The Missing Voice

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The news cycle...

The news cycle has moved on to other stories, leaving El Paso to process its grief – particularly those who were closest to the 22 killed and 27 wounded.

Others, myself included, cannot forget nor move on. My deep ties forged with El Paso over a period of 40 years brought me within 3 miles of the massacre, and as I reflect on this tragedy, I am struck by a loud silence amid the media noise.

Granted that in the aftershock of such catastrophes, the public turns to the journalistic voice for answers. In the pressure of a 24/7 news cycle, reports immediately pour in to fill airtime and online space.

Trained investigators often solve mysteries based on what is conspicuously absent. In this case it is a voice. In times like these, the right voice can be powerful.

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From my hotel room I watched intently...

From my hotel room I watched intently as the cast of experts chosen to convey the tactical voice reassured us of an appropriate response by law enforcement.

Close on its heels – maybe closer than usual – came the shrill, vitriolic, political voice, as each party sought to leverage the unspeakable human tragedy to its advantage.

Then the celebrity voice weighed in – because in our increasingly shallow age, celebrities are granted status as moral authorities. 

The only redeeming factor (besides local television coverage) was the healing voice of first responders – some of the doctors and hospital personnel jumping in even on their day off to care for the victims. One young ER nurse, mature beyond her years, gave an impressive report of the commendable training that immediately kicks in, as these professionals are prepared in advance for the unthinkable.

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Ten days have passed. The voices are quiet. But one is still missing: the pastoral voice.

Ten days have passed. The voices are quiet. But one is still missing: the pastoral voice.

This voice has real impact because it studies the broad spectrum of human experience as well as the Bible, and recognizes the weightiness of its task.

Many dismiss this voice as unable to give any meaning, resilience, or direction in life. Not so.

Pastors meet with real people at their best and their worst and help them search for ways to cope.

They partner with them in tragedy. They grapple with them over the complexities of life.

Together they deal with real evil, struggle with personal weakness, face rejection and relational failures and bind up deep emotional wounds. It is a trained voice that “knows how to sustain the weary one with a word.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, President George W. Bush turned to “America’s Pastor,” Rev. Billy Graham, to address a nation in mourning from Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.

“Today we come together in this service to confess our need of God,” Graham said. “We’ve always needed God from the very beginning of this nation. But today we need Him especially.  We’re involved in a new kind of warfare. And we need the help of the Spirit of God.”

Whether for spiritual or political reasons, or both, the pastoral voice was deemed fitting and necessary. Some would like to scrub any reference to God, religious faith, or the importance of virtue from the public square.

But as Phil Cooke wrote,

There must be some way we can reach out to the culture and convince them that, regardless of their own personal values or biases, religion still matters (really matters) to millions of people.” Otherwise, there is a missing voice. We are poorer and unprepared when it is gone. Worse, we become like Job’s “worthless physicians.”

When facing tribulations on a personal, municipal, or national level, people who have assumed the role of deities themselves have no greater entity to reach out to.

Thane Bellomo’s piece in The Federalist carried the headline “We Killed God, Family, and Community – And Now It’s Killing Us.”

“We have discarded social institutions that have helped people understand their value and place in the world for thousands of years,” Bellomo said. “And their decline is not just mirrored in the rise of mass shootings.”

Jesus said, “The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life”
— John 6:63

It is troubling to see the trend of dismissive derision that meets the sincere sentiment, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” In place of it we are to be placated with a hashtag, #DoSomething – as if somehow Washington should or could enact another law to bring an answer. I cringe, knowing the timeworn admonition in Jeremiah 17:5: “Cursed is the strong one who depends on mere humans, who thinks he can make it on muscle alone and sets God aside as dead weight.”

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Regular people, in more ways that you realize, benefit from the pastoral voice. This is the voice speaks to the soul. Jesus said, “The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). This transcendent voice reminds us that there is a much bigger and grander plan at work in what often seems like a world of chaos. It is a voice of courage, reminding us that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). It is a voice that brings succor to the grieving, for “if one member suffers all the members suffer with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).

It is also the voice of hope, for we know there is an eternal home for the victims, and that injects strong hope into our sorrow. It is a voice that clearly recognizes the fallen nature of mankind and pleads for personal repentance and holiness – not only for individuals, but for a nation as well.

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This voice calls for justice in a world where “there is no justice among us.” Consequently, it ultimately points us to the eternal scales that alone can dispense true justice.

The pastor’s voice adds to inner peace surpassing human understanding. It is a gentle voice that refuses to “stir up evil” knowing that “love is patient, love is kind” (I Corinthians 13:1-4).

