Friday, February 27, 2009

Rights or Responsibilities

In a recent interview the rock star Dion, whose songs included "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue" described the difference between license and responsibility. He noted that license gives us permission to do something whether or not it is good for us whereas responsibility gives us the freedom to do as we ought. It was only after becoming a Christian that he began to understand the distinction between the two. He then observed that as young children we don’t have the freedom to choose. Decisions are made for us. It is only as we begin to take responsibility that we obtain this freedom.

Today we live in a world that focuses on rights rather than responsibility. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in his 1978 Harvard graduation address, remarked that “The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.” During the intervening years, the situation has not improved. People are often forcefully talking about their rights. But when was the last time you heard anyone speak as forcefully about their responsibilities? Our government gives us many rights. Unfortunately they are more closely related to license than to responsibility. We can think of many examples. For instance, we have the right to obtain a divorce, but it doesn't mean that we ought to do so. We have the right to have an abortion, but it also doesn't mean that we should. We have the right to go out and get drunk, but it's certainly not the best thing to do. Rights are tied to license. In most cases they are related to what we legally can do. But rights can become terrible task masters when we focus too much upon them. They can gain control over us. By focusing on them we easily become their slaves.

On the other hand, responsibility, because it deals with what we ought to do, is more connected to morality. Responsibility gives us the freedom to choose to do what is right. Unlike rights, it is not directly related to what we legally can or cannot do. Responsibility allows us to choose to do what is proper and what we should. In both Solzhenitsyn’s and Dion’s eyes, rights and responsibility are the antithesis or each other. It is difficult to maintain both at the same time. Rights focus on “me” whereas responsibility focuses on “others”. Rights focus on what I can legally do whether I should or not. Responsibility focuses on what I ought to do in given situations. Responsibility brings freedom because it involves the commitment of the will. Perhaps the reason we hear so little about responsibility these days is because of its tie to morality. The society in which we live is consumed with being free to do what they want, not what they ought. Our compulsive obsession with rights has enslaved us to the point that we are no longer free. We have bought into the mantras of women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, freedom of choice rights, and whatever other rights we can think of. This obsession has led to the victim society in which we live. Instead of taking responsibility, it is much easier to blame someone else.

Solzhenitsyn and Dion imply that until we put more emphasis on responsibility than rights we will never solve the problems which face society today. Until we do, we will never be truly free. But we can’t expect society to change its focus unless we do so first. Ask yourself, “Do I focus more on my rights or my responsibilities?” The answer will tell you a lot.

Making God Visible

Philip Yancey, in a talk given on the topic of prayer told the story of Joanna, a woman of the South African Colored race who with her husband lived near one of the most notorious prisons in South Africa. This particular prison housed the most violent criminals. Conditions inside were horrible. As many as fifty people were housed in the same cell, with rows of bunks three high in addition to mattresses on the floor. The prisoners were allowed outside the cell only one hour a day. Bathroom facilities consisted of a single garbage can inside the cell. The stench inside the prison was overpowering. Violence was an everyday occurrence. The year prior to Joanna’s involvement at the prison, violence had to be quelled three out of every four days. Then Joanna felt God calling her to minister to the prisoners who were incarcerated in that prison. A year later there were only two incidents of violence during the entire year. Something miraculous had happened. The British Broadcasting Corporation was so intrigued by what had gone on that they filmed two documentaries on the prison and what had happened there. When Yancey, on a trip to South Africa, met with Joanna, he asked her how she had been able to do the work of God inside that prison. She replied that God was always present there. She only made him visible.

She only made him visible! God is present in the slums, the refugee camps, and the prisons. He is present in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. He is present in our slums, our ghettos and our drug houses. He is present in New Orleans and in the Mississippi and Louisiana towns not yet rebuilt in the aftermath of Katrina. He only asks that we make him visible.

We can easily ask the question “How do we make God visible?” There is no precise answer. There are many ways. For one person it may be going down to the Katrina ravaged south and helping rebuild a poor widow’s home. For another it may be sitting with a friend who is dying or listening to someone who is facing a difficult situation. For a third, it is befriending an at risk child. It may be taking a meal to a family who has experienced grief. There are as many ways as there are people. But each has one thing in common – demonstrating the love of God to those in need.

. When one of his disciples asked Jesus to show them God, he replied “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). Jesus was making God visible all along. When John the Baptist, languishing in prison sent a message asking if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told John that the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed, the deaf hear and the gospel is preached. Jesus was demonstrating the love of God to those in need. By healing and loving people he was making God visible and showing that he was the Messiah. He visibly did the things the prophets said the Messiah would do.

God calls us to make him visible too. Today we live in a society that has little use for God. Religion is being removed from the public square. People are becoming less and less knowledgeable about God. In such a society, many people will only see God through us. Joanna definitely made him visible. As we look at our lives, are we also making God visible?

Thursday, February 26, 2009


As a young child I spent many hours at my grandparents. They had a couple of small magnets that had dogs glued on top of them. I spent hours playing with those magnets. When the dog’s heads were face to face, they repelled each other. It was only when head to tail that they attracted each other. Most children have enjoyed playing with magnets at one time or another. As adults, there are many times when we are thankful for a magnetized screwdriver. As I grew up I learned how magnets work. When the same poles of two magnets are placed next to each other they repel each other, pushing themselves away. It is only when the north pole of one magnet is next to the south pole of another magnet that they attract each other. It is interesting that the same pair of magnets can either attract or repel. Electromagnets also use this magnetic principle. When the current is on they act as a magnet. When it is off they have no effect at all.

