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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Being Part of God's Community

During the 19th century and first half of the 20th century community spirit was much in vogue.  It was common for neighbors to help neighbors during times of need, especially in rural America.  Growing up during the latter years of this period, before the radical shift to individualism occurred, I was fortunate enough to witness this phenomenon.  While still a young boy, I had the privilege of attending a barn raising where farmers from twenty miles around came together to help a neighbor to build a new barn.  As part of a threshing ring, our family along with several others bought a threshing machine to harvest grain.  During the harvesting season, the entire group would move from farm to farm, harvesting each farmer’s grain, the men and boys working in the fields, the wives and girls cooking the  meals.  I have always felt privileged to have been old enough to participate in this activity prior to its cessation from American life.  One spring, when my father was ill and unable to prepare our fields for planting, several neighbors showed up one Saturday morning with their tractors and plows to plow the fields.  These types of activities were common during my youth.

Moving into the latter half of the 20th century things radically changed with the rise of both industrialization and individualism.  The urban flight to suburbia with its protected yards and garage door openers, the vast increase in mechanized equipment on the farms, the shift in attitude towards “doing one’s own thing” and “I’ve got to be me” all led us away from community.  Front porches, with neighbors sitting on them conversing, were replaced with decks in backyards, resulting in further loss of community.  Churches, by en large, also succumbed to this loss as, with better roads and faster automobiles being coupled with the thrill of individualism, the concept of local community churches disappeared.  It is not uncommon today for people to live twenty or thirty miles away from the church where they worship. 

The emphasis upon individualism which began in the 1960s, moved through modernism into the postmodern era, has increasingly fractured society, with many today feeling alone, aloof and disenfranchised.  The void that individualism brings can only be filled by community because God, being triune, is in community and expressed the need for human community when he said “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In establishing the covenant with Israel he established a community.  In constituting the church, God chose the symbol of the body to illustrate its communal nature.  We are called together, with the understanding that we need each other to function properly.  

The church, because of its body structure, is poised to overturn the aloneness and abandonment of our current individualistic society.  As a caring community, it can reach out to the world, meeting the needs of the people we find there.  But community does not occur by osmosis.  It requires intentionality.   It will not occur without deliberate effort. To be successful, it will require men and women coming together with the conviction that God has called them to such an endeavor. 

But the church is only made up of individuals; individuals who must desire to be a part of community if we are to make a difference.  As both individuals and as a community we can express warmth and love to those whose lives have been fractured, pointing them to God’s kingdom.  But it requires a decision:  Am I willing to abandon my own individualism for the good of God’s community?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

True Piety

The words “piety” and “pious” are not always the most appreciated in our world today because in many persons’ eyes they are often associated with hypocrisy and otherworldliness. The pious person is often considered to be uninterested in this world, to be prudish and one who seeks to seclude himself from society. Piety, because it has an introspective aspect to it, appears to be somewhat selfish in orientation. Thus the pious person is seen as having little interest in the plight of people around him, taking a passive approach to issues and problems. His time and energy is spent focusing on his own personal relationship with God. He is sometimes described as being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good. This is unfortunate since the description above describes false piety. In reality, the true pious person is just the opposite. He is one who is in tune with, listens to the voice of God and responds accordingly. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, in his essay on piety included in his collected essays “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” notes that “The pious man’s main interest is concern for the will of God, which thus becomes the driving force controlling the course of his actions and decisions, molding his aspirations and behavior.” Since God is vitally interested in the affairs of mankind, the pious person has similar interests. Heschel adds “Further, piety is an attitude toward reality in its entirely. It is alert to the dignity of every human being, and to those bearing upon the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess. The pious man, being able to sense the relations of things to transcendent values, will be incapable of disparaging any of them by enslaving them to his own service.”

True piety greatly affects one’s worldview and interaction with the world. Far from being other worldly and passive, the pious person is actively involved in this world precisely because he is in tune with God. He is vitally interested in this world because God is interested in it. He stands against oppression and brokenness because God stands against them. He affirms human dignity because God does. He engages his culture as did the pious men of old, such as the Old Testament prophets, who affirmed what was God pleasing in their society and condemned what wasn’t. He promotes the responsible use of resources, believing that the creation mandate is one of stewardship, not dominion; one of replenishment and restoration, not of misuse and neglect. Instead of being selfish, he selflessly serves others using the gifts God has so graciously given him. His thoughts, his actions, his very being are in tune with God. Piety is a mode of living whereby we gravitate towards God. As such it is related to holiness.

It is precisely because a pious person is so consumed with the will of God that he steps out in faith to engage his broken world. Everything he says and does is evaluated reverently through the lens of God’s eyes. To him, his interests and desires are less important than is God’s will. The attainments of the world and its beautiful trappings are rejected if they are based on injustice and greed. His love of God fuels compassion for the lost, the dispossessed, the poor and the disenfranchised, allowing him to reach out to them with his time, treasures and talents. He is willing to share the resources at his disposal, believing that everything he has is a gift from God. May we all be known as being pious!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Changing the Culture

Modern man is facing a dilemma. Enamored with modernity, we have rejected Christianity and its way of life. At the same time, we deplore the greed of Wall Street financiers and power brokers, taking advantage of the poor, hypocrisy of religious leaders, etc; all things that Christianity also deplores. We turn away from faith based programs which have demonstrated that inner city youth who regularly attend church are significantly less likely to be incarcerated. In the process we have stripped away the very thing that acts as a deterrent to many of the problems facing the post modern society in which we live; namely the relationship with the moral God that Christianity espouses.

