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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Problem with Mimicry

In the natural world, mimicry is often used by a species as a form of protection. Although now it is felt that the monarch and viceroy butterflies mimic each other, for the prior one hundred years the prevalent thought was that the viceroy mimicked the monarch butterfly, a bitter tasting insect, which discouraged avian predators from feasting on a tasty morsel. A bird, seeing the monarch pattern in the viceroy’s colors, would bypass it for another, more tasty, insect. Several animals, such as the ermine and the snowshoe hare, which are brown in the summer and white in the winter adapt to blend in with their surroundings. Their adaptation provides safety from their larger predators. While this is very effective in the natural realm, in the spiritual realm, spiritual mimicry is disastrous. Christians who blend in with the surroundings of the secular culture in which we live are charting a very dangerous course for their spiritual lives.

C. Stacy Woods, in his semi autobiographical book Some Ways of God states “Our failure to emphasize the radical and essential difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, between the Christian way of life and the non-Christian way of life, is a root cause of today’s weakness and spiritual ineffectiveness. If the world ignores Christians and ignores the church, it is because we fawn before the world, seek its favors and delicacies, and strive to imitate its ways.” He goes on to say that, compared to the world’s standards, a Christians value judgments, goals, life orientation and reactions are to be different. A Christian’s worldview should be vastly different from that of the secular culture around us.

The temptation we face to mimic the culture around us should not be ignored. It has a powerful effect upon our lives. We are tempted to engage in several types of mimicry, all of which weaken and destroy our spiritual lives. Cultural mimicry is a way for us to blend in with the world and prevents our being ridiculed for living a Christian lifestyle. By blending in with the culture around us, no one will know that we really are a Christian, even if they might be aware that we attend church on Sundays. They see us as having the same values and mores as they do. Success mimicry tempts us to model our churches after successful churches or dynamic secular models for the purpose of obtaining the same results as they have had. But just because a particular program or model has worked elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for us. We are in a different place and God has a different plan for us. Peer mimicry is especially a problem among our youth as they attempt to identify with their friends. They can easily find themselves in compromising situations as they try to go along with and identify with the crowd.

The only mimicry acceptable in the Christian life is the mimicry of Jesus. He asks us to walk as he walked, to live as he lived, to pattern our lives after his life, and to have the same values as he did. He calls us to live incarnational lives so that others, seeing how we live our lives will see Christ through us. We are to be little Christs; imitators of God. We may be the only Christ they ever see. In this way we point to the difference Christ makes to our world. How we pattern our lives makes all the difference. Who are you mimicking, Jesus Christ or the world?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Tyranny of Normal

What is normalness? For most Americans, normalness brings us security and comfort, for it somewhat guarantees predictability. We prefer that, becoming uncomfortable when events in our lives are unpredictable and are outside of the usual realm of our experience and control. We prefer the security of not having to deal with surprises in our lives.

But “normal” is a relative term. No two people can agree on what they consider to be normal in their lives. For those of us fortunate enough to have a job, normal might be the daily routine of getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home at night to our family, then preparing to do the same the following day. For those who have lost their jobs normal may be the frustration of the day to day search for employment, feeling like they are just spinning their wheels, that they are being broken in the futile attempt. It may be the continual frustration of marital tension experienced by the family struggling to meet their financial obligations while dealing with jobs which provide inadequate income. For the orphans in Romania, abandoned to live on the streets, normal is the desperate attempt of begging for food, scavenging garbage cans and dumps, hoping that the activity might provide a single, paltry meal for the day. For the Untouchables of India, it is the knowledge that the rigid society in which they live will keep them in perpetual destitute poverty. For children, forced to work in the squalid conditions of third world slum factories, normal is the grim realization that this is how they will pass their lives. For the young girl of Kolkata, sold into sex slavery, normal is the ever repeating forcible rapes which she must endure day after day, night after night, year after year.

For many of the people of the world normal is not something desirable. It brings with it the deadening ache of knowing that the brokenness which it causes will likely never end. The haunting reality that there may never be an escape from the prison of normalness is endless.

The solution to the misery and brokenness we experience and see around us requires transformation. It requires us to identify with the brokenness of Jesus and realize our own brokenness. As we acknowledge our own brokenness, God can use us to help those who are broken around us. Many times we feel inadequate and don’t know how to respond to the suffering of others. As we cry out in desperation to him, he heals our own brokenness and gives us the strength to reach out to those around us, helping to transform them with the love of Christ. It requires us to go beyond normalness, stepping out in faith into the thrilling adventure of letting God lead us in unpredictable ways, all the while transforming our own brokenness into vessels he can use to minister his love and grace. Transformation is never easy. We must face the painful realization of whom we are – sinful people with many faults. It begins when we become broken over our own sin and our potential to harm others. Knowing where we have been and what God is doing in us gives us hope and compassion for others in their own struggles.

The tyranny of normal can be a cruel taskmaster. It feeds on brokenness. It delights in the status quo. It leads to the abandonment of hope. Are you satisfied to live with normalcy, or are you ready, in brokenness, to be transformed by the living God?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Preparation and Expectation

The liturgical season of Advent is a special time of the year. It begins the church year and looks forward to the birth of Jesus. It is a time of preparation as we prepare our hearts to celebrate his birth. The Gospels speak of John the Baptist fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. He came, preparing the way of the Lord. David Bayne, a missionary to Argentina, notes that “Advent is a reminder that we, too, are called to prepare the way for Jesus. It is a season of preparing the way for Jesus not only in our own hearts, but also inviting others to prepare their hearts.” With this there is an expectation that Jesus will be working in our hearts, drawing us closer to himself. Many Christians use this season for prayer, fasting, penitence and devotional reading as they prepare for the coming of Christ. In Advent, we experience hope, joy, peace and love. These sustain us throughout the year.

Advent is also a time of expectation. We see this in Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of the coming birth. Her response of “May it be to me as you have said” implies that she fully expected the prophecy to come true. The aged Simeon of Jerusalem, looking forward in expectation for the arrival of the consolation of Israel, could not fail to find the infant Christ in the temple courts. His expectation fueled his discovery of the Christ child, allowing him to see what the thousands of people milling about the temple could not. At Christmas time we often sing the Wesleyan carol “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”. Do we really mean the words we sing? Do we have that same anticipation about the coming Christ as that seen on young children’s faces as they open their presents on Christmas morning? As we go into the Christmas season, do we anticipate Christ working in our hearts in a new way?

Beginning with the activities of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Advent can be a time which takes us away from these qualities. We can become so busy with the activities of gift buying, party going, and the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season that hope, peace, joy and love are pretty much ignored. Instead we find ourselves frazzled and stressed out, experiencing more turmoil than peace. We may briefly think about them on Sundays, but ignore them as soon as the church doors close behind us and the reality of the holiday season hits us again. We impatiently wait for the season to be over so that things can again return to normal. We find we don’t have much time for spiritual things let alone taking time to ponder and reflect on how to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.

As we begin a new Advent season, it is well worth the time to expectantly prepare for the coming of Jesus to work in our hearts, for this is how he works in our world. The poet and devotional speaker Carolynn Scully, in preparing for Advent, asks herself the question “I search my heart wondering if I expect God to use me?” concluding that “I must expect Him in my life if I am to be ready to say "Yes!" when he calls. As we begin the new church year are you preparing your heart to hear the voice of God this Advent season? Are you eagerly, in anticipation, expecting him to reveal himself to you in a fresh new way? Are you preparing for and expecting his call?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Celebration of life

The missionary organization Word Made Flesh (WMF) celebrates nine areas in its incarnational ministry among many of the most poor and disadvantaged people around the world. The nine focal points of their ministry are intimacy, obedience, humility, community, service, simplicity, submission, brokenness and suffering. While we often celebrate community and service, the other seven areas are not ones we normally associate with celebration. When, for instance, was the last time you celebrated suffering or brokenness? Yet when we think of incarnational living, all of them are worthy of celebration. WMF defines them as follows:
We celebrate intimacy with Jesus to be our highest calling and our created purpose.
We celebrate obedience as our loving response to the grace of Jesus.
We celebrate humility before God and humanity.
We celebrate community as a means for discipleship and service.
We celebrate service as an expression of our fellowship.
We celebrate simplicity as a privilege in identification with Jesus and the poor.
We celebrate submission to Jesus, each other and the poor.
We celebrate brokenness as our responsibility in ministry among the broken.
We celebrate suffering as a willing sacrifice in serving Jesus.

