Monthly Archives: August 2011

Family Drama

We desperately want people, especially family members, to do the right thing when they screw up. We want the sister to return the antique wedding ring she took from grandma’s house when grandma went into the convalescent hospital. We want the immature niece who sleeps around and lies to grow some self-respect and stop hurting her parents. We want the sketchy uncle who borrowed money from his nephew to invest in a long-shot business venture to pay it back. We want the granddaughter who stole checks from grandma’s purse to get money for drugs to say she’s sorry, stop embarrassing her family, and turn her life around. We want the failing adolescent son to quit lying about who he hangs with after school, get motivated, and show his parents more respect. We want the older brother to stop harboring bitterness and resentment because his siblings made better life choices.

The variety and severity of drama within some families staggers our sensibilities. Coarse behavior, deception, betrayal, meanness, jealousy; these roots of contention are endless.

In Luke 12 Jesus is talking to a crowd about spiritual matters such as: hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy; fearing God instead of people; how much God values us; the problem with being ashamed of Christ in public; relying on the Holy Spirit for the correct words against accusations. In the first part of this chapter Jesus is cruising along delivering a profound sermon when something happens in verses 13 and 14:

“Then someone called from the crowd (the original translation says a Man in the crowd), ‘Teacher, please tell my brother to divide our father’s estate with me.’
Jesus relied, ‘Friend, who made me a judge over you to decide such things as that?’”

The Man’s plea for Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute over inheritance comes off as a non-sequitur; a statement that does not logically follow anything previously said (something my wife’s grandmother has mastered, which makes for entertaining conversation at the Thanksgiving table).

Even though the Man in the crowd speaks out of turn, I find this a troublesome Scripture. Yep, I struggle with it because Jesus’ response seems abrupt and uncaring. If God is all about relationships, how come he doesn’t appear to care about the Man’s family problems?

But I noticed something special about this incident: it seemed to change the content and direction of Jesus’ sermon. For the next several verses Jesus talks about dangers inherent in money and possessions. In verse 21 Christ says: “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”

I think this change in topic could be a response to what Christ perceived in the heart of the Man who cried out for help with his brother and the family inheritance. The Man was likely less interested in restoring his relationship with his brother than he was with getting his share of the inheritance, although for many the two go hand in hand.

Nevertheless, I get it. I get that a healthy relationship with God is the only relationship that can’t go awry. But I still get frustrated and filled with despair when I see family members clearly behaving inappropriately. I long for God to intervene and make things right between kin. And I can’t, with a clear conscience, offer you a trite summation that will fix family drama. The reality is that our most intimate familial relationships often don’t work. People don’t do the right thing and we can’t make them. And if I may make so bold, it can appear that God does not make people do the right thing. I’ve watched people carry hurts and grudges against family members to their grave, never resolving their conflicts. No forgiveness offered and none sought or received. Tragic!

I wonder what Jesus would have said to the Man in the crowd if the Man’s motives had been pure, if the Man had really wanted a restored relationship with his brother? I can just imagine God thinking, that’s exactly right! I’ve been trying to win my people over for thousands of years and they keep taking advantage and insulting me.

I believe our family relationships would generally go better if we have a good relationship with God, but it’s no guarantee of relational utopia. One thing is certain: our family drama will be worse if we don’t have a good relationship with God.

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Unaware

Today I saw three guys from a nearby high school crammed in a little Toyota pickup truck. A fourth guy lay in the bed of the truck hoping to avoid detection by the highway patrol. The driver and his comrades were clearly aware of the danger and illegality of their actions. But I wondered if those guys knew of another danger close by. You see, they were in the drive through line at Carl’s Jr. (just kidding Carl’s, I know you’ve added healthy items to your menu). That’s the thing about dangers: you think you’ve dodged one, when another catches you unaware.

A Few days ago I listened to a young woman being interviewed on the radio about the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Spain. The woman was part of a group protesting the Pope’s visit. I didn’t catch her entire beef with the Pope and religion, but I clearly heard her say she did not believe in God. And she said it with an invective (that’s a nice word for hateful) tone, as if she despised even the concept of God. Clearly this woman thought her culture would be better off without any manifestation of religion or God.

That woman’s diatribe might be nothing more than youthful naïveté, but I’m hearing this mantra more frequently of late. I don’t know if the numbers of those who don’t believe in God are increasing or they are just more zealous.

