Monday, March 23, 2009


Charles Williams, in his novel The Place of the Lion noted that “some things were possible only to a man in companionship, and of these the most important was balance. No mind was so good that it did not need another mind to counter and equal it and to save it from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly. Only in such balance could humility be found…” Williams’ statement makes several key points. He notes that we can’t be successful by going it alone. We were designed to be in relationship with others. We also aren’t perfect. We need someone to assist us by being a foil to counter our errors and point out our sins. In the everyday course of life, it is very easy to become unbalanced. We can easily either go off on tangents or become consumed with our vocations, our drives or our passions. At times we can even become so devoted to doing good things that we neglect other things, such as our families or our health. We have then become unbalanced and have lost true perspective. We need someone to point us back in the right direction.

A tangent has one point in common with the true path. But then it veers off ever so slightly, but bit by bit, until it is far away. But because the initial wandering away from the path is so minute we don’t even know we have gone off course. Even when we have gone far afield we don’t realize we have drifted away, for the changes have been so gradual.

When we reach this point it usually is impossible for us to return to a balanced position on our own. We desperately need someone who can provide a counterweight, who can question and encourage us, give us perspective and gently lead us back to the balance we truly need in our lives. We need someone who will be honest with us, who loves us enough to care about our destiny, and who will help us find balance and perspective. We need someone who will point us back to God and his word, for God is the only one who can truly bring balance into our lives. After all, it was God who sent his Son into our unbalanced world to restore us to a balanced relationship with him. We also need someone who is not afraid to point out our sin. As Williams says, without this we will never achieve humility. It is only when we recognize our own sin that we can become humble before God. Without that corrective, we easily fall into pride and conceit. Our minister or priest can fulfill that role. But we also can do it for each other.

When someone reaches out to us in this way, we must be willing to listen and take their advice. If we refuse to do this we have reached the point of no return. We will then never find the place of balance that our souls desperately seek. We will remain adrift, unable to satisfy the void that exists in our lives. And that void will continue to spiral us downward, farther and farther into an unbalanced life that will take us further and further from the God who loves us. Before we find ourselves reaching that end, it is important for us to ask ourselves two important questions. First, am I willing to listen, take advice and change? And second, who can I turn to who will help me find balance and perspective in my daily life?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

God's Camera

Have you ever wished that there were instant cameras, cam recorders and cell phones back in the days of Jesus? We could have seen pictures of the angel choir and the baby Jesus lying in the manger. We could have had pictures of him taken throughout his life. Can you imagine the disciples taking pictures of him? They could have taken pictures of Jesus so that we could see him in action. We could have seen Him feeding the 5000, walking on the water and raising Lazarus from the dead. We could have seen what He looked like. We could have seen the compassion on his face as he healed people. We could have seen him chasing the money changers out of the temple. We could have discovered how closely Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper was to the actual event. Unfortunately the disciples did not have cameras. Alas, photography came 1800 plus years too late. But we do have two pictures of Jesus in the Bible. The first is found in the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah 52-53. The second picture is seen in the transfiguration accounts found in the Gospels. Although they show contrasting images, they have one element in common. In both accounts, Jesus cannot be looked upon.

In the Isaiah passages, Jesus is depicted as being so hideous that people can not stand to look at Him. A mere glance is enough to cause them to turn away and hide their faces. His visage is so marred that he hardly even looks human. The suffering he experienced was so horrible that it greatly affected his human features. Isaiah says that he was “like one from whom men hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3). Read Isa. 52:14 – 53:12 to see this entire picture.

In the accounts of the transfiguration, Jesus is pictured as being dazzlingly brilliant. Matthew says “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2). Luke adds that his clothes were as bright as a flash of lightning. The beauty and brilliance of the Lord of glory was more than the disciples could bear and they had to hide their faces. It was impossible to gaze upon his glorified radiance. He was just too brilliant.

In both the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah and in the three accounts of the transfiguration found in the gospels the result is the same – it is impossible to look upon him. In the former it is because of his hideousness. One’s natural reaction is to turn away. He is just too hideous. In the transfiguration it is because of his immense beauty. He is pictured as being brilliant. Just like we have to turn away from the brilliance of the sun or a flash of lightning, the disciples had to turn away from gazing at the transfigured Jesus. In his transfigured state, he was too much for them to gaze upon.

Two very contrasting pictures, with such strikingly similar results! In them we see the extent of God’s great love for us. Jesus was willing to exchange his position as the Lord of glory for that of a human being. He willingly gave up his position in heaven to come to earth, to suffer and die a cruel death on the cross. He exchanged the glory of heaven for the brokenness of earth. In the contrast of these two pictures with such similar results we see how much Jesus’ love for us cost Him. Have you seen this picture of God’s great love for you yet?

Words and Actions

Jacques Ellul, in The Betrayal of the West states “The inconsistency between the West’s words and actions only made men take the words more seriously.” He goes on to say that their actions betrayed what they were advocating in their words. Although Ellul is speaking of the ideals of freedom and the value of the individual, we can apply his words much more broadly. The same dynamic occurs in all areas of life. When faced with similar situations we tend to either reject the words or the actions. Witness the smoker who tells his children not to smoke. They will often either become anti tobacco or avid smokers themselves. In one case they reject the words, in the other they reject the actions.

The same tension between words and actions occurs in our spiritual lives as well. Many times children will reject the faith of their parents because their words and actions are not in harmony with each other. If we are to avoid extreme responses, there must be a congruency between word and action. Both must support, not oppose, each other. Otherwise the same process of rejection will occur. One may become extremely law oriented while another will abandon the faith. One may become pietistic while another may extol a secular lifestyle.

When words and actions are inconsistent we run the danger of becoming hypocritical and losing any chance to be a true witness to the Christian faith. A minister was telling of one of his parishioners, a businessman, who had a high profile in the church. He had a sterling testimony within the church community. Everyone in the church thought highly of him. But one day another member of the church told the minister that he should talk to the businessman’s employees. They had a totally different impression than the church members had of the businessman. He constantly belittled, shouted at and berated his employees. He was rude to them and took their ideas as his own. He took advantage of his customers. His relationship with them was far from ethical. When he spoke of anything related to Christianity to his employees, they snickered and turned away. His words and his actions were totally inconsistent. Basically, he was living for God on Sunday and the Devil the rest of the week. Based upon the example of his life, his employees wanted nothing to do with his religion. His life was an example of the statement “actions speak louder than words”.

It is only when our words and actions support each other that people become attracted to the faith we represent. If they are not in agreement, we send a mixed message. On one hand, with our words, we are telling them that our faith is important to us. On the other, with our actions, we are telling them that our relationship with God is not important enough to us for it to actually affect our lives. This raises the question “Is it really important?” Our actions will always speak louder than our words. Therefore anyone looking on, will most likely conclude that it really isn’t very important.

I wonder, how many times in the course of our lives do our words and actions disagree with each other? When they do, what are we really saying to those who come in contact with us? By the inconsistency of our words and actions are we telling them that a relationship with God really doesn’t matter very much? Ask yourself the question: “What do my words and actions really say about my relationship with God?”