As we live our Christian lives, I wonder how much we act like magnets. We have the capability of attracting, having no effect upon, or repelling others. We are to live our lives such that others, seeing how we live, are attracted. They should want to know what makes us different. They should see something in our lives that intrigues them so that they want to know more.

Unfortunately this is not often the case. The father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, is reported to have thought very highly of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet he never became a Christian. He said that the reason he didn’t become a Christian was because of Christians. In other words, what he saw in the lives of the Christians around him repelled him. Many of the young blacks I met during the late 1960s and early 1970s rejected Christianity because they viewed it as the main thing that held them back for three hundred years. Their view of Christianity and the church repelled them instead of attracting them.

In identifying with Christ, our lives are to be transformed. The transformed lives of the early Christians became a strong attraction to men and women living in the Roman and Greek world of the 1st and second centuries AD. The early Christians demonstrated love to all people, no matter their race or economic status, whether slave or free. Many of them had their lives totally changed following their conversion to Christ. People were attracted to them. Their transformation allowed them to go out and change the world – even in a world where they were outlawed and persecuted.

Whether we like it or not, as Christians we are like magnets. We can either attract people to Christ or repulse them. To a large extent it depends on how others see us living our lives. Like the early Christians, we also are to live transformed lives. Our relationship with God should make us different from those around us. Through us, people should be drawn to the God we serve. Will we who live in the 21st century have the same effect on the world that the church did during the first two centuries of the Christian era? To a large extent the answer will be found in our answer to the following question: As I live my life before God and the people around me, do I attract them to him, do they have no idea I am even a Christian, or do I repulse them?

Labeling Others

Sue von Fange, in an article on singleness in the church notes “At times we all tend to think that by labeling someone we’re excused from relating to them because they don’t fit into the same category as we do.” Unfortunately, we are great labelers. Whether its race, politics, religion, economic status, or lifestyles we naturally try to label other people. It helps us define who they are. But labeling both gives us control over them as well as giving us an excuse to avoid taking them seriously. Living in an area which is heavily influenced by academia, we face the constant temptation to look down on those with lesser degrees, lower economic status, or lesser jobs. Labeling can negatively affect our relationships with neighbors, co-workers and even fellow church members. But when we label people in this way we miss out on so much that we can learn. It really is a form of profiling, which God looks upon with great disapproval.

Two incidents in my life stand out in stark contrast to this pattern. Shortly after beginning my graduate studies in seminary, several of us students visited a coffeehouse located in a church in downtown Chicago. The church had hired a poor elderly black man who was a wino, one who had spent years on the streets, to be their janitor. Part of his job was to be at the church when the coffee house was open. That evening, for three hours, he kept us spellbound as he told us of life in the inner city. Here we were, a group of bright, up and coming white seminarians from suburbia and rural America being taught about life on the streets by a poor elderly black drunken inner city wino. As we sat at his feet, we learned a lot about life that evening. Forty years later I still recall that evening with a sense of awe. It would have been so easy to dismiss him because of his status in life. But had I done so, I would have missed so much. This experience has had a definite impact in how I have viewed and treated people through the years.

The second incident was shared by a friend who had been named as the department chair at a prestigious university. Shortly after their arrival, his five year old son was fascinated by the garbage collectors as they made their rounds. He had never seen this before. When his father came home from a day of teaching he said with wonderment in his eyes “Dad, do you know what I wish you were – a garbage collector.” Position meant nothing to his young son. My friend related that it taught him humility. As humorous as his story is, it has a point. Value doesn’t require status, and labeling is an acquired skill. We often learn it from our parents and associates. This can occur overtly or subjectively.

We also become very adept in labeling other Christians. We refer to them as Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist, etc. While it can define them, oftentimes it is a way of labeling as well. My mother-in-law’s family and friends came out of the pietistic reform movement in the spiritually dead Scandinavian state churches of the late 19th century. My wife, Juanita, recalls overhearing her mother’s friends say many times “Well so and so is Lutheran, but I think they might be Christian.” Another form of labeling!

How much we miss when we label people in order to avoid, ignore or discount them! To what extent are we teaching our children to label others by the way we live? How much more could our lives be enriched if we treated everyone as a person of worth and value? What labels do you need to peel off and throw away?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Know Thyself

The dictum “know thyself” has been attributed to Socrates. He held this as one of the two guiding principles of life. His statement alludes to a life of examination. But his statement misses one vital aspect of life. In his novel "Father Elijah: an Apocalypse", Michael D. O’Brien states “No man knows his own soul so well that he is invincible to the tactics of the enemy, no man.” Not only must we know our strengths and our gifts, but we especially must know our own weaknesses. In warfare, it is important to know the weakness of the enemy. That weak spot becomes the focal point of the attack, for it is there that the enemy can best be defeated. Likewise, if an attack can be launched at a point where the enemy least expects it, the likelihood of success is greater. This was an important aspect in the success of the “D” Day invasion at Normandy.

