Friday, May 29, 2009

The True Source of Optimism

The Enlightenment assumption of invevitable progress rooted in the perceived human ability to, through rationality and increased technology, free humanity from the vulnerabilities of nature, is collapsing. The postmodern critique has been relentless and, quite frankly, legitimate in many ways. Tthe "hermeneutic of suspicion" that is taking an ever-increasing grip on the psyches of the West, has created a culture of cynicism toward all institutions. Michael Foucalt and Jacques Derrida (both now deceased), the two most influential architects of postmodern literary theory, called for an aggressive deconstruction of all texts, exposing hidden power structures that demanded a bold challenge.

This theory seems to have taken root in the West. Words constantly are being parsed. Trust in an author's or speaker's credibility is seldom granted. (Unless the author or speaker is a deconstructionist--but shouldn't the deconstructionist also be deconstructed--I digress). In short, the modern spirit of optimism--"each and every day, each and every way we are getted better and better"--has given way to a gnawing pessimism.

And, again, the modern optimism in humanity's ability through reason to "pull itself up by its own bootstraps" should be challenged. As we face a major, and universal, economic crisis, wars, political upheavals, and the global proliferation of nuclear weapons, there seems to be little to be optimistic about. On the other hand, there is a biblical optimism that, I think, the people of God should boldly embrace. It's an optimism, however, that is theocentric, not anthropocentric--it is centered in the sovereign God, not the solutions of humans.

Take Caleb, for example. You might recall that he was one of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Upon their return, 10 of the spies saw no possible way for their unskilled army to conquer the “walled cities” inhabited by “giants” (13:28,33). By contrast, the minority report of Caleb (and Joshua) throbbed with faith, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30).

What made the difference? All spies described the same land, and recognized the obstacles. The 10 were consumed by their own inadequacies while Caleb and Joshua concentrated on God’s ability. In short, the real difference was their relationship to God (14:8-9).

The “grasshopper mentality” of the 10 resulted from looking at the opposition rather than the Lord. That’s always how its it when we diminish the power of God. The obstacles loom beyond reason. By contrast, Caleb viewed the difficulties as opportunities to display the awesome power of the Lord.

The optimism of Caleb was not rooted in the insufficient power of a “positive mental attitude“, or in the inadequacies of “believing in himself.” Rather, in humility, Caleb saw himself linked to God in sacred partnership. “If the Lord delights in us,” he reasoned, “we’ll succeed” (cf. 14:8). The “if” in this phrase did not suggest a gnawing doubt in Caleb of God’s presence. On the contrary, it was Caleb’s way of saying, “because God has told us to take the land, we will succeed!”

How is it with you? Are you facing a Kadesh-Barnea that could change the course of your life? It may be a circumstance to accept, a work to be undertaken, or a burden to be borne. Whatever we are facing, individually or collectively, let’s remember the spirit of Caleb. How shortsighted to fret about obstacles when we’re linked with God. Caleb won the battles of life because he first won the battle of faith, obedience, and full commitment.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by circumstances or awed by difficulties. They don’t really matter. It’s our attitude toward the Lord—His glory and His will—that really counts!

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Continuing Memory of Easter

William Willimon, Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, relates a personal experience that is particularly relevant to the continuing truth of Easter. Traveling in the South of England, Willimon’s car broke down. While waiting for repairs, he wandered through the yard of the nearby village church. Eventually, he found himself in the cemetery surrounding the building. In one corner of the cemetery was a beautiful, low, brick wall enclosing fifty graves. The grass had nearly choked the plot. A large granite slab, set in the wall, bore the words “WE SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR SACRIFICE.”

The graves held the remains of fifty young men, around the ages of 17 to 25, and all from New Zealand. Willimon wondered who they were and why they died in this little English village, so far from home?

Since there was no clue at the churchyard as to who they were or the circumstances of their deaths, Willimon wandered back into the village for any information to quench his thirsty curiosity. Finding the town’s museum, Willimon inquired about the graves. The attendant at the museum responded; “Strange that you should ask, I have no idea, but given a few days I could certainly find out.”

Since Willimon would be gone by then, he asked around the village. Now one knew. Despite the impressive inscription in granite, they had been forgotten. No one could remember the circumstances of the unforgettable sacrifice.

Willimon’s story has profound implications for the Christian story. Try as we may, our finite human memories tend to obscure, and eventually lose the vivid picture of those who lived before—even those we love. As in the case of the New Zealanders, time tends to erase the memory of even great sacrifice.