The people who make up a society determine that society’s culture, for they have shared attitudes, goals, practices and morals which form a major component of the society’s educational and cultural formation. When its shared values are no longer held in common, or are denigrated, its culture disintegrates into chaos.

The refusal of our education establishment to teach morals, preferring a value neutral environment adds to the problem. The words of Joy Davidman in her book Smoke on the Mountain regarding this dilemma are perhaps more relevant today than when she wrote them in 1953. “For the present outburst of destruction, no doubt, secularism may be partly to blame. A man cannot obey a law he has never learned, and the failure of our education to give adequate moral and spiritual training is too well known to need discussion here.” She goes on to say that without belief in the promises and commandments of God we are left with a man-centered philosophy. Whether humanism or materialism fills the void, we are forced to deal with the inescapable fact that they both promote “this life and its immediate desires as the basis of all conduct.”

A values free environment devolves into a world with no values, with each individual determining for himself what is right and wrong. Without an objective standard, society cannot function in a predictable fashion. A society where life is not predictable quickly becomes unstable. Without the checks and balances which absolute moral and ethical values bring, it rapidly transitions itself into a self centered narcissistic society. It can only end up eventually destroying itself.
It is very easy to become infected by the environment in which we live, especially its narcissistic values which affect us personally. Our schools, in promulgating a values free education, promote all lifestyles as being equal and abhor any sort of judging. Without an objective standard to use as a gauge of what is right and wrong, our natural tendency is to gravitate to what is most advantageous to oneself, regardless to how it affects others. In the public arena, this is translated into what is the most good for the most people, instead of what is the common good for all people. This leaves the infirm, the elderly, the poor and the disabled at particular risk of being cast off. If everyone behaves this way, society quickly devolves into anarchy, living with the mantra of “might makes right”.

The way forward requires the development of authentic communities that undermine the individualistic isolation which society fosters. Expressing the love of Christ through developing relationships which seek to heal the brokenness around us, together we can make a difference and positively affect the prevailing culture. The church can become such a community as it builds relationships, promotes restoration, and practices love through service. But it requires getting out of our buildings and into the streets, the gutters and the byways. Are we ready for it?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Words and Lives

The passing of the legendary collegiate UCLA basketball coach John Wooden a year ago at age 99 provides an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. Though retiring in 1972, his achievement has yet to be surpassed, and likely never will. During his final twelve years of coaching he won ten NCAA national championships, at one point winning 88 games in a row. Various sports commentators, reflecting on his legacy, have questioned whether or not he would have been as successful in today’s game, concluding that he probably would not. In many ways, the game has changed over the past forty years, and not for the better. Others conclude he still would be, for he always stressed education, commitment and team play. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, commenting on Wooden on the occasion of his ninety-ninth birthday stated “Because of Coach Wooden’s mentoring I have never felt uncomfortable being a scholar in addition to being an athlete.” He noted that Wooden thought more of his players graduation rates being over sixty-five percent than he did of his amazing championship runs.

Those who personally knew Wooden point more to his character as a man and teacher than to his coaching ability, for his concern was always to develop the total person, not just his player’s basketball ability.

Trained as an English teacher, he sought to inculcate into his players the creed given him by his father at his eighth grade graduation. These principles were to be true to yourself, make each day your masterpiece, help others, drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible, make friendship a fine art, build a shelter against a rainy day, and pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day. Wooden lived and taught these principles; they became the basis for his Pyramid for Success, developed over fourteen years of reflection.

The disciplines he developed throughout his long life contributed to his success as a coach, whether it was teaching his players how to put on their socks and lace their shoes, dribble a basketball, or dealing with their stardom. He could praise his star players, like Abdul-Jabbar and Walton without fawning over them, and criticize them without berating them. In all of his years of coaching no one recalls one time when he swore at a player. Although blessed with megastars, he always insisted that the main ingredient of stardom was the rest of the team.

Avoiding pre game emotional speeches, believing that emotional peaks are usually followed by passing through deep valleys, he focused on intensity, teaching his players to think small during games – to concentrate on quick but proper execution. Success was not winning, but obtaining the peace of mind that comes from knowing that one made the effort to do the best to become the best that one is capable of becoming.

But it is in an anonymous poem which Wooden considered one of his favorites that we see perhaps most clearly the character of the man that his players and associates saw most clearly.
"No written word, no spoken plea
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers are themselves."
In this poem we see the essence of authentic, unhypocritical living, Because he lived this way, Wooded had a profound impact on the young men who played for him. becoming a mentor to many. As we go though life we often find ourselves taking on roles as mentors and teachers. In them our character is set forth for others to see. As they observe our lives, do they see us teaching what we truly are?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cocoon Living

Working for a small privately owned company with a strong Christian presence has both its plusses and minuses. While there is a certain camaraderie which is beneficial, it can also be very isolating. A fellow co-worker, a recent college graduate, and I were discussing the frustration of spending most of our times in a Christian cocoon – Christian family, strong church involvement, having mostly Christian friends and co-workers – while desiring to have an evangelistic presence in the world in which we live. Neither of us wanted to live only in the cocoon.