The devil is at warfare with the church. He knows our weaknesses, often better than we know them ourselves. He exploits these points of weakness in order to strike out against us and defeat us. These are the places where we are most vulnerable. They are the places where we are most likely to fail. He also knows the areas where we think we are invincible. In those areas he can also catch us off guard. When we think we are safe we can easily succumb to the danger of pride. This became a vulnerable point for many of the high profile church leaders who have fallen over the past few decades. They forgot to examine their weaknesses. The results were tragic for their ministries. Jesus told the disciples that they would all abandon him. Peter’s denial of Jesus a short while after his declaration that even if everyone else left, he, Peter, would never leave shows how little he knew himself. The statement “pride goes before a fall” is poignantly true.

Unfortunately, we are not invincible and we often fail. For this reason it is especially important for us to know the areas where we are most likely to succumb to temptations. By knowing them, we are less likely to be caught off guard when temptations do come our way. Knowledge of our weaknesses will provide a hedge of protection around us. Having that knowledge in front of us when the temptations come helps us to reject the temptation. If we then succumb to it, it is because it is an intentional act. We must also understand the areas in our lives where we can become prideful. This helps us to maintain a humble attitude.

In order to avoid the twin dangers of being caught up either in temptation or pride we must truly know ourselves. We have to examine the areas of our lives were we are most likely to fail. This isn’t always easy. We don’t like to admit that we are not perfect. But when we really look at ourselves, we are forced to admit that we are far from perfect. We must acknowledge that we are vulnerable to sin. We have to understand the grace of God at work in our lives to protect us. And this process begins with the clear understanding that we are truly sinners in need of a forgiving God. It starts with our taking a hard look at who we really are. And this begins by asking how well do I really know myself?

A Childlike Faith

I received an email the other day about Kevin. One night Kevin’s brother overheard him praying. As he prayed he asked “God, where are you? Oh, I see, you’re under the bed.” Kevin is a 6’2” thirty year old man, who due to difficulties during his birth, is mentally disabled. In his adult body lives the mind and functionality of a seven year old. He will never grow mentally beyond this level. But he has complete faith that God lives under his bed. In his childlike innocence, he has complete trust in God.

Kevin works at a workshop for the disabled. His daily life consists of getting up, taking a bus to work, performing simple tasks at work, coming home to walk the dog, eating dinner and going to bed. The only variations that occur in his routine are his weekly tasks of doing the laundry and vacuuming the carpet, and going out with his father on Saturdays. Life for Kevin is very simple. It consists of daily rituals and Saturday field trips. He happily accepts his life and is never discontented. He doesn’t worry about wealth or power or status. He’s not concerned with pride. He enjoys working, but is not obsessed with it. He is not striving to be upwardly mobile. He is transparent with his emotions and is sincere. He has a childlike trust in God. In this childlike faith, God – his best friend – lives under his bed.

Kevin’s brother, who has normal intelligence, observed that whereas he always thought of Kevin as being handicapped, perhaps he himself is the one who is really handicapped. Perhaps in God’s eyes Kevin is normal. Kevin’s brother reflected that he finds that his obligations, his pride, his fears and his circumstances become disabilities when they aren’t entrusted to God’s care. He worries about things Kevin never will. He seeks to control the situations around him – something that never even crosses Kevin’s mind. He doesn’t completely trust God like his brother does.

How unlike Kevin we are! We are often too much like his brother. We frequently live with discontent. We seek to have power and want to control things. We try to garner wealth. We are far from transparent, often hiding our true feelings. We are always trying to get ahead and obtain more. Oftentimes our jobs consume us. We worry about things instead of trusting them to God. We are anxious to know how things will turn out in the future. With our intelligence we rationalize away faith. In our sophistication we question God. We have a limited view of who God is. We feel that we must help God with things or they won’t work out right. We easily can become manipulative.

I wonder how much we handicap ourselves when we limit our trust in God. We are often more concerned about things than we are about trusting God with our lives. We end up with an inadequate view of who God is. We don’t see him as strong enough to be trustworthy. We have lost the innocence of a childlike faith. We have lost the pure faith that Kevin has in God. Maybe this is why Jesus said “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:3). He calls us to have that innocent, trusting faith that little children so easily have. By the way, how strong is your faith? Is it as strong as Kevin’s? Or do you have his brother’s handicap?

The Inward Eye

In the fantasy novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, one of the main characters, Sybel, plots revenge. She is given a veiled warning when she is told “The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone, and that eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind and he died of what he saw there.” The implication behind the warning is that what he saw inside himself was so revolting that it caused his death. Because of that warning, Sybel eventually abandons her revengeful plot after examining her own heart. She finally came to understand that had her plot been successful it not only would have destroyed her enemies, but it also would have destroyed her own soul.

The prophet Jeremiah warns us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jer 17:9). He gives us a warning to abandon our evil ways. We aren’t really as good as we like to think we are. The apostle Paul points to the same difficulty when he states that he doesn’t do the good he wants to do, but continually does the evil he doesn’t want to do. (Romans 7:15-25). Both Paul and Jeremiah had looked inward and understood who they really were. They both saw themselves as sinners, being unable to follow the just demands of a holy God. They both understood human nature. They also understood that God had to provide the solution to the problem of sin in their lives. On their own, they could never succeed. Paul concludes that trying to do it on our own only makes us more pathetic.

