Posts Tagged ‘unthinkable’

Where Did We Come From?

August 7, 2017

Do you ever remember a time when you were little and you went to your parents and asked, “Where did I come from?”  If you are a parent, have you ever had one of your kids come to you and ask, “Where did I come from?”  If so, what kind of answer did you get?  What kind of answer did you give?

A lot of us have asked this question.  We start asking this question when we are little, and some of us keep asking it after we grow up.  It is basically a question of identity.  Behind this question, we are asking, “Who am I?  What am I like?  Who are my parents?  How did my parents get together?  What kind of people are we?  What are we known for?  Where did we come from?”  There is a whole avalanche of questions that comes as we try to figure where we belong, where we fit, and what our place is in the world.  These questions are foundational for our identity and self-image.

Many people who have been adopted, struggle with this.  Even when their adopted parents are great people, even when they get adopted into a loving family, there is still something inside of us that wants to know who we are, who our parents are, and what that means for our lives.

I think these are the same questions that the Hebrew people were asking 6000 years ago.  I think the reason that the Book of Genesis was written was to answer these questions:  Where did we come from?  Who are we?  What is our identity?  The Book of Genesis is one of the most important books in the Bible.  As the first book in the Bible, so many of the themes that run throughout the scriptures begin in Genesis.  People often say, “If you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you are going.”  There is a lot of truth to that.  Knowing where we have been, knowing our history, and knowing how the world began, are key to knowing where we are going.

The Book of Genesis provides us with the pictures and the stories that are foundational to our lives and to our faith.  These are stories that shape us, that make us ask hard questions, and that stimulate our imagination.  If we can understand what the true stories of Genesis are trying to teach us, we can be strong people of character, with a mature faith, that can weather the storms of life.

This month, we are beginning a new message series, at the Northside Community Church in Terre Haute, and at the Emmanuel Methodist Church in West Terre Haute, called “Stories from the Beginning of Time”.  We are going to take nine weeks to look at these important, foundational stories from Genesis 1-11.  What are they really saying?  What do they mean?  And what difference does this make for us today?  I would like to invite you to join us as we take a look at these old, old stories in a fresh, new way.

Genesis is where it all begins.  It’s where the story of earth and outer space begin.  It’s the story where the plants and the animals begin.  It’s the story of where human beings begin.  It’s the story of where our relationship with God begins.  Once we have a good understanding our how we began, a lot of other things will begin to fall into place.

 

Re-Framing Your Life

May 31, 2017

In their book Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans tell a story about a woman named Janine.  In her mid-30s, she was starting to reap the benefits of decades of dedication.  Her willpower and hard work had gained her a number of accomplishments.  She was the picture of success and achievement.  But, she had a secret.  Some nights, after driving home from work, she would sit out on her deck and cry.  She had everything she thought she should have, but she was profoundly unhappy.  Who wakes up every morning as the picture of success and goes to bed every night with a knot in her stomach, feeling as if she is missing something, and that she has lost her way?  In America, 66% of workers are unhappy with their jobs, and 15% actually hate their work.  Janine had a dysfunctional belief.  She believed if you are successful, you will be happy.  She needed to re-frame her thinking:  happiness comes from designing your life with God.

In their book, Bill and Dave also tell a story about a man named Donald.  He had worked for more than 30 years at the same job and had made a lot of money.  His home was almost paid off.  His kids had all graduated from college.  He had money for retirement.  He had a solid career and a solid life.  Get up, go to work, pay the bills, go home, go to bed.  Wake up the next day and do it all over again.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.  But, for years he had carried the same question around inside of him as he went to coffee shops, dinner tables, church, and the bar.  The question would wake him up at 2:00 am.  He would look at himself in the bathroom mirror and ask, “Why am I doing this?”  Not once had the guy in the mirror had a good answer for him.  He had a dysfunctional belief.  He believed that a life of responsible and successful work should make him happy.  He felt stuck.  He thought he didn’t have any other options that to continue to struggle through an unfulfilling life.  He believed it was too late to change his life’s work.  But, he was wrong.

Many people today operate under the dysfunctional belief that they just need to find out what they are passionate about.  They think that once they know their passion, everything else will just magically fall into place.  But, most people don’t know their passion.  Only 20% of people between the ages of 12-26 have a clear vision of where they want to go and what they want to accomplish in life.  80% of people of all ages don’t really know what they are passionate about.  In the United States alone, there are more than 31 million people between the ages of 44-70 who want an “encore” career – work that combines personal meaning, continued income, and social impact.

Many people today struggle with dysfunctional beliefs and don’t know how to change them.  This is why we go to church.  This is why we read the Bible.  We all grow up with beliefs and ideas that we think are true, but really aren’t.  They shape who we are, what we do, and how we live.  But, we don’t realize they aren’t true.  And if we do discover they aren’t true, then we don’t know how to change them and how to re-frame them.  This is why we need Jesus in our lives.  This is why we need the Holy Spirit leading us through life:  because all of us need to re-frame our thinking in our major ways.  But, we don’t know how to do it.  And we can’t do it alone.

Your life cannot be perfectly planned.  None of us are perfect.  We all make mistakes.  There is no one single solution to your life.  If you keep looking for the one right answer, you’ll never find it.  Our God is a much more creative God than we realize.  When we surrender our lives to Him, He doesn’t just open one door of possibility for us.  He opens many doors for us.  He gives us choices we never had before.  The Holy Spirit leads us to design a life that makes sense.  Life is all about growth and change.  It’s not static.  It’s not about answering the big life question once and for all and then it’s done, never having to be re-visited ever again.  It’s about going on a journey with Jesus, with a Christian community, for the life of the world.  There will always be twists and turns, sunshine and rain, cold and heat.  There will always be signs and wonders, plants and animals, unexpected guests and new friends.

We need God’s help to think differently.  We need Jesus’ help to live differently.  We need the Holy Spirit’s help to dream differently.  We need the church’s help to focus our attention on the right things, to develop disciplines and practices that will pay off, and to help us get out of the rut we are stuck in.  We need to take off the blinders that keep us from seeing the possibilities God has waiting for us.  We need to understand where happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction really come from.  We carry around too many dysfunctional beliefs.  And we need the Bible and the church to re-frame our thinking and our lives.

God doesn’t want us to waste our lives.  God doesn’t want us to feel miserable or stuck.  God wants us to soar like eagles as we discover how He designed us, and how the Holy Spirit can help us design a life that makes sense.  But, we have to be willing to let go of our dysfunctional beliefs.  We need to let the Bible re-frame how we think and how we live.  And we need to be willing to follow Jesus down some life paths that we never thought we would walk down.

 

The Easter Ragman

March 31, 2017

A number of years ago, Walter Wangerin wrote a story called “The Ragman” to help us understand the message of Easter.  The Ragman is a picture of Jesus and what He has done for us on Good Friday and Easter.  Here’s the story:

“One Friday morning, I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking in the alleys of the

city. He was pulling an old cart, filled with clothes; and he was calling in a clear,

resonant voice, “Rags! New rags for old, I’ll take your tired, old rags. Rags!” Now

this is a wonder, I thought, for the man stood six feet-four, with arms like tree limbs,

hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed with brightness. Could he find no better job

than this, to be a ragman in one of the rougher areas of the city?

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into her

handkerchief, shedding thousands of tears. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was

breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked to the woman and asked,

“Will you give me your rag; I’ll give you another.” He slipped the handkerchief from

her eyes, and laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. Then

as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing. He put her tear-

stained handkerchief to his own face; and began to weep, to sob as grievously as she

had done. Yet she was left behind without a tear. “Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

 

In a little while the Ragman came across a little girl whose head was wrapped in a

bandage. Her eyes were blank and empty. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now that tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely bonnet

from his cart. “Give me your rag, and I’ll give you mine.” He loosened the bandage,

removed it and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. I gasped at what I

saw, for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow ran a darker, richer

flow of his own blood! “Rags, rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding

Ragman.

The sun was at its height by now, and the Ragman seemed more and more in a hurry.

“Do you have a job?” the Ragman inquired of a man leaning against a telephone

pole. “Are you crazy?” the man sneered, pulling away from the pole and revealing

that the right sleeve of his jacket was empty. “So give me your jacket, and I’ll give

you mine.” The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman. I trembled at

what I saw. For the Ragman’s arm stayed in his jacket, and when the other put it on,

he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

 

By now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping

uncontrollably and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling the cart with one arm,

stumbling with exhaustion, he still ran on ahead faster. I wept to see the change in

this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such

a hurry, perhaps to discover what drove him so. The little old Ragman came upon a

landfill, a garbage dump. He climbed the hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little

space on the hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a

handkerchief. He covered his bones with a jacket; and he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness his death! I slumped in a car and wailed and mourned,

because I had come to love that Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of

this man. When I saw that he was dead, I couldn’t keep from crying. I cried myself to

sleep. I slept all the way through Saturday to Sunday. But then on Sunday morning, I

was awakened by a violent light, a pure, hard, demanding light shining against my

face. I looked up, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the

Ragman, folding his clothes, a scar on his face, but alive! And besides that, healthy!