Whom Do You Fear

Joseph Stalin, as a youth, attended a Russian Orthodox seminary, preparing for the priesthood. Abandoning that vocation, he became perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all time, signing papers authorizing 3000 executions per day. He had no use for religion, killing many Christians and destroying churches. One day he saw in the paper that a particular Russian Orthodox bishop was going to be traveling through Moscow. This bishop had been a fellow student and friend during his seminary days. Stalin sent a letter to the bishop commanding him to appear before Stalin while in Moscow. The bishop, in great fear for his life, deliberated on how to dress for the occasion. Finally he decided to dispense with his clerical robes and wear a business suit to the meeting. When Stalin saw him, he convulsed in laughter for several minutes. He then said to the bishop, “I see you fear me more than you fear God.” Stalin had only wanted to see his former friend and find out how he was.

How many times do we act like the bishop as we interact with the secular culture in which we live? The majority of persons in the media and academia discount and belittle religion. They have no use for Christianity. How often do we attempt to disguise our faith in God for fear that we will be ostracized and laughed at for the worldview we hold? We may find this particularly true in our work and educational environments where Christianity is often scorned at and considered to be of no value. This attitude is particularly evident in our universities, as the movie “Expelled” so vividly illustrates. Therefore, to appear to fit in, we become part time Christians who believe Christianity is true only on Sundays. The rest of the week we may ignore the same morality, principles and faith we espouse on Sundays. When we do this we become hypocrites. In reality we have compromised our faith in God.

We don’t run the risk of losing our lives for our faith here in America. We live in a different world than that of Christians living in Muslim countries today, or those who lived under Communism in the last century, or of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. Whereas they courageously faced death because of their faith, we only fear being belittled or ostracized. We fear the negative impact a public declaration of our faith may have upon our career advancement or social status in the community. But either objectively or unconsciously, we all face the question “How much am I willing to risk for my faith?” How we answer that question may tell us how much we are willing to compromise our faith as we go about our daily lives.

Unfortunately, it is a question that cannot be easily answered. It is easy to say that God is the most important person in our lives. But is he still when our faith in him might cost us our job or career? The question requires us to inspect our own lives. We have to take a hard look at ourselves. When we do, the answer will tell us a lot about what we really believe in. We will then learn what we value most in life. Is it God or something else? But ultimately, like the Russian bishop, in the midst of living our lives we must all face the simple question “What do I fear more than God?” It’s a question worth asking ourselves once in awhile.

Using the Mind

Many people today are critical of the educational establishment, feeling that our children are not receiving the best education that they should be receiving. This dissatisfaction with the perceived lowered quality of education has led to both the charter school movement as well as the home school movement. Most parents are concerned that their children receive a good education. They are willing to do something about it, even if it requires sacrifice and cost.

But I wonder if this desire for a quality education extends to the church. William Lane Craig, in his book Reasonable Faith states: ”Churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith…. The Church is perishing today through a lack of thinking, not an excess of it.” University professor, Dr. Jefrey Breshears, in giving his students a pre-class quiz on biblical literacy and religious awareness discovered that most of them were clueless, including those who had attended Sunday School and church during their youth. Breshears concludes that over 15 years they had logged in approximately 800 hours in Sunday School and church. Were students to begin college with 800 hours of math instruction but unable to add, subtract, multiply and divide we would be up in arms with indignation about the quality of education they received. The biblical and religious awareness among adults isn’t any better. A recent survey showed that 85% of adult church attendees knew only a few random facts about Christian history, and 80% knew little about the history of their own denomination.

I wonder, are we operating on a double standard when it comes to Christian education? Are we content to merely drift along with our minds disengaged? Are we less concerned about our children’s Christian education than we are about their secular education? I am afraid so.

When we turn to the Bible we get a clear picture that we are expected to use our minds and seek knowledge. When questioned about the greatest commandment, Jesus replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Mt 22:37). We are to seek out the knowledge of God, searching diligently for it. We are also to combat the false knowledge of God that is expressed in the world around us. God expects us to engage our minds as we seek to know Him.

We who are adults must set the example for our children. We must foster an environment of learning in our homes and in our churches. We must demonstrate the importance of using our minds to the glory of God. We need to promote the concept of “No Christian Left Behind” – in biblical literacy, theological literacy, historical literacy and cultural literacy. We must have our minds engaged. If our children observe that this is not important for us, it will not be important for them either. The alternative is intellectual starvation. Like the starving person who can no longer eat when offered food, we become desensitized to Christian learning. We can become so numbed that we don’t even want to make the effort to use our minds Christianly. We drift along in our faith, expressing superficial platitudes. We have no way to address the current hot issues of the day. And so we become marginalized in society.

God has given us intelligence, expecting us to use our intelligence to discover him and to reach out to others with his good news. But that means we must be engaged. We must be continuously learning. How is your learning switch? Has it been turned on or off?

The Tempter's Snare

In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Proposes a Toast the senior devil Screwtape speaks to the junior devils regarding the tempter’s relationship with his prey: Screwtape describes the task of the junior devils in influencing their assigned humans. He says “The job of their Tempters was first, of course, to harden these choices of Hell-ward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to burn the habit into a principle – a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that all will do well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical – how should a jelly not conform? – now becomes an unacknowledged creed…”.

Lewis’s fanciful account contains some insightful observations. As Screwtape suggests, succumbing to the first temptation makes it easier to succumb to the second, and so on until we become hardened in our choices. At that point we are caught in the tempter’s snare. It will impact all of our relationships. We see this principle at work all around us. The embezzler doesn’t usually begin with a large embezzlement. Most news accounts refer to a series of embezzlements over several months or years. The initial ones are likely small and insignificant. But over time and repetition they become larger and larger. Likewise, most people who become caught up in extra-marital affairs don’t wake up one morning and state “I am going to have an affair today.” The process begins with an attraction between two people which grows over time, finally resulting in the affair. Along the way there are many little things that contribute to it. The continual thoughts and actions become a habit. These habits in turn become a principle that we are willing to defend. We then rationalize our decisions and conduct.

Screwtape also suggests that conformity plays an instrumental role in these temptations. We only need to look at history to see that most societies have gone through periods of moral decay. Their lack of morality becomes habitual. We face this problem in our society today as well. When we take the attitude “Everyone is doing it” we start down Screwtape’s Hell-ward road. Joining in only hastens the downward slide. Ultimately it will negatively affect all of our relationships – with each other and with our God.

How do we avoid succumbing to this process? Just as habits are created by continual repetition, so also is their avoidance. We have to consciously say “No”. Successfully rejecting the first temptation makes it easier to resist the next one. We must remember that temptations often come upon us in areas where we are the weakest. For this reason it is important for us to understand where we are most likely to be caught off guard. We need to examine our lives to avoid being caught in the tempter’s snare. We need to understand what are the insignificant little areas where temptations can start that will build up into habits. We need to understand that we can choose to accept or reject these temptations. We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and ask God for help to avoid the temptations that will come. As we examine our lives, three questions come to mind. What are the small areas Satan is trying to drive a wedge in our relationship with God? What detrimental habits is he trying to build in our lives? How can we successfully resist them? As James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

The Growing Christian

A speaker at Inter Varsity’s Urbana student missionary convention once said to the students attending the convention: “A growing Christian is a reading Christian, but a reading Christian is not necessarily a growing Christian.” He went on to explain that the mere fact of reading Christian literature doesn’t guarantee that we will be growing Christians unless we reflect upon and incorporate what we are reading into our lives and thought. But he also stated strongly that in his experience, people whose faith was growing were all reading Christians. He challenged us to read and reflect upon what we read.

We might well ask why this statement is true. I believe it has to do with our attitudes and motivation. Are we reading because we are desperate to know more of God or merely for intellectual stimulation? Are we content with the way things are with no desire to grow further in our faith and therefore don’t read at all? When we do read, are we reflecting upon what we know of God and allowing him to change us?

God, through his Spirit, often uses the written word to speak to our hearts, minds and souls. This is true whether we are reading Scripture, the words penned by Christian authors, or even those written by secular authors. But if we are to grow, it is very important to think about and integrate what we read with our previous understanding and knowledge. We are bombarded every day by a combination of the written word, the spoken word and the visual image. Various forms of the media are constantly in front of us. It is very easy to just accept what we see and hear at face value, without thought. To what extent do we run what we see and hear through the filter of our faith? Or do we let these images and words infiltrate our thoughts and minds without reflection?

If we are to grow in our faith, we need to reflect upon the events of each day. Sometimes we will need to ask the question, “What does God think about this?” Other times we will need to ask “How would Jesus have reacted to this?” And at still other times we will find ourselves asking “As a Christian, how do I react to this?” Just as our physical muscles become stronger through disciplined exercise, so our spiritual and mental muscles also become stronger through disciplined exercise. After all, we are to love the Lord our God with the totality of our heart, soul and mind. It may be time to open up the Bible along with a good book, and with pen and paper in hand, jot down what God is telling us. As we confront our world and the culture in which we live it is time to develop our spiritual muscles to a higher degree. It is time to actively reflect upon what is going on around us in light of our faith. It is time to stretch our thoughts and minds through serious study of the Bible and various types of literature. In them we can learn much about God and how He desires for us to live.

Just as the athlete must commit himself to active exercise and practice, so must we, as Christians, commit ourselves to the active study and reflection upon God’s word and all that the media brings to us. It is only be doing this that we can grow and develop our faith. But we are forced to ask ourselves two important questions. Am I a growing Christian? Are my spiritual muscles developing or atrophying?

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Effects of Anger

Stephen Hower, in his book Contrary to Popular Belief tells of the tragic death of Adeana Dickison. While she and her husband were on their honeymoon, she was caught in glacial silt on the Alaskan coastline. The efforts of an experienced rescue team to free her were unsuccessful, and she drowned when the tides came in. The estimated 500 pounds of suction supplied by the silt that had locked around her leg could not be dislodged. Hower goes on to compare the powerful sucking action of the glacial silt to sin. He states: “Like glacial silt, certain sins are listed in the Bible as especially deadly. Like quicksand, these sins hold their victims in an unrelenting grasp, slowly pulling them under.”

One of these deadly sins is hatred. It often begins as anger over a situation. It may start as anger over being jilted by a lover, being abused as a child, having an unwanted divorce, being a victim of injustice, losing a job, etc. But as the anger festers it builds up over time into either bitterness or hatred or both and it eventually consumes us. Hower, speaking of hatred, concludes “Its strong grasp holds great power to destroy the faith of its victims. Friends and family often stand hopelessly near, unable to pry the victims from hatred’s grasp. Horrified, they watch while their loved ones self destruct.”

I remember one woman in her late sixties who attended the church where I was once a member. She had no friends. She always dressed in black and always had a dour expression on her face. All attempts to befriend her failed, for she immediately cut them off. Any compliment given her was reacted to negatively. She was extremely bitter about life. She was constantly miserable. It was uncomfortable even being around her. Eventually most everyone stopped trying to reach out to her. A few years later I found out that she had been jilted at the altar on her wedding day. She never forgave her fiancé for backing out of the wedding. She was mired in her anger, bitterness, and hatred which had continued to fester for forty some years. They destroyed her so that she became the bitter, miserable person whom everyone tried to avoid. Hatred had so consumed her soul that she had no room for anything else. Her inability to forgive destroyed her.

We often hear slogans like “don’t get angry, get even” and “give as good as you get.” But these slogans link the solution to injustice with obtaining revenge. Revenge really is a form of hatred. Many of the animosities we see between people groups around the world are based on revenge. The hatred upon which it feeds leads to an escalation of evil. This often results in death and destruction.

The Christian answer to the problem of hatred is forgiveness. We are counseled to forgive our enemies and those who persecute us. It is only by forgiving that we are able to escape the clutching tendencies of anger. It is only through forgiveness and love that we can escape the powerful force of hatred. True forgiveness allows us to avoid lashing out at others in anger. It keeps us from destroying our own souls.

Life happens. We all have experiences where the natural tendency is to seek revenge. In each of these situations we are presented with a choice. We can hate or we can forgive. The choice we make will have a profound effect upon the rest of our lives. Choosing hatred will lead to self destruction. Choosing love and forgiveness will break the bonds of hatred and give us freedom. From time to time it is worth asking ourselves, “Is there anyone whom I am angry with that I need to forgive?”

The Ten Great Freedoms

In a recent sermon on the Ten Commandments our pastor stated that “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” Without a relationship with God, we lose sight of the reasons why the Commandments are important. We fight against them and find ourselves in revolt. When we are out of relationship with God and our fellow man, the Ten Commandments appear to be very strict and confining. This is part of the reason why there has been so much flack over the Ten Commandments being displayed in courtrooms and other places. But when we are in relationship with God and with each other, it is a different story. We find them freeing and helpful. They describe how we are to live with each other within a community.

A look at the life and times in which God gave the Ten Commandments is instructive. The ancient world was in chaos. Civilization after civilization was collapsing, never to rise again. This collapse occurred over a large portion of the eastern Mediterranean world. The civilizations of modern day Cyprus and Crete were destroyed. So also were those in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Along the coast, the civilizations of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt fell, as did those of Jordan and Iraq. Society after society was swept away. Life for the inhabitants of the region had become totally unpredictable.

It was in the midst of this calamity and chaos that God stepped in and gave his covenant, including the Ten Commandments. The Commandments talk first of all about what should characterize one’s relationship with God. He is the only one to whom we are to give allegiance. They go on to describe what things should characterize our lives in the midst of community. They describe how our relationship with God should be carried out in everyday life. We are to honor our parents, and avoid things like murder, stealing, lying, adultery and covetousness. For a society that followed these commandments life became more predictable again. In the midst of the chaos that was going on all around them they knew what to expect from their neighbor. If Sally had a relationship with God that told her how to live her life, and Joe had a similar relationship with the same God, both Joe and Sally had a pretty good idea of what to expect from each other. Therefore the Ten Commandments became a rallying point for a community experiencing a world of uncertainty, violence and chaos.

Ernst Lange, in his book Ten Great Freedoms says concerning the Ten Commandments, “But all begin “I, God, and you man, now we belong together. And if we are to remain together, then your life will look like this: You will have no other gods. You will honor my name. You will not run yourself to death. And you will live as a person in your family.” He goes on to speak of how following the commandments frees us from becoming enslaved to passions, vices and consuming desires. He notes that when we seek power, money, sex or status we become enslaved to them. When we constantly seek uninterrupted work or pleasure we lose the joy of life. Constant revolt against authority can be as enslaving as is slavish obedience. Continually treating others as competitors, seeking self gratification, practicing deception and envying others also destroys the joy of life and enslaves us to these passions.

