Faith and Disaster Response

I’m sure most of us are glad we are not waking up in Baltimore or Nepal or Syria this morning. If we have any compassion, our hearts break for the people who are living in those places, dealing with devastation and violence which they did not bring on themselves. In each of these places, Christians, along with others who care, are bringing hope and help.

Each of us is grateful that we are not in those places, but what if we were? What can the Bible and our Christian tradition tell us about dealing with both natural disasters and riots? Since the 9-11 attacks, the US government has been urging citizens to be prepared for large-scale attacks and disasters. How can we be spiritually prepared as well?

The first step is to acknowledge the two-fold truth of God’s providence. There are some things God directs to happen; there are some things God allows to happen. The things that God directs are righteous and good. Many of the things that God allows are evil and tragic. We believe that God controls the final outcome of the universe and that outcome is love and joy and justice. In the present age, God allows us the free will to choose selfishness and violence. We live in a broken, fallen universe. Paul says that even the creation itself shows signs of longing for God’s final triumph. However, in God’s time “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…” (Romans 8:21).

Secondly, the Bible acknowledges the reality of the messed-up world in which we live, but it also invites us to make it better by practicing and advocating for justice and right-living. Rioting is not the right response to the injustice people experience in Baltimore. But pretending that there is no injustice is not the right response either. Even in the disaster in Nepal, a lot of the human deaths occurred because the buildings were poorly built. In the same way that the inadequate levies made the Hurricane Katrina disaster worse for the people living there. We cannot eliminate every accident or death. This should be clear. But we should not settle for policies and actions by government or private businesses that endanger human lives when alternatives are available. Christians should call for humanitarian solutions and fight against mere expediency. We all know that the Bible commands us to honor and respect governmental authority. We should be law-abiding citizens (Romans 13:1-7). The Bible is equally concerned with making rulers and powerful people accountable to care for the poor and needy in society. The Old Testament prophets were constantly voicing God’s anger with the way the rich and powerful exploited the poor. As Amos said, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts… Seek good, not evil that you may live” (Amos 5:12-13).

Finally, how we handle living through a disaster can depend a lot on our own character. Spiritual strength is not built in the urgent moments of the tragedy. Spiritual strength comes in the day-to-day and week-to-week disciplines of the Christian spirit. The best way to be prepared spiritually to handle such a disaster is to be a faithful follower of Jesus when there is no urgency. Pray, study scripture and obey God’s commands, participate in church and in service to your community, let God make your faith grow. As you do these things, your spiritual strength will grow. If disaster comes to your town, you will be better prepared to respond with love and grace and not simply react in fear. This is the way of Jesus.

Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC

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Sickness and Faith

Recently I was having a conversation with someone from a neighboring church who lamented that their congregation was having a lot of sickness lately. In another conversation with a health care worker, she talked about the hospital where she worked. “There are no open beds,” she said. I could only concur. There have been a lot of serious illnesses and accidents among our folks as well.

To get sick or to have a debilitating injury or disability is not only a physical challenge, but a spiritual challenge. It’s normal for us to question God’s love for us when we have these troubles. “Is God angry with me?” “Why won’t God heal me when I have been faithful to Him?” Even the most spiritual among us may ask these questions in our hearts. We have a Savior who was known for healing the sick. Why won’t He heal me now?

I don’t think anyone can give a definite answer to the “why” question. God’s ways are often not known to us. But there are some things that God has revealed to us in the Bible which may help us understand what sickness means and what it doesn’t mean with respect to God.

1. God doesn’t heal everyone, including every faithful person. We know this is true. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but eventually Lazarus died. Paul prayed for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” but God told him, “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).

2. Jesus taught His disciples that sickness does not come from sin. In John chapter 9, the disciples ask Jesus if a man is blind because of His own sin or because of His parents’ sin. Jesus replies, “Neither.” Then He tells them to see the man’s sickness as an opportunity to show God’s glory through helping him.

3. The New Testament commands us to minister to the sick and to pray for the sick but there is no command to heal the sick. In Matthew 25 Jesus commends those who visit the sick as His true followers. James 5:14 tells us to have the church pray for the sick. There is no New Testament command which compels us to expect to heal the sick. God does heal according to His will and timing, but we do not control such things.