As I later reflected on our discussion, the image of the butterfly came to mind. The caterpillar must go through the chrysalis stage in order to be transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The goal of entering the chrysalis is not to stay there, but to emerge at the proper time, free to soar above the ground instead of crawling upon it. It is a time of metamorphosis, when the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. If the butterfly emerges too quickly it likely will be deformed or stunted, unable to fly and will likely quickly die. If its emergence is delayed too long it also won’t survive. The length of time as a chrysalis depends upon the season of the year, the average temperature and the type of butterfly. Emerging at the right time gives the butterfly the freedom to be what God intended it to be.

The same is true in our Christian life. One of the goals of the church and the Christian family is to provide the Christian culture and nurturing environment for children to develop into young men and women who are free to be all that God intends them to be, able to think for themselves and develop a strong faith. During our growing up years, home and church should be a cocoon, providing the training and upbringing that will eventually allow us to spread our Christian wings and soar. They should provide the nurturing that we need in order to mature. Just as with the butterfly, either leaving too early or too late can cause problems – too early and our faith is not developed enough to survive the onslaught of the secular culture in which we are immersed; too late and we may not have the strength to be independent, always needing hand-holding and support in order to survive. In either case, one’s faith may wither and die.

Parents who are over protective are in as much danger as those who are over tolerant in seeing their children abandon the faith. While working in a coffee house ministry during my seminary years, I witnessed several college students, whose entire life until then revolved around church and Christian schools. They had been isolated from the larger world. As a result, they struggled with questions about their faith; both abandoning the church and living lives filled with drugs and promiscuity. Out on their own, away from home for the first time, with no one to hold their hand, they were ill prepared to handle their first adventure into the secular world around them.

In order to prepare one’s children for a life in the world, it is important to live out the faith we proclaim so that our children can see our faith in action. It is important to discuss issues from a Christian perspective so that our children develop a Christian worldview and understand why they have it. There is one question which Christian parents should keep in the forefront of their minds: How well am I preparing my children to leave the cocoon?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Obedient Listening

In English, the concepts of “listening” and “obedience” are expressed by different words. But in Romanian, “listening” and “obedience” are expressed using the same word. The same is true in Latin where the word oboedire means “to listen or obey”. In an issue of “The Cry”, a quarterly magazine published by the mission organization Word Made Flesh, April Folkertsma, a missionary to Romania, reflecting upon the close connection between listening and obeying says that listening requires active involvement. Hearing, on the other hand, is much more passive. It doesn’t require involvement. I recall an incident during my student days that illustrates the difference between hearing and listening. A friend and I were talking when a mutual acquaintance came up and asked “How are you?” My friend explained he was in the middle of a horrible week. His wife and kids had had the flu for several days, requiring that he stay home, he was therefore swamped with his studies and had just failed a midterm exam. Whereupon our acquaintance said “That’s nice” and walked away. While he had heard the words, he had failed to listen and respond appropriately. To move from merely hearing to listening requires an active response that demonstrates that we have understood what we have heard and that it has changed our lives.

Listening to God requires a choice – either obedience or disobedience. It is never neutral or uninvolved. But in our modern parlance we have divorced listening from obedience. Modern listening has therefore also become passive. It doesn’t require our active involvement. Perhaps this is what is meant when the prophet Isaiah says “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding, you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” (Isa 6:9). Hearing and seeing are both passive. They don’t require a response. The words basically go in one ear and out the other. The alternative, understanding and perceiving, requires action. Like listening, they require a response of obedience. As Isaiah says, it is only by the action associated with obedience that the goal is reached – to turn and be healed (v. 10). St Paul, in writing to the churches, has this in mind. Most of the verbs he uses are imperatives; commands expected to be obeyed. He writes with the expectation that when his letters are read to the churches they will respond with obedience.

But in our modern world obedience has become passé. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t want to obey rules. We want to be the masters of our own lives. In our hustle bustle world we also don’t take the time necessary to reflect upon and understand the words which we do hear or see in print. We don’t ruminate upon them, turning them over in our minds, evaluating them. Therefore, we don’t really listen. But obedience demonstrates that we have truly listened. The words we have heard have penetrated into the depths of our soul, requiring a response which we freely make out of love for our Father in Heaven. Obedience demonstrates that we really have listened, for what we have heard changes us. Perhaps this is why the Bible places obedience upon such a high plane. In God’s eyes, obedience is more important than worship. Worship can be perfunctory. Active obedience, based on love shows our responsiveness to the word of God. As opposed to merely hearing, it shows a responsiveness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Upon reflection, are you a true listener or merely a hearer of the word?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Human Worth

Behind the narcissistic attitudes exhibited by many people in today’s society, behind the “death with dignity” slogan fostered by the euthanasia movement, behind much of existential philosophy which believes everything is relative, allowing persons to do what they want, is the desire for the beholder of these viewpoints to be God. To this list we can add the problem of pride, not hate, which for many Christians is the antithesis of love. Each of these has the problem of turning ourselves into our own deity, with the false idea that we are not only the most important person in the universe, but are also totally in control of our lives and destiny.

The main character in the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus is the quintessential existentialist. Throughout the book he continues to hold that life has no meaning. His brief encounters with other people have no lasting value. His life is very individualistic. Nothing matters. It makes no difference whether one lives or dies, marries or stays single. There are no absolutes, everything is relative. As a result, life, and one’s very existence, is futile. Mankind is inconsequential. He has no worth nor dignity. He is a stranger, even to himself.