 

There was no sign of sorrow, nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined

with a clean sheen! I was in awe of the transformation, but humbled by the sorry

state of my own ordinary sameness. I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I

had seen, I walked into the Ragman’s presence. I told him my name, and that I felt

like a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes, and I said with dear

yearning in my voice, “Dress me. Dress me with your rags.” He dressed me. My Lord

dressed me. He dressed my feet, my body; he dressed all of me. He put new rags on and

now I glow in the sight of the Ragman, this Ragman, my Christ.”

 

We Still Need Easter

March 1, 2017

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association that was released last week found that:

66% of Americans feel stress about the future of our country

57% feel stress about the current political climate

49% feel stress about the results of the 2016 election.

I think people have always felt some level of stress and worry about what is going to happen in the future, but these anxieties seem to be stronger and more widespread today than they have been in a while.

Part of what I think is contributing to this is our diminishing level of confidence in our leaders and institutions to address the challenges of our times.  People seem to have a decreasing level of trust that our leaders can focus on the big issues, have the competence to handle complex challenges in compassionate ways, and can bring people together to find solutions for complicated problems.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves.”  The old cliché is “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  As much as we worry about terrorists coming in to our country from outside and attacking us, our biggest problems actually come from ourselves.

This is what we learn from the Bible.  The Bible teaches us that sin lives in every one of our hearts.  In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus says that evil flows out of every human heart.  In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:3, Jesus said, “Why are you worried about the speck in someone else’s eye, when you have a log in your own?”  We don’t have to look far to find evil.  All we have to do is look in the mirror, and there it is.

In 1933, Simone Weil wrote about the suffering we experience in a world that seems to be falling apart.  She said that one of the most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always recognizable.  Sometimes it is incognito.  She wrote, “Never react to evil in such a way as to augment it.”  That is one of the challenges of our current times.  How do we not throw gas on the fire?  How do we not make the situation worse?  How do we act so that evil decreases rather than increases?

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the evil that was experienced under the Nazi leadership in Germany, she talked about the deliberate disconnect from reality that she called “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”)  She said that one of the key ways to confront evil, and the lies that it keeps telling, is for simple, ordinary people to keep standing up and speaking the truth.  Evil will try to suppress the truth.  Evil will try to shut people up by firing them, putting them out of work, or trying to discredit them.  But, there will always be a few who will speak up and tell the truth, even in spite of the consequences.  While people worry that the evils of the Nazi way of thinking could happen anywhere, the truth is that it did not happen everywhere.  That is what gives us hope.

The presence of evil in the world, even the growing presence of evil in the world, continues to show us our ongoing need for Easter.  This month, we begin the season of Lent.  Lent is the 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter.  It has traditionally been a time for reflection and contemplation on the meaning of Easter, the sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf, and our utter dependence upon God.  Easter was the day that Jesus defeated evil in the world.  Yes, evil still exists, and evil continues to flail around as much as it can.  But, it has already been defeated.  The game is over even though the time has not run out yet.  Evil doesn’t want to admit that it is losing, and it will lose, but it will.  Easter is our assurance of that.

Easter reminds us that evil is real, that we do not have the power to stop evil by ourselves, and that we are dependent upon Jesus to defeat evil for us.  We will continue to battle it the rest of our lives.  Evil is like a boxer that has already been knocked out.   But, he continues to get up off the mat and flail his arms around, trying to inflict a little more harm on us, before he completely collapses, totally defeated, never to get up again.  Without Jesus, evil would win.  Without Jesus, we would lose.  Without Easter, we would be without hope.

Because of Easter, evil has width, but not depth.  Evil is like a bad weed that grows and grows and takes over the topsoil.  It looks like it is everywhere.  But, it has no roots. It has no depth.  It can kill off the grass and the plants on the surface, but it can’t go deep, which means that it won’t last.  Only good has the roots to go deep.  Because of its roots, good will outlast evil.  Good will conquer evil in the end.  Good has the depth that evil lacks.

That is what we learn from Easter.  That is why we look forward to Easter.  That is why we have hope.  The evil that we see now will not last.  Evil was defeated on the cross.  When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, he signed evil’s death sentence.  It’s only a matter of time, before He shuts it away completely.  Hang in there.  Easter’s coming.