In effect, these celebrations affirm our being like Jesus. When we look at his life we see that they all exemplify his life. His prayer life with his Father shows that they had an intimate relationship. In his obedience he humbled himself to be broken and suffer death on a cross. He developed a community of believers, which after his death and resurrection became the church. He was constantly serving others, lived simply with no place to call his own, and submitted his life to God.

While we celebrate these characteristics of Jesus, how often do we do so concerning ourselves? The world in which we live, though it does talk of community, frowns upon all of them. Its view of community focuses more on how we benefit from it than in discipleship and service. We are more likely to seek social status and comfort, to look to our own interests, seek to be served rather than to serve and seek to affirm our own self worth. We celebrate success and status and look with disdain at the broken ones among us. It is worth asking ourselves “If Jesus were to emulate me, would we still celebrate these nine areas of his life?”

We cannot celebrate these areas by giving lip service to them. They must become an integral part of our lives. As we grow in them we will find them closely linked together. As we realize our own brokenness in this sinful world, we will find our humility growing. As we become more intimate with God, our desire to obey him and submit to him increases. As we serve together our love of community grows. Service and suffering often are also related. As these characteristics begin to instill our lives, we will find that we are beginning to live incarnationally – that we are becoming more like Jesus.

One way to begin to celebrate these nine areas of incarnational living is by examining our own lives in each area, looking for one aspect of each which we can celebrate. As they then grow, continue celebrating them in community. We will find that some of them are easier for us than others. We may be stronger in those areas. But with others we may find ourselves struggling. With them we will need to ask God for help. Ask yourself “Which of these areas of incarnational living do I have the most difficulty with? What can I do to overcome it?”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Roman historian, Tacitus, observed that “There are many men who appear to be struggling against Adversity, and yet are happy; but yet more, who, although abounding in Wealth, are miserable.” His observations about happiness, or lack thereof, have not changed much over the centuries. A friend who has been on several short term mission trips to Haiti recently noted that although the people of Haiti live in extreme poverty and have deplorable living conditions, they are very happy. He then said that many people he knows here in the states, although having a much higher standard of living, are basically unhappy with the quality of their lives.

Such an ironic twist! Those whom we would think have no right to be happy are happy, while those we would except to be happy because they have the good things of life, aren’t! Why does happiness seem to be so elusive in our society today? Two thoughts come to mind. People who are happy tend to have a purpose outside of themselves. It is usually found in having a relationship with God and in caring for and serving others. These are often people who have a deep faith and dependence on God, greatly appreciating the things they receive as a gift from God. They don’t merely take things for granted, but receive them with thankful hearts. They freely give to others, whether of their possessions, or time. They find joy in serving others.

Why does our society seem so unhappy? We have bought into the slogans such as “Grab all the gusto you can” and “Look out for number one” etc. Focusing upon self-centeredness robs us of the ability to truly be happy. Self is a hard taskmaster who never satisfies. It leads us to obsession with our rights and the continual drive to always want more. We are never satisfied. We become narcissistic, seeking only our own personal pleasure, even at the expense of others. Self-centeredness destroys relationships with others, as we find ourselves envying their good fortune. Focusing upon our selves opens up a great void that is never able to be filled; one which leads us to spiral downward into the blackness of despair and unhappiness, never to be satisfied, consumed with always wanting more. The resulting dissatisfaction only leads us to a more desperate search for that seemingly elusive state of happiness, one which we can see but can never grasp. It is always just beyond the horizon, enticing us onward in an illusive pursuit, much like searching for the end of the rainbow.

To find true happiness requires getting out of self, having a purpose which is other centered, in service to God and mankind. It is in the process of serving others and making a difference in their lives that we discover joy and contentment. We must seek the good of others more than of our own. Only then will we find the satisfaction and joy of true happiness. We have been created by God to live this way, to live in community, because God himself is in a communal relationship as Father, Son and Spirit and desires to have a communal relationship with us. Jesus, during his brief three years of ministry, established a model of service for us to follow. It is a model based on love and relationships. It is only in abandoning our selves in loving and serving others that we truly find the contentment of happiness. It’s time to ask ourselves, what am I looking for to provide happiness in my life?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Battle with Idols

Our post-modern world has much in common with the ancient world, going back even to pre-historic times; namely that both worlds, modern and ancient, have always fought a battle with idolatry. While the ancient world, with its plethora of gods and goddesses was more overt in its struggle with idolatry, the struggle in our modern world is more covert and insidious, even disavowing the very existence of the one true God while worshipping as many, if not more, idols than did the men and women of ancient times. While the ancients thought of their deities in more physical terms, depicting them with human qualities, we tend to idolize individuals, institutions and concepts. If the assertion by Owen Barfield in his book Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry that “when the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten, they become idols” is correct, we have a very serious problem indeed.

Exhibiting a “more is better” ideology, we project upon our images excessive qualities which by far exceed their natural limitations. Consumed by a thirst for power, our government confers upon itself salvific status, enticing us to look to it for solutions to all our problems. Seeking prosperity we become consumed with the acquisition of wealth, forgetting that wealth is transitory, as those who experienced the stock market crash of 1929 or the aftermath of the recent mortgage meltdown quickly discovered. Consumed with status we strive to obtain degrees from the prestigious centers of academia; the mere physical piece of paper showing our degree having more value to us than the actual knowledge we have supposedly acquired in the process. Forgetting that the original purpose of the institutions of higher learning was to impart wisdom and knowledge, along with the tools necessary to acquire them, thus enabling people to live moral and spiritual lives in society, we have idolized academia.

Our flirtation with idols does not end there. Barfield defines idolatry “as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons”, thus an idol is “an image so valued.” In this light, our idolatrous worship can extent to anything, even to good things. As soon as an admired image becomes a desired object it is in danger of becoming an idol we worship. The acquisition of a beautiful wife (or successful husband), a coveted job, social status, the latest technological toys, etc. can all become sources of idolatry. For that matter, even our church can become an idol if we value it more than we do God.

Just as he refused to do in the Old Testament times, God refuses to play second fiddle today. If we are to follow him, he must be number one in our lives. If we desire anything more than him, we have already succumbed to idol worship and come under his condemnation, needing to repent and seek his forgiveness. There is not other way.

Because the temptations are often strong, it is important to do a reality check from time to time, examining whether or not we are in danger of creating idols. If we find that there are certain things that we dwell upon more than God, we may be guilty of idol worship. If the trust we place in things far surpasses their limitations or we glamorize them, we are likely idolizing them. If we look to society or government for all the answers to our problems, we will find that we are guilty. Ask yourself the question: Who do I really worship – God or something else?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Internal Pride

A young man, known for his prowess in drinking all of his friends under the table, was converted to Christianity. Desiring a change in lifestyle which included giving up wine, women and song, he joined a monastery known for its austere living conditions. He found the conditions sparse, including the meals. During Lent conditions became even more austere, as the monks fasted several times a week and many of the evening meals consisted of only bread and water. As Easter approached, many of the monks, especially the more senior ones, became ill from the effects of their limited diets. The young man, however, survived very well, relishing the fact that he, as a novice, was doing better than the other monks. But as he thought about this one day, he was horrified to realize that his attitude was much the same as it had been during his pre Christian drinking days. Just as he had taken pride in besting his buddies in drinking he now took pride in fasting his fellow monks under the table. He had changed from a secular to a Christian worldview. He had a totally new set of friends. His lifestyle had totally changed. But one thing was still the same; he continued to take pride in outperforming others. Though many things had changed, his heart was still the same; pride had remained in the center of his heart. In all of the changes that had occurred in his life, he had never dealt with his heart issue.

Like this young man, it is much easier for us to deal with the externals of our lives than to examine what is going on inside. We can change jobs, but maintain the same drive to always be number one. We can volunteer for activities at church, not because we have a servant’s heart, but because we want to be thought of highly. We can push our children into sports, not because it is good for them but because we seek to live vicariously through our children. The temptations and sins which we struggle with will not go away by merely changing the externals surrounding them. While changing the externals often helps new converts, such change will not tackle the root causes. If true change is to occur, it must begin inside and work its way out. This is why Jesus said that the problem is not what goes into a man, but what comes out.

True change requires transformation. St Paul says that we should stop being conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Andy Baker, a missionary to Bolivia with Word Made Flesh notes that transformation and submission go hand in hand. Reflecting on their relationship he states “transformation is the result of repeated submission over time”. He adds that Jesus invites us on a journey – a journey in which we will be changed as we turn over our lives to him, submitting to his leadership.

Submission requires letting go of oneself, willingly releasing control to another. Submitting ourselves daily to Jesus begins the process of inward transformation which leads to changed lives. Until the young man, dealing with the issue of pride, was willing to make that submission, his life would never be transformed. Until we are willing to do the same, we will never experience the release from frustration and guilt for our failures. It is only through submission that we discover the power of God evidenced in our lives, transforming us into new creatures. What change is occurring in your life? Is it due to submission to Jesus?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Spiritual Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a feared disease in the western world, with the potential to lead to heart disease or even death. It can occur over several years. As fat deposits of plaque adhere to the walls of the blood vessels, the artery gradually narrows and hardens over time. When it becomes plugged, a heart attack and / or death is usually the result. In many cases, as the disease progresses, the only solution available to extend one’s life may be a heart transplant.

In many ways the society in which we live is plagued by relationship atherosclerosis as the fragmentation of our society into various interest groups accelerates. We can easily be characterized by alienation; blacks against whites, Democrats against Republicans, rich versus poor, citizens against illegal aliens, and liberals versus conservatives. Despite all attempts to build a cohesive society, we seem to be more fragmented than ever. We have a tendency to blame others for our misfortunes, never wanting to accept responsibility for our own actions. Where does such fragmentation come from? We see its beginning in the falling out between Adam and Eve with God. Their relationship with God was destroyed when they ate of the forbidden fruit. Their relationship with each other was destroyed when Adam blamed Eve for his sin. In his blame we see a nascent hardening of positions. Their estrangement from God is consummated in their willful defiance of his command to refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, coupled with their refusal to accept culpability for their actions. In the Garden we see the beginnings of spiritual atherosclerosis, resulting in death.

We can observe its effects upon us in our selfishness, our callous attitude towards others, and our hardened attitude towards those who are different from us. This disease, which has affected our spiritual DNA, has continued down to the present time, requiring a heart transplant.
Scripture speaks of spiritual hardening of the arteries as a process of hardening one’s heart, as in the account of the plagues against Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Pharaoh continually hardens his heart against God, ignoring the request to let the people go. We see it in our own lives when we begin to ignore the ways and commands of God, beginning a process which leads us further and further away from a relationship with Him. What begins as a choice, over time with repetition, hardens into a willful defiance of God, resulting in full blown spiritual atherosclerosis. The plaque of sin covers the walls of our spiritual sensitivity, darkening our hearts until they are barely functioning. The solution requires the intervention of the Great Physician, whose spiritual knife is sharper than any two edged sword, to perform a heart transplant.

Just as living a healthy lifestyle deters physical atherosclerosis so does living a healthy spiritual life deter spiritual atherosclerosis. A daily quiet time, prayer, confession of sin, growing more Christ like, and love for others goes a long way in lowering our spiritual cholesterol. These disciplines attack the spiritual plaque deposits that have built up over time. As the layers are stripped away, we become more attuned to the voice of God in our lives. It’s worth having a spiritual checkup from time to time. Are you closer or farther away from God than you were a year ago? Are you living a disciplined Christian life, regularly spending time in prayer, Bible study, and fellowship? How are your spiritual arteries? Does a spiritual checkup suggest you are suffering from spiritual atherosclerosis?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Fallacy of Political Correctness

In the world in which we live, political correctness has almost become a mantra. It is felt that if the politically correct word or thought is repeated often enough in the right circumstances, the repetition will somehow transform people to accept the idea being espoused. It is often tied to diversity, with the idea that if we are politically correct we will be more accepting of cultural diversity. It is sometimes used to embarrass people for being intolerant of others. To avoid feeling embarrassed, many people will avoid stating their true feelings or will go along with the crowd.

But political correctness has a more sinister side lurking in its background. It is often a cover up for immoral, unethical and bad behavior. Tying behavior to political correctness provides it with a false sense of legitimacy. It can then become an excuse for intolerance, discrimination, bigotry and immorality. Being considered politically correct, these behaviors are never examined and judged for what they truly are. Under the guise of political correctness abortion and homosexuality are fashionable, intolerance towards Christians is acceptable, freedom of speech is discouraged, and discrimination against anyone disagreeing with political correctness is encouraged. Anyone not accepting the current politically correct positions is ironically heavily discriminated against, as several Christian students attending various universities have recently discovered when they went against the accepted social norms of the day.

The burden of political correctness seems to affect the Christian community the most, for many of the false ideologies that hide behind political correctness run counter to biblical ethics. They foster oppression against the church, even targeting individual Christians. As society becomes more pagan in nature, this trend will only continue. The physical, cultural, emotional and spiritual oppression we now feel will only intensify. Will the church be prepared to stand against the malevolent storm building against it?

In many ways the issue facing Christianity in the Western world today is similar to the situation faced by the people of God in the book of Judges. Several times they were oppressed for many years before God would step in. But he would only act when they cried out to him. The Hebrew word for “cry” in these passages implies a cry of desperation. It comes from a confession that they cannot control the situation. After trying everything else on their own, they finally cry out to God as their only hope and savior. They have to first acknowledge that they are totally dependent upon him. Only then does he act.

I wonder if the church today is going through similar times. For many years we have acted self sufficiently. We have attempted to do it on our own under the guise of success and power. We have sought to be successful by imitating successful church models, though experiencing the disquieting notion that all may not be well. We have inaugurated coalitions and joined political parties, but the various coalitions we have put together, such as Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and the joined political parties, etc. have proved to be illusionary, unable to fully deliver the desired goals they have sought. We may wonder why God seems to be so inactive, not realizing that he is waiting for us to cry out to him for his help. He desires that we place our total trust and dependence upon him; only then will we experience his miraculous intervention on our behalf. And so he waits, waiting for us to cry out for deliverance. Have you reached the point of crying yet? May it be soon!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spiritual Disorientation

When flying, an aircraft pilot experiences many different kinds of weather conditions. One of the worst occurs when he is unable to either see the horizon or the ground. Points of reference that have guided him disappear from sight. His perceptions become unreliable. He no longer is sure which way is up or down. He is experiencing “spatial disorientation”. Spatial disorientation can be deadly; this phenomenon is thought to have caused the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.

To overcome spatial disorientation a pilot must be trained to use his cockpit instruments. He has to trust them when he can’t see the way ahead. They will tell him what is real. Because of the likelihood that it will happen, flight instructors spend time teaching their student pilots to fly by instruments alone. They must fly on autopilot, even when it appears to be totally nonsensical. Using GPS navigation tools, the autopilot system can safely bring the plane to its destination.

The same effect can happen in our spiritual lives. There are many times we face difficulties. God may then seem very far away and distant from us. We can experience spiritual disorientation in our lives. And it can be just as deadly to our spiritual lives as spatial disorientation is for the pilot of a plane. These are the times we need to let our spiritual autopilot system, faith, take over. But too often we have not effectively listened to our flight instructor, the Holy Spirit and followed his leading. If our faith and trust in God is not actively growing, we will not be prepared for the battles ahead. Thus our faith is weakened, and may not be able to pull us through the difficult periods of our lives.

The life of the prophet Daniel illustrates the results of living on spiritual autopilot. What allowed him to function in this way? Times of spiritual preparation and discipline. His decision to refuse the king’s meat was not spontaneous; he resolved in his heart to decline the king’s food. Many times he was in situations where he had a choice as to whether he would live on faith or not. Each time his faith was increased, making it easier to run on spiritual autopilot during times of crisis. During the long desert march from Jerusalem to Babylon he never lost faith in the fact that God was with him, thus he was willing to make a stand for God in his new environment. He and his friends refused to eat of the king’s food, and he declined to take credit for the ability to interpret the king’s dream. He told one king he was going insane and another that his reign was over, never compromising his faith in the pronouncements that could have easily cost him his life.. During the ordeal over the fiery furnace, his friends went on autopilot, as did Daniel when threatened with the lion’s den. Their practice in the little things prepared them for the larger crises when they came.

A pilot must spend long hours in flight and on a simulator, pass knowledge and practical exams as well as demonstrate flight proficiency before being certified for flying by instrument. In our spiritual lives we must also spend many hours with God in study and prayer in order to be able to spontaneously switch over to spiritual autopilot when the storms of life buffet us. We must be able to trust him even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. How’s your autopilot system? During rocky times will you switch on faith or experience spiritual disorientation?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Modern Idols

When reading the Old Testament it is easy to ask why the Old Testament people could have had so much trouble with idols. The prophets are continuously rebuking them for following and worshipping idols. It is easy for us in the twenty first century to think of them as being superstitious and unsophisticated. Believing in idols is somehow very old and quaint. We have grown beyond such things. In our modern times, no one believes in and worships idols any more. Or do they? Perhaps we do so, only giving them more modern names.

There are four idols which are frequently worshipped in the world today; power, control, approval and comfort. We can describe them by putting them into sentences. Power idolatry can be described in the following manner. "I am irritated, discontented or unsatisfied unless --- I have power and influence over others.” This leads to the desire to always be in command of others, making decisions for them and controlling them. Control idolatry is described by the sentence "I am irritated, discontented or unsatisfied unless --- I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” It might be our weight, our addictions, our jobs, etc. This leads to the belief that we should be in total charge of our lives, the master of our own destiny. Approval idolatry is described "I am irritated, discontented or unsatisfied unless --- I am loved and respected by _____." We may seek approval from our spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, parent or child or boss. Approval idolatry leads to conditions of co-dependence where we are always looking for approval from others. The final idol is comfort. "I am irritated, discontented or unsatisfied unless --- I have this kind of pleasure experience, and a particularly desirable quality of life." Comfort idolatry leads to narcissism, hedonism and the pursuit of personal happiness.

The danger in worshipping these idols is that all idols always disappoint. They are weak: They can't deliver. When you succeed; they only raise the bar to a higher level. You are never satisfied, always wanting more. They will never forgive you when you fail. They are harmful and grievous, causing pain and harm to oneself as well as others. They hurt you spiritually, emotionally and physically. They hurt others by undermining your ability to love. Most importantly, by going after these idols one is saying to God: "Jesus is not enough. I also need _________ in order to be happy and content with my life.” The perceived need for happiness and comfort often leads to the compromise of our morality and the breakup of families. How many divorces are caused by succumbing to the comfort idol? Teenagers particularly find the approval idol enticing, often doing things they wouldn’t normally do in order to gain peer approval. Many relationships are broken permanently due to a person’s worship of the power idol. How many of the weekly visits to one’s psychologist result from finding that the control idol is a hard taskmaster? All four of these modern idols exact a huge price from their followers.

The idols of power, control, approval and comfort are all counter to God’s desire for our lives. In his kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first; Jesus, the Lord of our lives, is the one in control; we should be more concerned about God’s approval of our lives than those around us, and we need only rely on God for our daily needs. Put yourself into the sentences that describe these idols. Which one has the most allure for you?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Embassy Christianity

When living abroad, a person is bound by the laws of the country in which he lives. But when he enters the American embassy located in that country, he is bound to obey the laws of the United States for as long as he is in the embassy compound. This makes sense when living in a foreign country. But it is dangerous when we take the same approach in our religious life. There are many in our secular world today who believe that religion is a private personal matter which shouldn’t affect the rest of our lives. While we can live for God on Sunday, we should not let our religious faith affect the rest of the week. They expect us to live as embassy Christians: following the laws of God while at church but following the laws of society when outside of church. This view has even led some to desire to replace freedom of religion with freedom of worship. We can worship as we want, but make sure to keep our religion on the sidelines, where it is ineffective in our daily life. The results of such thinking, as noted in various surveys, show that the lifestyles of many Christians are practically the same as society at large. The only real difference is that Christians may attend church on Sunday.

I wonder how many of us have succumbed to this approach in our relationship with God. Do we order our lives after the pattern of the world for the majority of our lives? But then for one hour on Sunday (0.6% of our week), we switch to following God? This attitude can be called embassy living. Others have coined it as “living for God on Sunday and for the Devil the rest of the week.”

While it is true that as the Apostle Peter says, we are strangers and aliens here on earth, God does not want us to have an embassy mentality. He wants our total allegiance 24 / 7. He calls us to holiness. As citizens of his kingdom, we are bound by his laws and commands. He calls us to be a part of a redemptive community that lives in and reaches out to a fallen world. We are to be, as the Apostle Paul says, ambassadors for Christ.
An ambassador is the representative of the government whom he serves. In effect, he is an extension of that government. He has the responsibility to faithfully serve those he represents. He doesn’t represent his country only when on the embassy grounds. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he represents his country. His every action is governed by his reflection upon its effect on the country he serves.

As Christians, we are to have the same type of attitude. Wherever we go, whatever we do, God expects us to be his ambassadors. All of our actions should be governed by the question of how aligned they are with the desires of our King. As representatives of His kingdom, we are to represent Christ to the world. We are to be incarnational Christians, living Christ-like lives. Anyone who sees us should see Christ. He expects us to live this way day in and day out. It is only through incarnational living that we will have an impact upon the world. God does not want us to be embassy Christians. He wants us to fully represent Him here on earth. How do you live your life? Do you live your life as an ambassador or as an embassy Christian?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Muscular Christianity

I believe that God would have us live muscular Christianity. But what does this entail? Jesus said we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30). How do we develop the muscles of our heart, soul and mind? We do so by putting Christ first in everything, by making every thought captive to Christ, and by diligently studying God’s word. Paul prays for the church at Colosse “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way; bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:9b-10) In Philippians 1:9-11 he says “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” The active verbs in these verses describe a process and growth. It is not something instantaneous.

Muscular Christianity can be defined as incarnational living. Our lives become so transformed that we exhibit Christ-like tendencies in our daily life and practice. We demonstrate fruitful love and discernment, demonstrating godly wisdom to all we come into contact with. We think God’s thoughts after him.

But developing muscles takes time and practice. They can’t be developed in a day. It requires discipline. It requires commitment and regular work. Without them, the task will fail. The same is true in our spiritual lives. Without a disciplined commitment and work our spiritual muscles will never grow. They require constant practice. This is a continual process. We never reach the goal this side of heaven. Paul never stops praying for continued growth and development. We shouldn’t either. Do we pray these two prayers of his for ourselves, for our spouses and children? For that matter, do we pray them for the neighbor or co-worker or fellow church member with whom we have trouble getting along?

Just as a physical exercise program can have several components, so also does a spiritual one. Some of the components are Bible study, prayer, reading of Christian literature, small group involvement and mentoring. Dallas Willard, in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines lists fifteen disciplines that aid us in drawing closer to Christ and his kingdom. Acknowledging that this list is incomplete, he never-the-less sees things like prayer, fasting, solitude, worship, service, confession, etc. as assisting one in developing a healthy spiritual life. He cautions that it is better to practice several of the disciplines than to focus on a limited number. Otherwise our spiritual life can become unbalanced, similar to a person who only exercises and develops his left arm and leg at the expense of his right. We must seek to live a balanced life.

Our physical muscles atrophy if we are not using them; so also do our spiritual muscles. Without constant exercise, they will become weaker and weaker, eventually becoming so weak that we are unable to discern the difference between things that are either good or evil. When temptations come, we will then be unable to resist. How well rounded is your spiritual exercise program? To what extent are your spiritual muscles becoming stronger? Or are they atrophying?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Desire for Knowledge

Tenney Frank, in his book Life and Literature in the Roman Republic describes how the quality of literature decreased in the late Roman Republic. He notes that the literary writers acquiesced to the wishes of the audience. He writes “It is not surprising, therefore, that these audiences – eager for entertainment which might exclude all possibility of having to exercise the intellect – finally demanded an extravaganza that appealed solely to eye and ear.” We see much the same when we look at the current state of the entertainment industry in our days. Much of prime time television tends to be sit-coms which titillatingly appeal to the eye and ear. Very little intellect is required when viewing these programs. The purpose of many movies appears to be to provide a visual spectacle. As in the times of the late Roman Republic, the entertainment fare available caters to the whims of the audience.

Outside of documentaries, which tend to engage one’s mind, most programs on television offer mindless entertainment. Our minds are never exercised. These programs erode our desire-for-intellect IQ and it begins to atrophy. The mindless drivel of their content tends to stultify our minds, resulting in a paralyzing dullness. This dullness has become so pervasive that it has not only affected our homes, but also our schools and society at large. In many inner city schools the desire-for-intellect IQ is virtually non-existent. The depth to which we have devolved can be seen in an assignment given by a law professor to his first year law students. The students complained that the papers they were to read were almost incomprehensible. The professor retorted that they must understand for whom these papers were originally published – New England farmers. They were the Federalist Papers, written when our nation was in the process of being born. This example shows how far down we have sunk. When the intellect of modern day graduate students is inferior to that of less educated farmers of former days, we are in desperate straits.

God desires that we have a high desire-for-intellect IQ. Many passages in Scripture speak of the necessity of our studying God’s word. The prophet Hosea states that without knowledge the people perish. The Apostle Paul says we should study to be approved to God. Many passages in the Old and New Testaments speak of the studying of God’s laws and his word as having a high priority. They all imply that we must have a desire to know God. We are to love God with our minds as well as our hearts.

When the intellectual malaise which we observe in our society infects the church, it also is in trouble. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, notes that while we would reject an analyst or surgeon with shallow thinking, we easily put our minds away when it comes to religion. The focus of many church youth programs appears to have more interest in keeping their young people entertained than in a serious study of God’s word and the deepening of their spiritual lives. Many church services contain little more than pabulum which does not engage the mind. The author of Hebrews has sharp words for the Christian who constantly has a need for milk instead of solid food, noting that solid food is for the mature individual who can discern good from evil (Heb 5:11-14). By implication, those on milk cannot make such discernment.

The desire to know God requires a decision on our part. We have to make it a priority. Where is your desire-for-intellect IQ? Is it in the 150s or in the low 70s?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Benefits of Silence

Walking into the store, the echoes of musak tickle my mind, enticing me to buy, buy, buy, since the tunes projecting from the sound system are not merely for my enjoyment alone. We are caught up in a world where silence and solitude are foreign to both our hearts and our ears. One would think we thrive on noise; it constantly is entering our ears, whether it is from the radio, television or our ipod. If nothing else, the whoosh of automobiles on the not to distant expressway as they travel to and fro invades our ears. There are even machines that will produce white noise. White noise consists of sound from all of the frequencies that the human ear can hear, drowning out other voices, making it difficult to hear them. Noise is now so commonplace that when it is absent we suffer in the silence, frantically seeking the comfort of sound. Just as the quietness of solitude makes us feel guilty, so also does the sound of silence make us feel uncomfortable.

Yet both silence and solitude are keys to being able to listen to the still small voice of God when he speaks to us. Perhaps the rarity with which we hear his voice is due in part to the discordant noise that is all around us. The cacophony of white noise that Satan uses to invade our ears is designed to prevent our listening to God’s still small voice, for he knows that in many languages “to listen” and “to obey” have the same root. He fears that if we actually listen to God’s voice, we might obey it, carrying out his will.

Throughout the history of Christendom, those men and women having been considered saints and giants in the faith by their peers have found solitude and silence to be beneficial to their faith walk. Thomas à Kempis says of them that “in silence and quiet the devout soul profiteth and learneth the secrets of the scriptures”. Henri Nouwen notes that “silence is the way to make solitude a reality”. In silence and solitude men and women of faith were able to focus deeply upon their relationship with the God they adored.

Noise becomes a great distraction, prohibiting us from concentrating upon that which we desire. I remember a time when I found myself being very unproductive while writing some computer programs. Upon analysis, I discovered I was handling sixty phone calls a day. The constant distractions made it impossible to concentrate on the work at hand. Noise, music and words blaring from the radio or TV all cause us to lose our concentration upon God. They invade our reflections and thoughts. God can not get our attention long enough to get through to our souls.

Silence and solitude bring us face to face with God alone. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. in his book Engaging God’s WorldEngaging God's World (A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living) says ”Silences may fill us with longing for goodness and listening for God. Silence lets us brood over things that make us deep.” Perhaps the reason we reach for the ipod, television or radio at such times is due to the fact that the relationship we have with God is very shallow. Since the encounter is somewhat frightening, we seek the comfort of noise. In this way we can avoid the awkwardness that silence brings – the silence that tells us that we are alone with God.

The extent to which we welcome silence and solitude may tell us much about the nature of our faith. Do we welcome them, or try to avoid them?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cultural Christianity

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities wrote an article about culture. He stated that “’Culture’ has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as ‘barbarians’ with a ‘medieval mindset’: they dare to take their beliefs seriously.” This viewpoint has heavily influenced American thought and life for the past half century. The meaning of the term “fundamentalist” has acquired a derogatory sense. When we hear the term, our first thoughts are not about the fundamental beliefs that define a particular viewpoint. Instead our first thoughts are more likely to be about quaint, narrow, bigoted beliefs held by such individuals. Zizek is correct in assessing how we tend to view fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, we have so closely identified ourselves with this view of culture that it has also affected our religious lives as well. This results in faith becoming something we practice without really taking it seriously. We easily go through the motions – go to church, read the Bible, and pray – without really thinking about them that much. Once they are over for the day we forget them and move on. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives notes that many Christians believe that being a Christian has nothing to do with actually following Jesus or being like him as long as we believe the proper things about Jesus. With this worldview, the major difference between good Christians and good non-Christians is that one attends church on Sunday and the other doesn’t. It explains why many of the problems, such as divorce rates, among Christians and non-Christians are virtually identical. We can actually find ourselves uncomfortable if we are around people who really do take their faith seriously. I personally ran into this in high school when my liberal pastor was upset with me because I was quietly reading my New Testament on the hour long school bus ride to school. He also threatened to kick my mother out of the church because she was involved in child evangelism. According to him it was OK to be Christian, only don’t let it affect your life too much. It was fine to be a cultural Christian, just not a committed one.

When we look at the men and women highlighted in the Bible, we see a much different picture. As a cultural Christian, Daniel would have eaten the king’s food and prayed behind closed doors. Instead he refused the king’s diet and prayed in front of the open window, knowing that it would likely get him in trouble. As cultural Christians his three friends would have bowed down, saying to themselves that they weren’t really worshipping the king. Instead they resolutely refused. Queen Esther went before the king, even though it might mean her death. Peter and John, when commanded to cease preaching about Jesus, replied that the Jewish leaders would have to judge whether it was better to obey them or God. Each one refused to go along with the culture. Each one took their faith very seriously.