It is too easy for us to gloss over the real us. We paint a distorted picture of ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as being good people. We compare our selves with others. We are like the Pharisee who prayed “Thank you God that I am not like that sinner over there.” If we are better than they are, whoever the “They” might be, we must be OK. But we aren’t OK. We lose sight of the fact that God has an absolute standard of justice, not a relative one. And when we really take a serious look at our inner thoughts we find a different picture. We do have evil thoughts and desires that we have difficulty keeping under control. Our thoughts are often much worse than our actions. These undesired thoughts keep popping up in our minds. We find that we constantly need help to control them. We find that we can’t control them on our own. Measured against God’s standard we come up short.

This is the point where God intervenes in our lives and transforms us. The apostle Paul says that this is where God rescues us from our dilemma through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the process must begin with our own self examination. We must recognize who we are as we stand before a holy God – a sinner who has violated His holy standard again and again – a sinner in need of His grace. We must confess this to Him and ask for forgiveness. But in order for us to accept His grace, we must first know that we truly need it. We must first recognize and understand who we really are. This requires taking a realistic hard look at ourselves. I wonder, if we turn our eye inward and look at the thoughts of our heart, if we explore the depths of our soul, what will we really find there?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reconnection with God

We live in an electronic world. We live in what many have called the Information Age. The internet has revolutionized how we are able to obtain information. Through various blogs, myspace and facebook and email we can keep up with friends as well as what people are thinking. We live in an exciting world. Yet it is also an impersonal world. We can touch all these people without ever hearing their voice or meeting them in person. Even though it is so much easier to exchange information, we lose one vital aspect of human life – connectedness. The internet is a sterile, impersonal environment. We may never actually meet in person many of the people we correspond with over it. Even though they are live, human beings, we are no more connected to them than we are to, for example, Plato or Aristotle. By focusing only on the internet we lose the connectedness of relationships. I have never yet experienced a laugh, or seen a thoughtful look or a smile, or felt the touch of a hand on the internet. When we use it as the sole means of communication, we experience a loss of personal relationships.

We are created to be in relationship. Studies examining the care of premature babies have shown that those who have little human contact and touch are less likely to survive. Recluses tend to be misfits in society. Their anti-social behavior may lead to violence. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is a case in point. We were made to have and be in relationship. We need the context of relationships in order to thrive. Without them, we suffer a loss. As John Mark Reynolds remarked after attending a convention of bloggers, “there are no complete conversations without being together: soul and body.”
We need each other to be fully human, fully alive.

It is Christmastime. It is the time of year when families naturally get together. In our global world with its ease of mobility, we tend to drift apart. Family members may just as easily be across the world as across the country. Christmastime is a time to come home for the holidays. It is a time to renew relationships that have slipped during the course of the year. It is a time to connect again.

But more than just reconnecting with family and friends, Christmastime is also a time to reconnect with God. In the babe in the manger we discover that God is not just an impersonal force who set the universe in motion and then retired. The birth of Jesus demonstrates to us how personal God is. The transcendent, all powerful God who created the universe has such a strong desire to connect with us that he sent his son to earth to live among us. Jesus experienced all the joys and sorrows of human life. He fully understands us. In Jesus, God became one of us. His love for us was so great that it even cost him the life of his son. It is a little overwhelming when we finally understand that God really loves us and wants to have a relationship with us.

As you go through the holiday season this year, remember to reconnect with God. He is a personal being who desires to be in relationship with you. Even if your relationship with him has been absent over the past few years, now is a good time to restore that relationship. He is more than willing to give us his personal touch. Are you willing to give him the same?

The Gift of the Magi

The short story The Gift of the Magi by O Henry focuses on a young, struggling couple. They are destitute. They have nothing. It is Christmas and they both desperately want to give a gift to each other. The only difficulty is that they have no money to buy gifts. But they each do have a prized possession. Jim has a gold watch that had been passed down from his grandfather to his father and now to him. Della has long luxuriant hair, reaching down to below her knees. In desperation, Della sells her beautiful hair and buys an ornate watch chain for Jim’s watch. Jim, in the meantime, sells his watch in order to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for Della’s beautiful long hair. Each, out of love for each other, sacrifices their most prized possession to buy a gift. O Henry concludes that of all who give gifts they are the wisest, for theirs was a sacrificial gift brought about in love.

It is Christmastime. We celebrate with presents the tradition started by the three wise men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Theirs was also a sacrificial gift. They sacrificed the time, the cost of their expensive gifts, and the expense of a long journey to Bethlehem and back. They expected nothing in return. It is often not so true with us. Our thoughts of sacrificial giving may only last until we get the January credit card statement. Then we regret our “sacrificial giving”. Unfortunately, our motive in gift giving can become tainted by the desire to receive gifts in return. We can become bent out of shape if the gift we receive is perceived to be of lesser value than the one given. In the hustle and bustle of the season we can easily lose the perspective of what Christmas is truly about.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We sing of the holy infant, tender and mild who lies asleep on the hay. The pictures of the nativity scene are serene and beautiful. But the real story is not so picturesque. Do we see in his birth the supreme sacrifice of all time? Jesus, the Lord of glory, sacrificed his power and position in Heaven to be born, not in a grand palace among royalty, but in a lowly, filthy stable. He was perceived by many to be an illegitimate child. Only shepherds, the riffraff and outcasts of society, heralded his birth. The Apostle Paul says that Jesus emptied himself of his equality with God. He was willing to give up his status. On that first Christmas He became human and lived among us.

