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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dead Men Bleed After All

A woman became very concerned about her husband’s mental health. Her husband was convinced that he was dead. Unable to convince him otherwise, she took him to a psychologist. The psychologist agreed to treat him and set to work. But he also, no matter what approach he tried, was unable to convince the man that he really wasn’t dead. Finally, in exasperation, he hit upon a plan. He began to take the man around to fatal accident scenes, to morgues, to funeral homes, etc. in order to prove to the man that dead people don’t bleed. This process continued for several months, until finally, one day, the man agreed that dead people don’t bleed. Whereupon the psychologist took out a pin and pricked the man’s finger. A spot of blood welled up at the site of the pin prick. The man looked at it with an anguished look on his face. Turning to the psychologist he said, his voice quivering: “Doc, we were wrong! Dead people bleed after all!”

As humorous as this story is, it has a point. How easy is it for us to take the position of “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts?” When we do this we can often miss out on what God has to offer us. We can miss out on new opportunities. We become inflexible and rigid, unable to change. How much we lose when this situation occurs!

In Jesus’ time the Pharisees exhibited this phenomenon. They refused to believe that Jesus had come from God. They didn’t allow his signs and miracles to change their position. Their minds were made up. No matter how strong the evidence was to the contrary, they would continue to refuse to believe differently. We can laugh at them, but are we much better today? Friends of ours met with the school principal when they were enrolling their daughter in kindergarten. Not knowing that they lived in the housing community across from the school, he referred to the community as a low income area with little interest in education. The ironic fact was that most of the families living there were undergraduate and graduate students who, if they could afford it, put their children in private or parochial schools. His mind was made up, and he didn’t care about the facts. We found the same attitude when we moved from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti. Some people wondered why we would want to move there. Yet we found ourselves in a vibrant community. We also see this feature in the polarity between black and white communities across our nation. Many times neither group wants to have anything to do with each other. Both communities have their minds so made up that they are afraid to even look at contrary facts. The loss due to their inability to work together is enormous.

I wonder how often we do the same things with God. How many times do we place God in a box and tell him that he can only do the things the box allows? How often do we place God in a straightjacket, curtailing his movement? If he breaks out of the box, do we find some alternate explanation rather than say that it is God? When we do this, our faith becomes rigid and inflexible. We are in the sad state of being unable to change. We become the modern day Pharisees. I think its time to ask: “Where do I find my mind so made up that I am willing to ignore contrary facts and refuse to change?”

Cover or Contents

A recent article told how interior designers are purchasing antique leather-bound books to use for decorating. It noted one person who purchased 13,000 antique books to give his home a library look. Unfortunately, these books were used to match the room’s décor and their primary purpose was for show. They had not been purchased to be read.

Rev. Timothy Satryan, commenting on this article, noted “Focusing on outward appearances can be a pleasing way to decorate a house, but it’s a dangerous way to live. Jesus reprimanded many religious leaders of His day because they did not practice what they preached. They were addicted to receiving praise and feeling self important.” I wonder how many times do we live in the same manner? How often do we focus more on the outside façade rather than what is inside? It is as dangerous for us as it was for the Pharisees.

In many ways our lives are like a book. Book covers are often beautiful, enticing us to want to pick up the book and read it. The cover is the person we present to others. But the contents are who we really are. The contents describe all the joys, struggles, fears, successes and defeats we experience in our daily lives. While our cover looks pleasing and well put together, our content may be rather messy or even downright ugly.

One of the temptations that the church struggles with today is the temptation to pride and the desire to be acceptable by society. We don’t want to allow ourselves to be really known. We try to put our best foot forward. We seek to be attractive to the world. We promote seeker friendly services where everyone will be comfortable. We build beautiful edifices that are pleasing to the eye. The sanctuary contains the latest in high tech audio visual equipment. Our televised services are almost theatrical. They show the beautiful people. But these are all covers. They are all shallow. They speak nothing about the content of our lives. They avoid showing the spiritual warts, cancers and deformities that we bring to God for healing. They don’t show us to be a sinful people who have been redeemed by the grace of God. No one can see that inside we may be wounded and hurting. They don’t show us to be people who may be struggling with temptation, or barely holding on as we struggle with the difficulties of life. This type of coverup also becomes very defeating. When looking at all the beautiful facades around us, it is easy to begin to think that we alone are the only ones who are experiencing difficulties in our lives. We can think that we are the only ones who don’t have it all together. This can cause us a real crisis of faith. By wearing a façade, we hurt each other.