4. The Bible does not teach that we lack faith if we use medical means to help our sickness. Paul had seen many people healed through the power of Christ and prayer, but he gave this advice to Timothy. “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23). The wine was a medicinal help. And even though Timothy was a companion of Paul, he was not automatically spared any sickness.

These are just a few of the scriptures that deal with sickness in the life of faith. We will not know the answer to every question. But we can know that sickness does not mean God’s disapproval. We are eternal beings in Christ, but these bodies are not meant for eternity. They are part of the broken, fallen world in which we live. If you are sick or hurt, God has not abandoned you. Take heart and have faith.

Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC

Some Thoughts on Bible Study

Most Christians agree that studying the Bible is an important part of our spiritual life. We agree that we should read the Bible and live according to what it teaches.

The Bible is a large book that was written over a thousand years of time. The oldest parts were written over 3000 years ago. The most recent parts were written about 2000 years ago. It was written in 3 different languages and has to be translated into English for us to read. That translation further complicates our Bible reading. Which translation is the best?

All of these factors can make it difficult for us to feel like we are able to study the Bible effectively. But the fact remains; Paul’s admonition to Timothy is also a command for us. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

I would like to share some guidelines for studying the Bible in an effective way.

1. Pray before you read and ask God to teach you His message through your reading.
2. Ask yourself these three questions: a)What does this say about God? b) Does this tell me anything about human nature, in other words, about myself? And finally c) Does it tell me something I should do?
3. When you come across something that is difficult to understand or that does not seem right somehow, read the passage in more than one translation. Don’t just accept the translation that you like the best. Try to compare the English versions and get the real meaning. Consult a commentary, talk to your pastor or a trusted Christian friend about the passage.
4. Resist the temptation to accept that any interpretation is right just because your favorite tv preacher says it is. Study the Bible for yourself.
5. Reading through the Bible completely is a good thing to do but understanding is more important than getting through it. Quality matters more than quantity.

If you follow these guidelines, your Bible study will be more fruitful and meaningful. This will help you follow Jesus more faithfully.

Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC

Racism and Christian Faith

This past week I had the pleasure of preaching in a Good Friday service at an African-American church. I have friends that attend there. They have invited me to preach for them at other times as well. The service was moving and powerful. I was especially grateful to see several members of my congregation attended.

One of the saddest parts of being a Christian in the United States is the terrible history of racism and segregation in the churches of our country. In recent years many books and seminars have been produced in attempts to bring people of different races and ethnic backgrounds together in the church of Jesus Christ.

In our country recently, we have seen renewed frustrations and violence around the issue of race in America. At the same time we are remembering the success of the civil rights movement in historic memorials at Selma, we are watching places like Ferguson Missouri erupt in racial turmoil all over again.

The church should always have been at the forefront of bringing people together in Christ. We still do not live up to that gospel mandate very often. But we can. Jesus makes it possible to put aside our prejudice and follow Him into love and reconciliation.

Jesus, in fact, is the model for reaching out across the boundary lines of differences. The real barrier between groups of people is not the color of skin, but behaviors and habits. It’s very hard for any of us to become real friends with people whose attitudes and habits are different from our own. The first step has to be a willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view, to try and “walk a mile their shoes” as the old saying goes.

This is what Jesus did for us, “who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7).

“Emptied himself.” To enter into the life of the other person to embrace and understand that person, this is one of the things Jesus did in his human life. As His followers we are called to do the same. This is one of the keys to racial reconciliation. Do we really listen to and try to understand what it’s like to live as someone different than ourselves? Jesus did. And that makes all the difference.

Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC

The Resurrection of Jesus

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.”
Mark 16:6

Easter Sunday is the day when we remember that Jesus rose from the dead.

Can you imagine how fearful, how distraught, Jesus’ followers must have been when they saw Him dead? I imagine they could not believe what was happening when he was arrested. His death must have left them in a state of shock.

It’s not surprising that it took a while for them to believe that He was alive again, that some of them could not believe it until they saw Him walking and talking. Even though He had told them it would happen, they did not understand what was happening.

He was dead. But then He was alive again, just like He promised!
In our lives we face times of difficulty, times when it seems that God is not hearing us, times when we are desperate and afraid. We may be tempted to allow despair to take hold in our hearts. But Jesus has conquered death and sin and despair.

The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate promise of God’s permanent triumph. Evil and fear may appear to win in the short term. But the final victory, in heaven and on earth, belongs to Jesus.

Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC