after only half an hour of door-knocking she had visited six homes and come away with four Bible studies. With an enormous smile on her face, she exclaimed, “I’m hooked! Can we do this again next week?”

Susan was apprehensive about joining an outreach team but assisted as a silent prayer partner. When the teams returned and gave their reports, Susan was all smiles as she said, “I’m so glad I finally did this!”

Two 17 year olds decided to knock at “just one more door.” And it was at that door where they found the Bible study that God had waiting for them.

Still other teams shared how they came across scores of children in a nearby neighborhood who would be perfect to invite to church camp and vacation Bible school, so discussions began about starting a van ministry to make it possible for them to attend.

Reflecting on the weekend, Pastor Eric Bates said, “It’s easy for us to compartmentalize and think that sharing Christ is better done by someone else—the pastor, an evangelist, or some other ‘professional,’ or someone who is more extroverted than we are. What we learned during our weekend of hearing and doing is, all you need is a willingness to be used. God does the work. In fact, God’s been there before we even knock on the door and we are just a point of connection; connecting God seekers with His Word and He does the rest.”

In all, 11 teams went out into two territories on Sabbath afternoon. At the end of only 30 minutes of outreach, the church ended up with 24 new Bible studies, the possibility of a new outreach ministry, and a team of members who can’t wait to go out and do it again. 

And lest you think 24 Bible studies in 30 minutes was simply lightning in a bottle, similar events in Kennesaw, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, on following weeks yielded similar results. In Chattanooga, 42 Bible studies were signed up in one hour. Churches energized and excited, and people receiving Bible studies.

If God is calling you to share your faith with others, do so. And expect God to do in your experience what He is doing in the lives of others.

2016-08-02If you would like to receive FREE It Is Written outreach training, check out the new SALT 365 program. Free, online training videos, on a variety of topics, you can watch at your own pace:

Religious Freedom isn’t Free

2016-07-25Religious freedom is easy to take for granted.  In the western world you can read a Bible—or not—believe whatever you want about God and attend the church of your choice. Or no church at all. But it’s easy to forget just how much religious freedom cost.

Recently, I was in St. Andrews, Scotland, filming an It Is Written television program, when  I noticed the initials “P.H.” spelled out in cobblestones on a street.  Many people who visit St. Andrews today do so in order to visit the famous St. Andrews golf course, considered to be the home of golf. The ruins of the St. Andrews cathedral and castle are also popular attractions, as well as the IMG_5088university itself—the place where Prince William met his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, known then as Kate Middleton. Yet the story behind those cobblestones speaks to one of the most important gifts God has ever given the world.

While studying in Paris, a young Scotsman named Patrick Hamilton was exposed to the teachings of Martin Luther.  He returned to Catholic Scotland a few years later espousing the doctrines of the Reformation, and quickly found himself on the wrong side of the establishment. In 1527, knowing he would be tried for heresy, Hamilton fled to Germany. But months later he returned to Scotland, and was soon summoned to appear before a Catholic council. Hamilton attended the council having been assured his life was in no danger; but that assurance was worth little. Archbishop James Beaton had Patrick Hamilton executed, burned at the stake outside St. Salvatore’s Chapel at the University of St. Andrews.

At the age when a person is typically getting established in a career or completing a master’s degree, Patrick Hamilton was standing boldly for his faith. He died aged 24.

A third of a mile from St. Salvatore’s Chapel—and the location of Patrick Hamilton’s demise—are the ruins of St. Andrews castle, and more initials paved into the ground. The GW visible on East Scores Street marks the spot on which Cambridge–educated George Wishart was hanged and burned at the stake by the same Catholic Archbishop responsible for the death of Hamilton. Wishart was only 33-years-old when he was put to death. Like Hamiton, he was executed for his Protestant faith, and his unwillingness to yield his conscience to the dictates of the ruling (Catholic) church.