Today we live in a world which has again become very unpredictable. Terrorism, corporate greed, and the breakdown of family and community are all around us. Perhaps we need the Ten Commandments again to teach us how to live. But it begins with each one of us. We must ask, “Am I enslaved by my passions and vices or have I been freed by the Commandments to truly live in community again”?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Success in the Little Things

We all find ourselves having to handle difficult situations from time to time. There may be stressful problems at work, or a tough family situation. They may involve interpersonal relationships or temptations. It may come as a crisis of faith. Rest assured, they will hit us sometime in our lives. How do we prepare ourselves to handle these big critical issues of life? I believe it is by successfully handling the small insignificant areas of life. Having a pattern of successfully handling many small tasks at work makes it easier to handle the large ones. Day after day faithfully taking care of the minutia at home makes it easier to deal with large issues that require more effort. In our life of faith, faithfully following God in the little areas, makes following Him in the larger areas becomes easier. I believe God tests us in the little things of life to measure our potential to handle the large things. By being faithful in the little things, we increase the likelihood that we will be faithful when the big tests come.

The life of Daniel and his friends illustrate this principle. While still in their youth, they were uprooted from their family, friends and country and taken to Babylon. They were chosen to receive elite training at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. How were Daniel and his friends able to stand firm as they faced the lion’s den and the fiery furnace? They did so by first refusing to compromise their convictions in the little things. They began by refused to eat the food fit for a king. Instead of rationalizing “It’s only a little food, what will it hurt”, they said “No”! When asked if he could interpret dreams, Daniel replied “No, I can’t, but God can.” He refused to take the credit. By passing these little tests, Daniel and his friends were prepared to handle the next larger test, and the next, up to the fiery furnace and the lion’s den. God first tested their potential for greatness in his kingdom with a few morsels of food

We all face the same issues. We are constantly being tested to see how faithful we are. Some of the tests are quite mundane, like faithfully taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes or vacuuming the carpet. Others may involve successfully avoiding temptations. They may involve faithfully reading the Bible. We all have different tests for we all are different people. But they all have one thing in common: They build our spiritual character.

Unfortunately we all fail. We are far from perfect. We yield to temptation and succumb to sin. But we have a forgiving God who, when we acknowledge our failures, forgives us and gives us a new test. We can observe this fact in the lives of two familiar biblical characters. King David was a murderer, an adulterer and an absent father. Yet he is described as a “man after God’s own heart” because he was contrite. The apostle Peter, denied Jesus three times, but became the leader of the early church. Each learned from their mistakes. This helped them when the next test came.

As we think about this, two questions come to mind. In what small insignificant area is God testing me? How can I be faithful to him in this area? It is often helpful to keep a record of our progress in moving from one test to the next. Then when the big tests come, we will have a lifetime of faithfulness in little things backing us up.

Strangers and Aliens

In the book of 1st Peter, Peter speaks of our being strangers and aliens upon the earth. He speaks of our being merely sojourners here for a time as we pass through on our way to heaven. He states: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” (I Peter 1:17 NIV). Yet many times we become very comfortable with our lives here on earth. We can become too identified with the culture and times in which we live. How much do we identify today with the old gospel chorus? “This world is not my home. I’m just a passing through. If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do? The angels’ beckon me from Heaven’s open door. And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”
It is very easy to become comfortable and blend in with the culture in which we
live. Because American Christianity tends to focus on right living, it identifies itself with what is good and proper in the secular culture around us. But as one writer has noted, when our secular culture expresses a new thought, American Christians are following it within 20 years. We become exactly like the world around us.

Examples of this trend surround us. Despite the biblical prohibitions, the divorce rate among Christians is not that much different from that of the non-Christians community around us. Christians and non-Christians both have abortions. Many Christians, along with non-Christians believe in evolution. We both tend to get caught up in materialism and “looking out for number one”. There is little difference between the lifestyle of Christians and morally upright non-Christians. The early Christian community of the first century was known as turning the world upside down. Is our current Christian community looked upon today in the same way?
We have forgotten that we are to be counter cultural. A speaker was asked if the role of the church was to support the political party in opposition to the one in power. He replied, “No, the role of the church is to hold both parties accountable to standards of righteousness and justice.” Many times we forget that we are people with a relationship with God that is to affect all of our relationships here on earth. God expects us to be different. We are expected to personally live and hold our culture to a higher standard. This is why we are to be strangers and aliens in the world.

One of the difficulties that our military faced during the Viet Nam war was the fact that the enemy perfectly blended in with the local populace. There was no easy way to tell who was who. But the enemy always knew they were the enemy! Today the Christian church has to a large extent blended in with the culture around us. We have become very comfortable. We accept many of the same tenets held by our secular society. We have forgotten that we are to be counter cultural. The lives we live are not that much different than those of the community at large around us. We have forgotten that we are to critique the culture in which we live. The one major difference between us and our culture may be that we spend one hour per week in church. Unfortunately that often doesn’t make much of a difference the rest of the week. If this is true, one haunting question remains: “If I was arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?” May the jury find us guilty!

Spiritual Bulimia

Bulimia and anorexia are terrible diseases. People with bulimia tend to be binge eaters. They often eat large quantities of high calorie foods. But the bulimic person will purge the food from their system prior to its being digested. Therefore they are constantly malnourished. In its early stages, the illness is very difficult to diagnose. There are no outward signs. But if left untreated, the illness will eventually raise havoc to the body, negatively affecting the various systems and organs. The ironic fact is that although they ingest an excess of calories, it is possible for people with bulimia to starve to death. People with anorexia tend to eat very little, fearing they are grossly overweight. When they do eat, they often purge themselves similar to people with bulimia. Eventually the body shuts down and leads to death. The singer Karen Carpenter died from anorexia.

I wonder how often we find ourselves battling the same illnesses in our spiritual lives. Spiritually anorexic people do not receive spiritual food. They infrequently read and study the Bible. When they do, it has little impact on their lives. These people are fairly easy to identify. Their attendance at church is minimal. Their non-involvement is a key to be able to diagnose spiritual anorexia. But spiritually bulimic people are hard to identify because they seem to be receiving large amounts of spiritual food. These are the people who will be at church every Sunday. They often are involved in Bible studies. They usually are some of the most active church members. But they have one problem. Very little of what they hear, read, and learn is ever digested. It never becomes incorporated into their lives. God’s word has little impact upon their day to day behavior. They are, in effect, spiritually bulimic. We all deal with this problem to some degree. As a test, ask yourself the following question this coming Sunday afternoon: “What was today’s sermon about?” If you can’t answer the question, you are in danger of being spiritually bulimic.