It is a voice of charity in the midst of hatred.

It is a voice of charity in the midst of hatred. In fact, it reminds us of the toxicity and pernicious nature of hatred when it is given a place in the human heart. 

It is the pastor’s voice that leads his sheep beside the still waters; that can restore our souls, giving us the strength and determination for our daily walk and work (Psalm 23:2-3).

The pastoral voice calls people – especially the young men who studies show feel more and more alienated – to a higher calling that can fill the present void.

I know firsthand the need for this voice. I focused our congregation on how to find trust and triumph in God after a targeted drive-by shooting penetrated the steel doors of our church, leaving a young man dead in the middle of a week-long Bible conference.

From forty-five years of experience I know that this voice does not come cheaply.

I was staying at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara on 9/11. The management there asked me to conduct a memorial service for its hotel staff and guests. Why?

They wanted the right voice, as so many do in our nation. 

From forty-five years of experience I know that this voice does not come cheaply.

I have discovered Solomon’s wisdom, “Besides being wise himself, the Teacher also taught others knowledge. He weighed, examined, and arranged many proverbs. The Teacher did his best to find the right words and write the plain truth. The words of the wise prod us to live well.  They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together. They are given by God, the one Shepherd.”

As I write this today, I wonder: will this voice be invited into the public square and be included once more in our national discourse?

I hope so. Oprah Winfrey perhaps came closest. When asked about mass shootings she said, “I think what we’re missing is a core moral center. Churches used to do that… It was a central place you could come to and there was a core center of values about a way of living and being in the world. Until we can return to that, however that is, in whatever form, we will continue to be lost.”

The Serpent & The Staff

Follow along with an audio narration of Ps. Warner’s Blog

And the winner is...!

How often we hear those words these days in many and varied settings.

Clearly, talent sells – this much is evident in the proliferation of programs that showcase a wide variety of skills and abilities. Competitions rage from the musical stage of The Voice and American Idol to the red hot kitchens of Top Chef and MasterChef, to the dance floor of So You Think You Can Dance.

Beyond these venues are the contests of mixed martial arts on The Contender series and a wide range of weaponry and firearms on Top Shot… and let us not forget the mother of them all, AGT (America’s Got Talent)

For the winner, there is the promise of prize money, name recognition, and a major career boost; even overnight stardom – which, without question, is the recipe for a highly intoxicating libation.

“I’m ready to buy a ticket to your concert!” the judges gush. “I’ll be the first in line to buy your album!”

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As it turns out, talent – combined with a touch of animosity, real or fabricated, and sprinkled with a healthy dose of competition and rivalry – is guaranteed to produce riveted audiences in the millions.

Pretty heady stuff for anyone, let alone the young and inexperienced – especially in the liberal draughts offered by reality TV.

As it turns out, talent – combined with a touch of animosity, real or fabricated, and sprinkled with a healthy dose of competition and rivalry – is guaranteed to produce riveted audiences in the millions.

But I’m struck with the larger picture of what is actually at work in the talents that we each possess. Behind those talents lie the gifts that God has given us for the flourishing of humanity and the glory of His name.

1 Peter 4:10-11 spells this out: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised though Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.”

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Fortunately, we can learn about God’s gifts of talent from a genuine Bible celebrity, Moses. He didn’t belong to the breed of today’s celebrities who are simply famous for being famous. No, instead, we’re looking at a man specially gifted by God and known for his accomplishments.

His first forty years are summed up in Acts 7:20-23: "At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.”

There was something special about Moses, and he ended up being raised in Pharaoh’s household as his daughter’s prized son. He was trained and educated in all aspects of Egyptian life, and was powerful in both his words and actions. That means his background and training contributed to the presence of real skill and talent.

He was poised for a breakthrough in his calling and career; to enter the next new exciting dimension.

But he needed to learn some critical lessons first. You can’t bypass these steps if you intend on being truly successful. 

Then Moses said, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail” — so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand —   ”that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
— Exodus 4: 1-5

God’s simple question grabs you: What is that in your hand?

 Moses’ staff was to be the symbol and expression of his giftedness. The rod of God is what set Moses apart. It was the difference maker, representing the skill, authority, and talent that God had deposited into his life.

When Moses is commissioned to return and confront Pharaoh (the most powerful man in the world at that time) the rod of God goes with him: “So Moses took his wife and his sons and mounted them on a donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.”

When Amalek attacks the Children of Israel, Moses tells Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow, I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand” We read in Exodus 17:9 that the Israelites prevailed as Moses held the rod of God high above them.