 

Thanksgiving

November 1, 2016

Every year during the month of November, we pause to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  There are certain national stories that are important to our country.  There are certain Biblical stories that are important to our faith.  There is value in telling these stories again every year, to remind us of who we are and how we got here.  They help us reflect on why we do what we do today, and help us get “back on track” when we forget where we came from.

The first major British settlement in America was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  Jamestown was named after King James of England.  The first settlers came for political reasons (to expand the British Empire) and for financial reasons (to look for gold).  13 years later, the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts, arriving in 1620.  They came for religious reasons.  Thus, we see that our nation originated from different groups who arrived at different times for different purposes – some political, some financial, and some religious.

The Pilgrims set sail from England on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers and 30 crew members.  Their goal was to sail to Virginia.  The Atlantic winds blew them off course.  Instead of landing in Virginia, they landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620.  The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship’s topside deck.  The passengers suffered from shortages of food and of other supplies.  There were two deaths on board the Mayflower, and there was one baby born, who was named Oceanus.

After landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims wanted to sail south to Virginia to reach their original destination.  But when the weather would not cooperate, they decided to spend the winter in Massachusetts.  To establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

On November 27, an exploring expedition was launched under the direction of Capt. Christopher Jones to search for a suitable settlement site. They were obviously not accustomed to, or prepared for, the bitter winter weather they encountered.  The expedition was forced to spend the night on shore in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that became frozen.

The Pilgrims spent the entire winter on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.  When it ended, there were only 53 passengers still alive. Half of the Pilgrims had died.  Half of the crew died, as well. In the spring, they built huts on shore, and on March 21, 1621, the surviving passengers finally disembarked from the Mayflower.

The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.  This feast lasted three days, and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”, which were days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Squanto, a Pantuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when the supplies brought from England were insufficient.  The feast was cooked by four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White, along with young daughters and male and female servants).

When we read this story, we are reminded of a few key points:

  1. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks to God for their survival. The Pilgrims were not ready for the harsh wintry conditions they encountered.  Half of their group died from disease.  This was a scary time.  The people who survived did not live because they were smarter or more talented or more prepared or because they had more faith.  They survived by the grace of God Who kept them alive.  They set aside three days to thank God for saving their lives.
  2. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks for the grace and the hospitality extended to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans. The Pilgrims would not have survived without them.  God saved them through the Native people.  They had knowledge of the winter, the land, the crops that could grow, and how to survive, which the Pilgrims needed.  Thanksgiving was a time to thank the Native Americans for coming to their rescue.
  3. The Pilgrims were an adventurous people. They were willing to take a huge risk to leave England and journey thousands of miles to America, knowing that they might not ever see their loved ones again, and might not survive.  They were probably driven by a mixture of fear and hope, desperation and faith, uncertainty and adventure.  They were entrepreneurs.  They were willing to make huge sacrifices to find a better life.  They had a deep faith in Jesus and were moved to pray and thank God for saving their lives.

Their first year in America probably did not go as they had hoped or planned.  They had to adapt.  They had to learn lots of new things.  They had to adjust their lives to fit the new world they were now living in, while remaining grounded in their faith in Jesus, rooted in the scriptures, and interdependent on one another.  These are good lessons for us to remember today.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this month, what are we thankful for?  Are we still willing to make great sacrifices today?  Are we willing to set out on great adventures, stretching our faith, and willing to face new situations, like our Pilgrim forebears before us?  Do we realize that we need each other?  Thanksgiving is a story of people from different countries, different continents, different races, and different sexes working together.  Thanksgiving is a story of immigration where the first Americans welcomed some of the first Europeans with grace, generosity, and hospitality.  Thanksgiving is a story of success.

So, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meals this year, we are reminded to be thankful to God, to be thankful for those around us who have helped us, and to take risks of faith and to make sacrifices for Jesus.  We are building on the story that began almost 400 years ago.  Jesus saves us to do something.  God rescues us to go somewhere.  The Holy Spirit is preparing us for something special.  Where will God lead us to go this year?

The Importance of Looking Foolish

August 31, 2016

If you want to grow spiritually in your relationship with God, it is important that you look foolish.