What’s interesting about Wishart is that he knew all there was to know about Hamilton and his gruesome death. Even though Hamilton’s initials weren’t paved into the ground at that time, Wishart knew exactly where and how and why Hamilton died. Yet he didn’t back away even slightly from his commitment to the Bible.

In other words, he knew his faith in God and his insistence on believing and teaching the Bible would likely lead to his death. And he believed and taught and preached the Word of God anyway.

While there are parts of the world where to be a Christian means to risk your life, in the western world being a Christian rarely means even being inconvenienced. In many places being a Christian is a positively good thing, even helpful for one’s reputation or standing in the community. In the West, we don’t know the persecution some are going through. Faith doesn’t cost nearly as much as it cost Hamilton and Wishart.

And maybe—in some ways—that’s not really such a good thing.

A Chinese friend once told me he believed the end of persecution against Christians in China would be disastrous for the church in that country. In some parts of Europe, church leaders reported declining commitment to God as prosperity and the influence of the West increased.

Scotland was once a proudly Christian nation. Today, less than half of Scotland’s 5.3 million people identify
as Christian. While tourists flock to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, and walk the streets once walked by the great reformer John Knox, it seems little thought is given to matters of faith. AIMG_5317 small, raised, round platform—a monument to martyrs not far from St Giles’ Cathedral—is located close enough to bars and restaurants that it serves mainly as a congregating point for drinkers and revelers. Early on Sunday morning when I left Edinburgh, the monument was littered with beer bottles and covered with paint. Close to that monument is Greyfriars Church, where the Scottish Covenanters made a bold stand for their biblical faith and where not many years later a large number of Protestants were imprisoned. Many were executed.Others were sent away into slavery. Reminders of the battle for religious freedom stand witness to the great opportunities we have—and so often waste—to use religious freedom for the best possible purposes.

It cost a lot to be a believer in 16th and 17th century Scotland. Many paid the supreme price.

Your religious freedom was purchased at an enormous cost. According to the Bible, there is coming a time when religious freedom won’t exist. Today, God isn’t calling many people in the West to die for Him. But He calls everyone to live for Him.

It have never been easier to be a follower of Christ and His word. 

Maybe, in some ways, that’s what makes it difficult.

This is a Time for Prayer

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Two recent horrific attacks are simply more evidence that our nation and our world are caught in the grip of senseless, destructive violence.

More than 80 people were killed less than a week ago when a deranged man drove a large truck into a crowd gathered to enjoy the Bastille Day fireworks celebration in the South of France. The randomness of the attack—a truck? families out enjoying a fireworks display?—introduces a whole new level of “what in the world?” to the madness the world is enduring as terrorists kill and maim indiscriminately. 

And when reports surfaced a couple of days ago that three police officers had been killed in Baton Rouge… I can’t imagine I’m the only person who thought, “Is this ever going to end?”

While there are complex issues behind the unrest, disaffection, and anger plaguing society, we crave a way out of the mayhem.  And we realize that fifteen years after 9/11 and after the more recent tragic deaths of unarmed—and armed—black men, we may be further away from a solution to the crises we face than ever before.

Politicians have been working for years to rid the world of the terrorism that has inexorably altered our way of life here in the United States. [1. Airport security measures and heavily armed police on the streets of New York City on the Fourth of July tell us that yes, life has changed here. Less obvious measures tell us the same thing. And there won’t be any going back.]

And yet mass murderers in Orlando (49 killed, many wounded) and San Bernardino (14 dead, 22 seriously injured) and Bangladesh (23 murdered) and Baghdad (more than 300 dead, hundreds injured) and and and and, continue unabated.

Politicians certainly know what to say. “We will not let this prevent us from going about our daily lives.” Which is fine for those who still have a daily life to go about. After San Bernardino politicians said, “We must stop gun violence now,” and that gun violence “must stop.” 

Of course, that approach will usually work for parents trying to convince their three-year-old not to draw on the walls of the living room. But gun violence?

