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Over the weekend, federal raids in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana resulted in the arrest of eight suspects affiliated with a Christian militia group called Hutaree.  According to the organization’s website, Hutaree means “Christian warrior”; I’ve got no clue about the supposed linguistic derivation of the name.  I tried to access the website today and got a “Service Temporarily Unavailable” message, but the blurb connected with the Hutaree web address in my search engine was a quotation of John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Today, the suspects were charged with conspiring to kill a police officer and then attempting to kill more law enforcement personnel by launching another attack during the funeral.

Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote the following:

“In the aftermath of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a great deal of media attention was focused on the organization and nature of citizens’ militias.  The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism heard testimony concerning the militia movement.  The testimony was both enlightening and frightening.  To say the least, these groups are extremely disaffected with the federal government and the enforcement of its laws.  While one should be extremely careful about painting with a broad brush and using overly generalized terms in describing them, it remains that many militia organizations do share some common, disturbing features.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the militia movement is the partnership that it has found with some individuals who possess strong, conservative, religious convictions.  The June 1995 issue of Christianity Today featured an article entitled “Guns and Bibles,” which dealt with this volatile mix of ideologies.  The article identified broad families of militia groups such as “Christian Patriots” and “Christian Identity and Aryan Nations.”  One of the men profiled in the article, who also appeared before the Senate subcommittee, was Norm Olsen of the Michigan Militia.  Mr. Olsen had served as the pastor of a Baptist church until shortly before the hearings.  The heavily armed and well-trained Olsen claims to be a “warrior for the Lord.”  Similarly, an Alabama group describes itself as a “Christian militia founded on the principles of the Holy Bible.”

Much of this strange mixture of Christian thought with a militia mentality emerges from radical millennial views which are themselves based on gross misinterpretations of portions of the book of Revelation.  These millennial beliefs are blended with fears of one world government, United Nations troops occupying American soil, mysterious black helicopters traversing the skies, and concentration camps being constructed for the imprisonment of religious and political conservatives.  The most extreme elements within the movement are characterized by deep paranoia and a total distrust of the federal government.  The manufacturing of conspiracy theories has been elevated to an art form among them.

Those who have mingled discipleship with armed militancy have demonstrated that they are well-versed in their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, but severely lacking in their understanding of the Word of God.  Their strength in exegeting the Bill of Rights is matched by their weakness in comprehending the mind of Christ.  Like so many misguided individuals of the past, they seek Divine sanction for their political ideologies; they seek to make their cause a “holy war.”  The entire weight of Scripture runs counter to armed resistance against one’s government.  The involvement of Christians in such rebellion is fundamentally inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and His apostles.

Many, perhaps most, of those who would be classified as conservative Christians are politically conservative as well.  For that fact we should generally be grateful.  However, as is the case with political liberalism, it is possible for one’s extreme political conservatism to lead to the support of positions and activities that are at variance with the will and word of God.  We are Christians first, and patriots second.”

I shared the above thoughts, along with a few others, in a bulletin article for the church in Alabama where I was serving at the time.  Within a couple of weeks, a hand-delivered (no postage) packet appeared in my mail slot at the church office.  The material was all related to a document entitled “Operation Vampire Killer 2000,” a disturbing anti-government diatribe complete with a “battle cry” and a smattering of Scripture.  Some well-meaning brother or sister in Christ apparently thought that I needed some enlightenment on the subject.  It creeped me out to think that they had been right outside my office door. 

To be honest with you, health care reform doesn’t really scare me that much.  But the thought of deluded Christians, armed with explosives, who see the Antichrist in each new election and are intent on inaugurating their vision of Armageddon is enough to keep me up at night. 

From 1985 to 1987, I served in a two-year missions internship in Gympie, Queensland, Australia.  It was one of the most spiritually formative experiences of my life.  In addition to the joys and challenges of working with a local congregation and the opportunity to grow and mature in my faith and ministry, there was the bonus of living in Australia! 

On a day off from regular ministry responsibilities, my co-worker’s son Shane Drollinger and I joined our mutual friend Scott Roff for a long hike through Noosa National Park on the Sunshine Coast.  Scott’s girlfriend Rhonda dropped us off at the southern end of the park with a plan to rendezvous with us later in the day at the other end of the trail.  The hike took us past interesting coastal features and formations like Devil’s Kitchen, Lion Rock, and Hell’s Gates.

Our jaunt led us down a steep descent onto an extended, isolated stretch of beach in Alexandria Bay.  As we plodded along through the sand next to the breaking waves, we drew nearer to a large group of beachgoers about halfway down the bay.  Before I even noticed anything unusual, Scott said, “Oh man, I forgot!  Alexandria Beach is a nude beach!”  He was right.  While not an officially designated area for nudists, the beach was very remote, accessible only by hiking trails, and served as a haven for those who didn’t want to be encumbered by swimsuits.   