We can’t escape our culture. Living in culture is part of being human. But we can intentionally decide that we will refuse to let it control our lives. We can model our lives after Jesus and live incarnational lives. We can pattern our lives after Jesus, living out his commands. As you examine your life, do you find yourself a cultural Christian or someone who is totally sold out to Jesus Christ?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

God's Paparazzi

I once saw an internet headline that read “Paris Hilton's Dogs Alive, Well and Very Pampered “. My immediate reaction was “who cares? Who would click on that headline to read an article about Paris Hilton’s dogs?” But then I thought of all the similar type headlines over the past few years detailing Britney Spear’s escapades. Obviously, since these headlines keep cropping up, someone must be reading them. If there was no interest, they would stop printing those types of articles. In the sports world, kids will often emulate the moves of those they idolize. Our society seems to have a fixation on celebrities, whether in the area of sports, entertainment or politics. Why is it that we have more attraction to and fascination with Tom Brady or Britney Spears or American Idol than we do with St Paul, St Augustine, Mother Teresa or Jesus? I wonder what this says about the society in which we live? Does it suggest that our priorities are out of whack? Sadly, I think it does. Celebrities have obtained an almost cult-like status. They are practically worshipped by their adoring fans. The frenzied attempts by the paparazzi to follow and report on their every movement points to this worshipful fixation our society has upon its celebrities. The paparazzi seek to discover every possible thing they can about the celebrity they want to know – what they eat, who they associate with, what they wear, what they say and think, etc. They go to great lengths to obtain this information, at times even risking their own lives or the lives of those they follow.

Sometimes we do the same in the church. We can become fixed on a particular pastor, TV evangelist or popular Christian musician. They can almost become an object of worship. In its extreme form such fixation becomes almost cult-like. Yet we often don’t have the same focus on God. The singleness of purpose which we have in other areas of life is never transferred to our relationship with God.

Why is it that we don’t have the same fixation on God? He is certainly more important than the celebrities. Yet he is often ignored or thought about only on Sundays. Why aren’t we Christians looked upon as the paparazzi who follow after God, seeking to know his every thought, word and deed? What does the existence of only a sparse number of Christian paparazzi say about our relationship with Him? Do we identify with them or do we find them uncomfortable? Are we willing to put forward as much risk in our pursuit of God as the paparazzi sometimes do in following the celebrities?

God desires that we be part of his paparazzi, sold out to knowing everything we can about him. He wants us to diligently study each of his attributes so that we can live like him. He seeks for us to live holy lives because he himself is holy. He calls us to have an intimate relationship with him. He wants us to live incarnationally, living Christ-like lives. But this requires that we have an in-depth acquaintance with him. We must have a paparazzi-like attitude, sold out to discovering who Jesus is and identifying with him. Unless we do this, we will not be able to live incarnationally.

What is your attitude? Is your attitude towards God similar to that of the paparazzi who follow after the celebrities? Are you sold out to God? Are you as excited about God as they are towards the celebrities they follow? Are you one of God’s paparazzi?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Crushed Violets

In his fanciful play Ivan & Adolf: The Last Man in Hell Stephen Vicchio portrays Ivan Karamazov and Adolf Hitler as the last two denizens of Hell. The play follows the dialogue between them and their maid Sophie. Sophie makes the daily journey from Heaven to Hell over the course of several millennia to wait on them. The play deals with Ivan’s anger against Hitler for his atrocities. It also deals with his hatred of God which prevents him from being able to forgive. It also looks at Hitler’s being so wrapped up in himself that he has no feeling for those whose lives he destroyed, or for anyone else. Through their interchanges, Sophie attempts to help each man deal with love, forgiveness and compassion. At one point she tells Ivan about experiencing a sweet smell all day, later to discover that it was the smell of a violet which she had stepped on that stuck to her shoe. With each step its fragrance was released. She tells him “Forgiveness happens when the violet lends sweet fragrance to the heel that crushed it.” She also tells Adolf that “Revenge is the natural, automatic reaction to being deeply hurt. Forgiveness is an entirely creative art. It comes out of nowhere. It is completely unpredictable. For most humans it is incomprehensible.” Throughout the course of the play, Ivan learns to forgive and Adolf to show compassion towards Ivan. At the end, when Adolf is to be released from Hell, he declines, deciding to wait in Hell with Ivan until he is released.

While we might not overtly seek revenge for something done against us, we might still inwardly smile with satisfaction if a person who harmed us receives retribution from another’s hand. It can be difficult for us to love and forgive when we are affected personally. And yet such forgiveness and love, in God’s eyes, are not only possible, but are expected. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, looking out at the mass of humanity in front of him, he said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The sweet smell of forgiveness that exuded from the cross that day still has the same effect today. Stephen demonstrated this when he asked that the sin of those stoning him wouldn’t be held against them. Many of those martyred for their faith have said the same during their martyrdom. In more recent times we have seen the process that Sophie talks about at work in the forgiveness shown by the Amish towards the family of the man who murdered their children in their Amish school. For many people, the compassion they showered upon this family seemed incomprehensible. How could they do such a thing? Their forgiveness was created out of their love of God, for as Sophie tells Ivan “For you to love God, Ivan, you need God to have a human face.” Jesus saw the face of God in those who surrounded him as he hung on the cross and he loved them. Stephen saw God’s face in those throwing stones at him. And the Amish saw God’s face in the suffering of the wife and children of the man who murdered their own children and welcomed them in love. They opened the sweet smell of forgiveness to the heel that had crushed them. As we look out at the faces around us, can we say the same? In whose face do we see God? Are we willing to be bruised violets, lending God’s fragrance to the world?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Terrible Good

In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters describes something as being “terribly good”. A discussion ensues about whether or not something terrible can be good. This leads to the question as to whether it is possible to describe something as being a “terrible good”. Another of the characters, who has paralyzing phobic fears, questions whether her fears could ever be considered good. The answer given to her is an assertive “Yes, surely”.

We can easily wonder the same thing. How can anything that is terrible be considered to be good? Yet as we go through life, we often find that many of the little things that happen to us, which in the heat of the moment we consider to be terrible, have actually helped us to grow. The failing grade we received in a class spurred us on to better grades. The difficulties we go through in our lives build character. The trials we experience make us stronger persons. We may find that we are better persons because of living through these experiences. Yet at the point we were going through them we thought them terrible. If at all possible, we would have avoided them. But perhaps these are examples of something that we might call a “terrible good.” Though at the time we thought them terrible, in the long run they actually had a beneficial effect upon our lives

The celebrated Olympic speed skater, Apollo Ohno, said that the most devastating point in his life was when he, the number one speed skater at the time, failed to make the team for the 1998 Nagano games. Speaking of this excruciating experience he recently said in a news conference “It was a devastating moment for me … but looking back it was the single greatest thing that ever happened to me… It fuelled me to become a better athlete. I look back on those hard times … that was one of the biggest turning points in my career. I haven’t looked back since.” For him, this experience has proved to be a terrible good. The success which he has experienced in the Vancouver games comes from the blackness of the terrible despair he felt twelve years earlier.

There are also those things that are so hideous and barbaric and cruel that no sane person could ever call them good? What of them? The 911 attack and the Nazi atrocities come to mind. Yet it was through having to deal with hatred learned in the death camps that Corrie Ten Boom was able to even love the former camp guards and gain an understanding of what it means to love one’s enemies. But there is in the annals of ancient history one account that is so hideous, barbaric and inhuman that it practically defies description. An innocent person, condemned to death on a trumped up charge, is bruised and beaten to a pulp, barely alive. His bruised and swollen face is practically unrecognizable, even to his close friends. The loss of blood from the wounds inflicted upon him is excessive. His suffering is intense. He is tortured repeatedly and dies by experiencing a slow, excruciating, painful death at the hand of his executioners. There is absolutely nothing that could be considered humane about the treatment to which he is exposed. Anyone even reading the account of his death can’t help but be repulsed. It is utterly hideous and horrible. How can anything so terrible be considered good?

We all have experienced this terrible good. It is called Good Friday!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is it I?

The story of the Passover has been carried forward through several millennia down to our present time. Each time the story is remembered, there is a part that makes it personal. The litany states that not only did God rescue the Israelites who where enslaved in Egypt, but also he has rescued us who are alive today. There is an identification of the present with the past. In a sense, each time the Passover ceremony is reenacted, the celebrants are transported back in time to the original event of the first Passover where God sent the Angel of Death to destroy the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the homes of the faithful Israelites. They identify in smearing the blood on the doorposts and eating the lamb. In this way, the reenactment is personalized to each generation.