Following the killing of five policemen in Dallas, Texas, at a protest march, everyone near a microphone or a Twitter feed spoke up and said exactly what you’d expect. An actress: “We must love even harder. A politician: “We must learn to love each other.” Al Sharpton: “We must be against all killings period!” Another actress: “Please everyone stop killing each other.” Many spoke out strongly against the killing of police, saying that even the tragic deaths witnessed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota, did not justify taking the lives of our dedicated men and women in blue.

There wasn’t a person in the United States who didn’t hear those appeals.  And yet here we find ourselves dealing with what has just happened in Baton Rouge.

No matter how hard politicians try, no matter how many appeals are tweeted, no matter how much handwringing and protesting and demanding, we live in a world where haters—as the poet wrote—gonna hate. As the brother of a slain police officer said, “It’s coming to the point where no lives matter.”

The prophetic picture painted in the Bible is that of a glorious future. Preceded by unfathomable difficulty.

In the meantime, believers ponder the best course of action. Is joining a protest line going to change anything at all? Well, it just might. Is tweeting a pithy comment about racism or hate or crime or policing going to make a difference? Maybe. That’s possible. Can the president actually say anything that is going to affect the wider situation for the better? We hope. His call for people to “temper our words and open our hearts” was the sort of comment a president is remembered for years later, and his assertion that “we’re going to have to keep on doing it again and again and again” [2. The “it” being proving through words and deeds that we will not be divided.]was a statement that realistically portrays the complexity of the journey from nation divided to a nation united.

But really? Really, the only hope for a people or a nation is to petition the God of heaven to intervene. Even though tweets claiming “our thoughts and prayers are with the people/police/families of X at this time” are ubiquitous [3. I’ve never figured out what “sending out prayers at this time” even means. Can you do that? “Send out prayers” to someone? I think not, actually.], prayer simply is the best hope for humanity in its battle against the tide of evil. 

Which is not to say prayer is a replacement for protests and politics and policing. A call to prayer is not a call to inaction. When dynamic faith in God undergirds personal and public action it brings power and transformation. The God who hears prayer doesn’t respond in silence. Prayer is frequently answered with a call to action.

A crowd of people who pray before (or while) protesting is unlikely to engage in mindless violence. An angry man who prays is not a man who will take a gun and shoot defenseless individuals. A police officer who prays in the line of duty may well hear God’s Spirit urging him or her to not pull the trigger when the situation doesn’t warrant the use of such force.

The wise man stated that “righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). And God made an incredible promise—a promise—when He said in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Our lands need healing. Human hearts need the healing touch of God. And any attempt at bringing the country or the world to any semblance of normality and unity is doomed to fail if not sustained by a commitment to pray and a surrender to God.

While this earth will never be heaven and although troubles will continue until Jesus returns, it is only faith in Christ will see His Spirit break through the forces of darkness that are wreaking havoc in homes and communities across the country and around the world. When we pray God will hear. When He hears, we will act. And people who act under the aegis of God’s Spirit are not people who will perpetuate killing, hate, racism and violence.

The Sins of Others

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My friend Dave Moench and his wife Jerelyn write a column for their local community newspaper in North Dakota, in which they answers questions from members of the public. They recently received this interesting question:

“A leader in my church has a serious, personal sin that I don’t think anyone else knows about. Is it my responsibility to tell someone? Or do I keep quiet?”

Here’s their insightful answer.

When dealing with the sins of others we should never take it lightly. The motive for pursuing such a course would be to save someone from the foreboding, eternal consequences of their sin (John 3:17; Romans 6:23). Jesus gives the prescription for dealing with another’s sin. He first tells us to “take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). When we are right before God we are better able to represent Him in delicate matters like this.

