Monday, January 26, 2004

Extreme Makeover

You’ve probably seen some of those “before” and “after” pictures of people who, through the magic of modern cosmetology, are transformed from antiquated “plain Joe’s” to GQ potential. One of the current popular reality shows is Extreme Makeovers in which people deemed to be deserving are treated to plastic surgery, the latest cosmetics, wardrobes and spas, to transition them from "undesirable" to "irresistable."

While this show deals in the extremes, it does signal what's happening in more moderate scales in the broader culture. To boost self-esteem or to create a new persona for themselves, literally millions are spent on makeovers annually. While some attempt a physical renovation through the latest cosmetological techniques, others attempt a more profound—though equally self-induced—reconstruction.

In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey confesses his own self-deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction whose outcome was ultimately unsatisfying. Embarrassed by TV programs like the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “HeeHaw,” Yancey attempted to disassociate himself from his Southern heritage. Vowel by vowel he worked to change his accent, succeeding so well that people react with surprise when they learn of his Deep South roots. Having read great books to remove all provincial blinders, Yancey felt that he had finally addressed—and conquered—his previous self, creating a “new man.”

Through more spiritually mature lenses, Yancey began to realize the limits to a self-constructed personality. Yancey writes: “In most ways important to God, I had failed miserably. I was selfish, joyless, and lacked compassion. With the notable exception of self-control, I lacked all nine of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.”

Yancey not only recognized the limits to a self-directed makeover, he ultimately came to understand that his entire project of reconstructing his personality had been misguided. “God did not want to work with a wholly different personality. God chose me.”

The strong urge to be someone other than who we are actually opposes God’s purposes for our lives. Often these feelings arise from a legitimate dislike of our sinful natures. It is precisely here, however, that the gospel offers good news. God, through the working of His Spirit, is not turning us into a wholly different person. On the contrary, through the redemptive work of Christ within us, God liberates—not destroys—our true selves! In this regard, Yancey concludes; “The Holy Sprit coaxes each of us to be ourselves, flawed personalities in whom God himself has chosen to dwell. With infinite resources, God can assist every willing person on earth in that custom process. It begins with trust in God’s best for me, a confidence that God will liberate my true self, not bind it.” Create room in your heart for God, and let God show you who you truly are. You might be surprised at such an extreme--and divine--makeover!

Monday, January 19, 2004

Give Us Eyes To See

This old Hassidic tale summarizes much of what the world—and our churches—need so desperately today.
The Rabbi asks his students, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”
One student suggests, “When, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?”

“No,” the Rabbi answers.

“Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asks a second student.

“No,” the Rabbi says.

“Please tell us the answer, then,” say the perplexed students.

“It is,” says the wise teacher, ”when you have enough light to look human beings in the face and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Until then the darkness is still with us.”

If you think about it, this rabbinical saying is packed with insight into the human condition. Typically, how we see or perceive a situation or individual determines how we feel. Our feelings in turn heavily influence how we respond. In the end, if our vision is blurred by prejudices or self interests, our reaction to others will be influenced accordingly.

Jesus had eyes focused by divine lenses. This resulted, not in a pious attempt to insulate his holiness from sin, but a tender compassion to counter their sin with his holiness. Where some saw sinners to be avoided, Jesus saw potential sons of God. Where some saw the need to shun disease, Jesus saw the opportunity to show deliverance. Where some saw trouble, Jesus saw triumph. Where most saw death, Jesus gave life.

As Jesus engaged his broken world so we are to engage ours. Faces and times have changed, but the need remains the same. May God remove the darkness and grant us eyes to recognize all humans beings as his special creation in desperate need of God’s love.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Be Still...And Let God Work:
A New Year’s Resolution

With his keen ability to find humor in the most unexpected things, Gary Larson made us laugh, caused us to blush and, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, left us puzzled over the esoteric meaning of his satirical Far Side cartoons. Whether or not Larson intended them, I have on occasions found profound spiritual meaning from the Far Side. Consider this one, for example.

The picture is of the western “badlands.” The sun is high in a cloudless sky. The scorched landscape consists of bare, rugged cliffs and barren, sandy hills. The only plant life in the picture is a lone Sequoia cactus standing tall in the foreground. Somehow avoiding the immense open space, a bumbling cowboy has managed to guide his horse head first into the cactus. Expressing the thoughts of the irritated horse, the caption reads, “That does it...I’m gonna steer.”

Have you ever felt like this horse when it comes to your spiritual journey? Have you ever wondered where God is taking you? Have you ever thought that perhaps you could do a better job of directing your own steps rather than giving the reins of your life to God? Be honest now.

In our limited thinking, it seems that God occasionally runs us smack into painful cactuses, tempting us to snatch the reins from His omniscient hands. Job changes. Financial loss. Sickness. Death. During such trying times, it’s human nature to think, “Surely God could have guided us around these painful obstacles.” If you are facing such difficulties hear God’s Word before you attempt to retake control of your life, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4; The Message).

Have you run into any cactuses of life lately? Before you direct yourself into the "obviously-open" countryside, maybe you should think seriously before you act. It just might be that God actually has brought you to the only source of available water to moisten your parched faith. Be still...and let God do His marvelous, faith-building work. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution to seriously consider!

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The Continuing Privilege of Christmas

In his introduction to The Message, a popular translation of the New Testament, Eugene Peterson made the following observation.

The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe—seemingly too good to be true.

But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots—had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.

If you are anything like me, I typically experience the post-Christmas “blahs.” Maybe its my system drying out from the abnormal amount of sweets, turkey, and other rich foods I consume during this time of year. Perhaps it’s simply the emotional adjustment of coming down from all the excitement—even stress—of the holidays.

At this early post-Christmas time, I need to hear these words from Peterson. They remind me that Christmas isn’t a punctuated event in history. Rather, it’s a continuing reality that we all have the privilege to experience. God has taken up residence among us in a personal, powerful way. And, as Peterson states, it literally means that “everything [has] to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.” May God grant us the grace to “renew our minds” as we set out to determine His perfect will for our lives. Such is the continuing privilege of Christmas!