The outgrowth of this existential philosophy has dire consequences for today’s world, and easily leads one to be a proponent of euthanasia. If individual humans have no dignity; we are not much more than a blob of protoplasm. If life has no meaning, it cannot be considered to be sacred. As a consequence, the only remaining dignity that a person can have, as its proponents argue, is to die with “dignity”. Society, as a whole, has bought into the viewpoint that non productive individuals have no value, thus no dignity. This attitude primarily impacts the most fragile in society – the unborn, the infant, the elderly and those with special needs. If life itself has no meaning, they become expendable, as we have seen in the mandated end of life counseling in the new national health care laws and in Roe versus Wade.

In assisted suicide, we see attempts to play God. We strive to be in control of our own destiny, choosing for ourselves the moment of death. Ironically, the loss of real dignity that our modern worldview has foistered upon us only makes the void more noticeable as we vainly strive to seek to find some final dignity in the moment of death, a dignity that has eluded us in our existential existence.

The advocates of abortion have succumbed to the false view of dignity that our society holds. If dignity and worth are tied to what we do, infants and the unborn have no value, for they are not productive individuals. Instead they are a drain on society because they require so much of our attention. As such, they are a burden, thus expendable. To solve this difficulty, ancient societies practiced infant abandonment and exposure. Our society practices abortion.

Our loss of dignity contributes to the narcissism so prevalent in our society. The narcissist, as a lover of self, thinks only of himself and his pleasure. Without the significance that comes from having dignity in the eyes of God and of each other, our own selfish pleasure becomes the highest goal of life.

Our true dignity comes from having been created in the image of God. From the moment of conception till the moment of death we are persons with great dignity. As his children, he affirms our worth. What is the source of your worth? Is it bound up in yourself or your relationship with God?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Separatists, Culturalists and Restorers

Gabe Lyons, in The Next Christians describes three types of Christians, the Separatist, the Cultural and the Restorer. Each type can be further subcategorized. Among the Separatists are the Insiders. Most of Insiders time revolves around Christian activities. They only send their children to Christian schools, only listen to Christian music. read Christian books, etc. Their lives revolve around the safety of church. While their motive to live holy lives separated from the degradation seen in the culture around them is pure, they have great difficulty in engaging the culture in which they live without being judgmental. There are also the Cultural Warriors who consider that America and Christianity are deeply intertwined. To their credit, they are passionately concerned about our moral decline as a nation. They seek out politicians who support their positions on abortion, gay rights, etc. But they also have difficulty engaging a society which no longer believes in the value of the Judeo Christian heritage upon which our country was founded. Finally, among the Separatists, are the Evangelizers who believe that the only Christian activity of any value is getting people saved and will go to any means to see that accomplished. They reach out with the best of motives, but many times their technique turns off those they are trying to reach.

Among the Cultural are the Blenders. They attempt to blend so well with society that it becomes very hard to even identify them as Christians. They want to be like everyone else, attempting to be relevant and seeker friendly as a way of reaching their community. There are also the Philanthropists whose focus is upon social concerns and good works. In their zeal they often miss what the essence of the gospel is about – restoring people’s lives to a relationship with God through the grace that Jesus offers.

The Restorers have a different mission than the other two groups. Lyons states that their mission is to “infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice and love.” While acknowledging that our broken world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, they seek to be a part of Christ’s healing ministry by attempting to assist in healing the broken spiritual and physical lives of the people around them. Instead of separating from or blending in, they engage the culture in which they live. Instead of being offended by what goes on around them they are provoked to become involved in making change. Instead of judging, they love the broken ones around them because they realize that they are just as broken and that it is only the grace of God that has rescued them. They use their talents, gifts and passions to make a difference in their world, affecting their jobs, their neighborhoods, their schools, their community, promoting the common good. As Lyons observes, “They are motivated to bring the love of Christ into every broken system they encounter.”

This is how Christianity grew by 40 percent per decade over its first three centuries. The early Christians were restorers. To the multitudes of homeless and impoverished in the large cities of the Greco-Roman world it gave hope. To the newcomers who migrated from the rural to the urban areas it offered community. To the many widows and orphans it brought family. In place of ethnic strife it yielded total acceptance. During famine, catastrophes and times of plague it brought compassion and care.

As we examine our lives, which of these three categories do we most identify with? Are we Separatists, Culturalists or Restorers? Which do we want to be?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Tyranny of Victimization

It has been cogently argued by Wilfred McClay in the May 2001 issue of “First Things” that the prestige accorded to victims in our society, and the rise of the phenomenon of victimization are closely linked

“to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution, to discharge one’s moral burden, and to the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution – or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries – are no longer generally available.”

He concludes that “it is not a coincidence that the rise of the cult of victimization in our culture corresponds fairly exactly with the decline of Christian orthodoxy.”

Those old enough to have lived through the tumultuous change inaugurated in the 1960s can easily testify to the rise of victimization during our lifetimes, for in our youth, victims were mostly those caught up in the machinations of the Nazi and Japanese war machines during World War II. But as we passed through the Viet Nam and Cold War eras into the post modern age it seems that victimization has grown exponentially. Now everyone is describes as a victim of one sort or another – whether it is of pollution, discrimination of all kinds, being impoverished, profiled, having eaten too many fat and salt laden burgers at McDonalds or just having a bad hair day. Some even consider the earth itself to be a victim oppressed by humans.

Many who are not victims themselves claim excessive identification with victims, castigating the Western world, the United States, even humans in general as oppressors of the world’s victims. Some who espouse various social concerns do so in order to identify with victims. A few have so identified with the cult of victimization so as to create spurious autobiographies of their own personal victimhood, accounts which have later been proved to be false.