There was no turning back or detouring at this point.  Shane was about 18 years old at the time, getting ready to head to the States to attend Harding University, and I felt a strong sense of obligation to offer some counsel to my younger brother in Christ.  We were far enough along that we could clearly make out the rock formations at the northern end of the beach where the trail resumed.  I said something like, “Shane, see those rocks at the end of the beach?  Just keep your eyes on the rocks!”  I told him I would do the same. So onward we marched, right through the men, women, and children playing in the sand and splashing in the surf; sort of like the Israelites going through the Red Sea!

I wasn’t yet familiar with Job 31:1, but it would have been very appropriate and applicable to our circumstances and the pact that we made with one another.  “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.” 

Every Christian, especially every Christian man, needs to enter into such a covenant with their eyes.  Our eyes are windows into our hearts.  Visual images are powerful, and they are permanent.  They can draw us closer to God and deeper into faith, or they can fan the flames of lust and lead us further into sin.  Sometimes we say of a rather clumsy person that he or she is “an accident waiting to happen.”  Lust is just sex waiting to happen; all that is lacking is the right circumstance and the opportune moment.

Pornographic addiction continues to run rampant in our culture, and it is no respecter of persons.  Satan doesn’t just employ its allure among unbelievers and worldly pleasure seekers; our Adversary is all too well acquainted with its effectiveness in enslaving the hearts of disciples, with those serving in ministry showing no greater immunity than anyone else.

Make the covenant!  Discipline your body and exercise Spirit-empowered control over your eyes.  Know your weaknesses.  Be sensitized to the first warning signals of lust.  Fight the second glance and overcome the prolonged gaze.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8-9).  If we are to achieve this goal, our eyes must be mutually committed and integrally connected with our hearts and minds.       

 “I will set before my eyes no vile thing” (Psalm 101:3).

Snow on Hyacinth; Pyles' Home on March 21, 2010

The first day of Spring brought a snowstorm to northeastern Oklahoma on Saturday, with additional accumulation on Sunday.  Temperatures had been in the low ’70s on Friday.  What a difference a day makes!  Kim, Coleman, and I had been on a quick getaway to visit friends in Texas, but returned home late Friday night in order to beat the arrival of Winter’s jolting reminder that it wasn’t quite finished yet.  The elders at the Broken Arrow church made a prudent decision late Saturday afternoon to cancel our Sunday assemblies, just as most churches in the area had done. 

On Sunday morning, I stood in the warmth of the entryway of our home, sipped hot coffee, and watched the wind-driven snowfall through the glass panes in the front doors.  While the strong north wind was blowing the snow at a 45-degree angle further out in the yard, the contours of the front of the house provided a sheltered environment where the snow would swirl for a moment and then slowly spiral downward to the landscaping just beyond the front porch.  I watched for quite some time as large, distinct flakes made a soft landing on the blanket of snow beneath them and were instantaneously rendered indistinguishable from the thousands of snowflakes around them.  Though every snowflake possessed a unique, intricate, crystalline design and identity, each contributed (in a sense, “sacrificed”) its individuality for the benefit of something much larger, an entire landscape of wintry beauty.  

Like snowflakes, each of us has been created in the image of God with a design of intellect, passion, and ability that is unique and special.  Yet, as Christians, despite our intrinsic value and essentiality to the functioning of Christ’s body (Rom. 12; I Cor. 12), our spiritual existence is not one of independence or the showcasing of our individual set of talents.  Ours is contributed with that of others for the glory of the head of the body, Christ, and interdependently blended with that of others for the health and beauty of the whole.  As individual believers, and even as congregations of God’s people, we are woven into the tapestry of God’s kingdom, both contemporary and historical, that envelops the globe. 

While microscopic examination unveils the intricate design of snowflakes, it also reveals their imperfections and irregularities.  Yet, millions of “flawed” snowflakes unite to form a pristine, pure, and breathtaking landscape.  Under the shadow of the Cross and the blood of Jesus our Savior, our sinful souls are cleansed and united into a beautiful Bride for Christ.  He has sanctified His Bride, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:26-27). 

How beautiful is the body of Christ!

A Word of Caution:  If you are eating right now or plan to eat in the next few minutes, let me suggest that you close this page and return to read this post at a later time.  What I am going to share has a significant “yuck factor,” to quote a person interviewed in a story reported last week by Sarah McBride on NPR’s All Things Considered

The story was about tourists who are trekking from as far away as Switzerland to Nevada’s Carson Valley for an event called Eagles and Agriculture, which is now in its ninth year.  While other birds of prey like hawks, falcons, and owls can be seen in great numbers in the region during February and March, bald eagles are the main draw.  Ranchers open their gates for people by the busload to get up close and personal with these iconic American raptors.

