Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Clinquant Characters or Real People?!

“But in a culture in which accountability is something to be shoveled off to the next sucker down the line, their place of employment comes with a rigid measure of success or failure. Ever try to bargain with a scoreboard? Those implacable numbers up there in lights are the captains of the fates of men such as Meyer. It is easy to reduce them to figures on a television screen, there to bleed for our entertainment. Gladiators in headphones. It is easy to forget they have vulnerable bodies, vulnerable psyches, vulnerable families.” – Mike Lopresti (USA Today)

The above is a direct quote from an article written in response to the shocking and sudden news of Urban Meyer’s retirement as head football coach at the prestigious University of Florida, and his just as sudden “un-retirement” and decision to take a leave of absence instead. I must admit that this quote struck a deep chord in me. Why? You might ask. Well, in a manner of speaking it is intensely personal for me because I have a son who plays college football, but also because as a pastor, I have, to a very limited degree experienced some of what Urban Meyer must be feeling. It is a difficult thing to live your life under the scrutiny of the public eye and be judged for decisions that are often intensely personal and intensely difficult. Most people have the benefit of second, third, and fourth guesses to make very personal decisions in private, and sadly, they often sit in judgment over those who, for better or worse, have only one opportunity to make personal decisions under the glare of very public scrutiny. Men like Meyer are mercilessly held accountable for those decisions even when those holding them accountable don’t have all the necessary information to make a qualified judgment.

As the story unfolded over the weekend, I listened to the “Talking Heads” on TV second guess Meyer’s decision as well as the timing of his announcement. They speculated as to what the “real reasons” might be for his retirement and pondered whether he’d earned the right to be able to put the University of Florida football program on hold for an unspecified period of time while he sorts out his personal/health issues. Some of them made so bold as to suggest that he’d pulled a “Brett Favre.” Why does such a personal issue have to become such a media feeding frenzy? Doesn’t he have the right to wrestle with the weight of personal decisions and ultimately recant a previous position he’d adopted? We’ve probably all wrestled with and rescinded a major decision at least one time in our lives, and yet we don’t accord him the same right? Before you make the absurdly tired argument that you don’t live in the public eye and he does, so that means that increased scrutiny comes with the territory, I want to remind you that that is exactly what my argument is against. Like the above quote suggests, we seem to ignore the fact that these public figures are human and have feelings and families when we vilify and denigrate them as if they are simply “figures on a television screen” and nothing more.

I subscribe to an internet site that does a splendid job of covering the A to Z’s of USF football, where my son plays. I have had to bite my tongue on numerous occasions as I read many of the insensitive and spiteful comments about individual players who might have had a less than stellar game, or who've run into trouble as a result of violating a campus traffic ordinance. They are called unmentionable names and derided and insulted as if they are clinquant cartoon characters as opposed to real people with real feelings and real families. Their commitment is called into question as well as their pedigree, and I’ve often wondered if the fact that we purchase a season ticket and support the boosters club gives us a right to rudely invade the private lives of people we don’t really know. I know what it feels like to have to make a decision that affects the lives of multiple people around me while knowing that I’m fallible and imperfect. We often lack the character to extend to others the same grace and courtesy that we expect to be extended to us.

Urban Meyer has decided to take a leave of absence instead of retiring. Why isn’t that sufficient for us? Why do we have to second guess his reasons, his motivation and his timing? I’m not sure that it’s sufficient to say that the public nature of his profession invalidates his ability to live a private life, because to say so would be to disregard his family’s rights to privacy too. I’m convinced that we spend inordinately more time than is appropriate making other people’s business our business, and I wonder if the fact that we spend our time living vicariously through “celebrities” invariably presages such unbridled invasions of privacy. Just my two cents!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Give someone a Bible for Christmas!

Dear Cousin Christian,

I know, I know, I don’t write nearly often enough, but you know how caught up we get in our often too-busy lives. Anyway, I’m writing what will probably be my last open letter to you in 2009, and so I thought it would be a good idea if I sort of took advantage of the season and write to you about what’s stirring in my heart these days. It’s been a “hellish” year for so many people I know. Many have lost homes, cars, and jobs. Other’s are deeply in debt so overwhelming, that they often wonder if they’ll ever find their way out. Tragically, I know, and have read of many others who have lost loved ones to sickness, war, and senseless deaths.

Interestingly enough though, life goes on (as life is wont to do) and we find ourselves living out the process and unwittingly acquiescing to the status quo. So, would you mind doing me a huge favor and pausing from stacking all those gifts under the Christmas tree so we can talk for a moment? You see, I’m reminded at this same time every year how much we throw around the well worn cliché, “Christmas is about Christ and not about culture. It’s about His presence and not presents,” while we live the very opposite of what we claim to believe. I realize that Christmas has been hijacked by political correctness and so we have come up with every appellation in the book to describe Christmas other than the word Christmas itself. Why, we’ve become so focused on being politically correct that we no longer even care about being factually correct!

As in every other year, this year many of us will incur debt that we’ll struggle to repay simply because we’re trying to keep up with the culture. Our fatuous largesse will serve to make for a ‘fat’ December and a miserable January. The reality is that this season is an amazing opportunity for you and me to really make a difference in someone else’s life so that the Real Light of the season shines brightly through us. There are families with terminally ill kids that will spend Christmas in the hospital. There are conditionally single parents who will spend Christmas far away from their families because they’re fighting in a war defending the freedom we cherish so highly yet take for granted. There are families that have lost loved ones and others that fear they’re about to. There are hopeless, homeless people wondering around in the cold praying that Christmas will provide a place to sleep and a meal to eat, and all the while we stack the gifts higher and higher around our evergreen trees covered in tinsel and artificial lights.

So, what if we chose to actually live out the Scriptures this Christmas and actually be kind and generous to the widows, the hurting, the broken-hearted, and those who can’t help themselves? What would it look like if we actually chose to obey Jesus’ words and love our neighbor as ourselves? What difference would we make if we chose to stop stacking the gifts around our own trees and start stacking them around the ‘trees’ of people who could use them more than we could? Remember that the reason for this season is the fact that Divinity stepped into humanity and the Potter became the clay. Remember that Jesus walked among His creation and healed, loved, encouraged, and inspired the seeking, the hurting, and the broken-hearted. Well, He still does today. Through you and me. Mark Batterson said it best in his book, Primal.

We have access to hundreds of Bible translations in every size, shape, and color imaginable…. For better or for worse, your life is your unique translation. Just like the Septuagint or King James Version, your life translates Scripture into a language those around you can read. God doesn’t just want to speak to you through Scripture; He wants to speak through you. He wants to write His-story through your life.

Wondering where or how to begin? Well here are a few suggestions:
I recently learned of a young pastor, Matt Chandler (I’ve never met him) who is dealing with a malignant brain tumor. He is lead pastor of a wonderful church called The Village Church, who, judging by their website are making an amazing impact in the community in which they serve. I imagine that Christmas really isn’t about presents under a tree for Matt, his family, and his church family this season. So first, you can pray for Matt. Then you can send a card or note of encouragement (go to their blog and find out how) reminding him that he’s part of a larger Body that is sharing in his pain and praying for a miracle. Or there’s Elin Nordegren and her kids (Tiger Woods’ family), who could really use your prayers this Christmas. Betrayal usually makes for a miserable yet stentorian bed-fellow. Then there’s Chris Henry’s (the recently killed NFL player) family who are still trying to make sense of the senseless death of their 26-year old dad, son, and fiancé.

But don’t stop now. How about your neighbor down the street who can’t afford a Christmas meal? You know, the one stuck in a wheelchair that makes it hard for them to get around?! Oh, while we’re at it, I heard that your local soup kitchen could use some help and some supplies, and even the Salvation Army mentioned that they could use some gently-used clothing this winter considering that the number of homeless people has risen dramatically. Whatever you decide to do, remember that you are the most amazing translation of the Bible that some people will get to see this Christmas, so let your words speak loud and clear as they attest to the fact that Jesus is here! Give someone a ‘Bible’ for Christmas. Give someone the gift of your love and life attesting to the power of Jesus’ love. Have a very blessed and hope-filled Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Cornered Tiger!

I like Jim Rome. I enjoy listening to his very opinionated monologues on his show “Rome is Burning.” I like him mostly because he’s completely impartial when it comes to whom or what he’s burning on. Recently he’s had quite a bit to say about Eldrich “Tiger” Woods’ ‘extra-curricular’ activities, and he has not been bashful about ‘ripping’ Tiger’s behavior. Clearly Jim’s not worried about burning bridges or amassing enemies, and if he was then he most certainly picked the wrong business to be in. It’s an often vicious and puerile world in which we live, and the very people that lay down their garments to celebrate your arrival into Jerusalem while waving palm fronds, are the same ones who will be shouting “crucify him” three days later. Now while I certainly decry Tiger’s alleged philandering, I’m not sure I agree with the logic that he owes the public a detailed explanation for his choices simply because he’s making money endorsing products that the public are using, and I’m even more amazed by the sudden and swift change in the public’s perception of him. According to the survey I read, Tigers “favorable ratings” were as high as 83% in 2007. Last week they dropped to 56% and today they’ve plummeted to 36%.