I look at the universe and see orderly design by a gifted artist. Some look at the universe and see chaos; they believe the universe is indifferent. Atheists point at believers and shout you don’t know for certain God exists. Believers point at atheists and shout yes I do because I’ve experienced his love that changed my life. To which atheists often cry hypocrites and cite examples of imperfections in the lives of those who believe in God. And back and forth it goes.

I think a lot of people these days are angry for many reasons, and denying God’s existence is one manifestation of that anger. And yet I’m often astounded by the righteous indignation of vehement atheists over injustice in the world. Where, I wonder, do they think their strong convictions about right and wrong come from? After all, isn’t the universe indifferent? And if the universe is indifferent, why should people give a rip about right and wrong? Do we care because of some evolutionary survival mechanism? Still, I can see how some people genuinely believe no deity exists. They rely on their God-given physical senses (pun intended) that tell them the presence of God can’t be confirmed. They boast of their intellect through dismissive statements about religion as superstition.

Some societies have gone before us and tried to eliminate God or make God irrelevant. The former Soviet Union comes to mind. On the other hand, some countries have eliminated God without obvious repercussions. But having perused the Old Testament Bible, I see a pattern—cultures that drifted away from God didn’t fare well. I mentioned this in the previous blog: how God withdraws his presence when a people group withdraws from God; which leaves them exposed to natural physical and spiritual consequences.  Of course, archaeologists and scientists provide practical reasons for the demise of cultures. But think of it this way: nature abhors a vacuum. Remove God from a society, and something else will take God’s place. It might be the government, humanism, individualism, pacifism, secular activism, consumerism, environmentalism, malaise, or whatever. Of course not all these things are bad, but if that’s all there is, well, to me it’s depressing. I believe removing God from a culture also diminishes human creativity, but that’s a topic for another time. It’s clear to me that removing God from a culture exposes the culture to inconspicuous dangers, sort of like eating hamburgers every day at Carl’s Jr.

Not So Minor Prophets

After living in California all my life, I’m still astounded whenever I see a tanning salon; they seem out of place. It’s not like we have a shortage of sunshine to give us the “appearance” of a healthy active lifestyle. Still, many things in our society seem out of kilter. Take morals, for instance. A recent Gallup poll indicates: “7 in 10 Americans (69%) now say moral values in the country as a whole are getting worse.” This figure is slightly down from the previous year. I know what you’re thinking: Grady, you’ve just become that ornery old guy who yells at kids for roughhousing in your yard (if only you knew my nephews . . . just kidding guys, you’re welcome at my house any time I’m not home). In reality, it’s difficult to find objective hard numbers on declining moral values. If you look at the Department of Justice statistics on crime, many of the serious crimes have been declining since 1973. Some crimes seem to go up and down like a roller coaster. In Christian culture, the experts often look at marriage and divorce, fornication, pornography, rock ‘n’ roll music (yes, I’m being facetious on that one!), and changing attitudes about gay marriage as their go-to evidence on declining morality. I’m not so sure. Why? Well, don’t get me wrong, I think those are issues with serious spiritual and sociological implications. But I’m beginning to think many of these issues are just symptoms of some deeper depravity. For answers I went to the Minor Prophets in the Bible. Who? Guys like Hosea, Joel, and Amos; men who tried to warn their national cultures about the community consequences of sin. Here’s where I must insert a modern observation: I’ve encountered a disquieting number of Christians oblivious to the connection between national immorality and the nuances of political ideologies. Or if they are politically engaged, they are so zealously committed to their political ideology they are blind to areas of immorality within their chosen politics. Many Christians have opted out of national civic responsibilities. They choose, rather, to focus on themselves and their immediate tribe of family and friends. Yes, I get that Christians can be most influential in their local inner circles. The local community movement is great, but after reading Hosea, Joel, and Amos I believe the Lord’s perspective of community is bigger than we think.