The cult of victimization is tyrannical because it enslaves those who grasp on to it. To understand why, we must look at the root causes of victimization as well as its effects upon society at large, and individuals in particular.

With the loss of the Judeo-Christian worldview’s emphasis upon sin and absolution, the post modern world has a problem with which it is not prepared to deal.
Where there is moral responsibility, there is inevitably moral guilt. We are faced with all kinds of guilt and have no solution. Without a God who forgives us, absolves us and declares us righteous, we are left with a vague emptiness that longs to be filled. This is precisely where the cult of victimization finds its converts, by claiming to fill this void. By identifying ourselves as a victim, by identifying ourselves with victims, or even with their causes, we can salve our consciences. Since victims are not responsible for their victimhood, they are not morally responsible. Someone else is always the oppressor or aggressor. They are responsibly guilty, thus the victim is freed from responsibility for his actions and can claim innocence.

But the cult of victimization never satisfies. The void is always there, leading to more and more desperate attempts to absolve oneself from guilt. The worship of victimization becomes more pronounced until it consumes the person in perpetual slavery. Freedom only comes when we recognize that, while occasionally we are victims, more often it is our own moral choices that have affected our status. Only by coming to God, admitting our failures, seeking his forgiveness and receiving his absolution will we be truly free.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Modern Day Jesus

How would Jesus have fared if he had been born in today’s world? Psychologists would likely have diagnosed him as having multiple disorders and complexes. They would have placed him in on-going counseling sessions. They likely would have recommended that he be institutionalized as a danger to society and himself. The most severe diagnosis would have been Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He exhibited a constant defiance to authority figures, frequently condemning and defying the rulers and religious leaders of the country. He refused to cooperate with them, and at times was even hostile towards them. They would have concluded that he had an anti authority bias Occasionally he exhibited signs of having Intermittent Explosive Disorder because he sometimes flew off the handle, such as when he whipped legitimate businessmen in the temple courts. He had problems with anger, as was shown in the account of his healing of the man with the withered hand. The psychologists would have recommended that he attend anger management classes to learn how to control his temper. Along with these problems, he had identity problems, seen in his attitude towards his own nuclear family. He denied them, questioning whom his mother and brothers were. His connection with reality would have been severely questioned when he called people around him his mother and brothers. He had poor social skills, calling King Herod “that sly fox” and repeatedly calling the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites, open sepulchers and vipers”. He was politically incorrect and intolerant towards others.

They would have said that Jesus suffered from a Delusion of Grandeur. He kept vacillating between thinking of himself as man and as God. Several times during his lifetime he referred to himself as God or God’s son. He often spoke of God as his father. In this, they would have found him delusional, unable to comprehend reality, as when he told the high priest that he was the Son of the Most High. At the same time he also had a messianic complex, believing that his mission was to save people from their sins. He equated himself with the popular messianic title “Son of Man”, saying that he had come to seek and save the lost.

Like many of those with psychological disorders today, he was homeless, claiming that he had no place to even lay his head. He wandered from town to town, taking advantage of those who were willing to support him. He associated with the riff raff of society, a variety of outcasts such as prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors and the like. His friends were the type of people that reputable society shunned. He led a band of fisherman, tax collectors and zealots who followed his every word. On top of all this, Jesus was a charismatic figure, always drawing a large crowd willing to listen to his rants against the authority figures and his self delusional identity with God. He was a polarizing figure. This would have reinforced their conclusion that he was dangerous, to others as well as himself and must be dealt with. Towards the end of his life he was known to have a death wish, desiring to die a most horrible death.

If Jesus had come today, how would we have responded? Would we have found him troubling? Would we have institutionalized him, locking him up as dangerous to himself and others, and then thrown away the key? Fortunately he came at the proper time in history, so they merely nailed him to a cross and executed him. How would we have treated him?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

God's Super Bowl

Another Super Bowl has come and gone, with millions of people watching the contest. Those outside the stadium endured four hours in the cold, watching large TV screens; those inside spent that time sitting on hard bleacher seats, craning unsuccessfully to see the participants on the field below them, their ears straining to catch the garbled words coming from the loudspeakers. Those at home or at parties spent the time in front of their TV sets, watching the game and attempting to discover which where the most creative ads. We make sure that our schedules don’t conflict with the game.

Monsignor Charles Pope in a blog entry traces an interesting disconnection between attendance at the super bowl and attendance at church, noting how dissimilar they are. Super Bowl attendees prepare well in advance for the game, often wear special clothing for the occasion, (or in some cold weather stadiums go bare-chested during sub freezing temperatures), arrive early, cheer loudly and get wrapped up in the game. Especially during collegiate game, they will joyfully and robustly sing their favorite team’s fight song. They love the game and enthusiastically participate in the festivities. If at all possible they will find a tailgate party to attend several hours before the game starts. If watching it at home, they will usually turn on the pre-game show to help them prepare for the fray. They know their favorite team and player’s statistics. There is no problem if the game goes into overtime, a fact seen in the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials. Overtime gives them more time to enjoy the game. They easily spend considerable sums of money on tickets or party supplies, and think nothing of it. Once the game starts they focus on every play, often talking about certain plays for the next several days, rehearsing them in their minds. One thing is certain: they are passionate about the game. They never find it boring.