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In every way, Moses had become “the man.” When this occurs, we must always beware that the two-natured stick doesn’t become a two-edged sword.

When God tells Moses to throw the staff on the ground, it becomes a serpent. Moses does exactly what you and I would do: he jumps and runs from it! It is here that God presents a powerful lesson: Gifts and talent, if not properly handled, have the nature of the serpent and can bite you.

We must stop and ask ourselves, biblically, what is the serpent? What is his nature? It is very clear that he is closely intertwined with the story of the human race.

He first appears in the Garden as the “shrewdest” (most crafty/cunning) of all God’s creatures (Genesis 3:1).  His goal is to deceive man, the crown of God’s creation, into disobedience, thereby usurping the glory and dominion invested in Adam and Eve.

Isaiah gives us a glimpse of the serpent’s earlier rebellion in heaven: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground! – mighty though you were against the nations of the world. For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and rule the angels. I will take the highest throne. I will preside on the Mount of Assembly far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.’ But instead, you will be brought down to the pit of hell, down to its lowest depths” (Isaiah 14:12-14).

Here is heaven’s anointed cherub, the guardian of God’s glory, the choir director who led the worship of heaven – but his pride caused him to think that his gifts made him separate from and superior to God.

Before Moses took another step, God wanted to impress him with the visual lesson that talent, if not anchored in God’s purpose and glory, but rather used for self-exaltation, is like a serpent: it can bite you!

Before Moses took another step, God wanted to impress him with the visual lesson that talent, if not anchored in God’s purpose and glory, but rather used for self-exaltation, is like a serpent: it can bite you!

Hence, the serpent and the staff.

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The New Testament picks this theme up and warns: “Not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).

Talent shows are now a global franchise. No one people or place has a monopoly on talent: Britain’s Got Talent, Australia’s Got Talent, Albanians Got Talent, Africa’s Got Talent, Arabs Got Talent, not to mention Talento Argentino. The Voice is now in the U.K., Germany, Australia, Asia, Greece, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, India, and throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

We live in a talent-rich world. This shouldn’t surprise us. The seeds of talent were planted by God and have been at work in the world since the beginning. Man’s dominion and stewardship of the earth was established by God in Genesis when the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. From that vocation sprang the development and gifts of farming, agriculture, and horticulture, along with the arts of cultivation and grounds keeping.

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Food preparation was there from the start: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food’” (Genesis 2:28-29).  Can you say, “What’s on the menu today?”

The study of astronomy and the vastness of creation is connected to God’s command: “And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth” (Genesis 1:14-15).

The science of zoology and a wide variety of disciplines came out of Adam being tasked with naming all of the animals that existed in Genesis 2:19-20.  The earliest references to “gold” are here as well, telling us that the talent of assessing value and the importance of commerce affects us all.

Genesis 4:20-21 tells us of the two brothers, Jabal and Jubal. We are told that Jabal was the father of those who raised livestock and dwelt in tents, so the talent of farming, ranching, and house construction started with Jabal.  Jubal his brother was more “right-brained,” and musical skill and ability can be traced back to him. People were eager to purchase his albums.

Tubalcain, another of Cain’s descendants, “became an expert in forging tools of bronze and iron.” If you had a Tubalcain logo on your knife or tool, you had a top-of-the-line instrument.

Common grace is the grace of God that is common to all mankind, in that its benefits are experienced by the whole human race.

These are not simply meaningless names in the annals of history. Peter says these gifts are all expressions of the “many-colored grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). In fact, the theological term for all of this talent and industry is common grace.

Common grace is the grace of God that is common to all mankind, in that its benefits are experienced by the whole human race. God gives it freely to undeserving humans great and small, rich and poor, believer and unbeliever – that is why it is grace. It is like the sun and the rain that He send on the just and the unjust.

Common grace is evidenced by the vestiges of God’s creative image found in the pool of the human race.

Look around you. This is why you discover so many people who are uniquely gifted by God.

We can also learn something about Satan’s strategy from these observations. He does not simply try to keep people from hearing and experiencing God’s saving grace. He also seeks to steal from the world and sabotage those unusual gifts of common grace which point us to God and His “indescribable gift” of His only Son.

Satan enjoys deceiving and trapping people, Christians and non-Christians alike, so that they squander the Father’s good gifts and deprive the world of some aspect of joy and the benefits of common grace.

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TALENT’S HOTHOUSE

Especially evident – almost glaringly so – is the large percentage of vocal talent born in the church world.