In the Christmas story we see God’s great sacrificial gift to us. He willingly sent his son to earth, knowing full well that his birth would eventually lead him to the cross. God had no regrets. It is the supreme act of love. The apostle John, reflecting on this love, states “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV) Jesus came, lived among us, and then died for our sins in order that we could have a renewed relationship with God. As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us reflect on the sacrificial love of God, who sent his Son into our world. Let us remember the love of Jesus, who willingly sacrificed himself for us by dying on the cross. Let us remember the great gift God has given to us.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ilusion or Deception

During the election campaigns a few years ago I received an email from an organization calling itself “Michigan Coalition for Progress”. As I read through the email it became quickly apparent that the organization wasn’t what it claimed to be. Instead, it was a front for one political party only. Their sole goal was to defeat the opposing party’s candidate for the governorship and elect their own party’s candidates for governor, the House and the Senate. By their choice of name, they were deliberately attempting to deceive the public. They were not really a “Coalition for Progress”. They were a “Coalition for the election of one political party’s candidates”. Had they truly been a “Coalition for Progress”, they would have been looking at each candidate in every race, and based upon their merit and positions, choosing to support the best candidate, irregardless of their party affiliation. This phenomenon of choosing nice sounding names for organizations has become so ingrained in our society that it is impossible to know what they are about. Although it sounds good, it can be merely a form of deception.

On a personal level, we can also easily practice deception. How easy it is when we find ourselves in a difficulty to immediately blame someone else? It’s our spouse’s fault that we lost our temper or our marriage isn’t going well, our boss’s fault that we didn’t get the promotion, and our teacher’s fault that we didn’t get an “A”, etc. Whenever we express this kind of thinking, we can easily deceive ourselves. In the majority of these situations we actually are the problem. We are the ones that got angry. We didn’t study hard enough for the class, etc. When we blame it on someone else we only deceive ourselves. We can do the same thing with our Christian faith. It is easy to call ourselves “Christian” while at the same time living a live that is characteristically unchristian. When we do so, we are living a hypocritical life and a life of deception.

I also wonder whether we have done the same thing with the concept of sin. How many times do we give sin a nicer sounding name in order to sanitize it? Unfortunately, we probably do it all too often. Sometimes we call it a personal or a lifestyle choice. We may defend our actions by saying that it didn’t hurt anyone. Other times we refer to it as “my thing”. We may rationalize it by saying “Everyone’s doing it!” Or we might pass it off as only a white lie. In the process we deceive ourselves. Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin, highlighted the problem of sanitizing sin. He notes that by calling it by a nicer sounding name we attempt to avoid the guilt associated with it. We can then rationalize it away. Former senator Daniel Patrick Moyniham calls this “defining deviancy down”. He noted that what was considered deviant behavior twenty-five years ago is now considered normal behavior. In reality, we deceive ourselves when we do this. We sanitize sin by calling it something else. Then it doesn’t sound so bad. This allows us to rationalize our guilt away.

Although we can be deceived by nice sounding names, God is not. He sees through the illusion to the truth. He calls sin sin, no matter what we call it. If we are to be in alignment with him, we need to ask ourselves “What sins have I given nicer sounding names to?” That is where we will find ourselves having been deceived.

The Benefits of Horror

The novelist, Stephen King, is mostly known for writing books in the literary genre of horror. Many of his novels have been turned into horror movies. Unfortunately, some of these movies tend to glorify horror. But a good novelist has a real understanding of the development and the effects of evil. King’s books often depict the progression into great evil.

Many of King’s stories recount man’s inhumanity to mankind. They describe the effects of selfishness, greed, ambition and the desire for power and control, etc. King shows us the beginning stages of evil and then traces it to its logical conclusion. Evil is similar in many ways to the pilot light on a furnace. The thermostat tells it when to fan into flame. Likewise, our selfish desires can fan evil into flame. As these evil tendencies become more and more pronounced we begin to experience true horror. We convincingly see the effect of evil upon both the perpetrator and his society.

As we read books in the genre of horror we find ourselves both intrigued and repulsed. I think our love – hate relationship with horror is due to the understanding of our own potential for evil. When we really examine ourselves we see that deep down we are basically selfish. We are greedy. We seek power and control. We are enamored with status. We might even step on someone else to reach our ambitions. We are forced to face two haunting questions: “How far will I go? Will I also carry evil to its logical conclusion in order to achieve my desires?”
The repulsion we feel in viewing horror can be a deterrent against evil. The novel helps us understand how evil can sometimes begin almost innocently but over time become a true horror. Horror helps us to personally come face to face with evil. Not only does it show us the evil in others, but it points out our own sinful desires. We see it in the lives or ordinary men and women who once lived ordinary lives. As C. S. Lewis once remarked, the dullest and most uninteresting person can become a horror and a corruption that one usually only meets in a nightmare. We are forced to examine our own lives, our priorities and our own desires. The real horror, from which all horrible deeds proceed, is the human heart or soul. Are we the type of person who could do the same evil that we see on the screen and read about in the novel?