This shift in the public’s perception of Tiger Woods has evidently stymied the effectiveness of his ability to market products, and so a number of his sponsors are pulling his product endorsements, most notably Tag Heuer and Gatorade. Gatorade has discontinued production of their Tiger-Focus drink while Tag Heuer has discontinued their golf version wristwatch reportedly designed by Tiger Woods. Marketers have pulled all ads featuring Tiger from prime-time TV as well as from numerous cable networks, and the last commercial featuring him ran on November 29. Clearly his less than pellucid comments on his website have not endeared his fickle supporters to him, and even his ‘former’ pro-golfing-buddy, Jesper Parnevik, has not had too many kind words to say about Tiger, especially since he introduced Tiger to Elin (Tiger’s wife).

Interestingly though, there has been one loan but persistent voice that has spoken out in Tiger’s defense in a very public setting: the voice of pro-golfer, John Daly. John Daly has been nothing but gracious about Tiger’s misfortunes since the story broke in the press and since alleged partners have continued to crawl out from the woodwork of their shallow lives, for their proverbial fifteen-minutes of fame. John suggests that whatever Tiger may have done is between him and his wife, and goes on to express sadness at the negative comments and attitudes towards Tiger by some of his professional colleagues. It strikes me that John Daly has himself been ridiculed and vilified in a very public setting for his battle with alcoholism. Only someone who’s experienced the pain and the shame of public humiliation can express the kind of compassion and grace that John has and continues to express towards Tiger. John’s response to Tiger is proof that failure can be a good thing. When, through our own personal failures, we recognize that within every human lies the capacity for sin and bad choices, we are less likely to be so harshly judgmental about other people’s poor choices. This might actually make Tiger a better and more compassionate person.

Am I suggesting that Tiger’s behavior should be excused? Absolutely not! I am however suggesting that it’s not up to you or me to determine what the penalty for his choices should be. His wife, I’m sure, is quite capable of handling her personal business with the help of people that are in her life relationally, without the added stress of the public weighing in on what they think the penalty should be for Tiger's asinine behavior. Interestingly enough, Tiger’s endorsements are being pulled because he’s essentially been ‘two-faced’ by living a secret, adulterous life while acting as if he was a faithful family man. Each one of the corporations that have pulled his product or endorsement has categorically stated that the timing of their decision has nothing to do with Tiger’s current woes. Seriously?! I guess being corporately 'two-faced' is acceptable since no one has to take personal responsibility. I’m saddened by Tiger’s choices, but I’m rooting for him and his family to navigate through this painful season, because if they do so successfully, it will be further evidence of the grace of a loving God. What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Reactionary Faith

I know this seems to be trending towards being habitual, but I promise that these long posts will not be the norm. I'm currently really focused on this issue of conversations about God and realize that the big ideas I'm trying to examine won't work well in a multi-post format.

There is a reactionary element to our Christianity that, in my opinion, hurts more than it helps the cause of Christ. Let me clearly state right off the bat that I recognize that I will be vilified by many as I hold up a mirror (the Scriptures) to our collective faces and ask that we confront the truth about our reflection, but I love the Body of Christ enough to be willing to endure the pain of potential rejection and marginalization if it will motivate and inform an authentic and vulnerable assessment of the facts. Now I’m confident that when we oppose and confront people who appear to minimize our faith, we are doing so with sincerity and a firm belief that we are defending the cause of Christ, but I make so bold as to declare that we are sincerely wrong! We are not wrong because we respond to an attack on our faith, but often because of the manner in which we do it and the apparent hypocrisy that is displayed in so doing. Our disagreement is often aggressively confrontational, harsh, arrogant, and belittling in contrast to the mandate of Scriptures.

Take the recent meeting of the Atheists of Florida which I attended in Lakeland. Many have asked me why I would want to attend such an event and my swift and certain response has been, “what’s a better place to find people that don’t believe in God, for whom Jesus died?” Last time I checked, very few if any Atheists are coming to church and so I figured it would be a great idea for me to take church to them (I am the Temple of the Holy Spirit, according to the Scriptures). Besides, I really liked the idea of trying to get a sense of what it feels like to be a minority in a place where a different ‘language’ is spoken and a different worldview is expressed. After all, each time we ask people who are not like us to attend church with us, we’re asking them to do the same thing. In Acts 17, Paul’s ability to impact the Agnostics and Atheists of Athens was strengthened by his willingness to meet them in their space (the marketplace) as opposed to waiting for them to come to the synagogue (the believer's first space).

I’ve written quite candidly and exhaustively about my perception of how the Lakeland meeting went, here so I won’t be redundant and rehash the same issues. But I should tell you that as a follow-up to that meeting I received this note from Rob Curry, the President of Atheists of Florida:


Thank you for traveling out to Lakeland on Monday. I was glad to meet you in person, however briefly, and sorry that there was not more time to chat.

Did you know the My Fox Orlando reporter for channel 35 featured you as “the voice of reason” in her televised report that evening?

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!


Now before you indignantly begin to accuse me of bragging, or before you begin to make all those tired arguments about how you’d rather please God instead of men, let me assure you that, first, the only reason I’m willing to share this note is to make a broader point, and second, I don’t believe that pleasing God and men are mutually exclusive of each other. Here’s my broader point: Remember that Paul’s conversation with the unbelievers of Athens in Acts 17 was seasoned with grace and love and the end result was people turning to Christ. Well, here’s what Colossians 4:5-6 has to say about that:

Be wise in the way you act with people who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity. When you talk, you should always be kind and pleasant so you will be able to answer everyone in the way you should.

I’m very big on the idea of starting points for conversations about God being found in the daily and seemingly mundane routine of life happening all around us, and in a previous post I pointed out this fact using everyday events that directly or indirectly affect our lives. These conversations, in order to be effective, must be civil and motivated by a genuine caring and love for people. People will not listen to what you have to say if they sense that you don’t like them, or if they feel that they are being talked down to. So what’s reactionary? And can you please get to the point? I hear you ask. Well, following the billboard that instigated the Lakeland meeting, Christians, in direct reaction to the billboard, decided to put up one of their own just down the street that reads: “Believe in God, you’re never alone.”

Now my question is, why? Clearly this was not a previously planned, well-thought-out advertising campaign. If anything, it was a direct reaction to the Atheists’ billboard. So I ask again, why? What does it accomplish? Do we really think it will suddenly cause non-believers to go, “Oh look, finally the Christians are speaking up, let’s ignore the Atheists’ billboard and go to church!”? I know, I know, I’m being facetious, but I’m firmly convinced that a billboard opposing the Atheists’ billboard is not going to attract people to Christ. Instead of reacting, we should be finding more constructive ways to introduce Christ to our community, while loving and serving the people of that community, which incidentally, includes the Atheists against whom we seem to be battling.

This reactionary faith seems to be a fundamental flaw in the way we express much of our Christianity. Let’s examine another volatile issue that often seems to spark a reactionary response. It seems that the large majority of Christians are only vocally pro-life during an election year. I mean, you’ve never seen more bumper stickers, posters, advertisements, and debates over the issue of abortion when elections are imminent. But mystifyingly, once the elections are over silence reigns. It would be wonderful if the statistics showed that every single year Christians led the list of people who adopt babies, or provide constant care for single mothers and whatever else is necessary to help women make the decision to keep their babies rather than abort them. My friend, Steven Hickey, is one of the few people I know that makes this a forefront issue every day of his life. He has been vilified, targeted for death, had his property vandalized, and had just about everything you can imagine done to him in response to his stand on abortion. Steven is not a reactionary. He puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to the issue of abortion. Whatever else you might say about Steven, you certainly can’t accuse him of not truly caring about the plight of the unborn.

So what exactly is my objective here, you may ask? Am I some self-appointed watchdog or ‘Christianity-cop’? Absolutely not. I’m simply a concerned Christian who really wants the Church to reflect the image of Christ to the people that need Him the most. I’m simply against a clearly unsuccessful approach to sharing Christ with our communities. I don’t think Christians are perfect and I don’t think we have all the answers (I think Jesus is perfect and that He has all the answers), and so I’m convinced that a more humble approach with a willingness to invest the time it takes to learn about people who don’t believe the way we do or share our worldview, will take us much further than a reactionary faith. I believe this is borne out by the Scriptures multiple times over.