It is fortunate that we have a similar view of church. We prepare for Sunday mornings by reading the Scriptures for the day and praying for the service. As Sunday arrives, we put on our Sunday best, make certain that we arrive well in advance of the service, expectant of being in church for several hours. We joyfully greet each other, and anticipate worshiping our Lord together. We earnestly desire that there be a pre-service event that we can attend. We are oblivious to the fact that the sanctuary may be too hot or cold or the pews uncomfortable. We are just as happy whether the sound system is working or not. We hope that the preacher is long winded so we can spend more time worshiping God with our fellow worshipers. We never find the service boring. We don’t think twice about placing an extra amount of money in the offering plate as it passes by. We fully participate in the service, singing joyfully, following every aspect of the service. As the service continues, spontaneous praise issues forth from our lips as we observe what God is doing in the world. Sunday afternoons are likely to find us in discussion of the sermon we heard earlier in the day. We eagerly look forward to the next Sunday’s service. We have the same excitement towards God as we do towards the game. If Sunday scheduling conflicts arise, we make sure that church has the top priority for we certainly don’t want to miss it.

How fortunate we are that our attitude towards the Super Bowl and church are so similar. Or are they?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

God's Love Story

Carolyn Arends, in an article on the film Evan Almighty notes that some Christians objected to the concept expressed in the film that the story of Noah’s Ark is a love story. She goes on in her article to reflect on this important question: “Is there any story about God that isn't a love story?” Upon reflection, she concludes that even the parts of the Bible that speak of God’s wrath and anger are really part of a love story.

Many Christians have grown up with two viewpoints about God that appear on the surface to be contradictory. God is a God of love. But God is also a holy wrathful God who hates sin. How do we keep these two viewpoints in tension? As Carolyn probed this question, she realized that she had always viewed God in a good cop bad cop routine, with the Holy Spirit acting as a sympathetic parole officer. While expressing that God was a God of love she concluded that there were limits to his love.

How does the concept of a vengeful God fit into a love story? As Carolyn wrestled with this, she found the following analogy helpful. If her young daughter started to dash out into the street into heavy traffic, grabbing her daughter, yanking her back from harm’s way and yelling “No!” would not be a sign of harsh anger, but of fierce love. She would even punish her daughter if it led to her future safety. She concludes that it is the same with God. His punishing us for sin is a sign of his fierce love, for he knows that the consequence of sin leads to ultimate destruction, an end he does not desire for us. .

We see this dynamic at work throughout the period of the Judges and in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Each time God brings disaster upon or punishes his people it is for a purpose – to bring them back into a loving relationship with him. Nowhere is this message more clearly seen than in the book of Hosea. For most of the book Hosea talks about how God will punish Israel. But in the final chapter he reminds them that if they will repent, God will bless them and love them freely. The entire point of chastisement is so they will return to God and be in relationship with him. This is also the point of loving one’s enemies in order to heap coals of fire on their heads. St Augustine interprets Romans 12:20 to imply that one’s enemies, provoked by our kindness, will have their malice towards us burned away in repentance.

Christian parents discipline their children because they love them and desire them to live morally upright lives that are dedicated to God. Punishment stems from this love, with the goal that their children will understand that there are consequences to their actions and will live better lives as a result. In much the same way God disciplines us when we go astray, not because he is vindictive, but because he deeply loves us and wants what is best for us. At times he punishes us as a way to draw us back to a relationship with himself.

How often do we find ourselves, like Carolyn, trying to maintain a dual image of God? How often do we flit back and forth, between images of God as a God of love and as a wrathful God? How much do you really view the entire Bible as a love story?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eager or Willing?

St. Paul, in his prayers for the churches that he was associated with, centers his prayers in four areas; that we would have an increasing intimate knowledge of God, that our love would constantly be growing, that we would live lives pleasing to God, and that we would be strengthened for endurance in living the Christian life. These are all areas worthy of our focus as we live out our lives. We should want to know God better, to grow in love, to please God and to maintain our faith as we go through life. A good question to ask ourselves is how willing are we to see these accomplished in our lives?

But a better question might be to ask how eager we are. The legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, in his devotional book Coach Wooden: One on One tells how his view of “team spirit” changed from a willingness to lose oneself in the group for the good of the team to an eagerness to lose oneself. He came to realize that our willingness to do something does not indicate our desire to do so. Eagerness is much more closely connected to desire. Turning to spiritual matters, Wooden notes that there is a huge difference between our willingness to pray and our eagerness to pray.

The same is true in the growth of our Christian lives. Are we willing to grow or eager to grow? Will we accept it if it comes our way, or do we desire to see it accomplished in our lives? Having only a willingness to grow indicates a cavalier attitude. It’s ok if it happens but we aren’t going out of our way to see that it happens. Willingness takes a passive approach to life, often avoiding the commitment which requires active involvement. With this approach, it becomes easy to just go through the motions. Eagerness, on the other hand, requires active engagement. It requires a definite resolve, to make an effort, and at times to even make a sacrifice. It refuses to accept the status quo, wanting more. Just as successful basketball teams have a high level of discipline in their play, the same is true in our spiritual lives. We must have an eagerness to spiritually discipline ourselves and be disciplined by God.

We face many of the same difficulties today that men and women faced in Jesus’ time. The rich young ruler and others were willing to follow Jesus as long as it didn’t cost them anything. But they had no eager desire to follow him, and in the end turned away. The disciples, on the other hand, displayed an eagerness to follow him, for they had found that there was no other place to go, for Jesus had the words of life. We can easily do the same as the rich young ruler, following Jesus as long as it’s comfortable and doesn’t place a burden upon us. We are willing to follow him as long as he doesn’t make demands upon our lives. But if he does, we may find our resolve to follow him weakening.