That’s what makes the Easter story so impressive. We don’t simply keep Jesus alive in our collective Christian psyches, proclaiming him forever “alive in our hearts.” The Easter story is not a mere emotional recreation of a long-dead, Jewish hero. The resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality that continues to exert power in our broken world—that’s why we remember.

So, while Easter Sunday has come and gone for another year, we continue to remember Jesus. In so doing, we are not only reflecting on the gracious sacrifice of the innocent One. We are embracing—and encountering—the risen Lord of history, the continuing intrusion of God into our world. Hence we remember—and proclaim—“He has been raised.” Now that’s something that’s hard to forget!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Apocalypse 2012

I have to confess. I'm a talk show junky. It doesn't matter much about the content of the conversation; I simply enjoy hearing people discuss topics. Verbal bantering over a subject primarily is entertaining to me, and sometimes it can be informative about social subcultures and philosophies.

While driving home late one evening, I was listening to an esoteric talk show that discusses everything from alien visitations/abductions to cosmological theories with a heavy dose of conspiracy theories to boot. This particular night, a well-spoken, seemingly well-informed guest was talking about the Mayan "Long Count" calendar that terminates on December 21, 2012. Comparing this Mayan phenomenon to similar "prophetic" information in other ancient civilizations (and, of course, Nostradamus himself), this guest concluded that our planet can expect a cataclysmic shift on this date (or at least beginning on that date). While admitting ignorance of exactly what this will be, the guest was quite clear that we should prepare for its inevitability.

Now, that's good talk radio, don't you think? What better way to end the day than to consider a global cataclysm apparently predicted by ancient civilizations? Perhaps, as the theory goes, the Mayans simply were warning us of a similar fate met by their own civilization. After all, scholars still are not exactly sure why this flourishing culture practically vanished overnight. Are we going to face a similar event in 2012? Try going to sleep with that on your mind and see what type dreams you have!

Of course, this is not new information that has come to light. Anthropologists have long been aware of the Mayan calendrical phenomenon. Competing interpretations of it, however, abound. It is interesting to note that on the winter solstice of 2012 the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years, according to astronomists. What are we to make of this information?

While I'm in no position to speak authoritatively on Maya archaeoastronomy, I would like to make a few observations. First, advances in astronomy continue to highlight the relative insignificance of our planet. It is a mere speck on the canvas of the universe. In light of our burgeoning knowledge of the universe, the ancient psalmist captures very well the psychological impact of our apparent insignificance, and God's astonishing concern for us (cf. Psalm 8).

Second, despite the hubris of modernity we really are vulnerable to forces beyond our control. A major assumption of the Enlightenment was that rational human beings could free themselves from the vulnerabilities of nature through increased technology. Obviously, we are beginning to acknowledge that there are forces beyond our control that technology alone simply cannot address. The Mayans, known for advanced writing, mathematics and astronomy, obviously met forces beyond their control.

Third, the Bible does talk about the end of the world as we know it. Eventually, God will bring about a "new heavens and new earth." I am not suggesting that 2012 is when God will accomplish His eschatological purposes. In fact, the Bible indicates that when that day occurs, people will be carrying on in typical fashion, apparently oblivious to its arrival (cf. Luke 21). At the same time, Christians need always to realize that the present order is "passing away;" that there is nothing lasting about our current world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17).

Finally, in light of God's purposes, whenever that might be, we should live each day in anticipation of God's final victory over all His opposing forces. We pray for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven." May that day come quickly. And, may we participate in His redemptive work for our world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Nature of Ministry

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey argues that grace is the church’s single most important contribution to our broken world. One need not be a Christian, Yancey correctly contends, to do wonderful humanitarian acts, i.e., feed the hungry, build houses, heal the sick. There is one thing the world cannot effectively do—it cannot offer grace.

Building on this theme, Yancey offers what I believe to be a correct interpretation of the image Jesus used to describe the church’s destiny—“the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Rather than a metaphor of defense, this figure signals an offensive posture. “Christians,” says Yancey, “are storming the gates, and they will prevail. No matter how it looks at any given point in history, the gates guarding the powers of evil will not withstand an assault by grace.”

As we explore what it means to be a ministry-oriented church, keep at least three important points firmly fixed in mind. First, all ministry belongs to, and is of, God; we are simply participants with Him. Unlike worldly humanitarianism, godly ministry is done in the name of Jesus, and by His power. Second, ours is not a struggle against physical forces. We are at war with the spiritual powers of evil that attempt to keep our world shrouded in darkness (Eph. 6:12).

Third, true ministry occurs within the vulnerable sphere of personal interaction. Jesus did not develop highly organized—and impersonal—“kingdom growth” programs to see how many people he could collect at a given location. No, Jesus simply “went about doing good.” He dared to touch lepers, grieve with those who mourned, and rejoiced with those who experienced God’s deliverance. No program will ever replace the power of a personal touch.

Each time we minister to people in the name of Jesus we apply a solid blow at the gates of hell. May kingdom people wield the weapon of God’s grace boldly as we reach out to our world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The World's Funniest Joke

With all the doom and gloom we're dealing with these days, I thought considering the world's funniest joke might be a good distraction. I even threw in the world's second funniest joke to help ease the blahs of our current situation.

A little background about the "World's Funniest Joke." In 2002, Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire conducted research to determine the world’s funniest joke (no kidding!). Over 40,000 jokes received nearly 2,000,000 ratings by people across the globe. While Dr. Wiseman’s study highlighted that people from different regions had distinct ideas about what they judged as humorous, the joke that won first place across lines of geography, gender, and age is as follows:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.
He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?”

The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure that he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard.

Back on the phone, the guy says: “Okay, Now What?”

Yeah...I groaned too when I read this “world’s funniest joke.” Regardless of your judgment of this joke’s level of humor, two serious points emerge. First, as in many jokes, the twist to this comedic tale involves a serious lack of communication. Most of us are very aware of the complex nature of exchanging thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Often, misunderstanding occurs somewhere between the sending of a communication and the reception of the message. And, while the above joke is an exaggeration of the consequences of such miscommunication, sometimes relationships can be badly damaged by misunderstandings. This joke, therefore, reminds us to take the time to insure that we understand what’s being said before we respond.

Second, and this might even be more important, this joke reminds us of the importance of being able to laugh at ourselves. I think we oftentimes take ourselves entirely too seriously. A person who doesn’t have the capacity to laugh at herself is most miserable indeed. “A cheerful heart is good medicine,” says the ancient Proverb, “but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22). So, perhaps we should all lighten up a bit. God is honored equally by healthy laughter as well as fervent prayer.

By the way, the second funniest joke was:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: "Watson, look up at the stars and tell me, what do you see?"
Watson replied: "I see millions and millions of stars."

Holmes said: "And what do you deduce from that?"

Watson replied: "Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it's quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life."

And Holmes said: "Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent."

Friday, February 06, 2009

A Kingdom Response to the Current Crisis

As I pen these words, U.S. senators are attempting to hammer out a bi-partisan, stimulus bill whose prayerful purpose is to cure, or at least mitigate, our economic woes. Most economic and political pundits believe that a package will pass, but its actual content is still uncertain. Talking heads on either end of the political spectrum have labeled the legislation "porkulous" or "too lean" respectively.

With whichever side of the political aisle we identify, we all acknowledge that we currently face a major economic crisis. And, with the 24-7 news coverage, we constantly are bombarded with doomsday messages. It's no wonder that the national level of anxiety has increased exponentially. With this uncertainty of the future, fear tightens its unrelenting grip on us all. Christians are not exempt from this uncertainty.

Against this gloomy fiscal backdrop, the words of Jesus stand out in bold relief:

"Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possesions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heavan that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:29-34).

Without drilling critically into this profoundly relevant passage, I've been pondering its personal implications for my life. While no singular experience can capture the full essence of any particular passage, perhaps these observations resonate with you as well.

First, the call of this passage juxtaposed to the current economic calamity has exposed the extent of my personal anxiety. Like millions of folks, I have family responsibilities, which carry a price tag. Mortgage. Utilities. Clothes. Food. Gas, etc. These are legitimate concerns while we exist between the times of Christ's first and second advents. In my position as a minister, I realize that my personal finances will be affected by the finances of the larger culture. In fact, many churches and non-profit organizations already are experiencing the negative, fiscal impact of this economic crisis. People are trimming their budgets along with their giving to religious and other charitable organizations. It's hard not to worry about this.

Second, and as an extention of the first observation, I've realized how easy it is to become infected by this fallen world's concerns. Jesus equates anxiety over even the necessitites of life as "pagan" goals and objectives. Ouch. In this connnection, perhaps the people of God need to confront the sad reality that, behaviorally and attitudinally, there is little to no difference between believers and unbelievers.