When the time was coming near for Jesus to depart, He was determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent some men ahead of Him, who went into a town in Samaria to make everything ready for Him. But the people there would not welcome Him, because He was set on going to Jerusalem. When James and John, followers of Jesus, saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy those people?” But Jesus turned and scolded them. Then they went to another town. (Luke 9: 51-56)

I’m not interested in a theological debate on the context of these verses, I’m simply interested in highlighting the reaction of James and John and Jesus’ subsequent response. There’s no question in my mind whatsoever as to the sincerity of these “reactionary” disciples. Zealous in their knowledge and belief of Jesus’ goodness, they couldn’t fathom anyone not receiving Him and were willing to write off a whole town because of their rejection of Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t in such a hurry to condemn a town to “fire from heaven.” Instead, He was willing to scold His disciples for their insensitivity to God’s broader purpose and love for all people. But my favorite verse of those six short verses is verse 56. Verse 56 contains the theology of love. It contains the theology of interacting with people who are not like us, and it contains the theology of understanding that we will make mistakes and God will love us in spite of ourselves. It simply states: “Then they went to another town.” It didn’t say Jesus “benched” James and John from ministry for the next few “crusades” because of their reactionary faith. Having scolded them, and imparted the lesson of truth that He wanted them to learn, they moved right on and went about the vital business of loving and reaching people for the cause of Christ.

It’s my singular hope and prayer that we will be the same as we examine our reflection in the mirror of His word. If the “scolding” shoe fits, let’s wear it and move on so we can be about our Father’s business. Charles Swindoll, in his book Simple Faith says, “Then how far do we take this love-your-neighbor stuff? Do we love atheists? Yes! Scoffers? Yes! Criminals? Yes! Love, remember, sees the soul and focuses on the heart.” I know quite a few Christ-followers that are living examples of this. Here’s a short list of a few of my friends that fit the bill, Patrick Voo, Alex McManus, Erwin McManus, and Eric Sweiven . Just my two cents.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Angry God?

This is probably the longest post I've ever written. It would lose much of it's substance if I posted it in 2 or 3 parts. I encourage you to take the time and read it because it really does make for a fascinating read. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment when you're done reading.

Is God mad at non-Christians, or do Christians often simply misrepresent His heart and passion for the irreligious and the hurting?

A few days ago I received an e-mail invitation from my new friend Rob Curry, to attend a Q&A session hosted by the Atheists of Florida (you heard me!). So yesterday I made the seventy-odd mile trek down to Lakeland, FL. I’d never been to Lakeland (only driven past it on my way to Tampa) and I must confess that the lake around which the public library is located is absolutely breathtaking…but I digress.

I had no expectations of the meeting other than to hear Rob explain what the Atheists are all about, and what, if any, is their agenda. There were no more than fifty people in attendance (and that’s a generous estimate), and I certainly didn’t realize that so many other Christians would show up. A number of them walked in just before the meeting began, and strategically seated themselves together in a group… which happened to be right beside me. One of the men leaned over to me and in a rich, somewhat ‘threatening’ baritone intoned, “Are you a believer or a non-believer?” Realizing where I was, and not wanting to take anything for granted, I replied, “A believer in what?” “A believer in Jesus,” he responded. I responded in the affirmative, whereupon his friend, seated directly beside me, patted me jovially on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, you’re not alone.” As the meeting began, I discovered to my complete and utter surprise, that Atheists are more like Christians than we would care to admit.

It would be fair to say that there were different “denominations” of Atheists represented and they were all over the place in their beliefs and their expression of those beliefs. Let me say for the record that I really like Rob Curry, the President of Atheists of Florida. Sans his non-belief in the existence of God, he would be quintessentially what the Bible calls us to be as Christ-followers. He was gracious, friendly, funny, and accommodating. The panel of ‘experts’ (my word), that had been assembled to answer the myriad questions burning in the hearts of the people in attendance, ran the gamut of characters.

There was the very forgettable intellectual scientist with his tired old arguments about how science provides real answers while religion speaks from the emotions through a process of deductive rationalization. There was the freethinker who wasn’t entirely sure what she believed or why, but knew that she was on a progressive journey to discovering more knowledge. Then there was the emotionally wounded and defensive ex-Jew (though she clarified that she was still culturally Jewish) who had “tried so hard to believe in God” for much of her life but had finally settled the issue that there was no God, and incidentally, no soul or spirit either.

There was the belligerent, arrogant, and slightly insulting academic who clearly prided himself in his ability to unapologetically debate and debunk the “myths” of religion. He would be the equivalent of your hard-nosed Christian who aggressively pickets abortion clinics in an effort to make a statement about his worldview while using language that is clearly offensive to everyone that doesn’t believe the way he does. I was amused by the fact that he had kept count of how many thousand times his daughter had recited the Pledge of Allegiance declaring America to be “one nation under God…” and how infuriating that fact was to him since neither he nor his daughter believed that. I was even more amused by the fact that, as a conscientious objector to all things God, he had made a stamp declaring God to be a myth, which, according to his story, he stamped on all his money (I imagine he must have a lot of spare time or very little money). In addition to his stamp, on the phrase “In God We Trust” he would draw a red circle around the word “God” and put a diagonal line through it so that it read as “In no God We Trust.”

Then there was the social activist who volunteers his skill and time as a pilot to transport sick kids to the Shriner’s Hospital at University of South Florida amongst other such laudable acts of kindness. He, not surprisingly, is quite up-to-date on the plight of nations like Rwanda, Senegal, and other impoverished places around the globe. Finally there was the soft-spoken Englishman who is a member of just about any science group you can think of, has clearly thought through his belief system (or non-belief system as the case may be) and settled in his heart that there is no evidence of the existence of a God. He communicates this succinctly and without any sense of superiority or aggression.

And then there were the Christians. If there was ever a time when I wanted to hang my head in shame, it was last night among my Christ-following ‘brethren.’ The air of superiority was palpable and as soon as they were given the opportunity to turn in questions on 3 X 5 cards or talk from the mic, they pounced, hungry for blood. One person wanted to know the Atheists’ position on war, abortion, capital punishment…what!? Are you serious? Even among Christians, you’ll find a variety of expressions on these issues. Did we really expect that Atheists would have a Biblical worldview on these issues? It quickly became apparent that the Christians had come to let the Atheists know how wrong they were in their beliefs and how right we were.

Then Alice (fictitious name) took the mic, began to speak and removed any doubt as to her agenda. She began by declaring that she saw God in the majesty of the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains and wanted to know what the Atheists saw. When, in response, someone asked her who she saw in the tragedy of Rwanda and the plight of poverty in the slums of Mexico, she had no comeback. Then she probed and prodded them for their answer to the Biblical understanding of the spirit, soul and body. They were bewildered that she would constantly interrupt their attempts at explaining that they didn’t share her biblical worldview. When she finally sat down, she would rudely and loudly interrupt the proceedings from her seat, at every idea, phrase, or expression that she disagreed with. She was belligerent, antagonistic, and dare I say, repulsive. There was nothing about her actions that spoke of love or caring for anyone who believed differently than she did. To observe her, they were the enemy and she was God’s General, fighting His cause in defense of all the things these horrible Atheists were doing to defame His name.

You could hear the audible gasps when I dared to suggest that I was not against their billboard nor was I there to antagonize or harangue them, but simply wanted to find out what common ground we shared so that we could join hands and serve our community. Did I mention that the gasps were not from the Atheists but from the Christians? I imagine I was immediately ostracized to blasphemer’s hell since not one of my Christ-following brethren said a word to me after my decidedly blasphemous performance. But it didn’t stop with Alice. “Brother” Jed (fictitious name) took the mic and explained in his calmly superior voice why Christians were angry about the billboard. I wanted to raise my hand and explain that I was not angry, but the focused and purposeful expression on Jed’s face didn’t make for healthy conversation. “The billboard is offensive to God!” Jed explained. Interesting observation in a gathering that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of God, I thought.

Jed certainly doesn’t speak on my behalf, and I doubt that he speaks on God’s either. How does Jed presume to know that God is offended by the billboard? Aren’t there billboards advertising hard-core porn stores showing half-naked women, lining our highways? What about the Hooters billboards? Or the billboards advertising one church as being better than all the rest? Would these be any less offensive to God if indeed He was mad at billboards? As an aside, I personally think it would be a brilliant billboard for a church if you traded out the web address. Or isn’t the focus and mission of the Church to reach those who don’t believe in God? Isn’t it true that a sign like that, put up by a church, would definitely invite curiosity from people who were seeking answers? After all, last time I checked, there’s definitely more than one person that doesn’t believe in God, and the Church should be the perfect place to find answers and explore the idea of the existence of God.