In Matthew 18:15 Jesus tells the person being wronged, or in a case like yours, the only one who knows about the sin, to “go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” This approach is in keeping with the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), not needlessly exposing a person to public shame. There may be several reasons why it would not be appropriate to go to someone alone. In this case “take one or two others along” (v. 16). The motives of those taken should be the same as those mentioned above. A caring, loving appeal will increase the chances of repentance taking place (Revelation 2:5). Then, if the person still refuses to repent, it is time to “tell it to the church,” to make one more appeal to help them see their sin (Matthew 18:17).

Cain’s question to God in Genesis 4:9, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is answered in the affirmative by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

From Victim to Victor

“Nancy Costa, wife of Escrito Está Speaker/Director, Robert Costa, recently returned from Rwanda where she conducted a series of evangelistic meetings and witnessed God work miracles of divine grace. You’ll be inspired as you read about how God worked in amazing ways during Nancy’s meetings.”
– John Bradshaw”

About a week into the meetings, my translator pointed to a tall suited man sitting on the first row and said, “See that man there? He’s been coming every night since the meetings began. He has not been back to church since the genocide.”

The translator told me that this man was the son of a district pastor who was killed in 1994, along with his wife and daughter, in a house right across the street from the church where we conducted a baptism service. The sons of another pastor stormed the house and killed them all.

When the pastor heard the attackers coming, he and his wife and daughter knelt down to pray. They were killed as they prayed and their house set on fire. This man who was attending my meetings every night was their son. He had seen the commotion when he was at the top of the hill, but by the time he got there, his parents were dead and the house was on fire.

The perpetrators had taken the new car the pastor had just bought. During the genocide, Hutus were encouraged to kill by being told they could take the possessions and property of those they killed.

This man, the son, was so distraught after the murder of his family that he’d never returned to church and said that his own brethren had betrayed him. Many Hutus defended Tutsi people during the genocide. Most church members condemned this act, but the man had refused to set foot inside a church and had even gone a little mad, shooting at any church member who ventured near his house (always missing, thankfully).

So when our meetings started, it was the first time he’d attended a church gathering. I think God uses anything He has, and I believe the initial reason he came was that I was an outsider, neither a Hutu or a Tutsi. He was willing to listen and the Lord was working on his heart.

The final day of the meetings he again was on the front row, and I felt compelled to say something about forgiveness. I was afraid to and struggled because we had been told not to address the genocide, but I couldn’t let it go. My translator told me to be very careful not to show that I was taking sides or favoring one side, because both sides still have issues.

So even though I was shaking in my boots (shoes), I said I wanted to say a few words about forgiveness, because there seems to be a misconception about what that means. When God forgives us, it’s a gift He gives us. He cleanses us and gives us eternal life. But when we forgive others, it’s a gift we give to ourselves. It is not dependent on the merits or worthiness of the offender. Forgiveness is for the victim because they deserve to be free from the burden they are carrying.

I shared a few more thoughts and read the text where Jesus says, “Come to me all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Then I went right into the subject on heaven, which was the regularly scheduled program. At the end, I thought I would make one last call. Every night we’d been making calls for Jesus and for baptism, and I thought by now there was nobody left to come forward. But when I made the call for anyone who had yet not made a decision, three men came forward and I shook their hands. I then said that I didn’t want to stretch the call because it was already late in the day, but if there was anyone else, to please come forward.

This man jumped out of his seat and came to the front. I went to shake his hand, but he just grabbed me and gave me a huge embrace and then started shaking my hand with both of his and wouldn’t let go. There was so much joy and enthusiasm in his face but he was talking to me in his local language and I couldn’t understand anything. My translator was trying to translate, but he wouldn’t wait and kept talking!

The crowd was feeling the emotion of this moment and they were smiling and waving their hands and saying “Amen!” Then this man asked for the microphone and said he wanted to give his testimony. He said, “I am back, I want to tell all of you that I am coming back to the church. Many of you know my story, but today I’m coming back to Jesus and to you.”

Everyone cheered and it was just so glorious and the spirit that flowed through the congregation was so incredible I can’t describe it. There was a feeling of real celebration.