In today’s world, we have ample sources of spiritual food. There are many Bible translations available. Christian radio stations feature Christian music, talk shows, sermons, Bible studies etc. The religious bookstores have a wealth of materials that can be read. There are a large number of churches in the area that we can attend where we can be exposed to sermons, Christian education, and Bible studies. Too often we take in all of the information that is being presented to us from the pulpit and the media. What impact does all of this spiritual nourishment have on our lives? Sadly, it may have very little. It easily can go in one ear and out the other. It can have little or no impact upon our day to day existence.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were spiritually bulimic. In Luke 11:52 he speaks of their being experts in the law who have taken away the key to knowledge. They do not have true knowledge themselves, despite all their learning. Although they knew so much about the law, they had never personally incorporated it into their lives. They were spiritually bulimic. I wonder how much we are just like them. We have so many opportunities to learn about God. But does what I am learning have an impact on my life? How am I changing due to the spiritual food I am partaking? We must each ask ourselves this important question: Am I being spiritually nourished or am I spiritually bulimic?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sitting the Fence

The phrase “sitting on the fence” is a term of derision used to describe someone who can’t make up his or her mind on an issue. It is often used to describe a person who is indecisive and weak. It describes a person who is wishy washy. But in our modern world we frequently find ourselves in the middle between extremes. The attitude of “he who is not for me is against me” is commonly held. If you are not charismatic you must be anti charismatic. If you are not a Republican you must be a Democrat. If you are not a fundamentalist you must be a liberal. If you are not liberal you must be conservative, etc. For example, someone I know once received a call from one of the political parties, asking questions about the party’s platform. She said she agreed with the party’s position, except on one particular issue. The interviewer’s response was “so you will then be voting for the other party in the next election?” I once had a discussion with a person who held a different theological position than I do. When he found out that I disagreed with his viewpoint he said “So you aren’t a Christian then.” Both people held the position that he who is not totally for me must be against me.

We can ask why so many people and groups have a tendency to hold this viewpoint. I believe that many times it comes from the attempt to fill a void. Something has been missing that must be filled. Unfortunately as time passes, filling this void becomes the test of orthodoxy, whether in the religious, political or social realm. Part of the reason there are so many differing political parties, church denominations, philosophical viewpoints, etc. is that not one of them has been able to completely gain a corner on the truth. If one side was completely perfect, there would be no need for an opposing viewpoint. Unfortunately many times each side of an issue grabs hold of one particular aspect and runs with it, neglecting other valid viewpoints.

Therefore the thinking Christian often finds himself in the middle between the extremes. I call this “sitting the fence”. It is a deliberate, intentional position in the middle. It incorporates some of the best from each side and rejects the worst. But it is a lonely position because both sides will often reject you. They will each label you as belonging to the other side. Because you don’t totally go along with their side, you must be for their opponents. But the thoughtful fence sitter finds that it is impossible to completely go along with each group’s agenda. This is deliberately “sitting the fence”. It is far different from “sitting on the fence” because it is intentional. It takes courage and knowing who you are. It requires a great deal of thought. It is not easy because you may find yourself very much alone and misunderstood.

Jesus also intentionally sat the fence. He rejected the viewpoint of the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were bound up in their traditions. He also rejected the viewpoint of the zealots who sought of free Israel from Roman dominance. When the Pharisees tried to trick him by asking if tribute should be given to Caesar, he sat the fence by saying “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” The religious leaders sought to kill him because he was too radical. One of the radicals, Judas, betrayed him because he wasn’t radical enough! In the end, both conspired against him together and killed him. As we live our lives, there are two questions we must ask ourselves. Am I willing to be a fence sitter? What fences is God calling me to sit on?

Self Help?

Many of us have grown up with slogans like “good old Yankee ingenuity” and “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. We live in a society which has a thriving self help industry in the form of books and seminars. Most bookstores have a large self help section. By browsing the internet we can find instructions for how to do most anything we want. From a religious perspective we often hear the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.”

Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately) that phrase is nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, the opposite is true. God acts when we can’t. He wants us to depend on him. Throughout the Old Testament a particular Hebrew word is used that shows this. The word is usually translated “to cry out”. In each case it implies God acting only when we cry out in desperation and hopelessness. God acts only when we finally admit that we can’t do it by ourselves. This phenomenon is particularly seen in the book of Judges. Again and again the children of Israel fall away from following God. He allows their enemies to oppress them, sometimes for years and years. Finally they cry out to God and he sends a deliverer to rescue them. But the deliverer comes only after they admit their inadequacy to do it on their own. He only comes when they finally cry out in desperation to God.

We see the same in the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. It begins very upbeat, with a song. The owner of the vineyard does everything in his power to develop a productive vineyard. He plants the choicest vines in the best geographical location in very fertile ground. But in spite of all his efforts, the vineyard doesn’t produce good grapes. The passage, beginning with such hopefulness and expectation, ends with “cries of distress”. He asks the question “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? (verse 4a). Although everything was tried, nothing has worked. The same word is used when God tells Cain that his brother’s blood cries out to him from the ground. Since Abel has been killed, there can only be dependency on God for justice. Abel, being dead, was totally helpless.

God is not in the self help business. The Bible is not a self help manual. Instead it is a “Depend on me” manual. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see God working when people recognize that they can’t do it on their own. He waits until they call on him for help. Then he responds. He wants us to have faith and trust in him to provide for our needs. How do we respond when we face difficulties? Is God the first or the last person we turn to? How much trust do we have in him? Have we succumbed to our society’s self help program, or do we follow God’s “depend on me” program? How often do we try this or that program trying to solve the difficulty we are facing? It’s worth examining our lives, looking at some of the major difficulties we have faced in our lives. Did we depend on God from the beginning or only after trying everything else? How do we respond in the day to day situations we face? Do we try to depend on ourselves or do we depend on God? The answer to these questions says a lot about how much faith and trust we have in God.

Spiritual Kryptonite

At a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held on the UCLA campus, a campus security officer was asked if he expected any trouble during the festival. He replied "Ma'am, books are like kryptonite to gangs." There are two ways we can look at his statement. One is that gang members are so disinterested in books that they have no interest in coming to a place where there are a large number of books. Thus they stay away just like Superman avoids kryptonite. The second is that as they become acquainted with good literature, the hold of gangs on a gang member is weakened. In this way also, books to gang members can be considered like kryptonite to Superman.

In a similar manner, the Bible is a form of spiritual kryptonite to Satan. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Old Testament was his defense against all of the devil’s temptations. Satan was not able to stand against him. When we read the Bible and incorporate its message into our lives, Satan’s hold on our lives is weakened. As we discover what it means to become more like Christ and put this into practice, Satan’s grip becomes less and less. As the Holy Spirit convicts us of God’s word, and we follow it, Satan flees away. The Psalmist was well aware of this phenomenon when he wrote in Ps 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”. He knew that if God’s word was held deeply inside the core of one’s being, the tendency to sin was lessened.

But today people are becoming less and less literate. This has led to our becoming less and less biblically literate as well. The constant jumping from sound bite to sound bite has left us unable to concentrate on serious study. Coupled with this is the false idea that Christianity is only about forgiveness of sin and escaping to heaven. Many have lost the vision that Jesus calls us to be his disciples, fully living a life of commitment to him. We have lost the belief that God calls us to live lives of holiness. The combination of these trends provides Satan with the antidote to spiritual kryptonite. They allow him to strengthen his hold, not only on non-Christians, but even Christians within the church. Thus we see dissension and bickering inside the church, Christians who refuse to get along with each other, and power struggles over who controls the church. These all come from the neglect of a serious study of Scripture and prayer which will impact our lives in a God pleasing manner.

God desires that we have an adequate supply of spiritual kryptonite deep within the core of our being. That is where all that we think and say and do is generated. It is where our true beliefs reside. It is our command center. Jesus indicates as much when he says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him, but what comes out. Satan loves to invade this center and compromise it. Without a strong defense, he can easily be successful. This is why it is so important to for us to have the word of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit deep within us. This is why prayer is also important. God’s word, the Holy Spirit and prayer are the three pronged kryptonite that Satan fears. They help keep him at bay. They help protect the command center of our lives. Ask yourself, how much spiritual kryptonite is there between Satan and me?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thank Goodness We Aren't Like Reindeer

Another Christmas season has come and gone. We have survived another year of stressful shopping, hectic schedules, traffic jams, long lines at the malls and the like. Hopefully we have also found time to reflect on the significance of the birth of Jesus, for he is the true meaning of Christmas. Without his coming to earth we would not be celebrating Christmas.