If we are truly honest with ourselves, the answer is often yes. We do have a propensity towards evil. We are sinners. This should lead us to seek the mercy and protection of God. We need his mercy as we confess to him the selfish thoughts of our hearts and seek his forgiveness. We need his protection to prevent the power of sin from gaining control over our lives. We need to develop a relationship with him. It is only in having a relationship with the living God that we can avoid becoming a horror ourselves.

A good novelist, such as King, has the ability to look evil square in the face and describe its horror. We see it for what it is – pure evil. We understand its all consuming power. We see its beguiling selfish attractiveness. We realize that it ultimately comes from the human heart. And if we take the time to look in the author’s mirror of horror we may see our own reflection staring back at us. We may see the seeds of evil brooding within our souls. Ask yourself, “When I seriously look in his mirror, what do I see?

Friday, February 13, 2009

God's Requirement

The rabbinic scholar, Samson Raphael Hirsch, commenting on religion wrote “All ‘religion,’ all so-called ‘honoring God in spirit,’ is worthless if the thought, the idea of God, is not strong enough to exercise its power practically in the control of our words and doings.” The Old Testament prophet, Amos, said much the same thing, stating “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.” He concluded “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Cf. Amos 5:21-24). Both Rabbi Hirsch and the prophet Amos agree that religion is not worth much if it doesn’t affect how we live our lives.

Their words are all too prophetic in the world in which we live. As we look at the society around us, we often see a disconnection between our religious life and the rest of our life. This became poignantly aware to me when I met a person who was stating how God was blessing him while at the same time he was stealing several thousands of dollars of merchandise from his employer. His idea of God was not strong enough to prevent his theft.

We live in a world that tries to divorce our religious life from our secular life. The concept of “freedom of religion” has been redefined to mean “freedom from religion”. Often this is an attempt to avoid having anyone else, or any system, tell us what we ought (or ought not) to do. In doing so, we lose the moral and ethical dimension that adhering to faith in God brings to a society. This has led to disastrous consequences for our society. We have seen these consequences in the corporate scandals that have plagued us during the past ten years. Several corporate leaders, while claiming to believe in God, actually robbed many people. The leaders of Enron are a good example. Their idea of God was not strong enough to affect how they ran their business.

As we move into a new election season, many of the candidates court people of faith. They claim to believe in and to follow God. Yet many times the ads attacking their opponents are full of half truths and innuendos. They may also make campaign promises that they never intend to keep. When they do this they are lying to us. Their idea of God is not strong enough to affect the moral and ethical side of their campaigns. They have lost the sense of what God really requires from his followers.

We can point at the sins of many high profile corporate, political and religious leaders. It is very easy to look at the faults of others. But we also have to ask “What about me?” Am I any better? Does my belief in God affect my words and actions? In many ways we are not much better. While we may not have all the opportunities of many high profile individuals, and our sins may not be as glaring as theirs, we do many of the same things. We deliberately mislead others when it is to our advantage. We excuse our little faults as being minor things of no consequence. We gossip and tell half truths. When we do so our faith is worthless in God’s eyes. Our idea of God is not strong enough to affect how we operate in our day to day lives. From time to time we need to ask the penetrating question: “Is my belief in God strong enough to impact all my words and actions?” May the answer be “Yes”!

Feather Pillows

The story is told of a noble woman in medieval times who confessed to her priest that she was having trouble with gossip. Her priest, desiring to help her understand the gravity of her sin, told her to go home, tear open a feather pillow and dump the feathers out an upper story window, and then to come back. Upon her return, the priest told her “Now go and pick up all the feathers.” The woman protested that the feathers were now scattered all over the town and could not be picked up. Whereupon the priest said “And so is your gossip”.

The sin of gossip – the spreading of rumor or reports of an intimate nature – has the ability to destroy careers and lives. It also has the ability to render the gossiper as being untrustworthy. It is no wonder that the apostle James says “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26) Those who do this are in reality hypocrites. Later James says “But no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of poison.” (James 3:8). He likens the tongue to a small spark that sets an entire forest on fire. Gossip is like that. One little bit of gossip can spread in a similar manner until it becomes a consuming fire. Gossip’s chain is exponential. It spreads from one to two to four to eight to sixteen, etc.

How often do we think of our speech in this light? Do we start gossip? Or do we only pass on the tidbits of gossip that come our way? It makes no difference whether we are gossiping maliciously or merely passing on titillating information. In either case, the result is the same. We have sinned against both God and our fellow man. Although we can ask for, and receive forgiveness from both, the effects remain. We can never pick up all of gossip’s feathers.

We have all likely heard the dictum “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Remembering this helps us avoid gossip. It also is a reminder of James’ statement that with our mouths we can both praise God and curse men. This should cause us to be careful of what we say. While we must always speak the truth in love, it should be done in a way that doesn’t lead to gossip. Gossip is particularly destructive in the church. It destroys relationships, causes pastors to leave the ministry, and causes churches to split apart. Once it has started, it cannot be corralled. The damage is done, and the body of Christ suffers. As part of that body, we all suffer and our effectiveness as Christ’s church is diminished.