That incident moved me very much, and I realize experiences like this have multiplied a hundred fold these last two weeks in Rwanda. God not only did great things for this dear man, but He also did great things for me. I was the most blessed of all.

Nancy Costa

– Nancy spent 14 years as an employee of It Is Written and she continues to assist the ministry with various projects. We are blessed to have her as part of our team!

Tribute to Marilyn Cotton


When It Is Written first went on air in 1956, the weekly television program was blessed by the beautiful singing of a young soprano who grew up less than 10 miles from It Is Written’s current home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She sang with It Is Written on television programs and at Partnership events until 1994, the same year It Is Written founder, George Vandeman retired.

I was deeply saddened to learn that Marilyn Cotton passed away several days ago near her home in Southern California. Not only was the ministry enormously blessed by Marilyn’s ministry, but hearts were touched around the world as Jesus shone through her.

Connie Vandeman Jeffery, George’s Vandeman’s daughter, grew up knowing Marilyn Cotton. “I praise God for Marilyn’s legacy of generosity and love,” Connie told me. “I praise God for her influence on my own life, for her humble, gracious witness—through words, through actions, through song. She has left footprints on our hearts and lives.“

As David wrote in the Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”  Along with her husband Dan and daughters Patti, Jenny, Beth, and Lori, I’m looking forward to seeing—and hearing—Marilyn again soon.

Click here to watch Marilyn minister through music on It Is Written Classics.


Click below to hear Marilyn singing “Behold Him”, a beautiful song describing the very next thing she will see when she wakes at the Second Coming!

Click below to watch Marilyn sing “Jesus Loves Me”

Harambe is Dead: Where’s the Outrage?

Harambe Blog BannerHarambe is dead. And that is heartbreaking.

When my children were little we visited many zoos. At one point, we counted that my son had been to 37, and since then the number has increased. So it’s no surprise that from an early age he knew that the scientific name for the lion is Panthera leo, and that the scientific name for the western lowland gorilla—Harambe’s kind—is Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Which we both thought was a pretty cool scientific name.

Western lowland gorillas never gave us a lot of trouble during our zoo years (which aren’t entirely over, incidentally). Except for one time at the absolutely magnificent Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, when a fully-grown male silverback rushed to the thick glass window in his enclosure and pounded on it as my wife approached. It about scared the life out of her. We don’t know what it was that agitated him, but we saw first hand that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a gorilla. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be on the other side of that glass.

Several days ago a four-year-old boy got onto the other side of the glass, as it were. The story seems to be that he told his mother he was going to get into the moat around the gorilla enclosure. Naturally enough she told him he would do no such thing, and then—naturally enough—she was distracted by other children, according to reports. In that minute—more than enough time for a four-year-old—the boy slipped away into the gorilla enclosure. Anyone who knows four-year-olds can imagine it happening.

Boy meets gorilla. Similar things have happened in the past and the outcomes have been, on occasion, remarkable and touching. Gorillas have been known to protect children who have fallen into their enclosures. Wouldn’t it be wonderful had that happened in Cincinnati?

Well, some people think that’s exactly what happened, saying Harambe appeared to be protecting the four-year-old boy. However, wildlife expert Jack Hanna said, “The power this animal has is beyond comprehension. They’re a magnificent creature. There’s no doubt in my mind that that child would not be here today if they hadn’t made that decision at the Cincinnati Zoo.”[1.]

Some said, he said. Predictably—this being the age of excoriation and condemnation—a mass of people have criticized and castigated both the mother of the child and the Cincinnati Zoo[2. We want peace on earth, and we want to digitally hang, draw and quarter those that disagree with us. As a society we’ve decided we dearly value our uncivil rights.]. The mother should never had allowed her child to get into the gorilla enclosure—you don’t say?—and the zoo should never, ever have taken the life of the beautiful silverback. But putting blame aside—if we could—let’s remember what that situation was. A child appeared to be in danger. Grave danger. What zoo official would have decided to try to convince Harambe to turn the child over, and then hope for the best? There’s no way in the world that decision could have been made. If it was—and if today the internet was aflame with video of a massive gorilla tearing a child apart—we’d all be traumatized and angry beyond description.