But as I reflected upon this Christmas season, it occurred to me that reindeer are nasty creatures. They are very mean spirited and spiteful. They are bullies and racist, with little regard for other reindeer who are different from them. They reject all reindeer whom are not brown nosed. They ignore or take advantage of the physically challenged in their midst. They pick on and tease other reindeer, treating them poorly. Their constant teasing amounts to torment. Not only that, but they are reckless, with little regard for the safety and health of others, especially the elderly in their community. They speed when pulling sleighs. When they hit someone they never stop to help the unfortunate victims. Their emotions are always flip-flopping. They may accept others one day and reject them the next. One never knows which it will be. This trait allows them to be manipulative. Plus, they tend to only accept others who are different when they find them useful to achieve their own ends.

To see the truth of these observations we only need to look at how the reindeer treat poor Rudolph. They continually laugh at him and call him names. They are constantly picking on him. They tease him about his red nose. When they play the reindeer equivalent of playground pickup games, they refuse to let him play. If they do allow him to play, they always choose him last. They only accept him when they need him for something. They only “love” him because he can help them out when they are in desperate straits because of the dense fog. One wonders how long their acceptance of poor Rudolph lasted once the fog lifted. Are their shouts of “you’ll go down in history” only said in jest when they consign him back to oblivion once his usefulness is over? Do they shout this as they go back to their reindeer games without him? Is their glee only the glee associated with their ability to tease him once again?

Reindeer are so callous that they never even think of bringing those who are hit and run reindeer into court to account for their deeds. Even when known to have run down elderly, frail grandmothers, they have no pangs of guilt or remorse. With their reckless driving habits, they are prone to road rage. With the attitudes and behaviors that reindeer have, it is a good thing they only come around once a year. We wouldn’t want to tolerate them more than that.

Thank goodness we humans don’t act like reindeer. We are always level headed. We aren’t manipulative. We aren’t racist. We have a profound respect for the elderly. We help the needy. We readily accept the disabled. We don’t bully and tease others or get bent out of shape when someone crosses our path. We graciously allow others to cut in front of us on the expressways. We never go over the speed limit. We never use people to further our own ends. We accept people for who they are rather than what they can do for us. We never act like reindeer. Or do we?

Radical Christianity

In a talk show exchange, Rosie O’Donnell stated that “Radical Christianity is just as dangerous as radical Islam.” Unfortunately Rosie, along with many Christians in America, does not have a clear conception of what is a radical Christian. Webster’s dictionary defines radical in a couple of different ways. One is someone who departs from the usual or traditional way of doing things. A second definition relates to the root of origin. This definition has more to do with something’s inherent nature. Radical Christianity looks to its origins. It acknowledges one’s accepting the lordship of Jesus Christ in his or her life and following Him in obedience.

We might ask what characterizes a radical Christian. The New Testament gives us many examples. Radical Christianity demonstrates love, even to its enemies. Radical Christians love their neighbor as much as they love themselves. They pray for those who persecute them. They esteem others better than themselves. They seek to serve others. They care for the downtrodden, the poor and the suffering. They do not seek to glorify themselves, but to exhibit true humility. They willingly give to others. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of others. They avoid “looking out for number one”. They practice “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). This is what radical Christianity looks like.

As we look down through the centuries, we see several examples of individuals who have clearly demonstrated radical Christianity. The twentieth century person who most exemplified radical Christianity was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There was no person whom she did not love. There was no one she would not help. She accepted everyone. She believed that every person, no matter their station in life, their status, or their health, was created in the image of God. In loving them she gave them dignity.

During the 1870s and 80s, Father Damien, known as the leper priest, worked with the isolated leper colony in Hawaii. He was introduced to the 600 lepers in the colony as one “who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you." He willingly tended the lepers, full well knowing that he was endangering his own life. He served as both priest and doctor, caring for the sick and dressing their wounds. Sixteen years later he died from leprosy. He also lived radical Christianity.

Another example can be seen during the time when the Bubonic plague decimated Europe. Many people fled their homes when they discovered that one of their family members had contacted the plague. Their sick family members were left behind to die. But many Christians stayed behind, caring for all the sick and dying, whether they were family or not.. They were willing to risk exposure to the plague in order to serve those who were ill and couldn’t care for themselves. These Christians also exhibited radical Christianity.

It is difficult to see how this picture of radical Christianity is dangerous. Yet in one aspect Rosie is right. It is dangerous – It is dangerous to us! If we begin to experience radical Christianity at this level we will be changed. We can not remain the same. We will be forced to get out of our comfort zone. We each must ask the questions “How radical am I?” “Am I willing to get out of my comfort zone to help and serve others?” As I look at my own life, I find myself not particularly radical. I am far too comfortable with things the way they are. How about you?

The Abuse of Power

The British journalist, Macolm Muggeridge notes in the foreword to his book The Third Testament that the Russian novelist Dostoevsky held that Russia had a destiny “to unite mankind in a brotherhood based in Christian love as the antidote to power rather than on power as the antidote to the inequality, the injustice, the oppression under which the poor everywhere labored.” His contemporary, Tolstoy, also distrusted power. Muggeridge states that Tolstoy was convinced “that human beings can never be made better, individually or collectively, by the exercise of power.” The British historian Lord Acton stated that “power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” All three of these individuals held a deep distrust of power and what it can do to people. We saw the prophetic nature of their words come true in Communist Russia during the past century. The use of power only increased the inequality, the injustice and the oppression of the Russian people.

Yet today many people still look to power as something to grasp. Both political parties seek to become the party in power in our country. Many religious leaders view for power in their denominations. A large number of corporate executives seek to control their corporations through the exercise of power. Unfortunately gaining and maintaining power can become an end in itself. An obsession with power can easily become a corrupting influence. We need only look at the nasty, negative campaigns often run by both Democrats and Republicans to see that this is true. When power becomes an obsession everyone loses. Those who are under the heel of power find that they are being taken advantage of. Those who wield the power may one day discover that they have lost their own soul.

Dostoevsky is right that Christian love is the antidote to power. He correctly saw that love is the key to solving the problems of injustice and inequality and oppression. It is very difficult to treat another human being unjustly, or as an inferior, or to oppress them when we truly love them. The apostle Paul note that all of our abilities and gifts and charity amount to nothing without love (I Corinthians 13). Jesus himself says that unity can only come about through love.

So why do we continue to seek power? I think is comes from a desire to control – a desire to control our destiny. We lose track of, or want to ignore, the fact that God is the one who is in control. We forget that we are to be his agents, showing His love to a world that is being torn apart with hate and dissension. We lose sight of the fact that to become truly powerful we must become weak. It is only through our weakness that God is able to work in our world.

Mother Theresa, ironically from a Communist country, Albania, was one of the weakest, yet most powerful individuals of the past century. World leaders sought her favor and advice. She influenced the entire world through her love of the poor and downtrodden. There was no place that she would not go. There was no one that she would not serve. She understood better than anyone else that Christian love was the antidote to power and the best solution to the problems of this world. She brought the love of Christ to every person who crossed her path.