God is interested in our inner being, not our outer facades. He wants us to love him with our whole heart, soul mind and strength. In other words, he desires that we be in relationship with him with our total being. He is concerned about what is inside, in the depths of our hearts. Rev. Satryan says it well. ”We are to be people of inner substance, not just outward appearance. Our content is far more important than our cover. We are here for more than show.” His comment leads us to ask “Am I a person of inner substance or only a person of outward appearance? The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Countering the Culture

T. S. Eliot, in an essay entitled Religion and Literature notes that “the author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings…. and we are affected by it, whether we intend to be or not.” He continues to say that most of the reading material written by contemporary authors with whom we come in contact is written by people who have no belief in the supernatural. Their worldview contains no place for God. God is not even considered to be on their horizon. Their worldview is often foreign to most Christians. Still, Eliot believes that benefit can be found in reading such literature, as long as we recognize the vast gulf that exists between our Christian frame of reference and that of these contemporary authors.

Looking at the problem of worldview from another perspective, the Russian writer Anatoly Kuznetsof was asked how he obtained a Christian worldview growing up in Communist Russia without access to a Bible. He stated that Russia’s refusal to ban the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky allowed Christianity to continue, even while the government tried to stamp it out. These two writer’s exposition of sin, failure and redemption, written from a thoroughly Christian worldview, had a profound influence upon him and the Russian people.

Today we live in what is called a post modernist, post Christian culture. There is a vast gulf between this cultural worldview and that of a Christian worldview. The prevailing culture will have an effect upon us whether we want it to or not. As examples, the moral permissiveness seen on most sit-coms will impact us. What we read in the newspaper and see on the evening news will affect our thinking. The books and magazines we read will affect our thought process. Therefore, it is important that we be aware of their potential impact on our lives. But how conscious are we of the gulf that exists between these competing worldviews as we live our daily lives? Through the mass media and the printed word we are constantly bombarded, as Eliot says, by writers who “are really all working together in the same direction.” And this direction doesn’t include God. Unless we are acutely aware of the tension between the Christian and the non-Christian worldviews, we are in danger of being sucked in by the prevailing culture that surrounds us.

How can we solve this dilemma? Some people have tried to avoid the culture that surrounds them. They isolate themselves in “Christian ghettos”. They often end up being marginalized, having little impact on the society around them. Others have embraced it lock, stock and barrel. They become assimilated in the culture and lose their distinctiveness. Totally avoiding the culture is not the answer. Neither is a whole hearted embrace. Eliot suggests that we must know what we believe and why. We must also know the areas where we are most likely to fail. Knowing that we could easily become part of the prevailing culture around us helps to keep us alert to the danger. Eliot says we have “the duty of consciously maintaining certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world; and that by these criteria and standards everything that we read must be tested.” Having a thought out standard allows us to effectively critique our secular culture. We can then accept the positive aspects and reject the negative ones. But I wonder how often do we evaluate what we read, hear, and see? Two questions come to mind. What standards and criteria have I developed in my life that I use to evaluate the worldviews around me? How effectively am I using them in everything I see and hear and read as I intersect with the culture in which I live?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Consequences

A family therapist was discussing some of the comments he often received from parents. Many of them asked the question “Why are our kids so different than we were when we were kids? When we were kids, if our parents told us not to do something, we didn’t do it. But our kids are so different. What we say doesn’t seem to make any difference.” The therapist remarked that in earlier generations, when parents said “Don’t do that” everyone knew they meant “Don’t do that or there will be consequences.” Many of today’s children don’t believe there will be consequences to their actions. Therefore it is much easier for them to ignore their parent’s wishes. They don’t believe in the authority of their parents. They also don’t think that their parents have their best interests at heart.