The same can be said when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the Eucharist there is also an identification of the present with the past. The liturgy of sacramental churches declares that the body and blood of Christ is truly present with us. While there may be divisions as to the exact form this takes, all affirm his presence. In this way, the inauguration of the Eucharistic ceremony by Jesus with his disciples just a few days prior to his crucifixion is also personalized and brought forward to each generation.

But there is also the sense, just as in the Passover litany, in which we also are transported back and participate in that Last Supper that has come to be so celebrated in the life of the church. We also experience the love Jesus showed that night as he washed the disciple’s feet. We hear the institution of those words he said at the table that are so familiar to us all.

But along with the disciples we also hear those shocking words that “one of you will betray me”. If we didn’t know the end of the story, we would join them in looking from one to another, wondering who would do such a thing. We would hear them each asking him “Is it I?” Since we do know the end, we know that it was Judas. We also know to what extent God and Jesus love us – so much that Jesus would die a horrible death on the cross to rescue us, not from the slavery of Egypt, but from the slavery of sin. His sacrifice brought us back into a relationship with God. It’s because of this that we celebrate the Eucharist.

One of the major elements of the liturgy is confession and absolution. Together as a body we acknowledge before God that we have sinned, ask for his forgiveness and receive absolution. The liturgy then builds in a crescendo to its climax, the celebration of the Eucharist. We hear his majestic words spoken in love “This is my body, broken for you” and “This is my blood, shed for you.”

But as we place ourselves at the table with him and hear his words, we are forced to face our own culpability. We know that we are sinners in need of a savior. We have just affirmed this fact during our confession. We know that we have not loved him with our whole heart. When Jesus comes to us with his words of “One of you will betray me” can we honestly say “not I’? Or when we take an honest hard look at ourselves will we find ourselves having to truthfully say “Lord, it’s me. I have betrayed you. Forgive me.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Surprised by Faith

Faith is often full of surprises. Through faith many things happen that are totally unpredictable. For instance, it never struck Goliath that he might be felled by a little stone. Elisha’s servants could not have floated the idea as to how an ax head might be retrieved from the river. Joseph never dreamed he would rise from prison to be second in command of all Egypt. And Jonah could not have fathomed his rescue from the sea. Faith is often full of surprises. In God’s world the unpredictable happens as thought it were the norm. Many times this makes people uncomfortable. We often don’t like surprises. They make us feel as though we aren’t in control. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were definitely among those who intensely disliked surprises. They had effectively placed God in a box and had established procedures for how one’s religious life was to be lived. In doing this, they were able to be in control and maintain power. Life was predictable. They could dictate what would happen and when. They falsely believed that they were in control of their own destiny. They hated Jesus because he did things out of the box. He healed on the Sabbath, pointed out their own inconsistencies, and taught his followers a totally new way of living. When Jesus was around, they no longer were in control. Afraid of losing their power, they couldn’t stand that thought, and so they killed him.

I wonder if the reason we sometimes have difficulty with faith is due to our also not liking surprises. Surprises take away our own control. We prefer to be in control of situations, just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. We want to be the captains of our own destiny. We also want life to be predictable. And so we place God in a box. We tell him how he is to act and when. We become upset when he does things outside of the box in which we have placed him. We are forced to realize that we aren’t in control, God is. And that can be uncomfortable.

Some people are fearful of charismatic renewal for this very reason. If the Holy Spirit is in control, they are not. Denying his activity allows them to maintain control. They are fearful of the unexpected happening which might upset their understanding of the way things work. Denying that he works in the world today becomes the easy way out.

But what does this fear of surprises really say about our faith? I think it implies a lack of trust in God. We are less comfortable with God in control than we are having it ourselves. We don’t really believe he can handle all of the variations which life brings to us. We desire to have tangible evidence that things are working out OK. Having the power of control gives us a false sense of security, which we find comforting. Ultimately though, it comes down to the fact that the fear of surprises is really a lack of faith in God. We really don’t believe that he is big enough or strong enough to take care of us. We prefer to keep God in his box, never wanting to let him out.

By refusing to accept his surprises, we miss out on much of what he has for us. We willingly accept a diminished faith and the excitement it brings. We lose the spontaneity of the joy of seeing him work in our lives. How willing are you to let God surprise you?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Official Business

An elderly man was once asked “Why are you still here on earth since your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life?” He replied. “If you look closely, you will see an asterisk next to my name, with the note ‘On leave to earth on official business.’ He continued. “I have lived here on earth for 90 years. When the business God has given me to do is completed, he will take me home. But until then I am going to continue doing the work he has given me to do.”

Do we think of ourselves in this way? Do we see ourselves as being on loan to earth from our heavenly home or do we think of earth as our home? Do we think of ourselves as having been assigned a task to complete?

The New Testament writers frequently speak of our being strangers and aliens here on earth. The author of Hebrews, speaking of the great men and women of faith, states “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” (Heb 11:13b) We are God’s ambassadors to earth, representing Him to the world. Yet we often have a tendency to settle in and become so comfortable in the culture in which we live that we totally blend in. We don’t often consider ourselves to be strangers. We also don’t think of ourselves as being God’s representative to the communities in which we live.

God gives us gifts to use in his service. He gives them in order to enable us to better serve and love others. We are to faithfully use them to further his kingdom. He has a purpose for our being here. There is value in asking the questions: “What business has God given me to do during my time here on earth? Am I faithfully carrying it out?” I started this essay a year ago, but was having difficulty completing it. The message I was attempting to write about was forcefully brought to my attention this past summer when I found myself in the hospital with a heart attack, having an artery 100 % blocked. While this could have easily been fatal, I came through it with only minimal damage. This experience clearly brought into focus the fact that God has me here for a purpose and is not done with me yet. He has given me a task that is not yet completed. He has given all of us a mission to accomplish during our time here on earth. Perhaps the larger question is “How faithfully am I carrying this purpose out?”

For many people, the only Christ they may ever see is us. They may only come to know Christ through our incarnational living in their presence, based on how well we live transformed lives. Like a magnet, we can either attract people to or repel them from Christ. For many, the greatest drawbacks to becoming a Christian are the Christians who live in their midst. Their lives may not indicate much of a relationship with Christ, thereby detracting from the call of the gospel. But God expects us to be his faithful representatives as we live out our lives here on earth. This is the assigned task he has given us to carry out. He expects us to be faithful to this calling.

How faithful are we in this? It is worth pondering the question “Am I as diligent and productive at my heavenly job as I am at my earthly one?” Hopefully we will not all find ourselves in Heaven’s unemployment line.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Fallacy of Assumptions

The fantasy novel Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson, is interesting on several levels. One of the most fascinating themes concerns the development of the character Hrathen, a religious functionary who has jurisdiction over the priests of the community. He has been sent there by the emperor to convert the surrounding nations to the worship of their God Jaddeth. The emperor’s message to him is clear and simple: They will either convert and become worshippers of Jaddeth or they will perish. In his previous assignment Hrathen was responsible for undermining the government, resulting in that country’s complete destruction. In his new assignment, he has the mandate of converting the people in one month before the emperor’s army descends upon the nation. At the beginning of the book he is a very dislikable figure – cold, calculating and manipulative. With the results of his last mission in his head, he takes on his new assignment with zeal, hoping to avoid another catastrophe, but willing to accept it if they don’t convert. He connives to overthrow the king and the princess who has recently married the king’s son. But as things don’t go quite as planned, he finds himself questioning many of his long held assumptions. At the end of the book he rescues the princess, even though it costs him his own life. He comes to realize that things were not always what they seemed. His total change indicated a conversion of sorts.