Following Jed was a gentleman who appeared to be the primary spokesperson of the group. We’ll call him Dr. Greg (fictitious name). Dr. Greg, was much less antagonistic and superior, but began his presentation by telling the Atheists that when he looks at them, he sees God, to which the arrogant intellectual replied, “When I look at you, I see the evolution of reptiles.”

My point? I’m certain that these fine, upstanding, Christian people meant well, but they obviously had no idea how to go about what they appeared to be trying to accomplish, which I suspect was to get the Atheists to see how wrong they are about their beliefs, recant their godless ways, and take down their billboard. They had no relationship with these people, didn’t appear to care at all about them as individuals, and totally disrupted their meeting and its purpose. Yet they hoped to accomplish the humanly impossible task of convincing them that Christianity was the better option for them?! In my mind’s eye, I began to imagine the shoe on the other foot. I imagined a situation where these fine folks held an open mic Q&A session one Sunday morning in their lovely, quaint church. I imagined a group of Atheists walking in and huddling together in a group waiting for their opportunity to engage in the proceedings and make the Christians see how wrong they were about what they believe. I imagined them hogging the mic for much of the proceedings, and eventually simply ignoring the mic and shouting their disdain and disagreement from the audience at every turn. I can only imagine what the Christians’ reaction would be.

There was absolutely no sense whatsoever that these Christians loved people that believed differently from them, nor indeed did they care to hear what they had to say. They were there for one purpose and one purpose only: to let the Atheists know how wrong they were, and establish their frustration at the Atheists’ efforts to undermine their own evangelistic goals by planting a billboard slap-bang in the middle of their ‘territory.’

So, what do I think was accomplished? Well, I think the atheists breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were Atheists and not Christians (who would want to believe in a God who looked and sounded as angry as these folks?). I think Fox News and ABC News (who recorded the entire proceedings) were thrilled at the footage they got of angry and vitriolic diatribes from Christians who profess to represent a loving God. Aside from this, I sincerely don’t think the cause of Christ was advanced one iota. How do I deduce that, you ask? Well, for one thing, I was there and witnessed the response of the Atheists, but more significantly because Colossians 4: 5-6 says, “Be wise in the way you act with people who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity. When you talk, you should always be kind and pleasant so you will be able to answer everyone in the way you should.” Was this accomplished? You be the judge.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bow That Shook The World

It was former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who declared that he could only act according to the dictates of his conscience and then leave it up to history to judge the efficacy of his life. Recently the news has been inundated with stories of Obama’s ineptitude in dealing with foreign leaders. In fact, the media has perseverated on this so much, that the real purpose of his current trip has been eclipsed by that redundant story. Rather than see his observance of protocol as irenic, Obama is accused of showing excessive deference to both the Saudi King and the Japanese Emperor. Here are some of the disparaging and truculent comments that various blog and media outlets have posted:

  • "Someone should have kicked his scrawny ass while he was bent over.”

  • “Do we expect anything less from an Islamist?”

  • “Shame on Obama. He needs to be removed from office as quickly as possible.”

  • “An American president should stand erect and polite, and shake hands like a man. No American should ever show ANY deference to ANY Monarch. All Monarchs, including Elizabeth, don’t have 1% of the legitimacy of an American president. They don’t even come close.”

  • “No American should ever bow to any Royal of any family. And it would never be considered disrespect, because they already know Americans do not recognize Royalty.”

  • “I wonder if this was planned… no American should ever bow to anyone, much less the President, and much less to a Saudi.”

  • “I think someone called ‘BOY’, and he’s bending over to say; ‘SUH?’….”

If these were a true reflection of American sentiments we’d be in deep trouble. Fortunately these are just the inane ramblings of brainless Neanderthals. Or are they? I mean, the racial undertone is bad enough, but to arrogantly assume that America should not follow the protocol of nations that we deal with, smacks of the colonialism that destroyed much of Africa. The notion that we don’t recognize royalty is not only misguided and foolish, but portends the kind of soporific tendency that precedes a rude awakening (9/11 happened in large part because we believed we were impervious to any kind of external attack on our own soil).

As is to be expected, Conservative voices weighed in on what has come to be known as the “Japan bow.” William Kristol declared “I don’t know why President Obama thought that was appropriate. Maybe he thought it would play well in Japan. But it’s not appropriate for an American president to bow to a foreign one.” He further opined that “the gesture bespoke a United States that has become weak and overly-deferential under Obama” Bill Bennett also weighed in on the issue, declaring, “It’s ugly. I don’t want to see it. We don’t defer to emperors. We don’t defer to kings or emperors.” So, what do we really want? According to ‘popular opinion’ Bush was a “bull in a china shop.” Obama is “too deferential.” It’s so easy to Monday-morning-quarterback from the comfort of our own homes, when we don’t have family members dying to preserve our freedom. When we don’t have to give up anything, or make any monumental decisions that alter the course of human history. It’s true that to rule the most powerful nation in the free-world demands a person with a steely carapace, and that fact lends credence to the saying, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Amazingly, amidst all the judgment and criticism leveled at Obama, he’s apparently accomplishing the purpose for which he’s in Japan. Quoting a senior administration official, reported, “I don’t think anybody who was in Japan – who saw his speech and the reaction to it, certainly those who witnessed his bilateral meetings there – would say anything other than that he enhanced both the position and the status of the US, relative to Japan.” I seem to recall that it was actually an American president (Theodore Roosevelt), quoting a West African proverb, who once declared, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” That’s my two cents.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Confessions of a Christian Cleric... I like Atheists!

I recently posted a blog titled "Don't Believe In God?" in which I quoted the president of the Atheists of Florida, Rob Curry. As you know, I’m big on this idea of starting points for conversations about God and I’m a firm believer that everybody has a right to express their opinion without the antagonistic vitriol that tends to spew from those who differ in opinion.

At the risk of drawing the ire of many ‘good Christian folk,’ I have to admit that Rob Curry became somewhat of a hero to me when he responded to my post with graciousness and class. There was no underlying sense of frustration or bitterness whatsoever in his response (I’m just thinking of the ‘Christian’ response to their billboard). In fact, Rob made it clear that the Atheist's of Florida's intent for the billboard was never to dissuade anyone from pursuing whatever faith journey they are on, but simply to find other people who live life from their prism.

This is remarkable, and I’m persuaded that it’s a policy that the Church might consider adopting instead of an ‘us and them’ mentality. If we just spread the love of Christ through building authentic, loving relationships with people, who knows what may grow out of those seeds we plant. All too often we view the message of Christianity as if it were a product we’re trying to pawn off on people who don’t really want it anyway. In reality, the message of Christianity is summed up in the story of the man who found a treasure in a field, sold all he had and purchased the field; It’s a message of love and self-sacrifice; A message of caring more about the “treasures” that are found in the people all around us than in what you've acquired. If you haven’t already done so, click on the hyperlink above and read the entire post and comment. In case you don’t have the time to do so though, I’m appending Rob’s response so that you can see just how gracious he was.

"Rob Curry here. I'd like to take a moment to clarify one point with some inside information:We did not take any religious community issues into account in choosing where to place a billboard ad. The reason we choose Lakeland is because that is where our most recent new chapter opened a little earlier this year. This is likely to happen in other towns and cities where new chapters of Atheists of Florida are formed

I actually heard about the incident you describe for the very first time right AFTER paying for the board to go up. My reaction? No, I didn't jump up and down with glee to think of a division in this particular religious community, if that's what you're imagining. I merely shrugged my shoulders and went on to other things. It's not like this kind of event is so unusual, and as I see it, the people involved are all adults who will find their way through an unfortunate situation as best they can.

Here's the main point:We did NOT put up the billboard to change anyone's faith or beliefs. We put it up to find other atheists. (With greater than anticipated success, I might add.)Please do not automatically assume the entire world shares your own evangelical outlook. Some of us are content to live and let live. If you want to know more, please ask us. As you may guess, we're not exactly hesitant to say what we honestly think

By the way, I appreciate your mature support for freedom of speech and against the knee-jerk impulse towards censorship. You may rest assured that Atheists of Florida likewise supports the freedom of all Floridians, religious and nonreligious alike, to express their views."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't Believe in God?