Noah looked foolish building an ark in a place with no water where there had not been any rain.  Sarah looked foolish preparing to have a baby when she was 90 years old.  The Israelites looked foolish blowing trumpets and marching around the city of Jericho.  Benaiah looked foolish when he went into a pit, with a lion, on a snowy day.  Gideon looked foolish when he reduced his army from 32,000 soldiers down to 300.  People probably thought Jesus was foolish when he told the man who hadn’t walked for 38 years to get up and start walking.   David looked foolish when he went up against Goliath.  Part of following Jesus is the willingness to look foolish.

Some people have never killed a giant, or walked on water, or seen walls come tumbling down because they weren’t willing to look foolish.  Some of the greatest breakthroughs in the world were accomplished by people who were willing to look foolish.  Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics with a new style people called the Fosbury Flop.  This flop was one of the greatest successes in sports.  Today, every high jumper uses the Fosbury Flop.  In 1 Corinthians 1:27 it says “God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.”  It’s important that we look foolish.

Our society keeps trying to make us conform.  It uses peer pressure to get all of us to act alike.  But, Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  God wants us to stand out from the world.  He wants us to be different.  That means, sometimes we will look foolish.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have Republicans and Democrats in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have black and white and brown and yellow in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have rich and poor, and the highly educated and the lowly educated (I love the lowly educated by the way – LOL) in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.

When you get excited about Jesus, don’t expect everybody else to get excited too.  When the Holy Spirit turns up the heat underneath you, it disrupts the status quo.  Some people will be inspired by what God is doing in your life.  Others will be convicted.  And they will mask their personal conviction by finding something to criticize.  9 times out of 10, criticism is a defense mechanism.  We criticize in others what we don’t like about ourselves.

Part of spiritual maturity is caring less and less about what people think about you and more and more about what God thinks about you.  Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders of his day for spending so much time with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.  It bothered them.  It didn’t bother Jesus.  They thought Jesus looked foolish.  Jesus didn’t care.  He knew the people needed him.  They were open to him.  They listened to him.  And some of their lives were changed.

Part of being a follower of Jesus is the importance of looking foolish.  We don’t expect the world to understand everything we do and why we do it.  But, that’s OK.  The Bible tells us that God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.  Doing the will of God is never foolish.  But faith is the willingness to look foolish, and when you step out in faith, some people will think you are foolish.  God keeps turning our world upside down and inside out.  When we don’t care how we look, and when we don’t care who gets the credit, the stage is set for God to do some amazing things.  I wonder what amazing things God is planning on doing in our lives this month?  If we are following Jesus, we will look foolish.

 

 

 

 

Of Course He isn’t Safe, But He’s Good

May 10, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he talks about C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the book, two sisters, Lucy and Susan, are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan the lion, who is Lewis’ figure for Jesus.  Susan says, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe?”  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”  So, Lucy asks, “Then he isn’t safe?”  Mr. Beaver says, “Safe?  Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But, he’s good.”

Rich describes this as a tuning fork paradox:  God isn’t safe, but God is good.  As with all biblical paradoxes, living within this tension is difficult and yet essential.  According to A.W. Tozer, the God we envision determines the person we are becoming.  What happens to people who are primarily focused on a God who “isn’t safe” or what the Bible speaks of as justice, judgment, or wrath?  We already know.  Those with the primary image of a wrathful God eventually become wrathful themselves.  Those who believe only in a judging God easily become judgmental.  They become unable to offer any mercy and, just as tragically, unable to receive mercy themselves.  This is not a pretty picture of God, and folks who see God only in these ways are not endearing to be around.  Since these judgmental caricatures are usually how Christians are portrayed in our media, who can blame churches for treating this unsafe God the way families deal with odd Uncle Harry:  keep him in the background so he doesn’t embarrass us in front of the guests.

But Rich asks:  what about the other side of Mr. Beaver’s statement:  “He’s good”?  Even beyond good, doesn’t the Bible say, “God is love?”  Unfortunately, we can subtly turn that biblical statement on its head until it becomes “Love is God.”  We then fall prey to the opposite caricature:  God the benignly loving heavenly grandfather, who smiles on his children no matter what they do.  If this is our mental image of God, we easily assume that any loving person is automatically a godly person or that any belief system with some love in it must also have God in it.  Experience shows that neither is true.  God is not only loving; God is also just.  In fact, if God were not perfect justice, neither could God be perfect love.