The recovery, if it even can occur, is a long and tedious process. It begins with confession of our own sin of gossip, both to God and the person we have gossiped about. We need to seek their forgiveness in order to be reconciled. It then requires us to confess to and seek forgiveness from all to whom we have spread the gossip. This requires great humility. It will take considerable time for trust to be reestablished within the body as all wonder about the truthfulness of what is said. But there is one thing the church has that society in general doesn’t. That is the love we have for each other in the body of Christ. A God given love can overcome the effects of gossip over time. As we think about the effects of gossip, two questions remain. How many feathers am I spreading abroad? How many have spread so far they are impossible to pick up?

False Gods

A child once asked her Sunday School teacher “What is an idol?” Her teacher replied that it was an image of God and recited the commandment: “You shall not make unto me a graven image.” While this may be technically correct, there is much more to idols. The worship of an idol is a deviation from the pure worship of God. Many times it begins as a temptation or seduction. We begin to give more thought and attention to something other than God. This eventually leads to the worship of a false god. We create a distorted image of God that will replace him.

Idols come in many different forms and shapes. The temptations we face today are really no different than the temptations faced by the ancient Israelites. They merely have new faces. But the false gods of today are much the same as in ancient times. Ancient Israel struggled with the worship of fertility gods. These were thought to provide power and economic prosperity to the worshipper. Worshipping them was also thought to be a way of manipulating the gods. It is not that different today when we struggle with the temptation to covet power, status and prosperity.

What are some of the modern gods that we find so alluring? Our jobs can become our god. This can happen when we spend all of our time either at or thinking about work to the neglect of our families and friends. Another tempting god is the accumulation of wealth and the status it brings us. Yet another is the achievement of power, often at the expense of others. It can also be our possessions. Our god can be our spouse or our children. One man regretfully told me that he had married his beautiful, but now ex wife, to be a showpiece of his status. Having a gorgeous spouse had become his god. Parents who try to live their lives through their children effectively fashion gods out of them. This often takes the form of sports where parents push their children into participation. They vicariously participate through their children and become obsessed with their winning. For others sex can become their god. Education, cars, our homes etc. can also highlight the list. Many more examples could be given. They all have one thing in common. Each can easily, seductively, lead us away from the true worship of God. Each can lead us to the worship of a false god – one that we don’t even think of as a god as all. That is the danger we face – not recognizing these things as gods.

Most of these false gods come to us as selfish motives. We want something more than we desire God himself. It may begin simply as a wish or a thought, but eventually end up as an obsession. Our desire can become so great that we are willing to even compromise our standards to achieve it. We may even violate our own consciences to obtain it. We numb them to the point that we don’t even realize we have violated them. When this happens we have transferred our worship to a false god. We have made the objects of our desires into idols. Unfortunately, in the process, we also lose our own souls. As we examine our lives, we each must ask ourselves “What idols have I placed upon a pedestal that I am worshipping? What false gods am I tempted to worship?”

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Effects of Polution

In her book A Way of Seeing, Edith Schaeffer speaks of the effects of pollution. “Polluted air can be a gradual thing, and --- as one day follows another with slight difference and unnoticeable change --- whole cities full of people can be breathing a certain amount of poison so destructive that some become ill, and others even die as a direct result of the variety of lung problems which arise.” A little later she says “Polluted food and drinking water can be deceptive to the point that poison can be taken into the body without recognizing its presence.” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan describes a similar progression in societal ills as “defining deviancy down.” He uses this phrase to describe how what used to be considered deviant in society is now standard practice. This is how a society often becomes immersed in corruption, immorality and evil. These terms are redefined to be less offensive. Deviancy has been redefined. There is no abrupt change. The downward slide is gradual. The social pollution has become more powerful but we hardly notice it. Even if we find ourselves being uncomfortable, we don’t recognize that it is because the standards have changed. Karl Menninger, in his book "Whatever Became of Sin" takes a similar stance, noting that what used to be considered sin is no longer considered to be sin.

The author of Psalms 1 describes a similar process in the spiritual descent into evil. He uses the metaphor of “Walk, Stand, Sit” to describe a seductive progression into evil. At first a person merely associates with the wicked and their ways. He merely accepts them. But by stopping and standing, he begins to entertain the counsel of the wicked as being attractive. Finally he becomes one of the co-conspirators, instigating evil as he sits in their planning sessions. “Walk, Stand, Sit” --- the progression into evil goes ever so slowly and unnoticed. Just like the process of the pollution of the air, water and food which slowly increases day by day, one doesn’t even notice his own steady descent down the slippery slope into evil until it becomes normal and habitual. We have become spiritually polluted. It has a negative impact upon our personal lives, the lives of our families and that of the society around us.

How do we avoid this descent into evil? The author of Psalms 1 provides the answer. The descent is avoided by delighting in and meditating on God’s word. Just as fresh air, pure water, and unpolluted food is the answer to our physical pollution, so also the fresh Word of God is the solution to the problem of our spiritual pollution. Psalms 119:11 states: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” God’s Word provides the corrective solution to keep us from digressing into evil. It keeps us from redefining sin in more socially acceptable ways. His Word is a deterrent to keep us from a slow steady progression towards evil. It becomes an objective standard that we can use to measure the tendency we have to slide down the slippery slope into sin. When we truly examine our own lives, we come face to face with the fact that we all have this tendency. This raises some thought provoking questions that we each must face. Where is my delight? Is it in God’s Word? In what areas of my life do I have one foot on the edge of the slippery slope that can lead me down the path towards evil? Only by knowing them can we avoid the slow, steady descent into sin.