But what attracts so many of these majestic birds at this time of year?  Cow afterbirth!  That’s right!  Cow afterbirth!  In Carson Valley, it is the peak of the calving season, during which thousands of calves are born each year.  Some cows eat the placenta (I warned you!), but most of it is left for scavengers, both airborne and terrestrial.  While coyotes don’t offer too much incentive for tourists, bald eagles are a surefire crowd-pleaser! 

Here is the aspect of the story that I love.  You have the “circle of life” in which cattle give birth to calves, creating a rather gross by-product that bald eagles and other birds of prey find impossible to resist, and a diverse group of enterprising people in the region says, “I think we can use this to stimulate the local economy.”  Eagles and Agriculture is jointly sponsored by ranchers, the Carson Valley Visitors Authority, Audubon Society, Great Basin Birding Observatory, Carson Valley Conservation District, Carson Valley Inn, and Cooperative Extension.  Has it been successful?  The tour completely sold out this year!

If good old American ingenuity can turn cow afterbirth into cash, I’ve got all the confidence in the world that our nation will pull out of the current recession.  It’s just a matter of time!       

As I drove to the office one morning last week, I noticed a small dead bird lying at the edge of the street, nestled up against the curb.  I assume that it had been hit by a car.  Most people driving past likely would not have seen it.  It was such a tiny little thing.  I just happened to be glancing that way when I passed by.  My first thought was, “Poor little guy; he probably never saw it coming.”  Then I thought about something that Jesus said.  “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny?  But your Father knows when any one of them falls to the ground” (Matthew 10:29, CEV).  God is so intimately connected with His creation that nothing occurs in the cosmos without His knowledge, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem to human eyes and estimation. 

While Jesus’ statement about sparrows was absolutely true, He spoke those words to make a much larger point about God’s care, concern, and knowledge of those who have been created in His own image.  Jesus continued in Matthew 10, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:30-31).  The Teacher masterfully employed understatement here.  In our Father’s eyes, we are more valuable than all the sparrows in the world; indeed, we are more precious than the cumulative value of every material thing on the planet.

Though our Creator’s thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than our own (Isaiah 55:8-9), that does not mean that He is distant, detached, or disinterested.  “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28).  One of the unfathomable spiritual realities that we enjoy in Christ is that Transcendant Deity dwells in and among us through the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture.  Some have titled this psalm, “An Ode to an Omniscient God.” 

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar.  You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.  Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it all.  You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high; I cannot attain to it.  Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me and Your right hand will lay hold of me” (Psalm 139:1-10).

Whenever I am tempted
Whenever clouds arise
When songs give place to sighing
When hope within me dies
I draw the closer to Him
From care He sets me free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He cares for me

(Civilla D. Martin)

Today’s post is not going to be particularly long.  I have written before about the blessing that Kim is to my life, and I will undoubtedly do so again, but I wanted to share with everyone that Kim and I will celebrate 22 years of marriage tomorrow.  This milestone is a glorious testimony to both God’s grace and Kim’s patience!  

I really don’t know what I would do without her.  Being married to a minister is not easy.  Being married to this minister is a particular challenge.  I am a rather peculiar fellow; I honestly don’t know if I could live with me.  

Kim has been the best mother imaginable to Hannah and Coleman.  We were told a long time ago that 4 out of 5 marriages involving a special needs child end in divorce.  We are grateful on a daily basis that God has allowed us to remain on the enduring side of that statistic.  Through sometimes difficult and trying times, Kim has continued to believe in me, believe in us, and keeps putting her trust in God and her future in His hands.  I’m so very glad that she has. 

Happy anniversary, Kim!  The best is yet to come!

My last post about the thunderstorm in Alabama several years ago brought back other memories from the period of time during which we served with the Chisholm Hills church in Florence.  Back then I was in a fairly regular exercise routine and would often work out at the YMCA after leaving the office.  Not only was it beneficial for my health and fitness, it also provided a great “buffer zone” in which I could review and process the day’s activities, do some mental planning and preparation for the next day, and then be able to just focus on Kim and the kids when I arrived home. 

In the free weight area of the gym, there was a sign on the wall which read, “Please Put Dumbbells In Their Proper Place!”  It was a pointed reminder for everyone to be courteous in their use of the equipment and to return the weights where they belonged.  This ensured that subsequent users could easily find what they were looking for and kept the floor of the workout area free from hazards that could cause someone to trip and fall.  Even though I completely understood the intent of the sign, I still couldn’t help but smile as I considered an alternative meaning and application. 