Rich reminds us of something else that A.W. Tozer wrote:  “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”  An opiate is a drug that dulls our senses and makes us lose touch with reality.  It’s a fatal notion that a loving God could never judge anyone.  Why do we assume that love and justice do not coexist in God?  C. S. Lewis says with wonderful understatement, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.”  God is so good, and God’s love is so pure, that nothing impure can stand before him.  It’s the justice of God that shows us what terrible trouble we’re in.  And it’s the love of God, through Jesus’ death on the cross, that allows our burden of sin to be released.

Our view of God determines the kind of people we are becoming and the kind of lives we are leading.  The Bible teaches us that God is not shallow – God is deep.  God is so deep that sometimes He is difficult for us to understand.  The nature of God sometimes brings together seemingly opposite ideas in a way that is hard for us to imagine.  This is called a paradox.

So, while we can come to know God as children, it will take more than a lifetime to really understand God, Who He is, Why He acts the way He does, and why He calls us to be the kind of people we are becoming.  God combines revelation and mystery, certainty and wonder, questions and answers.  The challenge for us is not to reduce God down to something smaller than He is.  We need to allow God to remain big, bigger than our problems, and bigger than our world.  Only then can we catch a glimpse of how amazing God is, and how wonderful the Kingdom of God is going to be in the future.  Of course God isn’t safe, but He’s good.

 

 

A More Colorful Opportunity

April 28, 2016

Back in 1965, white people made up about 88% of the population in the United States, and the nonwhite population was about 12%.  Today, people of color make up 37% of the population in the United States.  In 1965, there were fewer than 9 million Hispanics in the U.S.  By 2013, there were 54 million Hispanics in the U.S.  In 1965, there were about 16 million Asian Americans in the U.S.  By 2013, there were more than 18 million.  We are becoming a more colorful country.

The demographics of our country are changing every minute of every day.  Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90% of that growth comes from people of color.  In 2011, the majority of babies born in America (50.4%) were not white.  A baby is born every seven seconds in our country, resulting in 12,343 births per day.  At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the population is 78% white.  So, while a majority of the births in our country are from babies of color, the vast majority of deaths are people who are white.

There are about 6,048 white babies born in America every day.  There are 5,204 white deaths in America every day, meaning that our white population increases by 844 people every day.  There are about 6,295 babies of color born in America each day.  There are 1,442 deaths of people of color, meaning that our nonwhite population increases by 4,853 every day.  Do you see a trend here?

More than 90% of all immigrants to America are people of color.  In terms of legal immigration, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day.  When these are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, 7,471 people of color are added to the U.S. population each day, in contrast to 1,053 white people who are added to our population each day.  Clearly, we are becoming a more colorful country.

Some who have been a part of the majority, who see their numbers declining, seem to be reacting with nervousness, anxiety, and fear.  But, perhaps God is giving us a unique opportunity.  As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, what is God up to here?  Why is God causing this to happen or allowing this to happen?  Perhaps the challenges that come from our changing demographics are actually opportunities. Maybe God is strengthening us rather than weakening us.  Can we rise above the negativity and the fear of our culture and model a healthier response?

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” The picture Jesus gives us is that people will come from all over the world, from many countries, and many racial ethnic groups to be a part of the coming Kingdom of God.  It could be that God is preparing us for that future time by helping us get to know people from different backgrounds to understand the vast creativity and imagination of God.  We used to have to go into the world to share the good news of Jesus with people from other colorful backgrounds, but now they are coming to us.  We can now share our faith with many different kinds of people without having to leave the communities where we live.

Some people of color have a strong faith in Jesus that can encourage our relationship with God.  Some immigrants who come here are bringing about a revival in our nation as they share their faith in Christ with us.  Some people are coming here as missionaries since the United States is now the third largest mission field in the world.  What if people from other countries were not coming here to steal our jobs, but to inspire a deeper faith in God?  Why do some Christians respond with such fear, when the command found most often in the Bible is “do not fear”?  When I lived in California, I had many friends who were from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.  I learned a lot from them, from their faith, and from how they viewed the world.

Maybe what some think is a curse is actually a blessing.  Maybe what some think is a problem is actually a solution.  Maybe what some think is a crisis is actually an opportunity.  Maybe God is surprising us again and teaching us something we need to learn.  Maybe we need to take off our cultural glasses and put on our Biblical glasses to see our world through different lenses.  Maybe we could learn to respond in faith instead of in fear.  Different is not always bad.  Change is not always bad.  Variety is not always bad.  Maybe God is leading us to a new level of trusting Him, where we realize He is still in control, and we are going to be OK.  Maybe we can all learn something new from each other.

(These statistics come from the book Brown is the New White by Steve Phillips.)