I wonder to what extent we do the same thing with God. Do we have the attitude that we can do whatever we want without any consequences? Do we sin believing that God won’t discipline us for our actions? Many times it seems that way. We don’t try to avoid sin, but instead put our efforts into avoiding being caught. We don’t believe that God will discipline us for our sins. We don’t want to admit that he has authority over us. Nor do we believe that when he commands us not to do something he has our best interests at heart. This situation is caused by our having a defective view of God. We don’t believe that he is actively in control of the universe. While we may believe that he is interested in the grand scheme of things, we don’t believe that he is concerned about the actions of individuals. We refuse to admit that he is an authority figure in our lives. Therefore we think we can do what we want, when we want, without suffering the consequences.

But throughout the Bible, we see that there are always consequences to people’s actions. When King Saul didn’t follow God’s instructions in the battle with the Amalekites, the prophet Samuel told him that because of his disobedience God was rejecting him as king. Because David had an affair with Bathsheba and killed her husband, the prophet Nathan told him that he would never have peace in his family. For the rest of his life, David lived with court intrigue, rebellion, mistrust, rape, and scheming sons within his family. The Apostle Peter, speaking of false teachers, says that their condemnation hangs over them. The Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church that those living in wickedness will not inherit the kingdom of God. In each case there are consequences to one’s actions.

God is the authority figure in our lives who is in control of our destiny. We need to listen to him. When he speaks, it is for our good. Hebrews 12:10 says that “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness”. We need to listen to him and obey his commands, for they really are in our best interests. But when we don’t, we should not be surprised when we suffer the consequences. Do we believe that God both blesses us as well as punishes us? Or do we think of him more as a doting grandfather? Make no mistake, God is actively involved in our lives. He is in charge, and there will be consequences when we ignore him. From time to time it is worth doing a little self examination and asking the question “Are there things in my life where I am ignoring God’s directive? It’s time to pay attention.

The Good Things in Life

The Roman orator, Cicero, in his essay Paradox I speaks about people who are addicted to the good things in life. In particular he speaks of the accumulation of treasures, mansions, power etc. He then notes “For I have observed, that those to whom these things abounded, still desired them most: for the thirst of cupidity is never filled or satiated. They are tormented not only with the lust of increasing, but with the fear of losing what they have.” He later notes that those seeking pleasure believe that “pleasure is the highest good.” It is interesting to note, in light of his words, that many people believe that an excess of seeking pleasure was a contributing factor in the fall of the Roman Empire.

It doesn’t seem that things have changed must over the past two thousand years. It has been noted that people with an annual income of $10,000 and people with an income of $100,000 both consider themselves broke. The wealthy are just broke at a higher level. As one person has noted, “no matter what our income, we live ten percent beyond our means!” The more we have the more we want. This attitude causes several problems. First, it is a contributing cause of the excessive debt load here in America. The typical family is carrying around $9,000 in debt. Second, the “keeping pace with the Jones” mentality leads to a high level of frustration and dissatisfaction with life. Even when we think we have arrived, we only set a new, higher standard for ourselves. This also fuels our ever competitive society. Third, it can cause us to compromise our moral and ethical standards. The fear of losing our lifestyle can lead us to do things we would otherwise never even consider. This theme is very evident in the movie “The Firm” where the new, young law partner is given every amenable pleasure of life with the goal that he will accept the law firm’s immoral practices in order to maintain his new lifestyle. And fourth, it leads us to be a consumer oriented society which often misuses our available resources.

Things have not changed much in the 2000 years since Cicero. Our society still focuses on self gratification. Advertisements implore us to grab all the gusto we can. We are encouraged to seek pleasure. We are a narcissistic society. We may even compromise our convictions to obtain the “good life”. We always want more.

The Apostle Paul’s attitude is far removed from this. His relationship with Jesus was the most important thing in his life. He was in debt to Jesus who had totally transformed his life. Paul found that in whatever state he found himself, he was content. He refused to compromise his message even when it cost him something including his very life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the listening crowd “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). He effectively is saying that our priorities and values will follow whatever we hold in the highest regard. His statement should lead us to question our own priorities and values. What do we hold as the highest thing in our lives? Is it Jesus or something else? He asks us to place him above everything else – whether fame, wealth, security, or status. He wants to be first in our lives. But today, as in Cicero’s time, we tend to focus on pleasure and things. Turning Jesus’ statement into a question its time to ask: “Where really is my treasure anyway?”

