Monthly Archives: July 2011

Nuts

Last year, I processed some registration forms of folks attending a week-long Bible conference where I work. The forms had a box for “Special Requests” where one participant wrote: “No nuts, please.” The first thought that jumped into my noggin was: how can we guarantee no kooks will attend the conference? Of course, I then realized the participant meant no nuts in her meals. Ah, that’s much easier to accommodate.

Remembering that Bible conference registration form got me thinking about Bible reading. I’m at that stage of life where I just ordered a LARGE PRINT Bible. Still, I enjoy reading my Bible because it contains thousands of years of wisdom about life, and there’s always something new to discover in its ancient text. Coincidentally, today I read an article by the Barna Group about their research on the last twenty years of religious changes. I was pleased to read that among Baby Busters (you’d think they could come up with a less violent name for this generation), weekly Bible reading jumped by nine percentage points. That’s encouraging, but I have a question: how do Busters approach their Bible reading?

After decades among the faithful, I see a trend: many people tend to bring their biases with them when reading the Bible. For instance, conservative Christians read the Bible and latch onto those portions that stress personal responsibility, industry and hard work. Liberal Christians read the Bible and embrace the portions that decry greed and stress the moral imperative to serve the poor. But from my perspective, the Bible enhances our life most when we choose to let it work however it will. In other words, we get the most life-altering and reality-bending personal enlightenment when we read the Bible with a malleable heart. I am not suggesting it’s wrong to have strong convictions about issues. I am suggesting that constant stubbornness can turn the Holy Spirit away from touching a person’s life and opening their eyes to God’s perspective.

We humans have an uncanny ability to look at truth and deny it, or ignore it. Therefore, how we read the Bible is as important as how often. So, the next time you sit down to read the Bible, say a little prayer and give the Holy Spirit permission to show you what you need to see. But above all, be sincere!

Silence

As a middle-age man, I adore elegant Hawaiian shirts (yes, there is such a thing) because they conceal a lifetime of poor dietary decisions. That’s the thing about appearances, they can deceive. In fact, they can discourage even the most idealistic heart.

In Christianity, it can appear all is well with our prayer life. But I rarely hear fellow supplicants talk about the silence that often comes after prayer. Granted, it would be a mistake to interpret the silence of heaven as indifference. But all my life in the church, I’ve heard that God hears our prayers and knows how we feel because Christ experienced human struggles. Comforting? Yes! But one longs to hear from God now and then. If I’m drowning and screaming in panic for help, it gives me little comfort to know God hears my screams of agony. Yes, yes, I understand God’s love for me does not necessarily mean a guarantee of safety in this world. I get it! We live in a sometimes harsh, bitter, cruel world that is not as God intended. I also get that God answers prayers in ways we don’t perceive. But that doesn’t make the silence less disquieting in my soul.

In the movie Of Gods and Men, a small community of modern Christian monks living in a monastery struggle with a decision: whether or not to leave the monastery because of political turmoil in the surrounding country of Algeria where the monks have lived in peace with their Islamic neighbors. Local people have been killed by militants and the monks find themselves in a grim situation, their lives clearly at risk. The monks, and their neighbors, see themselves as an essential living part of the community. Their neighbors do not want the monks to leave. We connect with the personality of each monk as he wrestles with the decision, praying and discussing options with the others. The tension is palpable. In one poignant scene, a monk tells another monk he prays and prays and all he hears is silence. Shocking! How could a devout monk hear only silence after prayer? And yet I love that monk’s honesty.

Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you something comforting. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t talk much about unanswered prayer. Even so, the Bible contains at least some references to unanswered prayer and examples of God not listening to prayer, enough to assure us we are not unique when we hear silence from heaven. Still, there’s that nagging feeling, that uncomfortable question that silence sprouts in the heart—if heaven is silent, is there a God?

For me, that question can’t take root and blossom because of other manifestations of God. For instance, I often feel God’s presence in life. Words and phrases in the Bible pierce my soul so intensely the very ink and paper seem to be alive. I have felt God’s hand at various twists and turns in my life. Perhaps you’ve felt similar encounters with God. I know, I know, what about the long dry spells of silence?

Okay then, here are a couple of verses that snap me back into the right attitude whenever I grow anxious about silence from heaven.

Lamentations 3: 7-8 (NLT): “He has walled me in, and I cannot escape. He has bound me in heavy chains: And though I cry and shout, he has shut out my prayers.”

Now skip to Lamentations 3:31 (NLT) for the coup de grace: “For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever.”

Those nine words in verse 31 are some of the most powerful in the entire Bible, and a balm when heaven’s silence overwhelms with doubt. Own them!