Seems like we’ve been here before right? Well, technically we haven’t since, the last time we talked about this it had to do with an advertising bus campaign in the UK. So, maybe it’s the same story in a different location. Any way, I was struck by this for a number of reasons. Sometime last year there was much written about the “revival” sweeping Lakeland, FL, and people were arriving in droves from around the world (thanks to the publicity on GodTV), to participate in what God was doing, that is until it was revealed that the revivalist was leaving his wife and had been having the proverbial affair with his secretary. I imagine it must have left a sour taste in the collective mouths of the Lakeland community. I imagine the Lakeland Christian community might have felt that they’d been left with egg on their faces. I imagine the Atheist community thought Lakeland must be ripe for the picking, and would be open to a different message, having met with such disappointment from the Christian “revival” message. And why not? After all it is a free country and we’re all free to spread the message that we believe will positively impact people’s lives. So the Atheists of Florida got together and sponsored a billboard in Lakeland. It reads, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”

Rob Curry, president of Atheists of Florida, stated “The main goal (of the billboard campaign) is to increase awareness of the secular group.” He further opined, “We want other people in the secular community who are non-religious to become aware of us.” Not surprisingly the Christian reaction was predictable to say the least: "“You shouldn’t raise your children that way… not to believe in God,” said Carolyn Brown. “I think it should be removed now.”" So will it surprise you to hear that, while I agree that it’s better not to raise your children "That way," I don’t think the billboard should be removed? I mean, I know how effective billboard advertising can be. I even used it when we were launching The Well, and ran a very successful campaign that created a real buzz in the community. If it’s good for Christians, then it must be good for anyone who believes differently from us, right? I can see I’m going to have to work harder to convince you. Well, the larger picture here is not about a billboard but about the effectiveness of our Christian witness. Do we honestly believe for one moment that a billboard can change people’s belief in the existence of a loving God, if we as the Church continued to live the way we should? I don’t think so. It’s hard to convince the people of Rwanda that God isn’t real, after they've experienced the love of God through the Global Church, following the genocide of the nineteen-nineties that impoverished their nation.

Lakeland wasn’t the first Florida city to host this billboard campaign. In Fort Lauderdale the billboard read, “Being a good person doesn’t require God. Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” As always though, God has the last laugh. In the UK campaign the slogan ended up preaching the message of the Scriptures as it declared “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” a clear and direct exhortation from Luke 12: 25 and Philippians 4: 6. In the Florida campaign, Daniel Florien, writing about the Fort Lauderdale billboard declared, “On the first one we accidentally capitalized God.” Apparently that same 'accident' continues to perpetuate itself on all their subsequent billboards. Their unspoken dilemma: If they don’t "capitalize God" then even Christians would agree that we didn't believe in a 'god' (small 'g') since we believe in The God with a capital G. If they do capitalize God, they are unwittingly acknowledging the existence of the Supreme Christian God while running a campaign trying to disavow His existence. Hmmm, I wonder if… nah, God couldn’t have anything to do with that could He?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Unconditional Love? Maybe not so much!!! (Part 2)

I know, I know, I promised to post part two of this blog yesterday, but if I’m being completely honest I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this concept of love that is selfless and unconditional. I simply wasn’t ready to conclude this idea yesterday and I’m not even sure that I’m ready now. But, I guess I’ll probably never be ready so I’m just going to dive in head first. Here are a couple of quotes from the book "Blue Like Jazz" that struck a chord in me:

“The problem with Christian culture is we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money…. With love, we with(o)ld affirmation from the people who d(o) not agree with us, but we lavishly finance the ones who d(o)…. When we barter with it (love), we all lose. When the church does not love its enemies, it fuels their rage. It makes them hate us more.”

“Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. If a person senses that you do not like them, that you do not approve of their existence, then your religion and your political ideas will all seem wrong to them. If they sense that you like them, then they are open to what you have to say.”

This brings me to a very personal story I’d like to share with you. I will warn you in advance that if you don’t follow this story through to the end you might conclude that I’m being arrogant and self-serving, but if you’ll patiently endure the details of the story, I promise you that the point will be well made. One more disclaimer: I must also warn you that it will make some of you uncomfortable, as these are issues we’d rather pretend aren't there because it's not politically correct to talk about such things.

I’ve never liked Winn Dixie. Maybe it’s because it always struck me as a “poor man’s” store, and since I didn’t like the way it made me feel I just didn’t shop there. That is until I was forced, for, shall we say reasons of convenience, to shop at the Winn Dixie nearest my home in Lake Mary. I don’t know if it’s an official policy, but Winn Dixie hires a lot of handicapped and disabled people and this store appeared to be trying to win a competition for how many such people they could have on their team at one time.

Each time I went there I would notice how many disabled staff people wandered around and would throw a friendly wave in their direction then pat myself on the back for being such a ‘good’ Christian. After all, most of the other folks in the store simply ignored them and went about their business. One day I decided to introduce myself to a quadriplegic that I’d often noticed in an elaborate recumbent wheelchair. He would often position his chair strategically by the store entrance looking stone-faced at busy shoppers going in and out in a hurry as they lived out their busy lives. Ostensibly his job was to welcome people as they entered the store but his demeanor made most shoppers look the other way. I walked up to him and said, “My name’s Joseph, what’s yours?” “David” he replied, beaming from ear to ear. Then he continued, “I’ve often noticed you coming in here but you always looked so scary and mean.” Ouch!!! My Christian ego had just taken a deflating beating.

It turns out that in addition to being a quadriplegic, David also suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth as well as facial appearance. I proceeded to have one of the most amazing conversations with David, all the while thinking how smart and well spoken he was. I’d made a judgment about David the first time I laid eyes on him. I assumed he wouldn’t be coherent and he’d be severely mentally handicapped. The ‘single story' of people afflicted with Down’s syndrome not being smart or intelligible, had led me to believe that David had nothing to contribute to my life. The funny thing is, I know the feeling of back-handed compliments, yet I was doing exactly the same thing as I expressed my surprise at how well David spoke and processed ideas.

All my life living in the West I’ve been judged on the single story: The story that black Africans generally speak with thick, heavy accents and are definitely not as smart or intelligent as their white contemporaries. When people have a conversation with me, they are ‘shocked’ at how well I communicate and process big ideas, and they are quick to tell me how much they love my voice and my “accent.” Now I know that these people are well meaning and all, but the truth is their ‘compliment’ is based on a set of preconceived ideas they have about what people like me should sound like. After all, you won’t find people paying compliments to a white Englishman for sounding English.

I wonder if David feels judged by the single story every time someone walks into the store and completely ignores him, hence his stone-faced expression. Many of us define people by the single story and miss out on so much more. There are numerous dimensions to every person and the more we unconditionally love a person, the easier it is to find out their multi-dimensional stories. As I’ve built a relationship with David, I’ve learned that he was in hospital for three months because he broke his hip trying to move from one wheel chair to another, and the pain is still excruciating as the doctors have told him it will take two years to fully heal since he can’t rehab it. Yet David is at work everyday because that’s the place where life happens. His eyes light up every time I walk into the store and he’ll tell me exactly how many days it’s been since I was last in. We’ve had conversations about the NBA Playoffs, the Superbowl, college football and every thing under the sun, and he is remarkably knowledgeable. David cusses like a banshee (whatever a banshee actually is) and has really pungent breath, but David is a delight to know and talk to. He forces me to put my life in perspective and to be thankful for the things that I can do, especially on the days when I’m throwing a tantrum because I’m mad at my circumstances.

David’s outlook on and approach to life humble me and make me realize that, in the human context, unconditional love may well bring a greater benefit to the one loving than it does to the one receiving love. You see, knowing David has changed my paradigm about the way I view and judge people based on the single story, and so it makes it easier for me to deal with each person on their own individual merit. I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you because I know it’s my journey, but I’m truly thankful for Winn Dixie, David, and unconditional love.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Unconditional Love? Maybe not so much!!!

The idea that we Christians love unconditionally is about as true as the notion that the sun is a warm fuzzy ball. Any one who believes either of those ideas is clearly deluded. The very notion that the Church is exclusionary in its gatherings is in itself proof that our love is conditional. It’s conditional upon you accepting what we believe to be truth, as truth. It’s conditional upon you looking, speaking, and acting in a manner that we deem acceptable by our measuring stick. It’s conditional upon you living your life by the same set of values by which we live ours. Why, sometimes it’s even conditional upon what color the statue of Jesus or the picture of him above your mantelpiece is. If that’s not conditional love then I don’t know what is and I’m the deluded one!

Much of the way we express our faith reflects this notion: If you accept all the things we accept, and live exactly the way we live, then we extend our ‘hand of fellowship’ and welcome you warmly (That’s why in America we think being Christians and Republicans are part of the seven sacraments). If on the other hand, you are a non-conformist and insist on questioning everything we believe, then you’re an outsider and we generally extend to you the “left-foot of fellowship.” Oh, don’t get me wrong, we definitely pay lip service to the idea that we love, embrace, and welcome everyone, but that is the theory. In practice the reality is much different as evidenced by the clear lines of demarcation along racial, denominational, and various other ‘measurables’ during our Sunday worship hour. I realize that I’m generalizing and there’s always a danger in doing that, but the larger point is clearly found somewhere in the middle of these ideas.