As we go through life we find ourselves very much like Hrathen. We constantly experience things that shake up our assumptions. Are we open or closed to change or new ideas? Hopefully open. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, my only contact with blacks was viewing them out of the car window when visiting relatives in Milwaukee. My first contact with a black person was in my freshman year in college. An older student who was mentoring me in my faith had a black roommate whom I got to know. I discovered he was really no different than I was. During my formative years I attended a church that was decidedly anti Catholic, considering Catholics to be pagan and the Pope to be the Antichrist. Several years later I met several people who were solid Christians. They had a sincere faith, grounded in daily reading of scripture, meditation and prayer. They seriously sought to follow Christ in living out their daily lives. As I got to know them, I found out they were Catholics. Likewise, my first introduction to Charismatics was very negative. While attending seminary, I came to highly respect one of my fellow students. In our third year of studies together I discovered he was charismatic. These experiences shook up my previously held assumptions that Catholics were pagans, Charismatics were weird and Blacks were different. Fortunately I was willing to abandon my previously held assumptions, resulting in developing many rich relationships with fellow Christians, both black and white, over the years.

We find ourselves dealing with assumptions every day. They may be based on a person’s race, ethnicity, cultural or economic status. They may have religious or political overtones. They may be based on a person’s job status or educational level. Will we discount others before even having a chance to get to know them based upon our preconceived notions? Are we willing to abandon stereotyping others based on externals before even taking the time to develop a relationship with them? Perhaps a paraphrase is in order: “Make assumptions about others as you would have them make assumptions about you.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Allure of Temptation

In Jesus’ first temptation he is tempted to turn stones into bread at the end of his forty day fast in the wilderness. Satan tries to get him to miraculously satisfy his hunger. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his book On The Way To Christ says the following about this temptation. “Where God is viewed as something secondary, which can be set aside temporarily or altogether for the sake of more important things, then precisely these supposedly more important things fail.” He goes on to say “In this world we must oppose the deception of false philosophies and recognize that we do not live on bread alone but, first and foremost, on obedience to God’s Word. And only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all.”

In our daily lives we face the same temptations that Jesus did. How often do we temporarily set God aside when critical issues face us? How many times do we set aside our moral and ethical principles in our business lives? How many times do we compromise and rationalize “just this once.” This was the major temptation Jesus faced. “Just this one time turn stones into bread to satisfy your hunger. One time won’t hurt you at all.” But such bread would have left a hollow emptiness inside. Satan then tells him “Worship me just this once and I will give you the entire world. One time won’t hurt you. You will then have the power to do whatever you want.” But the quick fix Satan offered to rule the world would have ultimately been a hollow victory. Again Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple wall so that everyone can see God’s angels protecting him. He asks Jesus to become part of the “now” generation. “Do it now! Take matters into your own hand!” But God had a different plan, so that for Jesus to have declared himself early would have placed him outside of God’s will for his life. In each of these three temptations Satan focuses upon the glamour of selfish desire.

Satan uses the same allures with us. He tells us that it won’t hurt for us to take one look at pornography, or cheat on our taxes one time. He entices us to compromise our morals to get ahead. He tells us to do what it takes because we deserve power and status. He encourages us to seek the quick fix. He attempts to persuade us that one little lie won’t hurt anyone. But when we take a hard look, we see that in each of his attempts, he seeks for us to put something else ahead of God. Like his attempts with Jesus, many times the allure he offers us is for our own self gratification. Grab what we want, when we want it, and don’t worry that God’s plan may be different. But he conveniently ignores telling us that the one time event he often glamorously dangles in front of us has a barbed hook that will ultimately snag us in his clutches. Once he has us hooked, we will find it extremely difficult to become untangled from his hold upon us. We will have placed ourselves above God.

As Ratzinger states, it is essential for us to be listening to and obeying the voice of God found in his word. We must actively resist setting God off to the side. Otherwise we may easily succumb to Satan’s temptations. Whose voice are you listening to, God’s or Satan’s?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Golden Calf Country

Eugene Peterson, in his book Subversive Spirituality speaks of our living in golden-calf country. In golden-calf country people have a deep and insatiable hunger for God without having a deep desire for him. Peterson says “What we really want is to be our own gods and to have whatever other gods that are around help us in this work.” He later concludes “Mostly they want to be their own god and stay in control, but have ancillary divine assistance for the hard parts.” The gods of golden-calf country affect both Christians as well as non-Christians. Most of the golden calves we worship are self oriented. They are centered around questions containing the word “I”. What do I get out of it? How can I maximize my potential? How can I be happy? and so on.

In the end we become very practiced in being religious without submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. We become much like the ancient Israelites described in the book of Judges. They were perfectly content to live a religious life that didn’t include God until the going got rough. Only then would they cry out to him for assistance. But in their callousness, it often took decades of oppression before they would truly cry out to God.

In our world we tend to worship the golden calves of prosperity and power. This is as true in secular society as it is in the church. Some people follow the prosperity gospel, believing that by following God they will be materially blessed. Others look to success as the sign of God’s blessing. But these can easily become idols if they become more important than God.

The other gods which are often worshipped in golden calf country are politics and science. We look to them to solve all of our problems. But they never seem to quite satisfy. With all of the medical advances we have made, we still haven’t conquered disease. Trusting in governments to solve every need has proved to be illusionary. Philip Yancy, writing in an essay in Christianity Today noted that “Christ exposed as false gods the very powers in which men and women take most pride and invest most hope.” They always fail to ultimately satisfy.

Living in the now generation where we tend to want things instantaneously, we may call upon God more quickly. But we have the same problem the ancient Israelites had. We are perfectly comfortable bowing down to our own self-made idols. We place our faith in the centers of power and influence. Instead of being in the center of our lives, God is placed on the margins, to be called upon when needed. We become adept at praying “God if you will do such and such, I will ….” We can even become like an ancient Babylonian man, who upset with how his life was going, offered the following prayer to his god. “If you don’t start treating me better I’ll stop sacrificing to you, and then where will you be?” Like the ancient Israelites, we can become adept at ignoring God when things are going well and then complain to him when they aren’t. Like the ancient Babylonian, whose religion centered upon himself, we can worship a similar golden calf. The songwriter, Bob Dylan, wrote in one of his songs that everyone has “got to serve somebody”. It will either be God or a golden calf. But we will serve somebody. Are you worshiping the Lord or are you in danger of worshiping a golden calf?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fear or Faith?

During the times of the great persecutions against the early church, Felicitas, a pregnant Carthaginian slave woman, lay in prison. Refusing to recant her faith, she was condemned to be thrown to the beasts in the arena. The night before her martyrdom, she gave birth. As she screamed in pain during her labor, her jailors mocked and tormented her. They asked how, if she couldn't stand the pains of childbirth, would she ever be able to face the beasts in the arena the next day? She replied: "Now I suffer what I suffer; then another will be in me who will suffer for me, as I shall suffer for him." Her reply points to her understanding of the nature and love of God. They reflect the words of Moses to Joshua in Deut 31 as Israel was about to enter the Promised Land. "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you . . . . The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." Felicitas fully believed that God was with her and would not abandon her as she faced death the following day.

Fear! The word paralyzes us. We are afraid of being laughed at for our faith. We are afraid of being ostracized. We are afraid of being different. We are afraid that things are out of control. There is much apprehension in the world today – terrorism, the economy, high unemployment, etc. that can cause us to fear. The world wants us to be afraid. It wants us to look to it for solutions and comfort instead of to God. It desires that we look to its governments as our savior instead of God. It expects us to look to it in time of crisis. It wants us to forget that God is with us, and thus to be afraid. It wants us to conform to its values instead of to God's values. With its constant onslaught against us we can easily lose sight of the fact that God is really with us.

Fear implies a lack of trust in God’s ability. We doubt we have the strength to provide the answers to the problems we are facing. We aren’t sure where to turn. We can even begin to doubt that God can answer. But God wants us to have total faith in him. He wants us to believe that no matter what the outcomes of the situations facing us in life, he is trustworthy. We can count on him to provide for us in times of crisis, even when things don’t turn out quite like we might wish.

Joshua, confident in the strength of God's promise, led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Felicitas, grasping one of the central truths of Christianity, stood firm in her faith as she faced death in the arena. Martin Luther made his well known statement "Here I stand" based upon his conviction that God was with him when he was asked to recant his beliefs. Each knew that the God who loves us so much that He sent his only Son into the world to save us by his death will never forsake us. He will always be with us as he leads us through every trial on the way to glory. How strong is your faith? Is it as strong as that of Felicitas?