In our day to day loves we face the same tension that Dostoevsky spoke about. Do we seek to wield power or do we seek to wield God’s love? We must ask ourselves the question: “Will I seek power and reflect the ruthless tyrannical system exhibited by Russia for most of the 20th century or will I, in weakness and humility, reflect the love of God to those in need.” Time will tell.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Penance and Absolution

Father Christopher Walsh, in his book The Untapped Power of the Sacrament of Penance, notes that “penance is a sacrament that demands an authentic grasp of human freedom and responsibility. Only a person who is free can commit a morally culpable action. Only one who accepts personal responsibility can confess guilt and seek forgiveness.” It is a point well taken in a society which has a tendency to seek to blame others for our problems. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we are victims of the society in which we live. We are told that society is the cause for all our failures. We see this all around us. It is the teacher’s fault I got a bad grade in the class. It is my boss’s fault I didn’t get the promotion. It’s society’s fault I committed the crime. It’s my family’s fault I act the way I do. My personality disorder is the result of the environment in which I grew up. Or, my spouse (or former spouse) caused me to do it, etc.

We all prefer to blame others for our problems instead of accepting responsibility for our own failures and sins. That way we can put a salve on our consciences. The danger is that in continually attempting to transfer the responsibility for our actions from ourselves to someone else we will come to believe it’s their fault. When we do so, we will never come to the place of contrition where we seek forgiveness and restoration. By covering over our sins we think we can put them behind us. Unfortunately, underneath they are still festering. We don’t realize how damaging this is to our souls. Until we take responsibility, we will never change and will find ourselves repeatedly doing the same things over and over again and again. And until we take responsibility for our sin, God cannot begin to change us. We become caught in the blame game trap of our own making. By living in that trap we will never confess. Therefore we will never hear the liberating words from a priest or minister stating “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Father Walsh says that there are three benefits of penance. The first is healing. Confession and absolution bring freedom and transformation. We are freed from the bondage of sin that shackles us. We are healed from the compulsion to repeat the sin over and over again. The second is forgiveness. Dealing with the problem of guilt can be a major cause for counseling. Unfortunately, unless we take responsibility for our actions, confess them and are absolved, we never experience the freedom God intends us to have. The guilt never goes away, leading to the need for continual counseling. The third is reconciliation. When we confess and are absolved, we are reconciled with God. Our growing love for him transforms us to become more like him, as we seek to live holy lives. This will also lead to being reconciled with each other.

Like anything else, confession can become rote, where we only go through the motions, confessing a litany of sins without much thought. How can we avoid this? Father Walsh suggests we ask ourselves the question “What are the obstacles keeping you from getting closer to God and experiencing his grace and peace more powerfully in your life?” As we identify them we must take responsibility for them. Confessing them, and experiencing God’s healing, forgiveness and reconciliation will make all the difference in our lives. Its time for us to ask: “What obstacles are keeping me from getting closer to God?”

God Bless These Pagan Notes

A speaker at a student conference was once comparing both the positive and negative features of attending either a Christian or a secular university. After describing the benefits and detractions of each, he cautioned, “Just because you attend a Christian school doesn’t mean that you will receive a Christian education. If your professor, who may have received his education at a secular university, hasn’t integrated his field of study with his faith, his opening prayer at the beginning of class may be nothing more than ‘God bless these pagan notes’”. Too often Christian professors can unconsciously accept the assumptions of their discipline of study and meekly mention God’s name now and then.

Upon reflection, this raises an interesting question. Christian parents may send their children to a religious elementary or secondary school, or to a Christian college or university in order to provide them with a Christian education. But their children may not receive the Christian education hoped for. It all depends upon how well the teachers and professors have integrated their education with their own personal faith. The name “Christian” in the title doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Our schools are not the only place where this occurs. We can experience the same situation in seeking a Christian counselor. The mere fact that the counselor is known to be a Christian doesn’t say anything about the nature of the counsel he or she may give. Their advice may be totally non-Christian. It all depends on how well they have integrated their training with their faith. We have also seen the problem surface in the corporate scandals that have occurred during the past decade. Yet some of the individuals involved in the scandals were considered to be Christians. Faith and ethics sometimes appear to be divorced from each other.
But this problem doesn’t only affect others. It also affects all of us. Throughout our lives we have been learning many facts and ideas, organizing them, and developing our own personal philosophy of life. We have been influenced by our schools, our churches, our jobs, our friends, the media, and things we have read or heard. This information has come to us from both religious and secular sources. They all help us make up our own personal worldview. Oftentimes we aren’t even aware that we are developing one. But the worldview that we embrace affects all aspects of our lives. It affects our jobs, our parenting, and our relationships with others. It affects how we live out our faith. It influences everything we say and do. Have we also passively accepted everything we have learned and also occasionally bring God into the picture?

Today we live in what many have called a post Christian, post modernist world. We are faced with many competing philosophies. We confront New Age, existentialism, naturalism, postmodernism, etc. Most of them do not espouse a Biblical world view. Several are actually hostile to it. Yet many Christians have blindly accepted them without even questioning their background. They have not evaluated their own worldview from a Biblical perspective. They have accepted it without attempting to compare it to and integrate it with their faith.

We are constantly being bombarded with a non-Biblical worldview. How are we handling it? If we blindly accept it, we are doing as the professor above, saying in effect “God bless these pagan ideas.” Have we filtered everything through the filter of our faith? “Or are we really secularists in Christian clothing?” Have we integrated our jobs, our education, and our lives with our faith? Or are we really wolves in sheep’s clothing?

The Now Generation

Our society has been called the “now” generation. We want things “now”, no matter what they are. This has made us susceptible to many dangers, such as impulse buying, the desire for instant gratification, impatience with things that require time to develop. Wanting things “now” has many serious consequences. It causes the run up of hefty balances on our credit cards. It leads to dissatisfactions in marriages, many times resulting in divorce. It fuels the lotteries, with their enticement of a quickly amassed fortune. It destroys relationships that don’t develop quickly enough. “Now” can become a huge taskmaster.

The rocket scientist Wernher von Braun had an astute comment about the fallible nature of now. He once observed that "Crash programs fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby in a month.” Many things require time to develop. Just as it takes nine months for a child to be born, it takes time for relationships to develop, for nest eggs to be built, to experience the joy of working to acquire something in the future. These cannot occur overnight. To attempt otherwise leads to premature births, relationships that are constantly flitting from one to another, the temptation to compromise one’s values, etc. Living with a now mentality can cause us significant problems.

God is definitely not part of the now generation. He is described in several passages as being slow to anger. When the children of Israel turn from him time after time in the book of Judges, he often allows them to stray for decades before acting. Perhaps the greatest example of God’s not being part of the now generation is seen in the coming of Jesus. Jesus did not come immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, but in the fullness of time. God is certainly not impulsive.

God also designs our lives to be much in the same way. In his poem The Windhover, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins includes the line “Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine.” The imagery is agricultural – of a horse pulling a plow. “Sillion” is a technical term, referring to the freshly turned, moist compacted earth that comes off the plow share. It often has a sheen which glistens as the sun hits it. This is what he means by “sillion shine”. It is only by the horse slowly plodding ahead, pulling the plow across the field, that we have the sillion shining and glistening in the sun.