I recently read a blog post by Brad Johnson that chilled me to the core because of it’s simple but profound truth. Now I could paste the hyperlink here and go on to restate the same ideas, but that would be redundant. Instead I decided to directly quote some of his observations since he stated the big ideas more succinctly than I ever could. The writer made the following observations:

“I can’t shake it. It’s a phrase that haunts my thoughts at night, like some ethereal creature floating just out of my reach, taunting me.There is this on-going debate going within me about this phrase.

It’s a war. My soul says, “Yes, this CAN be.” My heart says, “I so WANT this to be.” My logic and observations declare, “This will NEVER be.”The troubling phrase? From the lips of Jesus: “Father, let Your will be done on earth…JUST AS IT IS…in heaven.”

What does that mean? What would life on earth be like, if even parts of Jesus desire came true?Questions lifted my thoughts to heaven. What is heaven like? What will relationships be like? Heaven will be filled with pure love and freedom from shame, and acceptance and peace with our selves, peace with others, and peace with God.In heaven, we will live life with no reservations about others, where love prompts us to hope and believe the best about one another, expect the best, cheer for the best?

There, perfect [unconditional] love will cast out fear; fear of being rejected, judged, disliked, hurt.I can’t get this thought out of my mind, this angst out of my heart. Jesus EXPECTED that we could have some of the attributes of heaven, right here on earth. I could. You could.So, why don’t I, in my life, in relationships, in interactions and conversations?

Why don’t we in our sanctuaries, our cathedrals, our churches, our services of worship?Why isn’t the rule of heaven…well, the rule of the day?To have heaven’s love existing between us would be a vision of revolutionary grace and mercy. To have heaven’s love would find odd-pew partners side by side, engaging in conversation and laughter and hugs and worship.

There would be wounded marriage partners, bathing each other in forgiveness. There would be adulterers and adulteresses, now clean, walking in the freedom of new life, free to experience new, honorable love and meaningful love. Addicts would be healed from shame, embraced by Christians, moving sober into a wonderful new day. Republicans and Democrats would lay down agendas of their parties and find common ground under the rule of heaven.” (emboldened word in parenthesis above is mine)

I have a few more ideas about this that I’ll conclude with tomorrow (yeah, really. I’ll actually blog two days in a row), see you then. :)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Immeasurable Grace!

Yesterday my wife, Sola, and I had lunch with our dear friends Ted and Gayle Haggard (yes, that Ted and Gayle Haggard). It was a really good time of connecting and catching up even though it’s the second time this year that they’ve visited with us in Orlando. We love what God is doing in and through them. Now I know that they’ve been somewhat pariahs to many people over the last few years and that there are many who think that Ted has no right to be in ministry any longer considering his past sin, but I’m so grateful that God makes those calls and not men. What I find most amazing is that people fail to recognize that Ted is better equipped to serve the Body of Christ now more than he ever was before his sin was publicly exposed.

Some would have preferred that he give up ministry, hide in a hole somewhere and continue to sell insurance for the rest of his life. Now before you begin to vilify me, there’s nothing wrong with selling insurance if that’s what you’re called to. However, if you’re called to something else then you’re underachieving. Our meeting affirmed something in my heart that motivated this blog: God is faithful even when we are not! God sovereignly decides where, when, and how He will use you (or not) and how that will be accomplished. Our conversation amplified the fact that God is speaking to Ted and Gayle and birthing in them ideas for ministry that will impact lives significantly. Because of the ‘pockets’ of grace and love their family received during their ‘wilderness’ season, they are developing an idea that speaks to the very heart of serving and loving people.

My heart leapt in excited anticipation as they shared the formative stages of the big idea with us. Sadly, I cannot share the details as they are still being incubated. In fact, I liked the idea so much, I resolved to ‘steal’ it and implement it, but Ted ‘threatened’ me, and since Gayle is a real hero to Sola and I, and since I’d like to maintain my friendship with the Haggards, I’ve decided to hold off on stealing the idea… for now. But, so that I don’t leave you feeling totally cheated, here are some paraphrases of some great nuggets that Ted shared during the meal.

  • The only place where the Gospel cannot be communicated is a place where there is an absence of human conflict and pain.
  • Until someone demands that you walk a mile you can’t offer to go two.
  • You can’t turn the other cheek until someone strikes you on the first.

I’m truly thankful for God’s immeasurable grace and redemptive purpose in Ted and Gayle’s lives. For those of you that think it’s improper that we even consider that God can use the Haggards even more powerfully in this new season of their lives, well, all I can say is I pray that one day you might be the recipient of the kind of grace that alters your perspective.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I Wonder If...

I recently asked the question on twitter, “What would you do if you knew you only had one week to live?” I must admit that I didn’t know what to expect in terms of responses, but the first response I received seemed to sum up a prevailing sentiment. It read, “It’s been 23 mins… I think we are all too scared to respond!!! :)” Other responses expressed the need to spend time with family and friends and let them know they are deeply loved. One responder even indicated that he would try the Hezekiah route and pray for an extension on the week. Whatever your response (or non-response) would be, it’s apparent that we all have our own ideas as to what we’d do if we knew we only had one week to live.

One week to live? In case you’re unclear, that’s 7-days, or 168 hours, or 10,080 mins, or… (I’m sure you get the point). In the grand scheme of things, that’s hardly a significant amount of time, unless it’s the last 10,080 minutes you have to live, then it suddenly puts your entire life in proper perspective. If the truth be told, I’m not certain I could give an all-encompassing answer to my own question. I mean, would turning off the cell phone, disconnecting DIRECTV and focusing exclusively on my family constitute a profound response? If I haven’t focused on my family (no pun intended) all the years leading up to my final week, would that one week really make the difference? If I’m being honest, I don’t know what I would do (at least not completely), but I do know what someone else did. Someone to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude and for whom we should be living our lives out loud.

John 12: 1 begins with the words, “Six days before the Passover…” In other words, five days before Jesus met His prophesied end on a Roman cross (The Passover was on a Sabbath which followed the day after Jesus’ execution, and so bodies could not be left on the cross overnight and taken down on the Sabbath, which is why the other two men’s deaths were hastened by the breaking of their knees). When you know you have only one week to live I imagine your thinking becomes clearer and your life distills the significant from the irrelevant. Here’s a working list of the things Jesus did beginning at John 12: 1.

  • He had dinner at Lazarus’ place (John 12: 1-2)

  • He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (knowing it was the place where He’d meet His end) to the cheers of the very people that would call for His death three days later.

  • He separated Himself from the crowd. “When Jesus had said these things, He departed and hid Himself from them.” (John 12: 36)

  • He washed His Disciples feet (including Judas’) as a demonstration of loving, servant leadership. (John 13: 2-5)

  • He had dinner with His Disciples (including Judas)
  • He encouraged His despondent Disciples and prayed for them in the Garden of Gethsemane (to the point of sweating blood), even though He was the one about to pay the ultimate price and suffer the ignominy of death on a cross.

  • He stood trial before the High Priest and the High Priest's father-in-law having committed no crime whatsoever.

  • He was denied publicly by one of His dearest and supposedly most loyal friend and supporter.

  • He stood trial before Pilate under a fraudulent and concocted charge.

  • He was flogged, ridiculed, spat upon and finally, nailed to a roughly-hewn Roman cross.

The thing that strikes me most about this list is how normal it is. These are the things Jesus did routinely (obviously, other than the things that led up to His being crucified). His life was filled with focus and purpose. I wonder if that’s how we’re supposed to live? I wonder what it would feel like to live with such focus and purpose that, knowing I had just one week to live would not change anything I’m doing? I wonder if it would make us more effective and more passionate Christ-followers if we chose to live as if we had just one more week to live?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Entitlement, Soapboxes, and Being Like Jesus!

I’m not a celebrity! Ergo: I don’t know what it feels like to be one, nor do I know what it’s like to have to deal with the very artificial world created around them. Many celebrities are inundated with obsequious people singing their praises and telling them how great they are. Sadly, many celebrities believe this truckle. I’ve stayed out of the Kanye West fray until now for good reason. I’ve been an idiot many times in the past and I realize that anything I post in a public forum is ‘quotable’ ad infinitum. I don’t want to appear any more idiotic than necessary, and so I choose to observe and listen first before I “step in it.” Now though, I’m ready to engage my soapbox even at the risk of appearing idiotic! From athletes to Hollywood actors, to rappers, musicians and other so-called celebrities, an entitlement mentality comes with the territory. I have news for you though; it’s no different than the rest of us (especially us professing Christ-followers).