Change?

For many, the results of the most recent election are viewed with great optimism for the future. For others, the results are seen as a cause for pessimism. As in all elections, some consider it to be the dawning of a new age, while others are certain it means the end of the world. This observation is true no matter which party has become the party in power. At such times it is important to remember that God has not abdicated his position. He is still on his throne and Jesus is still sitting at his right hand.

Over the past couple of years there has been a desire for change in our country. We have observed it in the rhetoric of both candidates as they have talked about the need for change in Washington. Congress’ abysmal approval rating certainly points to our desire for and the need for change. In addition to the problems of Wall Street, we have seen corruption, scandals, greed and attempted power grabs from both sides of the aisle in Congress. These have certainly fueled the calls for change. Unfortunately this is nothing new. We have heard it many times before. It surfaces every four years, then quickly dies down until the next election approaches. Real change never seems to occur. We seem to stay in the same old rut, no matter which party is in power.

We do well to ask why. The answer can be found in comparing God's view of change with ours. We often view change as only the way we do things, and the distinct policies we hold. We do not think of it as being related to who we are and the character we have. We tend to think of it in societal terms. But in God's eyes, change begins with personal repentance which leads to transformed lives characterized by holy living. Repentance requires turning and going in the exact opposite direction. In the words of Jesus, we are to "go and sin no more". Without repentance of the wrong doings and evil that we have done, and the desire to cease doing them, change will never occur. This explains why we have become so cynical of Washington. Without repentance and transformation it is doomed to repeat the same mistakes as before. Corruption, scandals, greed and attempts at power will continue unabated.

Change must begin in the human heart. This is why mere spoken words are not enough. It must lead to action. It has to come from the heart, for that is the center of both our will and desire. It is in the heart that God transforms people's lives. It is easy to point fingers at our leaders and power brokers. But if we are to see our society changed for the better, it must begin with us. We must examine our own lives in order to discover where we need to change. It is only as we repent of our own sins and live transformed lives are we able to bring about change in society. It will begin as we live transformed lives in front of our families, our friends and our communities. We can then legitimately pray for our leaders, that they will repent and become transformed as well, without being hypocritical ourselves. That is the only way we will see true change in Washington. If this does not happen, all the talk of change will amount to nothing. Over the last thirty years we have witnessed a moral and ethical downward slide among the leaders of big business and government and in the entertainment industry. It is definitely time for change. But am I willing to first change myself?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spiritual Cancer

“You have cancer!” Three of the most dreaded words in the English language. The fear of hearing those words is enough to make the period of time waiting for test results an excruciating ordeal. Most cancers are deeply internal. They may not manifest themselves until they are full blown. By the time they are finally diagnosed there may only be a small chance of a cure. The treatment for cancer is usually very aggressive; a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Radical surgery immediately cuts out the cancerous tumor. Chemo and radiation therapies are designed to destroy the lingering cancerous cells and prevent their return. But the remaining cancerous cells can be latent for several years and then rise up their ugly head again. This is why most survivors of cancer must have regular checkups.

The same phenomenon occurs in our spiritual lives. We can easily have spiritual cancer without even realizing it. Spiritual cancer lies deep within our souls, far from the surface. Many times it comes to us as bitterness, anger or hurt. There it festers and grows until one day it comes to the surface. Then its destructive force is unleashed in our lives often in the form of bitterness, anger, betrayal or hurt. This is the point where we see reputations lost, personal lives ruined and families destroyed. We often wonder what was the cause of a person’s sudden ethical or moral lapse? We seldom realize that it may have been developing deep in their soul for a long, long time.