“Oh, you took us to church today!” a TV judge exclaims, and the contestant relates, “I grew up singing in the church as part of the church’s choir.”

A hothouse refers to “an environment conducive to growth and development,” and very few exceed the church.

A hothouse refers to “an environment conducive to growth and development,”

So many notable artists have their roots in this soil. An edited list includes Bono of U2 fame, Whitney “The Voice” Houston, Toni Braxton (whose father is a preacher), Katy Perry (grew up in a Pentecostal church), Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Avril Lavigne, Usher, Jessica Simpson, Brittney Spears, Justin Beiber, and Naomi Scott.

I mention these since they represent the trend of pop stars who grew up in solidly Christian homes, and achieved “stardom” only to drift from those foundations.

The Jonas Brothers were home schooled in an Assembly of God household. They formed a family band that eventually became the darlings of the Disney Channel. Many years have passed, but recently Nic Jonas commented to someone that the church was “a good foundation to build on, but you need more now.”

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Well, that depends on what your goal is.

The staff is real, but don’t forget the serpent’s presence and potential. God warned through the prophet Jeremiah, “For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me – the fountain of living water.  And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!”

DANGERS OF CELEBRITY

As Willie Nelson sang, Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.

We might similarly implore: Don’t let your babies grow up to be pop stars. As a 14-year old, Miley Cyrus appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. During the Q&A she told Oprah that her favorite Bible verse was Ephesians 6:10-11: “Finally, my brothers, come close to the Lord for if you put on the full armor of God you can stand against the wiles of the devil.”

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Her more recent television appearances (notably her VMA performance) show that she has shed not only some of her attire and her Disney Hannah Montana persona, but she has shed her once-held Christian beliefs as well.  Now we have a raunchy, gender fluid, in-your-face pop icon. Yes, the serpent is lurking, and there is real difficulty in trying to reconcile celebrity status with Christian virtue.

John Stonestreet spoke about the celebrity trap when he wrote, “There’s a world of difference between being a celebrity and being an artist. The celebrity draws attention to himself; the artist to his work. The celebrity thinks success is being famous. The artist knows success is being faithful. The celebrity chooses style over substance.  The artist knows looking good is never as important as being good. While artists can glorify God, celebrities, almost by definition, probably won’t. Because more often than not, there’s only room for one star in their firmament.”

Yes, “do not neglect the gift you have” but also remember the serpent is lurking.

Yes, “do not neglect the gift you have” but also remember the serpent is lurking.
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SNAKE HANDLERS

In the end, it’s all about worship. Jesus faced all the same tests and temptations that we go through. He faced the serpent one-on-one, it tells us in Matthew 4:8-9: “For the third test, the devil took him on the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, ‘They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.’  Jesus’ refusal was curt: ‘Beat it, Satan! He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and only Him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness” (TM).

Gifts and talents are only safe when they’re grounded in the glory of God. We need the character to withstand the pressure that talent and charisma bring.

We’re called to be snake-handlers. Not in the sense of hillbillies with weird religious practices, but in the sense of God’s instructions to Moses: “‘Reach out and grab it by its tail.’ So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a shepherd’s staff in his hand” (Exodus 4:4).

It’s important to note that following this encounter, Moses’ staff was now the Rod of God.

Gifts and talents are only safe when they’re grounded in the glory of God. We need the character to withstand the pressure that talent and charisma bring.

It is no accident that the instrument of God’s talent and authority was a shepherd’s staff, a symbol of servanthood. The enduring testimony of Hebrews 3:5 tells us that “Moses was a faithful servant in God’s household.  He told the people of God what God would say in the future.”

Whatever gift or talent God has deposited in your life, it will always be safe and profitable when you surrender it to God to serve His glory and purpose.

2019 TUCSON BIBLE CONFERENCE ANNOUNCMENTS

International

Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (Athens, GA): Eric & Betzaida Quillian

Cúcata, Columbia (Tucson, AZ): German & Dora Gastelum

Vera, Spain (Almeria, Spain): Israel & Trini Crespo

Domestic

Buffalo, NY (Tucson, AZ): Thomas & Eve Williams

Kalispell, MN (Lighthouse, Santa Monica, CA): Ray & Cathy Kayne

Atlanta, GA (Tucson, AZ): Joaquin & Esmeralda Contreras

Milwaukee, WI (Tucson, AZ): Tony & Alice Rascon

Changes

Clifton-Morenci, AZ (Tucson, AZ): Chris & Stacy Lee
Bristol, UK (South London, UK): Praz and Patricia Chigarire
South London, UK (Assisting): Jay and Cheryl Nembhard