 

The Tipping Point

March 31, 2016

In the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, he tells a story about how a new hybrid corn seed spread through Greene County, Iowa, in the 1930s.  The new corn seed was introduced in Iowa in 1928, and it was superior in every respect to the seed that had been used by farmers there for decades before.  But, it wasn’t adopted right away.  Of the 259 farmers in the county, only a handful of them had started planting the new seed by 1932 and 1933.  In 1934, 16 took the plunge.  In 1935, 21 tried it.  In 1936, 36 more tried it.  In 1937, 61 used it.  By 1941, all but 2 of the 259 farmers were using the new hybrid seed.

The first farmers to try the new seed were the Innovators, the adventurous ones.  The slightly larger group who followed shortly after them were the Early Adopters.  They were the opinion leaders in the community, the respected and thoughtful people who watched and analyzed what those wild Innovators were doing, and then followed suit.  Then, came the big bulge of farmers who got on board from 1936-1938.  This group was called the Early Majority and the Late Majority.  They were the deliberate and skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected of farmers had tried it first.  They caught the seed virus and passed it on, finally to the Laggards, the most traditional of all, who saw no urgent reason to change.

Gladwell’s point is that when new ideas are introduced, or when you are trying to spread your good ideas throughout the community, it always starts slow.  It starts with some Innovators and Early Adopters who are willing to give it a shot.  If they like it, and respond favorably, the message will spread throughout the community by word of mouth – from person to person, neighbor to neighbor, and friend to friend.  But, you need a small number who are willing to try something new, experiment with the new idea, and accept it into their lives.  The new idea has to be contagious enough, and sticky enough, to “infect” people with the idea that this is better than what they have been doing before.  Once about 25% of the people in the community adopt a new idea, the Tipping Point has been reached.  The majority will follow and its spread will not be stopped.

As Christians, we have good news that we are trying to spread throughout our community.  We want to persuade people who are not going to church, and/or who don’t believe in God, that what we believe will be better for them than what they have been believing.  We want to convince them that the way the Bible directs us to live will be better for them than the way they have been living.  But, a lot of churches are stuck.  We feel like what we are doing never quite seems to “take off” and get adopted by others in the community.  What is going on?

The research behind the Tipping Point gives us some clues.  If we want to make a difference in our community, if we want the good news of Christ to spread to people outside the church, we need to begin with the people in our community who are Innovators.  We need to persuade them to give our message a try, or give our church a try.  Then, we need to convince the Early Adopters to give it a shot.  If we can convince some the key leaders and opinion makers of our mission and purpose, we will hit the Tipping Point.  The idea will take off, people will follow, and the message will spread by word of mouth from person to person, from friend to friend, and from neighbor to neighbor.  It won’t happen overnight, but if we build it organically, it will eventually take off on its own.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the Easter story ends by Jesus giving the disciples the Great Commission – to go and make disciples of all nations.  Jesus wants us to go out into our community and into the the world.  How can we spread the good news of Jesus and make a difference in our community?  Who are the people we know?  Who are the Innovators and the Early Adopters?  Who are the people who will “take it and run with it”?

Churches don’t have to be stuck in a rut.  We don’t have to be caught in the mud.  We can start to gain some traction, re-gain our footing, and begin to impact some people who haven’t been reached before.  We always want to pray about this and seek the leading of the Holy Spirit.  But, if we understand how to get to the Tipping Point, it will not be impossible.  God can guide us and direct us in the ways he wants us to go.  And like the new hybrid corn seed introduced in Iowa in the 1930s, we can see new people begin to come on board every year.  If we get the ball rolling, it will begin to spread – person to person, friend to friend, and neighbor to neighbor.

 

The Absence of Leadership

January 4, 2016

In the 2015 year end issue of Time magazine, they ran an article called “The absence of international leadership will shape a tumultuous 2016.” Here is part of what they said:

“In a world of emergencies, leadership matters – and in 2016 it will become unavoidably obvious that the world lacks leadership. The days when heads of the G-7 industrial powers like the U.S. and Germany controlled geopolitics and the global economy are gone for good. The international group of today is the expanded G-20, which is much larger – including important emerging powers like China and India – yet agrees on much less. The result might be called a G-zero world, a global caucus whose members don’t share political and economic values or priorities. They don’t have a common vision for the future. Many years in the making, a G-zero world is now fully upon us.”