Eagerness is never content with willingness. It requires a steadfastness of purpose, an intense consuming desire to know and follow God. It demands a commitment to discipline and a refusal to allow obstacles to thwart our relationship with him. It calls for our constant involvement with the word of God so that we can know him better. How strong is your eagerness IQ? Are you only willing to follow God or are you eager to follow him?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Active and Passive Hypocrisy

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down Alex Morden, an inhabitant of the town, kills an enemy officer. The commander of the enemy forces requests that the town mayor sentence Alex to death for the sake of maintaining order. The reluctant mayor finally asks the enemy commander how many of the enemy’s soldiers had been on the machine guns when they captured the town, in the process killing several of the town’s soldiers. Being informed that there were about twenty, the mayor says. “Very well. If you shoot them, I will condemn Morden.” Being told that his request is impossible, the mayor then says “And what you ask cannot be done.” The mayor’s help is requested to maintain order. Yet the enemy’s capture of the town caused the breakdown of order in the first place.

There is a hypocritical element to the story. The enemy commander desperately wants there to be order in the town. Yet he cannot see, or will not see, or could care less that it was his own country’s invasion that caused the breakdown in the first place. As long as the enemy controls the town there will never be order. But if they were to leave, order would quickly be restored.

We can often do the same things in our own lives. We can seek a particular result, but live our lives such that we make that result all but impossible to achieve. We may want to have a good marriage, but never work at having one. We may want to have a good relationship with our children, but are always criticizing them and never taking time to attend their activities or talk with them. We may counsel them to do what we say, but do just the opposite of what we tell them. We may want to have a relationship with God, but never put in the effort to have one. We can cause, by our own actions, the very thing we are trying to avoid. When we do, we live hypocritical lives.

Hypocrisy can be either active or passive. Active hypocrisy is more easily identifiable, for it is overt; like the pastor who preaches against homosexuality while engaging in a homosexual liaison, or who condemns adultery while in the midst of an adulterous affair. We observe it in the person’s actions. Their actions and words are not congruent. But hypocrisy can also be passive, often occurring when we lack desire. We may want something, but not enough to actually carry it through to completion. This type of hypocrisy is more insidious, for it is only observed in inaction. Since it is largely unnoticeable, it may take years before it is uncovered and brought out into the open. It is largely identified by later reflection on the impact of the inactivity, long after the fact. But it destroys relationships just as much as more active forms of hypocrisy do. We are often left with knowing that something isn’t quite right, but are unable to quite put our finger on the cause until later reflection brings it into the open.

A hypocritical lack of desire destroys relationships through inaction. We can want to know God while our closed Bible gathers dust on the bookshelf. We may want to build a relationship with our children, but find ourselves leaving for work before they are up in the mornings, and coming home after they have gone to bed at night. In each case our desire, and the accompanying resolve, are not strong enough to overcome the hypocrisy. How much do you see passive hypocrisy active in your life?

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The early seventeenth century playwright and poet, Ben Jonson , in speaking of hypocrisy wrote “Many men believe not themselves what they would persuade others; and less, do the things which they would impose on others; but least of all, know what they themselves most confidently boast. Only they set the sign of the cross over their outer doors, and sacrifice to their gut and their groin in their inner closets.” Nowhere is the truth of his observations more evident than in Congress in the past year. We have seen Senators Nelson from Nebraska and Landrieu from Louisiana abruptly change their convictions on abortion when it became politically expedient for them to do so. We have seen the members of both the House and Senate, who were strong advocates of the health care reform, reject amendments which would require them to participate in the health care plan they have formulated for our country. Many of the legislators who have called for civility in language have been the most scurrilous towards their opponents. Leaders of both parties, while speaking against ethical abuse, have been caught up in ethics violations themselves. The same type of hypocrisy is evident in the consternation by Congress at the large bonuses paid to corporate executives while salaries for federal employees in Washington are escalating far out of line above similar salaries in the private sector. While talking about the need to reduce our use of energy, congressional leaders jet across the country and around the world on air force jets at public expense and use excessive amounts of energy in their own homes. While selectively railing against corruption, they turn a deaf ear against the abuses of organizations like Acorn. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, the abuses tend to be the same. Jonson’s words are proving to be prophetically true.

But lest we attempt to pull the mote from our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, we need to look at ourselves. How often do we do the same thing Jonson describes? We can say that we believe in the power of prayer, but when facing difficulties try to keep them secret so that no one will find out we are experiencing them, never enabling them to pray for us. We can talk about the importance of obeying the law as we speed merrily down the expressway far above the maximum rated speed. Many parents strongly condemn the use of alcohol or tobacco by their children while abusing them themselves. The most difficult areas are those which have an impact upon our own lives. It can be very easy to take a stand for or against something as long as it doesn’t affect us personally. Then we may sing a different tune. But that is when we will discover the true nature of our character. That which is in the depths of our soul will one day rise to the surface and make itself known. Jesus warns that what comes out of a person is more dangerous than what goes in. What arises from our soul will determine whether or not we compromise our character in times of perceived crisis. Then we will discover who we truly are. Then we will find out whether or not we have disconnected our faith from the rest of our lives, living as Jonson describes. Are we as guilty as our legislators or the English citizens of Ben Jonson’s day in effectively proclaiming “Do as I say, not as I do?” May it not be so!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Problem with Evil