Just like with physical cancer, the treatment for spiritual cancer requires aggressive treatment. We must first become aware that our lives are full of spiritual cancer. This will require us to examine our own souls. We must realize that we have sinned. Next, we must desire to have spiritual surgery. The first step to recovery is confession and repentance. Repentance is similar to making a U-turn. This requires making a 180 degree turn and going in the opposite direction. We must be sorry for the sin in our lives, asking God for his forgiveness, and resolving, with His help, to avoid repeating the sin. But just like cancer, the latent sin cells still lurk in the background, waiting to strike again. We need God’s radical therapy to destroy the lingering temptations to sin. This often comes to us in meditating upon God’s word. His word has the ability to cut to the heart and strengthen our resolve to avoid sin.

God’s surgery can also require a change of environment. The recovering alcoholic has to stay away from bars. The recovering drug addict must keep away from friends who are still using drugs. The recovering pornography addict has to avoid internet porn sites. We should remove ourselves from the temptations that led to our sin in the first place. If we don’t, we are more likely to repeat it. We will then experience Jesus’ warning about the demon who goes out and brings back a gang of friends to inhabit his former place. God’s therapy may also come to us in the form of individuals who will care for us and help us with our recovery. They mentor and encourage us, continually pointing us to God. They help us to be accountable in our desire to avoid falling into the same sin again.
Just like the cure for physical cancer requires deep surgery and therapy, so also will the cure for spiritual cancer. It has to go deep into our soul, where our deepest thoughts and desires reside. The old ones must be rooted out and destroyed – replaced by God’s thoughts. It is only then that the recovery can begin .But I must first ask myself “What spiritual cancer am I dealing with?”

Breaking into the Church

In an article titled “Breaking into the Church” a family described their search for a new church home when they moved to a new community. They visited several large churches. Most had dynamic programs and services, strong youth groups, and many opportunities for service. But they finally settled on, and joined, a small church in their new community. For all practical purposes, this church had nothing to offer. It had a small, struggling youth program. The building was unattractive. The minister was far from dynamic and his sermons were boring. Yet they found themselves very attracted to that small congregation. From their first visit the members of the church took an interest in them. They were invited to several families’ homes. Church families befriended them and mentored their children, helping the family become assimilated into their new community. They all developed several deep friendships with members of that church. A few years later, when a job transfer took them across the country, they immediately sought out a church of the same denomination to join.

Reading this article reminded me of my experience during my college years. While away at college I attended a small church located in the community. It was a church of only about 100 people. In the three and one-half years I attended that church I got to know only 6 families. The only reason I got to know them was because they were families of professors at the university. The remainder of the congregation took no interest in the students who attended. One Sunday I visited another church with a friend. It was also a church of about 100 people. But that first Sunday I met every member of the congregation. The result: I never went back to the former church. Though I had attended there for over three years, I had never joined that church because I was never welcomed. But I soon joined this new church. It was a church that I was allowed to break into. It was while a member of this church that I felt God’s call to go on to seminary.

God wants his church to be in the habit of being broken into. He desires us to welcome others, to love and befriend them. This is the way we can be most attractive to the world. It is one of the best ways of reaching new people for Christ. But it can only happen when every member is open and accepting of others. It only occurs when new people are befriended and made to feel welcomed. It requires our willingness to reach out to others and to love them. But how often do we really do this? How often do we invite someone to join us for coffee or lunch after church? Are we open to others outside of Sunday mornings? It is very easy for us to think that “the church should be doing thus and so…” But we often forget that we each, individually, make up the church. Do we at the same time say “I should be doing thus and so…” Unfortunately, too many times the answer is “no”. But until we honestly welcome others, befriend them and love them, we close ourselves off and might as well lock the doors. Until we actively share our lives with others we will never be broken into. The contrast between the churches mentioned above raises interesting questions. Is my church willing to be broken into? How open am I to involving others in my life? To what extent am I willing to be broken into? The answers may make all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Putting Ourselves in Boxes

We are creatures of polarity. We delight in either - ors. We love to label things, especially people. We believe that by labeling them we can put them into a box. This is an easy way for us to define other people. It allows us to both understand and control them. We find this very comforting. Peter Kreeft, in his book Making Choices talks about the twelve boxes that we often use to label people. All are boxes of polarity. They include things like conservative versus liberal, right versus left, law versus grace, intellect versus will, absolute versus relative, etc. Live becomes very easy when we can label people in this way. They become either - or. This allows us to define them, and make it easier to discount them. We often label ourselves in the same way. We enjoy living in a box of our own creation.