A decision had to be made between two individuals: a 400-pound gorilla and a 35-pound boy. The child’s survival was paramount. The decision was made that the gorilla had to die.

Ghastly. But once the boy went into the enclosure: unavoidable. Harambe died so a four-year-old could live. The response? In many quarters, outrage.

The death of animals can be hard to take. A zoo in Copenhagen euthanized a healthy giraffe in 2014[3. To prevent inbreeding.] and there was what CNN described as widespread outrage.[4. Four weeks later the same zoo put down four healthy lions.] This is because animals are remarkable. They are masterpieces of creation. I’ve experienced the indescribable joy of holding a young Kiwi bird in my hands[5. Unbeatable. Incomparable. Amazing. Awesome. Feel free to add your own superlative.], I’ve walked with lions, and I’ve ridden among impala, giraffes and zebras. The idea of killing a healthy, magnificent, powerful, majestic gorilla? Ouch. No wonder people are upset. But, as cold as it read when reported in the news, accidents—in the words of the unfortunate boy’s mother—happen.

Once the child crossed that line? Game over for Harambe—there was no other way. But a gorilla being killed as a result of human… distraction? People get angry over that. Outraged.

So let’s think about this together.

Six thousand years ago, two people who knew better ate from a tree they were told was absolutely out of bounds. Once they did there was no going back in terms of the plan of salvation. Once Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the death of Jesus was assured. Not the death of a gorilla. The. Death. Of. The. Son. Of. God.

In addition, it wasn’t ‘forced’ by a God who gave bad news to His Son and told Him that, sorry, there was just no other way. Jesus “gave Himself” (1 Timothy 2:6). 1 John 3:16 says Jesus “laid down His life for us.” Because two people made the incredibly irresponsible, careless, reckless decision to eat a piece of fruit they were explicitly told they should not consume, Jesus—the Creator of the world (John 1:3)—died.

It wasn’t just that He died. He was crucified, a method of execution designed to cause as much pain as possible. Cruel and unusual punishment to the max.

Now, with the greatest respect to Harambe, where’s the outrage?

You’ll recall the death of Cecil the lion, killed by an American hunter on July 1 in 2015 outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. While in Zimbabwe this past March, I asked several people from varying walks of life about Cecil’s death. They told me it barely registered in Zimbabwe. The internet was almost burnt down owing to the heat of the outrage over the death of that poor lion, but the locals didn’t lose any sleep at all. While the issues are complicated—hunting, money, conservation, employment, the ethics of the manner in which Cecil was killed—what was clear is that people all over the world were livid Cecil had been killed. By a hunter. Who had paid a lot of money for the “privilege.”

However, what amused one Zimbabwean friend of mine was that—in his words—while Cecil was one (beautiful, and old) lion, and while the internet hemorrhaged after his death, the lion population in Africa is plunging dramatically. My friend told me that a man in Kenya who farmed six goats recently poisoned eight lions to protect his livelihood. Think about that for a moment.

A Zambian government minister was reported as saying that, “the West seemed more concerned with the welfare of a lion in Zimbabwe than of Africans themselves. In Africa, a human being is more important than an animal. I don’t know about the Western world.”[6.]

Her point was that while it was nice people got upset over the death of Cecil—momentarily—a bigger picture is being ignored. The lion population continues in absolute free fall.

Harambe’s death reminds me that there’s another bigger point being missed. While the world is livid over the very unfortunate death of an animal, there’s a real, bonafide, genuine tragedy of immense proportions being ignored. The Son of God died a needless death on a cross two thousand years ago. He shouldn’t have had to, but He did because of the selfish actions of two people who couldn’t keep out of what they shouldn’t have been into.