It is an entitlement mentality that caused Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick to make the choices they made that landed them behind bars. They somehow bought into the lie (no doubt fed by the people around them) that they were immune to the laws of the land. Why else would Plaxico take a gun (for which he didn’t have a permit in the state) into a nightclub? Why else would Vick fund an illegal dog-fighting ring as if there weren’t more laudable things to do with his beleaguered millions? It was an entitlement mentality that influenced Jay Cutler, Adam “Pacman” Jones and Brandon Marshall, so that they whined and complained because things didn’t go their way in the Not For Long (NFL) league. In spite of the kind of lifestyles their profession afforded them, they felt that they were entitled to even more and so each one of them has made a profound ass (easy… an ass is a donkey) of himself in the public eye.

Kanye West has a history of bad behavior because he feels entitled. In 2006, at the MTV Europe Music Awards, he took the mic from the artistes who had won music video of the year, and in an expletive laden speech declared that his music video should have won the award because it, “cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it…. I was jumping across canyons…. If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility.” At the recently concluded 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, as Taylor (apparently a teenage singing sensation) was accepting her award for best video in her category, West jumped up on stage, grabbed the mic from her and stated, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyonce has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” Then he shrugged, handed her the mic and walked off stage. Kanye has quickly tried to make amends by appearing on the Jay Leno show and apologizing profusely for his actions. Whether you believe his apology to be sincere or not is irrelevant, he apologized and wants to move on with his life.

What struck me the most was the gentle way in which Jay chided him, causing him to reveal the fact that he has carried a lot of hurt and pain with him for much of his life, and has consequently projected that on how he relates to other people. Many of us do the same thing as we interact with God, other Christ-followers, and people in general. Our feelings of entitlement suggest that we shouldn’t have been treated the way we have been, and so we are motivated to pass and execute judgment on those we view as the source of our pain. In truth though, we are not owed anything, and so feeling entitled to being treated a certain way sets the stage for explosive responses a la Kanye West. I don’t personally listen to or even know his music, but my heart truly goes out to him and I hope that he has puissant relationships around him so that the only voices he hears are not the voices of obeisance.

While we’re at it, we should probably all surround ourselves with people who’ll tell us the truth even when it hurts (instead of feeling entitled to be treated with kid gloves 'cos of all the difficulties we've encountered in life). I have a feeling that that sort of pain is far less degrading than having to take your foot out of your mouth after the fact. There, I feel much better so I’ll climb down from the soapbox now.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is He Your Co-Pilot?

I loved Rick Warren’s tweet from earlier on today. It simply stated:

When a plane goes thru violent turbulence at 35,000 ft, you don’t bail out. You remain calm and trust the Pilot! Ps56:3

For those of you might be wondering, Psalm 56: 3 actually says: When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. If the truth be told, it really isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve been in a few ‘hair-raising’ plane encounters myself (and you wonder why I’m bald), and my initial instinctual response certainly wasn’t calm and trust. Why? Maybe because it isn’t natural to be flying at 35,000 ft through the air at almost the speed of sound in a thin metallic tube, knowing that you have absolutely no control over what happens while you’re up there. Heck, for most of the journey you don’t even know exactly where you are or what direction you’re headed in since you have no horizon or frame of reference. But that’s exactly the point isn’t it?

I’m always bemused at the FAA regulations that require flight attendants to perform a safety demonstration with life jackets or “floatable” seat cushions. Seriously, when’s the last time you read about people rescued from a plane crash on water who were found holding onto their seat cushions and expressing deep gratitude for their “flotation device”? Or when was the last time a plane crashed into the side of a mountain and people who had donned their life jackets came out unscathed and singing the praises of life jackets? The fact is, when a plane’s in trouble at 35,000 ft above sea level, there’s precious little you can do besides trust the pilot (and maybe occupy your time adjusting the fit of your arms through your floatation device/ seat).

Back to the story of one of my plane encounters. We were cruising at, yes you guessed it, 35,000 ft above sea level when I noticed smoke coming out of the air-conditioning vent. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see smoke at that altitude I generally don’t get calm, trusting feelings. Then the plane began to descend at an incredibly steep angle and the cabin lights went out. Suddenly panic set in and people began to scream (I imagine if bailing out had been an option at this point many would have gladly obliged). Being the sharp witted, brave individual that I am, and realizing that these could be my last few moments on earth, I did the most appropriate thing under the circumstances… I joined in the screaming. Except I wasn’t screaming arbitrarily, but rather, was screaming out prayers calling on the name of Jesus. I trusted the Pilot as well as the pilot. Needless to say, we landed safely, albeit on a foamed tarmac in Farmington, New Mexico (our scenic detour en route to Los Angeles).

I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “Jesus is my co-pilot.” The heck with that, I’m letting Him fly the darn plane and I’m sitting in the back!!! Just my two cents.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Christian Mystics

No, it's not a contradiction in terms, and no I don't believe it's just a semantic misunderstanding. To be quite candid I'm a little peeved at how little attention we pay to the realities of the world we live in. We are "salt" and "light" in a dark and 'tasteless' world, yet we'd rather huddle in groups of like-minded people, speaking a language that only makes sense to us. Yesterday I posted a quote from Donald Miller on my facebook status which went like this: "You cannot be a Christian without being a mystic." In response to my effort, I got a number of irate and frustrated comments (even personal notes) about dispensing with all the extra terminology and letting our language be just Jesus and nothing else. I'm mystified (pun intended) by those responses since, according to the Cambridge Advanced Learners English Dictionary, the definition of mystic bears out Donald's contention. In case you don't want to click on the hyperlink I've taken the time to give you the definition below:

mysticism [noun] the belief that there is hidden meaning in life or that each human being can unite with God

mystic [noun] someone who attempts to be united with God through prayer

I'd say it takes a real mystic to believe in the Trinity. Wouldn't you? I mean, we believe (as Christ Followers) that the Trinity is three distinct persons who are One God. If that isn't a mystical idea I don't know what is. If you don't believe that there's hidden meaning to life, meaning that goes far beyond the understanding of our finite minds, then it would be impossible for you to wrap your mind around the concept of a Triune God. Consequently, if you don't accept the idea of a Triune God then it would be impossible for you to embrace Christianity in it's fullness. Last I checked, prayer is one of the central building blocks upon which our faith is established. The idea that man communicates with an unseen God through prayer, who in turn responds to our prayers, is the very essence of mysticism.

I guess we'd all do well to educate ourselves enough to be able to hold conversations in the real world without becoming defensive about words that actually define our faith even though they may have been stultified by, shall we say, less savory approaches to God. As for me and my house, we're glad to be Christian Mystics. Just my two cents.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Once Upon a Time...

I love the idea that Christianity, at its very core, follows the elements of a good story. In other words, to understand the appeal and embrace with brio the necessity of following Christ, we are better served understanding the elements of a good story. If, the journey to God-ordained purpose ineluctably goes through a personal relationship with Jesus, then it’s essential that we understand what that entails and why. I’ve talked before about our fascination with stories that have conflict and adventure, and how they appeal to us so much more than the uninspiring, placid storyline. In understanding why that is so let’s examine the elements of a good story: setting, conflict, climax, and resolution.

Now, I understand that there is a segment of Christianity that considers it their métier to oppose any suggestion that conflict and hardship are essential elements of the Christian story, but their contention is made vacuous by their inability to explain why the heart responds to these elements of a good story and why the Scriptures are replete with such examples. To deny these elements of story as being essential to faith is to bowdlerize the Bible to suit their interpretation of how life should be. Every good story has a setting: setting gives context to the story. The setting for the Christian story is our created world in which God designed us to function as humans in harmony with others. We know that it’s impossible to be fully human on your own since, by definition being human involves interaction with others on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level.

Having established the setting, the next element in the story is conflict. Conflict in the story creates tension, uncertainty, and suspense. Where did conflict originate from? From Original sin. The rebellion against God explains why humans experience conflict in our lives. There is no other source that we can point to as being the origin of conflict other than rebellion against God. Addictions, loneliness, pride, war are all conflicts in the human story and our hearts respond to the conflict in books or movies because there is conflict in our lives. We understand these elements because we experience them. Next, every great story has a climax. Have you ever left a movie thinking “that was anticlimactic.”? The reason is because the story probably didn’t resolve and the biggest highlights of the movie were what you saw in the trailer advertising the movie. There was never a point of climax in the story. Climax is where a point of decision determines the end of the story.

There is a point of decision that every human heart comes to, but many go through life attempting to ignore this climax to their story. The reality however, is that Christianity offers a climax to our story. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Sin separated man from God. God created a way out for man so that his story may resolve and we may have the opportunity to be reconciled with Him: Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Man must make a decision to either accept or deny the option to seek and embrace Jesus’ sacrifice. There is a good or a bad resolution to the story depending on the decision we make. Our decisions are instrumental to the way our story turns out.