Kreeft notes that the issue is really not "either - or" but "both - and" the majority of the time. Aspects of both poles have their legitimate place. Both need to be incorporated into our daily lives. The British preacher, Charles Simeon, writing the early 1800s to a friend about the theological controversies of his day stated "I can say in words what these thirty years I have proclaimed in deeds, that the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes." Holding both sides in tension requires much more time and effort. It requires reflective thought. It also means we are less likely to be understood by those who are "boxers".

We see the effect of "boxing" all around us, especially during political seasons. Much of the political talk revolves around Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, and right versus left. Various political camps talked about refusing to vote in the recent election. Many times their non participation is due to the candidate's position not being 100 percent in agreement with theirs. He has been effectively labeled - placed in a box.

We do the same thing in other areas as well. Charges of racial profiling keep cropping up. Both blacks and whites are easily as guilty. We consider some people to have more worth than others. Neighborhoods can easily become ghettoized - by the rich or by the poor. Either consciously or unconsciously, it can be easy to think that "All _____ (you fill in the blank - blacks, whites, rich, poor, liberals, conservatives etc.) are _____." Many of the boxes we live in are designated to box others out. By eliminating them from our box, or putting them in a box of our own creation, we don't have to listen to their viewpoint.

Jesus on the other hand, refused to be boxed in. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, at opposite ends of the spectrum from each other, hated him. They took the attitude that if he wasn't totally in agreement with them he must be their enemy. He didn't fit nicely into their little boxes. He was a "both - and" type of person. He refused to be labeled. He focused on the issues of right versus wrong, irrespective of their little boxes. Every time they attempted to place him in a box, he broke out. He regarded all people with dignity. Samaritan or Jew, sinner or saint, he treated them all the same. He refused to be boxed in or to box others. As we follow his example, we need to break out of our boxes as well. We need to stop placing others in boxes. This raises the question, "What boxes are controlling my life that I need to change?"

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Bailout

James Madison, in the Federalist Paper #51 says: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." He concludes that since neither is the case we must have governments and that they must have a system of checks and balances in order to function well. In effect, he is saying that since we are not divine, and therefore can't be counted upon to always do what is right, we need a government. At the same time, since those who govern are also not divine, we must have a system of checks and balances to keep them from abusing their power. Alternative political parties, other branches of government and regulatory agencies fill this role in society. Madison goes on to say that "experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." There are too many people throughout history who have abused their position in government for Madison to be optimistic about the future.

Reading between the lines, we see that he views man as sinful and unable to be trusted to do what is right. As we look at the recent debacle over the financial bailout, hs words appear almost prophetic. While we can't blame everyone, some are guilty of misconduct. There are rumors of books being cooked, congressmen receiving larg sums of money from Fannie Mae, excessive bonuses being paid out, Wall street dishonesty and extravagant trips on the part of CEOs. Avarice, greed and corruption have played important roles in the failures. Those who should have been providing oversight didnt'. Those in power abused the privilege to govern wisely that had been granted to them. The system of checks and balances that we had in place didn't work. We can ask why?

The society in which we live has strived diligently to isolate anything religious from the public square. We are now beginning to see the results. Ethical responsibility and public morality have gone by the wayside. It is every man or woman for themselves. As John Mark Reynolds noted in a recent Christianity Today article "Without morality on the individual level, no laws, contracts, or rules will help our society. Bad men will always find a way to cheat." Without a moral sense, there is nothing within a person to which he can hold himself accountable. The only deterrent becomes the fear of getting caught. As one's power and prestige increase even the fear of exposure diminishes. This leads to the corrupting atmosphere that we see today in government and in politics. As our society continues to lose its moral stance, there will be less and less to keep people from acting badly.