Tight

For a decade I had the privilege of working for a company that paid me more than I was worth (how often do you hear anybody say that?). The company also gave me freedom to grow and develop skills that helped its bottom line. The owner of the company gave these same pay and growth opportunities to the entire leadership team. As a result, the company grew from one store to multiple stores with annual sales of about $250 million. But looking back I now see the owner’s real genius was his policy of always striving to promote from within the company. He even promoted a couple of employees who were good workers but their readiness for management responsibilities was doubtful. And guess what happened, most of the promoted employees rose to the occasion and became the leaders the company needed. These policies resulted in the formation of a tight group of leaders utterly committed to the success of the company. We supported each other and worked together. Turf wars were minimal because everyone understood the interdependence of each department. The employees worked hard to grow the company because it meant more opportunities for advancement. Excitement was in the air.

Lately I wonder if the church in America is shortchanging itself when it comes to building tight groups of leaders. How so? Well, after decades in the church I’ve been blessed to experience the leadership of some extremely gifted pastors . . . and almost all of them came from some faraway place. I understand that within any church congregation there isn’t always a candidate with the education and experience to step into a pastor’s vacant position. I understand and greatly appreciate the advantages of new blood and fresh vision for a church. I get it. But I’ve noticed there has been a shift in the philosophy of doing overseas missionary work. These days, missionaries go to other countries where they establish a ministry and do their job while also training up local people to eventually take over. The idea being that the missionary will not stay there forever. I wonder why the church doesn’t take the same approach here in America. I can’t recall ever attending a church where the senior pastor was from the local community and came up through the church. Maybe that’s just because I live in Northern California where it especially seems like everyone is from somewhere else.

I’m sure there are exceptions to my experience, but what is this distasteful tendency we have to think the most gifted and qualified person is someone from outside the local community? I think the problem is that we tend to write people off too soon, especially those we know because we know their shortcomings. I don’t think Jesus wrote anybody off, and he certainly knew their shortcomings. I think Jesus saw potential in people like the Apostles. He gave them assignments and—with only one exception—they rose to the occasion.

I wonder what the church would look like, how many epic blunders could be avoided if it strove to promote from within (and I don’t mean nepotism). Just some things to think about for anyone on a search committee charged with filling a ministry leader’s shoes.

Love and Obey

Something happened when I was about eleven that still makes the hair on my neck stand up when I think about it. My dad kept a couple guns in the house. And he had taught me how to use one of the guns, a small 22 caliber rifle. He never failed to stress the rifle’s potentially lethal reality if handled improperly. He kept the rifle in his bedroom closet.

Like many boys I had a fascination with guns. But my dad had laid down the law that I was not old enough to shoot without adult supervision.

One day, a group of my friends and me were hanging out. There were a couple of new kids in our group and I wanted to impress them. My dad was gone for the day so I snuck in and grabbed the 22 rifle and a box of shells. We rode our bikes to a nearby pond where I demonstrated my gun prowess by shooting at pieces of wood and cans we threw in the water. The other boys were running around and throwing things in the water for me to shoot at. But in the midst of our reckless adventure, the gun jammed. I stepped back from the edge of the water, pointed the gun at the ground, and attempted to clear the jam. While focusing on the jammed bullet I didn’t notice I had raised the barrel of the gun. I also didn’t notice that two of my buddies had run to the edge of the water a few feet in front of me.

I still don’t know how it happened, but while trying to pry out the bullet, the rifle fired. Contrary to what you may have heard, everything did not happen in slow motion. In fact it all happened in hyper-speed. I felt sheer panic, the type of panic that shoots through your entire body and convulses your soul. I jerked my head up to see the tail end of the muzzle blast and the explosion where the bullet struck the surface of the pond. I felt sick as the realization hit home that the bullet had missed one of the boys in front of me by little more than a foot. The boy spun round with eyes wide with shock and fear.

Even at that immature age, I instantly knew that the other boy and I had narrowly averted a life-altering event. Still shaking, I quickly packed up the gun and went home where I stowed it back in my dad’s closet. I never told him about this incident.

In John 14 Jesus tells us at least three times that those who love him obey him.

Obedience is defined in part by yielding and submitting to another. It sounds simple. Yet I wonder if we often love and yield to the idea of Christ instead of Christ the person. I wonder if we live vicariously through the teachings and examples of Christ that feel good to hear, but obeying them . . . not so much.

I don’t have an easy answer. There’s disobedience in my life and I’ve witnessed a lot of disobedience in the lives of countless Christians. But as I sat musing about love and obedience it came to me that when I disobeyed my dad and took the rifle out of his closet, I was thinking and acting like an immature child (I know, duh!). But here’s the point: though I loved my dad I was not connecting the dots between loving him and obeying his rules. If my dad were alive today and told me to stay out of his closet, I would do so out of love and respect. Yes, yes, I know part of the reason for obedience is for our own protection against the hurts of the world. I get that. But perhaps Jesus is asking us in John 14 to grow up and mature so we can express our love in the most meaningful way—obedience.

By the way, I’ve noticed that obedience often entails a choice between something we really want and something we know God wants us to do, or not do. Only a mature love for Christ the person can prevail against our own desires.