The article goes on to say “Few U.S. officials … are able to make a clear case for the role they think the U.S. can and should play in a new world. Europe can’t help – its leaders are too busy coping with migrants, maneuvering around populist political rivals, working to keep the U.K. in the E.U. and helping Greece find long-term financial footing. China won’t fill the G-zero vacuum – it’s more active on the international stage, but only in pursuit of narrow national interests. Who will take the lead in destroying ISIS, stabilizing the Middle East, containing the flow of dangerous weapons, mitigating climate change and managing international risks to public health? No one. The world’s main wildfires will burn hotter in 2016, because no one believes he can afford the costs and risks that come with putting them out.”

Wow. Those are some strong statements. And yet, to my ears, they accurately describe the world we are living in today. “The absence of leadership. Leadership matters. The world lacks leadership. People agree on much less. We don’t have a common vision for the future. Leaders can’t make a clear case for the role they should play. Who will take the lead? No one. No one believes he can afford the costs and the risks.” Wow.

Regardless of what you think should be done on specific issues, the overarching theme is that we live in a time that is desperate for leaders. We are so desperate, that polls seem to be telling us that American voters are becoming increasingly supportive of presidential candidates who will provide strong and tough leadership, even if they are narcissistic, dangerous, emotionally unhealthy, unreasonable, undiplomatic, careless, and offensive. We are so desperate for leaders that we are now willing to consider electing leaders who could lead us to an even worse place than we are today. But, who cares, as long as they are leading us somewhere, right?

Approximately 2000 years ago, a leader was born into our world to save us from our chaos, our infighting, our selfishness, our short-sightedness, and our tendency to self-destruct. His name was Jesus and he is The Most Interesting Man in the World. He stepped into a leadership vacuum in his own country and showed people a different way to move forward. People wanted to make him a political king, but he walked away from it. Zealots wanted him to start a revolution and overthrow Rome, but he didn’t do it. He did not condemn people, but He told them to go and sin no more. He told people to turn the other cheek, to bless those who curse you, and pray for those who persecute you. He turned the thinking of our world upside down and modeled an alternative way to live. He rejected hatred and revenge. He rejected fear for faith. He brought hope to the hopeless. He reached out to the marginalized and paid attention to those who were ignored. He lived to please God, not other human beings. He did the right thing, even when it wasn’t the popular thing. The religious leaders of his day were not providing healthy, positive leadership, so He did, and it ended up costing Him His life. He stepped into a vacuum and provided the leadership that was needed.

A couple of thousand years later, we still study His teachings and try to walk in His footsteps. We live in a world crying out for leadership. As Jesus’ followers, we have a responsibility to provide leadership in the places where we live, work, and play. Our churches are in need of leadership. Our schools are in need of leadership. Our communities are in need of leadership. Our households are in need of leadership.

Who will step forward? If we keep waiting for someone else to step forward, we may be waiting for a long time. Why don’t we step forward? Why don’t we provide leadership? Isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do? Leaders don’t have to be extroverts. They don’t have to be public speakers. They don’t have to be loud. They don’ have to be rich. Many leaders are quiet, working behind the scenes, doing the day to day functions that need to be happen to get things done.

Leaders pull people together to solve tough problems. Leaders aren’t afraid to talk to people who have different opinions and perspectives. Leaders aren’t afraid to have conversations with people who see the world differently. But, leaders are proactive rather than reactive. Leaders think and dream and plan. Leaders aren’t afraid to experiment and use their imagination. Leaders aren’t afraid to fail if they might learn something in the process. Leaders are both principled and pragmatic at the same time. Leaders work to discover common values and common ground.

Most of us will never become international leaders. But, I believe most of us can be leaders in our households. I believe we can be leaders in our businesses, our churches, and our schools. I believe we can be leaders in our local communities. Jeremiah 29:7 says “Seek the welfare of the community where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”

Have you considered that God might be calling you to make a difference in your local community? Have you considered that God might be calling your church to make a difference in your local community? Our world is desperate for good leaders. The need for leadership begins in the homes we live in, on the streets where we reside, and in the neighborhoods where we exist. What if the community saw the church exercising leadership that was lacking from other sectors? What if our cities saw our churches as key players in providing leadership on the tough issues of the day? What if our regions saw us as positive, proactive leaders willing to join hands with others for the common good? I think that is the kind of witness people today are hungry for. I think that is the kind of leadership needed in 2016. What if we made a new year’s resolution to provide that kind of leadership? We live in a leadership vacuum. Someone is going to step in and fill that void. If we don’t step in, someone else will. Where does God want you to lead in 2016?