There is a legitimate reason for religion to be involved in the public square. It promotes the rule of law which is historically based on both reason and the moral law of God. It acts as a deterrent to the abuses of power and the excesses of evil. Having the awareness that an all knowing, all seeing God in Heaven is acutely aware of our thoughts and deeds also helps us to examine our own lives. It points to the reality of sin in our lives, requiring us to deal with it.

In addition to casting blame of those who caused the economic meltdown, we need to examine ourselves. Have we taken advantage of others or misused our own power? Are we living the same ethical and moral life we desire our leaders to follow? Or have we done many of the same things they have done, only on a much smaller scale?

Modern Day Baal Worship

The ancient Canaanites worshiped Baal. Baal was a fertility god, and their religion was a fertility cult. Baal was thought to bring the spring rains to start the growing season. He was also thought to heavily influence the birth levels of their herds and flocks. The people worshiped him to implore him to favor their animals and fields, making them fruitful. In order to appease Baal, they practiced such abominable practices as child sacrifice and sacred prostitution. A young child, placed in the idol's arms, rolled down into the hollow interior to be consumed alive by the fire within. The people believed that such activities would enlist Baal's aid on their behalf.

Baal worship was an economic based religion. The Canaanites were concerned for their personal well being. The thought of the effects of famine or pestilence was never far from their minds. They performed their religious practices in order to be prosperous and successful. Thus, economic prosperity became the driving force behind their religion. It influenced all of their religious decisions.

Throughout the Old Testament we see the children of Israel being enticed by Baal worship. Despite all the warnings from the prophets, they succumbed to the temptation to worship Baal again and again. Their trust and faith in God was not strong enough to overcome the temptation. They continually lost their belief that God was powerful enough to provide for their needs and looked elsewhere for prosperity.

It is easy for us to look down on them, wondering how they could have ever been taken in by this false religion. Yet I wonder, how many times we do the same thing? Do we fall to the same temptations as the ancient Israelites? The society in which we live focuses on success, status, prestige and economic well being. The drive to obtain these goals can become all consuming. it explains many of the problems our society faces today. This drive keeps some people so consumed with their job that they neglect and lose their families. It causes others to compromise their integrity for personal gain or to avoid loss. Some become power hungry, willing to stomp on the backs of others in order to get ahead. Others practice a modern form of child sacrifice, resorting to abortion because they view children as a barrier to their economic well being or as interfering with their lifestyle or career. In each of these cases, we are practicing Baal worship. Our obsession with material prosperity and success can cause us to worship Baal instead of God.

But God will not play second fiddle to Baal. He destroyed the Canaanites for their abominable ways. He called forth the prophets to speak out against Baal worship. He chastised Israel each time they turned away from him to follow Baal. He allowed economic hardships to afflict the Israelites until they turned and cried out to him for help. Only then would he rescue them. He called people to live an ethical and moral lifestyle based on allegiance to him.

He does the same for us today. In the midst of the economic turmoil, moral collapse and threats of terrorism in which we live, God is calling us to trust him. He continually points out that he is more trustworthy than the Baals we try to serve. He calls us to live holy lives based on righteousness and justice in devotion to him. As we live out our lives in these trying times it is worth asking "Do my priorities and the way I am living my life show that I am truly worshiping God, or do they suggest that I am really worshiping Baal?

Worship Disorders

A member of Life Challenge recently gave a talk on addictions. He spoke of addictions as being a form of a worship disorder. The addicting substance, whether alcohol or drugs, becomes all consuming in our lives. It requires our allegiance to it. In effect, it becomes our God. It replaces God in our lives, affecting all of our desires, our emotions and our actions. It becomes an obsession and controls us. In effect, we worship it.

I wonder how many other obsessions in our lives are, in fact, also worship disorders. Sex, status, money, power careers, etc. can become all consuming in our lives. Our thoughts, feelings and actions can easily revolve around them. When they begin to control us, they replace God in our lives. They have become a worship disorder.