Third, my wife, Carol, and I have come to a conclusion regarding our particular response to this crisis: God has moved us to resist the natural "hording" tendency during this time and to increase our generosity. In this text, Jesus' cure for economic worry is to "sell your possessions and give to the poor." This seems to be counter-intuitive, and certainly counter-cultural. But, isn't that the true nature of the kingdom of heaven? I don't think that Jesus is teaching a type of Christian communism, nor is he tacitly condemning the rich. In fact, the bible recognizes different socio-economic statuses, even among the Christian community. There is nothing inherently evil with being rich, nor is there anything inherently righteous in being poor. The good news of this text is that kingdom people live according to an eschatological ethic. The abundance of the eternal kingdom--the reign of God--has "already" broken into our current world but has "not yet" been fully consummated. In the meantime, kingdom people are to reflect something of the coming age. Our attitude toward possessions is a poignant, practical way in which we can demonstrate an eschatological ethic--we trust in God, not in any fallen economic structure of this world.

The good news of this text is that God has seen fit to give us the kingdom--a gift far surpassing anything we can accumulate in this world. I'm just trying to figure out how to express that reality in my own life. Perhaps if God's people responded to the current economic crisis in radical faith, and increased generosity, maybe this would go a long way in demonstrating at long last the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Divine Makeover: Becoming Our True Selves

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. 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!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Living Through The Unexpected

In 2003, this unusual story appeared in a Paris publication (Reuters):

A French hunter was shot by his dog after he left a loaded shotgun in the trunk of his car with two dogs and one of the animals accidentally stepped on the trigger, police said Wednesday.
The man, from the village of Espelette in the Basque region, was admitted to a hospital in the nearby town of Bayonne Monday with lead shot injuries to the hip. "As he was driving along, one of his dogs accidentally set off the gun," said a police official.

And I thought that tragedies involving guns, moving vehicles, and dogs happened only in the rural southeastern United States! Obviously, this reported event demonstrates that human carelessness is ubiquitous, transcending all cultures.

This story reminded me that, despite our best efforts, or because of our negligence, unexpected reversals will occur. Of course, as in this story, we often invite serious negative consequences into our lives by our own irresponsibility. Obviously, loaded guns and dogs shouldn’t be kept in the same enclosed area.

There are times, however, when tragedies occur that have no clear human cause-effect relationship. Sometimes we face difficulties or hardships due to circumstances far beyond our personal control. Perhaps these are the most difficult situations to accept, especially for those who are attempting to walk with God. In those times, it’s good to keep three clear biblical teachings in mind. First, we live in a broken world that has been devastated by sin (Rom. 8). While our world continues to bear the marks of God's good, creative intentions it, nonetheless, has been twisted by the Fall. Since the cosmos no longer completely functions according to God's perfect will, including those who bear His image, bad things will happen.

Second, the forces of evil actively work to thwart the good will of God, and occasionally temporarily succeed (Dan. 10). Finally, by the resurrection of Christ, God has gained the ultimate victory over evil, and has secured the final vindication of His people (Revelation).

While I dare not attempt to predict specifics, I’m sure that, like every preceding year, 2009 will have its share of the unexpected—both good and bad. Further, though we can’t predict the specific outcome of events in our own space-time continuum, we can be assured of one incontrovertible truth: good (God) will prevail. This overarching truth provides tremendous strength for living through the unexpected.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Christmas Light

Christmas is over. Admittedly, I often experience a let-down after the Christmas holidays. The lights that once illuminated darkened streets, and garnished houses have been packed away for another year. No more "naughty food" that increases the belt size, and clogs the arteries. No more lazily sitting around table, laughing with family and friends. It's time to get back to "normal."

Unfortunately, "normalcy" often erases the memories of the good news of Christmas. We all-too-quickly forget about the promise of the incarnation, and live in the problems--and biasis--of our fallen world. Just as we pack up the Christmas lights, symbolizing the "light of the world," we tend to allow our own eyes to become darkened by our own self-interests.

In this regard, and 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.

With the coming of Christ, the long night of the kingdom of darkness gave way to the dawn of God's kingdom. 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. In so doing, the light of Christmas will continue to illuminate our hearts.

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

This is the time of year where New Year' s Resolutions abound. We tend to make large statements about what "we're gonna do this year" and "really mean it this time." The list can be quite impressive and we set out to accomplish our resolutions. At least for a period of time.

Well, I know I haven't posted a blog since the summer of 2006. So, obviously, my New Year's resolution is to post more regularly in 2009. As the title of the blog suggest, I'm going to attempt a weekly post. I hope the things I muse about in writing will be a blessing to you.

I look forward to reading your comments and interacting with you on a more regular basis.

I pray that God will bless us all as we confront the global issues facing us during 2009.