Dogs Don't Have Whiskers

A three year old girl once remarked to my wife “Dogs don’t have whiskers”. A short time later she was playing with our family dog, Yukon. Upon being shown that Yukon had whiskers, she immediately remarked, “Dogs don’t have whiskers”. In defense of the little girl, all of the pictures of cats that she had seen in books showed whiskers. But none of the pictures of dogs she had seen had them. As humorous as this story is, it has a point. Based on what she had seen in books, dogs don’t have whiskers. With her mind made up, evidence to the contrary just didn’t fit in her worldview of dogs. It would take more time and experience for her to comprehend that dogs do really have whiskers.

I wonder how many times do we experience the same as we go through life. It is very easy for us to have a similar attitude. In many cases it is related to the worldview we hold. At other times we don’t want to change our viewpoints. It is easy to express thoughts like “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”. This tendency affects many aspects of life. We take the attitude that one political party is always right and the other is always wrong. For many, the thought of even considering voting for a candidate of the other party never even crosses their mind. Parents whose children are in serious trouble with the law often state “But he or she is such a good kid”. Having our minds already made up contributes to both the racial and marital tension in our society. We prejudge those who have a social economic status that is different than ours. In each case, an inflexible worldview prohibits us from knowing the truth and developing meaningful relationships with others. We are either unable or unwilling to change our preconceived ideas.

In Jesus’ time, The Pharisees had preconceived ideas of what the Messiah would be like. They eagerly awaited his coming. But Jesus didn’t fit into their mold. The gospel accounts show Jesus clashing with them again and again. When he didn’t fit their definition of the Messiah, they rejected and eventually killed him. How many times we do the same thing with God? How many preconceived ideas do we have of God that are incorrect? Do we put him into a box and refuse to let him out? Do we tell him what he can or cannot do? Do we believe that he was actively involved in history during Bible times but not today? Too often the answers to these questions indicate that we really have placed God in a box. When we do, we have a distorted worldview.

But God refuses to be confined to a box. He will always break out. He invites us to give up our preconceived ideas and to seek to know him as he really is. It is the same invitation that Jesus gave to the Pharisees. He invited them to accept him as the Messiah whom they were anticipating. But they had to accept him on his terms, not theirs. He asks us the same. We have to accept him on his terms, not on our own terms. This requires us to change our thoughts and worldview. We have to put whiskers on dogs, so to speak. Lest we become entrenched in our own inaccurate beliefs like the little girl, we need to ask from time to time “What dogs in my life do I need to put whiskers on?”

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

Various people have pointed out that the letters in the world “Bible” are an acronym for the phrase “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. While it has a certain catchiness to it, the statement also has a very profound message which becomes clear when we individually look at the words that the acronym represents.

The noun “instructions” and its modifier “basic” should be looked at together. The adjective “basic” can refer to the starting point of something. It is also related to its fundamental principle. To say that one must understand basic math in order to understand calculus implies that one must first understand the fundamental principles of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as a starting point in order to be able to do higher level math. “Basic” can also imply the essence of the noun that it modifies. To be able to enjoy watching a sporting event we must have a basic understanding of the game being played. Thus basic instructions are those that are the general instructions that everyone should know. The noun “instructions” are precepts or directions calling for compliance or understanding. Who has not read the words “Read the instruction manual before operating” or “To assemble, follow the instructions in the installation manual” when buying a new product. It would be interesting to know what percent of us actually do so.

The Bible is God’s basic instruction manual. It is the starting point for growing closer to God, for it tells us about him. It also contains the essence of what God wants us to know. Containing God’s fundamental principles for us, it isn’t something that is so esoteric that we can’t understand it. As his instruction manual, it contains the things that he wants us to comply with.

The final three words associated with the acronym are also tied together. The preposition “before” carries a time element. It is the opposite of “after”. It implies that something must be done in advance of the next step. It is tied directly to the following word “leaving”. This word implies departing from or abandoning. A common phrase used when couples are in the process of divorce is “I’m leaving my wife (or husband)”. Putting these two words together implies that God expects us to do something before leaving. They raise the question as to what we are leaving. The word “earth” informs us of the answer. We are leaving earth. But if we are departing from earth where are we going? To heaven! Earth is not our final destiny.

Thus we can learn a lot when we put these five words together. If the Bible contains God’s “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, we had better have a good understanding of his instruction manual because it contains the fundamental principles of who he is, what he has done, and how he wants us to live our lives. As we interact with his manual he expects us to grow closer to him. Since we are expected to know this before leaving earth, we can’t put it off till later. We have to do it now! That’s what God desires. We also see a hope for the future. Death here on earth is not the end. There is more. We will leave all this behind someday. It would be interesting to know what percent of people have read God’s instruction manual cover to cover. As we think about this, the question comes to mind, “How well do I know the BIBLE? How familiar am I with God’s basic instruction manual?