Having understood the setting, embraced the conflict, and pursued the climax, Christianity also offers a resolution to the story of humanity: Forgiveness from original sin and an eternal home reconciled with our heavenly Father. While every religion tries to offer a cynosure, none of them actually fulfill these elements that meet the requirements of the human heart as well as match the facts of reality. That’s why Christianity makes sense, because the elements of story are deeply embedded in the human psyche.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Are you in touch with your governor?

Yesterday I talked about seeking truth from the Scriptures and hiding it in your heart so that you can live godly. I also highlighted three absolute changes that must occur in our lives through the process of imbibing sound doctrine. Today we’ll unpack those changes in a little more detail.

Consciousness – this involves knowledge and awareness. While you can keep the law by “accident” there is no moral virtue in doing so. For instance, a man who enjoys driving at 50 mph all the time will be within the law when driving in a 55 mph simply because he happens to enjoy driving at a speed that is within the posted speed limit. However, if he was driving in a 25 mph zone he would be guilty of violating the law. For him to achieve moral virtue as a driver and always drive within the speed limits he must become conscious of and cognizant with the traffic laws.

Conviction – This is a matter of depth and intensity. It is one thing to be conscious or aware that a certain thing is right, it is entirely another to have a conviction about it. It’s a lot easier for us to compromise our knowledge than it is for us to act against our convictions. We are all conscious of the hazards of drunk driving and we all wish our roads were completely devoid of drunk drivers. Few of us have a conviction to ensure that our roads are clear of drunk drivers though. The organization MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) however, is fully committed to the process of eliminating drunk drivers from our roads. Their convictions come largely because they’ve lost a child at the hands of a drunk driver. Most Christians have a conviction about fidelity in marriage largely because, in addition to being conscious of the Scriptures stand on adultery, many of us have seen the ineluctable negative results of infidelity as it affects whole families.

Conscience – Our conscience acts as a kind of governor upon our behavior. Maria in The Sound of Music was a governess to the children, and she helped curtail their excesses and teach them the decorum of good behavior. Large moving trucks also have governors to help curtail the excesses of speed and ensure that a moving truck is used for exactly that purpose as opposed to a missile. Unfortunately the dictates of our conscience can sometimes be misleading depending on what our convictions are. The only way the conscience will function in a godly way is if it is influenced by godly convictions. To gain godly consciences, our consciousness of what is right and wrong must be sharpened. This involves the renewing of the mind and is a matter of imbibing doctrinal truth.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Seek and Hide!

I bet some of you are enjoying a little chuckle at my expense right now as you indulgently smile at my turn of phrase. “Aw, how cute” you’re probably saying, “He’s originally Nigerian and he doesn’t realize it’s called hide and seek.” Well just hold your bucking broncos for a minute, this is no error as I meant to say seek and hide! I’m not talking about the age-old game of hide and seek, I’m talking about the game of life that’s impossible to play with any real degree of success unless you understand how to seek and hide. Huh??? I’ll spare you further agony and give you the scoop. Psalm 119: 11 boldly declares, “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.”

With all the protean leadership styles that exist in the Church today, little emphasis seems to be placed on holiness as a lifestyle choice, and while our sedulous pursuit of relevance, authenticity, and servant hood are commendable, the real truth is that they are all an exercise in futility if they are not accompanied by a true commitment to holiness. According to the Psalm above, in order to live a holy life we must give ourselves wholly to seeking truth in the Scriptures and then hiding it in our hearts so that we can apply it to every situation and circumstance in our lives. The penury of a deep understanding of the Scriptures often leaves us angry and bitter at God when things don’t work out in our lives the way we expect them to. But if the truth be told there are certain things we must understand if we are to successfully seek and hide the word of God in our hearts.

To live godly lives there are three essential changes that must occur in our lives. These are consciousness, conviction, and conscience. These changes can only occur though, through making godly choices. Consciousness essentially requires that we become aware of certain things so that we can apply them. If you don’t know the rules, you can’t intentionally keep the rules. Conviction requires more than just knowledge of the rules, but a deeper commitment to living by them. Conscience is the ‘governor’ that applies a sense of ‘stop and go’ that influences our choices. Tomorrow I’ll take the time to elaborate on these in more detail so make sure you come back!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Borg will assimilate!!!

I love the Tour de France! If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time you’ll know that. I’ve often blogged about the amazing, sedulous drive of the participants at what is arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world. This year’s tour has been different though. You see, four years ago Lance Armstrong retired at the pinnacle of his career after winning his seventh (yes seventh) Tour de France. This year he decided to return to the world stage of cycling for admirable reasons: He’s promoting his Livestrong foundation which has done immensely well in helping create an awareness of the ravages of cancer as well as provide an avenue for research funding.

Lance’s return has not been without its fair share of controversy and intrigue. Why? Because there’s a new Lance Armstrong on the block. His name just happens to be Alberto Contador (Lances team mate), and he is exactly what Lance was at the peak of his career. But Lance has really wrestled with acquiescing to the fact that he’s not quite the man he used to be. I imagine it must be hard to be Lance. To have controlled the Tour de France the last seven times you rode in it, only to be relegated to obscurity by your own team mate who is now everything you used to be, must present its own unique challenges. But Lance is 38 years old in September while Contador is just 26. So, as much as I admire Lance it’s only fair to say that Contador is the better rider, the new Lance. Contador is currently the race leader and sits more than five minutes ahead of his brave but beleaguered team mate.

Word on the street is that Lance and Contador simply cannot get along and so Lance and Johan Bruyneel (their team manager) will be branching off to form their own cycling team for 2010 which will not include Contador. If Lance wins the Tour next year, he will forever be recorded in the annals of cycling history as the greatest “comeback kid” ever. I mean, the guy will be a couple of months shy of his thirty ninth birthday for crying out loud! But reality suggests that he won’t be wearing the yellow jersey (leader's jersey) next year either, and in my opinion that’s perfectly alright. He had a good run but it’s time to honestly accept the inevitable. The Borg will assimilate! (Just thought I’d throw that in for all you trekkies) A good friend of mine, blogging about the current health care crisis in the USA had this to say:

Change will come, it is inevitable, and whether we like it or not we will sooner or later have to embrace it in order to move on. Embracing it does not mean that we like it; it just means that it is reality.

So the real question is: what change do you need to embrace? What is it that you’ve had a great run at in your life over the past few years but evidence points to the fact that you might need to accept that change is on the way?

Friday, July 17, 2009

I'm really simple-minded!

Yesterday I was watching Nat Geo - one of my favorite channels - and was enthralled by a program that featured scientists making a case for life on other planets. If you’ve paid any attention at all to the constant battle of evolutionary science against creation you’ll know that it’s become the leitmotif of science to deride and minimize the value of the creation story. Their fervid vituperations generally seek to suggest that those of us who believe that the earth was created in a literal or figurative seven days, are simply too simple. So to further illustrate their point, they headed for one of the most inhospitable places on earth, California’s Death Valley, where they were convinced that because of how it allegedly closely simulates Mars (at least from the photos they’ve seen), if they were able to discover life in Death Valley it would lend to the veracity of their claim of life on Mars.

As they examined the subsoil they concluded that microbial and fossil evidence would seem to indicate that life on earth is about four billion years old. Don’t ask me how they came to this conclusion, I only report the news! They went on to make this bold and confident statement: “Unfortunately we don’t know how life began.” They followed this insightful assertion with the statement: Whatever it was that accounts for the beginning of life “This was no Garden of Eden.” These are smart, brilliant, and accomplished scientists! These are men and women that our culture reveres for their amazing insight into the human past and consequently the human future. If you don’t believe me you should watch some of the shows that Nat Geo and Discovery Channel put out about what our future world will look like and what our past world was when dinosaurs had men for lunch.

I for one am grateful to be ‘simple.’ I like the simplicity of not being as smart as these scientists so that I avoid the vagaries of trying to wrap my mind around a truth that is so much larger than me. I like the simplicity of not feeling like I’m obligated to come up with an explanation for why fossils are dated from the rocks in which they’re found while the rocks are themselves dated from the fossils found in them. I like the simplicity of simply accepting God at His word… “In the beginning God created…” You see, in this equation, while the scientists ponder the origins of life, I can simply refer to the words of the One who made life, and settle the issue once and for all. The impudence and arrogance of men in their supposed wisdom was already reckoned by God long before men found themselves in the throes of scientific discovery. Here’s what He had to say about it: “They knew God, but they did not give glory to God or thank him. Their thinking became useless. Their foolish minds were filled with darkness. They said they were wise, but they became fools.” – Romans 1: 21-22. I for one like being simple-minded!