In our modern world, evil has become ideological. Perhaps it has always been that way in the history of mankind, but the concept of evil as an ideological entity has certainly escalated in the past fifty years. Society considers something to be evil largely upon the extent that we identify with, or oppose the causes connected with the perpetrator of the action. For instance, during the Viet Nam war, protestors condemned our killing of the North Vietnamese, but were silent about the massacres perpetrated by the Viet Cong as they took over control of the South, as they also were silent about the bombing of campus ROTC buildings by their members. In the Middle East, those on the side of the Palestinians condemn Israeli attacks, but consider Palestinian suicide bombers to be heroes, while Israeli leaders, condemning the suicide bombings of the Palestinians, ignore excessive brutalities committed by their own soldiers. Some abortion protestors find little fault with the killing of abortion practitioners while pro choice advocates find no problem with denying the unborn a choice. Accepting that evil is ideological, we turn a blind eye to the evil perpetrated in our midst. By viewing evil in this way we divorce it from truth. What is right or wrong becomes relative. In society today, there is no absolute standard by which to measure what is evil. Without such, it becomes very easy to legitimatize evil, as happened to many people in Germany during the Nazi regime.

But in the biblical world evil is never considered to be ideological. It is always based upon absolute truth. When the Old Testament prophets speak against evil it makes no difference whether the perpetrator of the evil is Israel’s enemy or Israel itself. Frequently the prophets hone in on the transgressions of their own nation, whether Israel or Judah. Things are inherently good or evil and must be dealt with accordingly.

The mantras of political correctness and tolerance may be the areas causing us the most difficulty in today’s world, for they allow legitimatizing many questionable activities and prohibit condemnation of any sins associated with them. They turn a blind eye to and excuse immoral behavior by making it appear to be ideological. Their devotees champion political incorrectness as the greatest sin in the world, further distancing evil from truth as those who disagree are reluctant to speak the truth for fear of condemnation. Against them the prophetic words of Jeremiah ring out “Truth has perished. It has vanished from their lips.”

If we are to consider evil as the Old Testament prophets did, we must throw off the encumbrance of political correctness which is so prevalent in our society today. We must become like Jeremiah who, when contemplating succumbing to the political correctness of his day, concluded that he had to speak out because it was like a fire in his bones. We must be willing to speak the truth. We must speak out against all forms of evil. But we must do so in a spirit of love instead of hate. We must condemn the evil while showing love to its perpetrator. Too often we have been hypocritical, demonstrating more of the spirit of Lamech (Gen 4:23-24) than of Christ in our condemnation of evil. Basing the concept of evil on ideology leads to hatred. Viewing evil as Christ did, on its relationship to truth, leads to love. How do you view evil? Is it based upon the concept of truth or upon ideology? Can you speak against it in love?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Medium or Message?

Several years ago Marshall McCluen wrote that “The medium is the message.” While this has become increasingly true in today’s world, (witness the influential role of the media in swaying public opinion), his statement is far from true in the spiritual realm. In God’s eyes, the medium is a channel used solely to proclaim the message – the good news that Jesus came to save sinners and reconcile them to God.

But because of the constant bombardment of the primacy of the medium in today’s culture, we often find the medium too attractive. Thus we are always seeking the latest fad or program, constantly changing direction and focus. The Holiness Manifesto, produced by the Wesleyan Holiness Study Project points out two of the dangers associated with this approach.

The first danger is that we become ineffective in our ministry. The Holiness Manifesto” states “The power and zeal of churches has been drained by the incessant search for a better method, a more effective fad, a newer and bigger program to yield growth. In the process of trying to find the magic method for growing healthy vibrant churches, our people have become largely ineffective and fallen prey to a generic Christianity that results in congregations that are indistinguishable from the culture around them.” We can easily lose excitement about the latest fad knowing that we will soon be moving on to another one.

The second danger is that we can confuse the medium with the message. When this happens, we can easily corrupt the message. The Holiness Manifesto states concerning church leaders that “They have become so concerned about ‘how’ they do church that they have neglected the weightier matter of ‘what’ the church declares.” We can focus so much on the program that we lose sight of the fact of God’s holy love being declared through the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can lose sight of God’s desire that we live holy lives ourselves.

There are also additional dangers to be aware of. The third danger is that we can focus upon the form and lose the function. It is easy to emulate such programs as Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Church”, or Willow Creek. What we often forget is that the form they are using was designed to serve a particular function in their particular church. Merely duplicating the form, without replicating the underlying function, will lead to frustration, and ultimately failure.

The fourth danger is that this approach can lead us into spiritual adultery. The book of Hosea points out how Israel, though very religious, was constantly chasing after foreign cultures and their gods. They sought to emulate the “successful” societies around them. Hosea refers to this as adultery. If we seek to follow all the church growth fads more than God himself, we are in the same danger of spiritual adultery.

If we are to reach out to those around us we must avoid the dangers listed above and focus on our own personal and corporate holiness. This must begin with repentance and humility. We must become a holy community with a strong message of the love of Jesus who died for our sins. We must be a community which demonstrates love for each other and the world around us. By focusing on living holy, transformed lives, we will become a magnet, drawing people to Jesus. By living this way, a program, while helpful, won’t even be necessary to see people coming into the kingdom. Which do you find more attractive, the medium or the message?