Fortunately there’s a massive silver lining. Just as Harambe’s death secured the survival of a four-year-old boy, Jesus’ death made possible the eternal life of an entire planet. All seven billion people alive on Earth today can live eternally if they wish to because Jesus laid down His life.

However, His death is being ignored, forgotten, misrepresented, ridiculed, and under-reported. As a result, multitudes will only have a brief life on this Earth and nothing at all beyond the return of Jesus.

That’s a tragedy.

Where’s the outrage?


No Greater Sermon

Slider-No Greater Sermon

If you thought of the great preachers in the Bible you’d have to think of people like Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus. One woman is mentioned in the Bible for the sermons she lived, rather than those she preached. The book of Acts describes her as “full of good works and charitable deeds,” and when Peter arrived in the coastal town of Joppa a group of widows, mourning the loss of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas) showed Peter “the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:36-42).

It’s interesting Dorcas was known for her charity, her deeds of kindness. Clearly, the Holy Spirit wanted readers of the Bible to recognize that deeds of kindness are important to God and are a significant part of the Christian experience.

A church at which I was on the pastoral staff was blessed to have a dedicated team of deacons, and among them was a young man named Jerry. Like Dorcas, Jerry wasn’t know for sermons he preached. Jerry was a quiet, unassuming guy, who was a joy to be around owing to his positive outlook and pleasant disposition. Jerry was a servant—his father has been a deacon at the same church for 40 years. Jerry was living that same life of service. When he died suddenly at the age of 36, he had been a deacon for 17 years.

Jerry’s mother had died suddenly only 21 months before. His death was a tragedy in multiple ways. And his death created a crisis, as Jerry’s uncle explained to me:

“When the time of remembrance came to honor Jerry many of the residents of the little town where he lived testified to Jerry’s helpful and caring attitude. It was stated repeatedly that his absence has created a crisis there. Many of the elderly and those of compromised health depended upon Jerry to be there for them and help them in times of need. He made sure they arrived to their doctors appointments on time, he helped keep their medical records in order, carried their groceries for them, tilled their gardens, helped with weeding, harvesting and processing food for winter, and a lot more. Most of the services Jerry rendered he never got paid for. He did what he did because he loved the people. A year ago at a community social the people presented Jerry with an award as the beloved citizen of their town. A memorial in town square in honor of Jerry has been established. This is the first time in the history of the town that this honor has been bestowed upon anyone.”

I never knew Jerry to preach a sermon in church, but he was preaching powerful messages every day in the way he lived his life. Sermons that could never be argued with. His quiet, consistent life was a powerful witness that the love of God had touched his heart.

The story of Dorcas ends gloriously. God, through Peter, raised her from the dead. I’m grateful to know Jerry’s story will end the same way.

Vindication: God and Hillsborough—From Tragedy to Triumph


In 1989, England’s Liverpool Football club was playing Nottingham Forest in an F.A. Cup semi-final at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, 35 miles east of Manchester in South Yorkshire.  The cheapest tickets sold in the stadium were for admittance to the terraces, a typically-boisterous  area without seats where the most loyal fans would stand for the duration of the game.  For many, especially young fans, watching from the terraces was an integral part of football culture.

But something went tragically wrong at Hillsborough that day in April as thousands of fans poured into the stadium.  In the absence of adequate crowd control or police or other match-day security to manage the crowds entering the stadium, fans surged into terraces that were already filled to capacity.  Spectators in the terraces – caged behind metal barriers – had no way of escaping the intense crush in which they were caught.

The results were tragic: 766 were injured that day and 96 people killed, the majority of them from compression asphyxia, a term which begs no definition.

That the tragedy occurred during a televised event heightened the seriousness of the disaster and the sickening sense of what was a national tragedy.  With soccer hooliganism at the time a blight on both English football and society, it was easy for authorities to point the finger of condemnation and blame Liverpool supporters for killing 96 of their fellow football fans.