Likewise, it is only by going through the nine months of pregnancy that we experience the joy of birth. It is only by putting a little bit away, month by month, year after year, that we accumulate our retirement nest egg. It is only by the discovery of new insights about another person and sharing ourselves with them over many years that relationships grow. It is only in our slowly becoming more like Christ in our lives that we grow in holiness. Each takes time. Each requires slowly plodding ahead.

Unfortunately we often try to short circuit the process. We look for the quick fix. We want the results without having to put in the effort. And we want them immediately! We become impatient if we don’t get them right away. When we do this we miss out on much that God has for us. We miss out on the joy of both a developing relationship with him and with others. We never see growth in Christian maturity. We have become captive to now. By the way, how much does now control your life?

Monday, March 2, 2009

No Christian Left Behind

The “No Child Left Behind” act is designed to ensure that all of our children receive a quality education. Whatever we may feel about its implementation, I believe we can all agree that the quality of the education given our children is of utmost importance. Every child should be in an environment where he or she can learn.

But despite the best programs, the best teachers, the best classrooms, we often find that for some children it just doesn’t work. There are many reasons why this may be true. One child may have an entirely different learning style from that of his teacher. Another may have dyslexia or some other learning disability that prevents her from learning at the speed of the other children. A third may have a lowered IQ that makes learning more difficult for him. But it may also be for the reason that the child sees no value in education and doesn’t want to learn. He has never seen the importance of education in his life. Until he decides there is value in education, he will likely never truly succeed in school. Unfortunately, the same is true with adults. Department of Education reports indicate that adult literacy and reading are declining. We are becoming less and less literate.

A recent article by a Christian author suggests that we should promote “No Christian Left Behind”. He states that we should all seek to be biblically, theologically and culturally literate. Josh Sowin, writing in John Piper’s blog “Desiring God” says much the same thing: “But we have a problem: our culture is becoming more and more alliterate. We have the ability to read but not the desire. Or maybe we have the desire but not the time. We make time to watch television and surf the Internet for the latest triviality, but we can't seem to make the time to sit down and read for an hour.” Sowin recommends that we become well versed in our knowledge of the Bible, in theology and in our understanding of the culture in which we live. It is only then that we will be able to impact our culture with God’s good news.

There are many passages in the Bible that speak to the value God places on knowledge. He desires that we intimately know Him. We are to diligently search for, cry out for, and seek to know God. Several passages suggest that we are to wrestle with getting to know God. The prophet Hosea warns that “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6a). We are chided in Hebrews 5 for not going beyond the elementary teachings. To faithfully serve Him requires that we use our minds along with our emotions. We must acquire a working knowledge of the Bible, learn the basic Christian doctrines, and understand how God’s good news intersects with the culture in which we live. It requires the same disciplined approach as does the discipline needed to learn math or a foreign language. It will not happen by osmosis.

Do we desire to know God and model our lives after him or do we model our Christian lives after the child who sees no value in education and doesn’t want to learn? How often are we merely satisfied with attending church on Sunday, but have no desire to learn more about God, his world and our lives? If God were giving us a literacy test regarding our knowledge of Him, would we flunk the exam? Would He classify us with those who have been left behind?

My Motives

At times living the Christian life can appear to be very confusing. As we try to determine the will of God, we often look for the easy way out. We look for rules to follow. Having rules makes it easy to know what to, or not to do. Thus we can avoid having to make complex decisions. The Pharisees were known for the large number of rules they rigidly kept. Many of these rules had a negative orientation. Jesus condemned them for their strict adherence to their rules. Rules had become more important than their relationship with God. The motives for their actions were wrong.

We are tempted to do the same thing that the Pharisees did. During the twentieth century, large segments of American Christendom were identified by the rules they kept. Like the rules of the Pharisees, many of these were also negative. They made it very easy to identify supposed Christian behavior. But these rules also became very rigid. While they attempted to define one’s relationship with God, they became more important than a true relationship with God. It even became possible to follow the rules without having any relationship with God at all.

But rules by themselves are often inadequate in making decisions. Life is much more complex than following mere rules. The dilemma we face is compounded by the fact that the same action can be a virtue one day and a sin the next. How do we determine which it is? The Swiss physician, Paul Tournier, writes about this issue in his book To Resist or Surrender? He states “What is good in the Bible, is not this thing or that. It is not a matter of resisting or giving in. It is doing what God wants and when he wants it: it is total dependence upon his person, not upon a moral code.”

We constantly find ourselves forced to make choices. Rules make it easy, for then we don’t have to think. Someone else has done the hard work for us. We can just mechanically react, like a programmed machine. But if we desire to do what God wants and when he wants it, we are led to question our motives when we are confused by choices. Is the motive behind our actions a desire to be totally dependent upon God and give him glory? Do our actions signify complete trust in Him? We see an example of this process at work in the life of King David in II Samuel 24: David is chastised for taking a census. Yet in Numbers 26 God tells Moses to take a census. What is the difference? David’s motive was to determine his military strength as opposed to his dependence upon God. He is condemned for his lack of trust in God.

God desires us to be motive oriented Christians. He desires us to be dependent upon Him. He wants us to totally trust in Him. Therefore, our motives are all important. Much of the praise or condemnation of individuals in the Bible has to do with the motives behind their actions. Were they acting out of allegiance and dependence upon God or did they have some other motive? Were they acting out of trust? This requires thoughtful analysis. We can not take the easy way out and merely follow a set of rules. As we live our daily lives, we need to ask ourselves these questions: Why am I doing this? How do my actions impact my relationship with God? What do my motives tell me about myself?

Market Economy

George Orwell, observing the loss of religious faith in Europe (which he had applauded), remarked: “For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire. … It appears that amputation of the soul isn't just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic.” As we evaluate the global economic collapse of 2008 it appears things have gone very septic indeed. In fact we are now experiencing septic shock.

We should not be surprised. The likelihood that this would happen was prophetically suggested in an address on Market Economy and Ethics by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in 1985. He noted that Christians who participate in managing the economy have a long tradition of regarding their faith as a private concern while in their business concerns they abide by economic laws. He stated that to overcome this dichotomy requires that these two arenas come together, for any economic system operating for the common good depends on an ethical system born and sustained by strong religious convictions. He then continued “Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.”

Over the past 23 years since his address, we have seen a continual erosion of the place of religion in public life. Ethical thinking has played a continually diminished role. There has been an every widening gulf between our public, secular lives and our private, religious lives. Many times we can take on a Dr. Jekyll - Mr. Hyde lifestyle without feeling any guilt at all. This leads to an unconscious “live for God on Sunday and the devil the rest of the week” mentality. Considering religion to be only a private concern has proved disastrous. The market has now collapsed. The religious branch we were sitting on has been sawed off. We are living in the cesspool we have created. We are now experiencing the consequences of our decisions. We don’t like them, but are we willing to change? That is the question facing us at this moment in history.

The return from the moral abyss our nation is in will require a deep change in our view of the relationship between our religious and secular lives. They must be brought back together. We must regard this issue with the same seriousness that Jesus did. In his seven woes pronounced against the Pharisees in Matt 23 he says “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was largely due to their having separated their life of faith from their life in the world. This allowed them to live their religious life devoid of justice, mercy and faithfulness while flaunting their religiosity. It is only as we bring the secular and religious aspects of our lives back together that we can see change. It is only when our nation begins to embrace ethical thinking based on the laws of God that change will occur. The best place to begin is with us. Am I willing to allow God to influence every area of my life?