Worship disorders come to us in many guises. They come in the form of the executive who stated "If your family gets in the way of your career, get a new family. That's what I did." He had placed his career above his family. We see them in the person who compromises his integrity for increasing wealth. He lets things slide that are ethically questionable. They come in the form of the politician who uses a smear campaign to maintain her office. Maintaining personal power has a higher value than decency and truth. They appear in the manager who takes credit for the work done by his subordinates in order to increase his own stature. He is willing to step on others to get ahead. The person who must have the latest and greatest "toy", whether it is a car, designer clothing or electronic gadgets has a worship disorder. She constantly asks herself "What will people think of us?" Her status in the community becomes an all consuming drive. They may also exist in our wearing a facade so that people won't really know us. What people think of us is more important than being real. Many compulsive obsession disorders are also worship disorders. They come in many forms and in many ways. Even our church can become our worship disorder. In each case, something in our lives has become more important than God himself.

The rich young man described in Mark 10:17-22 had a worship disorder. His wealth was more important to him than was a relationship with God. And so he turned away from Jesus. He was not willing to give up the god of riches whom he served. The Pharisees also had a worship disorder. They worshiped adherence to the multitude of religious rules they had established. In so doing, they lost their connection with God. As the singer, Bob Dylan once noted, "Everybody has to serve somebody." There will always be someone or something whom we will serve. Will it be God or something else?

When we really take a hard look at our own lives, I wonder if we are really that much better off than that rich young man whom Jesus talked about. How often do we put conditions on our relationship with God? How many times do we find ourselves saying "God, I will follow you as long as....?" What are we unwilling to either do or give up? These things become more important to us than God himself and become the thing that we worship. What things do we find in our lives that we consider to be more important than God? What is my worship disorder?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jamesian Fiction

Karen Burton Mains, in her book You Are What You Say has a chapter entitled "Jamesian Fictions." She talks about the various fictions regarding our lives which we tend to create. She says that "Eve's fiction was that she believed she could be like God." She goes on to describe Adam's, Lot's, Abraham and Sarah's and Isaac's fiction. Each believed something that greatly influenced their actions. Unfortunately, in each case, their belief proved to be false. Lot's fictional belief that he could live in the midst of corruption without being tainted proved false. Abraham and Sarah's fictional belief that they could control the destiny of their family has caused ongoing enmity between Jews and Arabs who look to Isaac and Ishmael as their progenitors. Isaac's assumption that he could play favorites with his sons without affecting the family resulted in deceit. To these examples we can add David with his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the schemes of Ananias and Sapphira over holding back money, etc. Each held a fictional belief. Mains goes on to add that people who are successful in the church are particularly susceptible to being deluded by fictional beliefs about their own status in the church. Their actions, based on their beliefs, often end up in exposure of sin in their own lives. We have seen this occurring in the lives of several prominent pastors and tele-evangelists over the past several years.

But this problem doesn't only happen to characters in the Bible or to pastors and tele-evangelists. It also happens to us. We are just as likely to be deluded by fictional beliefs. The man or women having an affair often believes it won't affect their family life. The couple who divorce often believe it won't negatively affect their children. The man who is too busy at work to attend his children's school or sporting events doesn't think his lack of involvement will affect them negatively. The boss who thinks that his constant belittling of his employees won't affect their morale is deluding himself. The former drug addict who believes that she can live in her former drug environment without going back to drugs is sadly mistaken. The person who gossips often doesn't think it will affect other's lives. Then there is the man or women who thinks they can commit sins without it having an effect on their relationship with God. We all live with Jamesian fictions. And they all cause great difficulties in our lives. Many times they are little things that we don't even think about. They are not things which are at the forefront of our minds. They often lurk in the background, in the core of our being. But their effects can be extremely powerful. As we have seen from the characters in the Bible, eventually they come to the surface with disastrous consequences.

How can we avoid these fictions? We must begin by taking an honest look at ourselves and how we live. We must examine the results of our actions, particularly as they affect relationships with those around us. Many times it is helpful to practice the Golden Rule - doing unto others what I would want them to do to me. Attempting to look through the eyes of the child whose father never attends his events, the mistreated employee, the recipient of gossip or through the eyes of a holy God will help to destroy the Jamesian fictions in our lives. We all have them to a greater or lesser degree. The question is, what are we going to do about them. On further thought, what Jamesian fictions are you living with?