Condemnation of Liverpool fans was savage, led by some of the most prominent voices in the media. Many of the fans who were there that day struggled to cope with being blamed for the deaths of their own friends.  Some did not.  Several who were on the terraces at Hillsborough on April 14, 1989 and who had themselves been caught in the crush, committed suicide.

But twenty-seven years later, on April 26, 2016, a jury in a courtroom in Warrington, east of Liverpool, ruled that the fans themselves were NOT to blame for the deaths of the 96 victims.  Instead, the police were found to be negligent and culpable in the deaths of the unfortunate soccer supporters.  There had been, for almost three decades, a monumental miscarriage of justice, but now the dishonesty of the key figures in this horrible tragedy was finally revealed in its true light.

It took 27 years, but finally the truth was told.  And that’s the thing with the truth.  Sooner or later it comes to light.

Since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a vicious lie has been perpetuated, a lie claiming God is responsible for the enormous amount of sin and misery in the world.  “If only God had stopped the devil.”  “If only God had stepped in and prevented sin from happening in the first place.”

If only God, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Let’s think that through.

Could God have stepped in and simply stopped sin from entering the universe?  Being God, there’s no doubt He could.  But what would have been the ramifications of God overruling the sovereignty of personal choice?

God-given freedom of choice is valued by most people above almost all else and says that (subject to appropriate laws) you can believe your own conscientiously-held views, express your opinions without fear of retribution and determine to a large degree the trajectory of your life.  Even if the decisions you make might not ultimately be in your best interest, you have been granted freedom of choice and given authority by God to make those decisions if you choose.

For God to intervene and prevent Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit would have meant God would have removed their freedom of choice.  They would have been reduced to being robots, capable of doing only what God dictated.  Although God urged them not to do so, the decision to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was ultimately theirs.

Reprogramming Adam and Eve – or the devil, for that matter – would have been the end of love.  Love only exists when it is given voluntarily.  A husband who buys his wife flowers can’t be said to be buying them out of love if she is holding a gun to his head.  Love is not love if it isn’t voluntary.

If God had destroyed the devil after Lucifer had gone down the path of rebellion, the angels in heaven would have served God out of fear rather than love.  Again, choice would have been removed from the equation.  Without a complete understanding of the love of God and the issues involved in Lucifer’s rebellion, the destruction of Satan would only have served to instill fear in the hearts of heaven’s holy angels.  The universe would have been plunged into chaos.

When sin entered the universe, God only had two viable options; only one of which – while horrendously expensive – was workable.  He could either destroy the devil and imperil the security of the universe, or…

Or, God could choose to let sin run its course.  That would mean that should people turn from God and embrace the enemy there would be wars and violence, famine and sickness, and death and distress as sin took up residence in the human heart.  Should, however, humans yield to God and trust Him and serve Him, there would be nothing to fear.  But in letting sin run its course, God gave the universe a chance to see not only the true character of Satan, but also the depths of the love of God.

God is often held responsible for death and destruction.  “Why did God allow that tsunami?”  “Why did God not prevent that car accident?”  It’s no different than the British Police spinning the Hillsborough tragedy in such a way that innocent fans were considered culpable for something in which they had no part.  It suited the authorities to deflect blame from themselves and towards a group of marginalized people unable to defend themselves against the damning charges against them.

No, God is not responsible for death and sin.  God is love and He loves every person on Earth.  The death of Jesus on the cross reveals that sin has cost God far more than it could ever cost you or me.  And it reveals that far from being responsible for sin, God has done everything He can to save us from sin and its effects.  He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”  (John 3:16).

After almost thirty years, the 1989 football fans at Hillsborough have been vindicated.  And when Jesus returns and the saved are saved and the lost are lost and it is finally and forever seen that God has been entirely just in His dealings, God will be vindicated too.