“Please Put Dumbbells In Their Proper Place!”  Tempting, isn’t it?  When someone says something to us or acts toward us in a way that is thoughtless, careless, hurtful, demeaning, insulting, or just plain “dumb,” there is a strong inclination to “put them in their place,” set things straight, and even the score.  We instinctively want to defend ourselves and fire a volley in return, hurtful word for hurtful word, criticism for criticism, insult for insult, spiteful act for spiteful act.  Jesus taught us to fight and overcome this urge and choose a higher road in our response.  

The “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” provision in the Law of Moses was intended to be judicial (administered by judges and the court of Israel) and restrictive (ensuring that punishment did not exceed the crime).  However, it was frequently interpreted as personal and permissive: a license for individual vengeance and retribution in response to perceived wrongs and injustices.  The result is an endless cycle of retributional one-upmanship in which the score is never mutually considered to be even.  In such situations, there is no “even”;  just ask the Hatfields and McCoys, Arabs and Israelis, the Sunni and the Shia. 

Jesus calls His disciples back to the Law’s intent and challenges us to “break the cycle” and refrain from returning injury with injury and insult with insult (Matthew 5:38-42).  Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…never pay back evil for evil to anyone…never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).  “When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate” (I Corinthians 4:12-13).  Christ left an example for us to follow in His steps; “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (I Peter 2:21-23).

Jesus calls us to a higher standard of thinking, speech, and behavior.  It is not something that will come easily or naturally for us.  It is a level of self-control that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit living within us (Galatians 5:22-23).  It has to be a premeditated mindset of response to which we commit ourselves long before “the heat of the moment.”  It’s not a matter of if we will ever have to deal with “dumbbells”; it’s only a matter of when.      

Several years ago when we lived in Alabama, a system of strong thunderstorms bearing high winds, brilliant flashes of lightning, and deafening claps of thunder rolled through our area one Saturday afternoon.  I had spent the morning playing with the children and helping Kim around the house, but after lunch I settled in at the kitchen table to review my notes for Sunday’s sermons and my Bible class.  However, I soon found myself distracted from my studies by the strength of the storm.  It had been “looking like rain” all day, and it finally arrived in sheets and waves.  I have always enjoyed watching storms brew, build, and ultimately unleash their contents.  I guess I get that trait genetically, because I remember both of my grandfathers, as well as my father, frequently stepping outside to “see what the weather was doing.”  That afternoon in Alabama, the fierce winds blew the treetops back and forth like blades of grass, and at times it appeared as if it was raining horizontally, with the rain being driven parallel to the ground.  After the worst of the storm had passed, a steady shower set in, accompanied by gradually decreasing rumblings of thunder.

As my interest in the storm subsided, I returned to my Bible and notes at the kitchen table and continued to fine tune Sunday’s lessons.  After some length of time I glanced out of the bay window that opened to the west and was treated to a beautiful sight.  Though a light rain was still falling in the immediate area, the western sky had come alive with deep hues of purple and red.  The storm had lifted on the horizon, and the colors of the setting sun provided a striking contrast with the dreary, gray clouds that remained overhead.  It was a clear, unmistakable sign that beyond the present gloom there was a promise of fairer skies.

Life is filled with storms and trials.  They can be physical storms involving illness, disease, or disability.  They can be spiritual storms centered around temptation and sin or struggles with doubt.  Some of life’s storms are emotional in nature in which we can be besieged by frustration, anger, depression, or discouragement.  Many people are experiencing financial storms right now as a result of the current economic climate in our nation. 

Any and all of these storms can burst unexpectedly into our lives, raging and blowing and threatening to unsettle our hearts and our faith.  Jesus taught us to expect as much.  Our Savior never pulled any punches when describing life, especially the life of discipleship.   He never painted an unrealistically rosy picture of this world.  He was shooting straight with us when He said, “In the world you have tribulation.”  However, in the very next breath He offered the hope and strength that enable us to weather the storm.  “But take courage,” He said, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The apostle Paul was granted a glimpse beyond life’s struggles and hardships, of which he had suffered more than his fair share.  He was caught up to the third heaven, into Paradise, where he heard inexpressible words (II Corinthians 12:1-4).  Whether this happened bodily or in some sort of out-of-body experience Paul wasn’t sure.  But he did know that, at least for a brief time, the veil of this world was drawn back so that He could see beyond the trials, tribulations, and struggles of our present existence.  It is for this reason that Paul could write with confidence, accuracy, and authority that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

When you find yourself feeling battered and bruised by life’s storms and surrounded by the darkness and dreariness of this world, raise your eyes and look to the Horizon.  The clouds will lift, the storm will pass, and Eternity awaits.

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March 2010