The Minor Prophets mention several sins: trampling the rights of the helpless, dishonesty, declining civility, rampant promiscuity, violence, and robbery to name a few. But one sin in particular is mentioned repeatedly by the Prophets—building altars and worshipping lifeless gods, hoping that those gods would bring abundant crops and wealth. Let’s dig a little deeper. The real sin of the people was a refusal to give God credit for taking care of their physical needs. After all, it was more fun to cavort with shrine prostitutes, both male and female, to satisfy some fertility god who was then supposed to bless their crops. And yes, I know Americans are probably not cavorting with shrine prostitutes to appease the gods of success, wealth, and higher standards of living. No, our problem is worse—we rely too much on ourselves. Night after night, for years, I’ve listened to talking heads on the “news” channels and rarely heard anybody, who’s taken seriously, mention America’s growing segment of citizens who live without any regard to God. And then there’s the folk who like to say they are spiritual but not religious; though they rarely articulate what that means.

The Barna Group examined religious trends over the last twenty years. Here are a few of their findings:

Weekly Bible reading declined 5 percentage points.
Adult church attendance declined 9 percentage points.
The unchurched increased from 24% to 37%.
Those who strongly affirmed the Bible is totally accurate declined from 46% to 38%.

If you ask me, we are relying more and more on human laws and political ideologies to fix our problems. Human laws are necessary, but we already have thousands on the books and problems abound. America’s economic problems and malaise are not just about liberal, conservative, Libertarian, Tea Party, or moderate political ideologies. America’s problem—the problem that could bring us low—is the trend by an increasing number of citizens to live as if God were not. Many don’t hate God; they just don’t love or acknowledge him, or they think if God exists he is so big humans can’t comprehend him. Oh, oh, here’s a good one: many live without God because they don’t want to be told what to do; a dangerous approach to life.

I’m not a prognosticator (I’m more of a procrastinator), but based on what I see in the Bible along with the history of empires, it doesn’t forebode well for America. We’ve bought into the prideful political belief that America is immune from the fate of every major empire that’s gone before us. We are not! Do I think God will destroy us violently? Probably not! But that doesn’t mean he won’t turn away from us as we turn away from him. In other words, there’s a good chance we might fade into obscurity among the nations; that is, if we are lucky.

Is there any hope? Well, I’m encouraged by the story of Jonah (not one of the Jonas Brothers). God told Jonah to go tell the people of Nineveh they would be destroyed because of their wickedness. Jonah goes into Nineveh and begins to tell the people their culture will be destroyed. Then an amazing thing happened—the people of Nineveh believed God. From the average citizen to the king, they fasted and prayed intently for God to spare them. And God spared them. I have always been blown away by the Bible’s lack of context regarding the people of Nineveh. In other words, why didn’t the people of Nineveh think Jonah was just another religious kook and ignore him? Why their sudden about face? Maybe history has some answers.

Nineveh was a wealthy place. It sat at the crossroads of trade routes. Goods and people from distant countries flowed in and out of Nineveh. With so much trade and wealth, I think it safe to assume Nineveh experienced the influence of many cultures, both good and bad. Eventually, Nineveh was touched by civil wars. It’s just my opinion, but I suspect the people of Nineveh had enough wealth to indulge all their physical appetites and desires; and it eventually brought no fulfillment or peace. I believe they were mentally and spiritually broken and desperate when Jonah came along and confirmed their deepest suspicions: God cares how we live.

What can you do about our culture? Well, these days I rarely hear anybody in home groups or church programs utter a prayer for our nation’s citizens and leaders. It’s time to start. Christian leaders could also begin to work the message that God cares how we live back into public discourse. With all the technology and social media platforms it’s easier than ever to share ideas with the masses; which must be done with intelligence and respect. Unfortunately, many Christians are purposely remaining ignorant of politics and current events; I believe this is a grave mistake. I know politics and current events can be distasteful, difficult to comprehend, aggravating, and discouraging. But I wonder how else God’s people will know when the time is right to share the message that God loves people and cares how we live.

In Jonah 4:11 (ESV) God tells Jonah: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left . . .?”

I believe this verse tells us the people of Nineveh did not know the difference between right and wrong. We are heading the same way. Be ready!

God’s Performance . . . Really?

At first the headline seemed amusing: “Public Policy Poll: God Commands 52% Approval.” This was in response to the question: “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?” Aside from the pitiful attempt at political correctness by referring to God as “it,” the notion that we can dare to comment on God’s performance reveals a boldness in the human spirit that often crosses the boundary into arrogance.

I’ve no doubt the survey was intended as fodder for a lighthearted article. I get it! But an approval survey on God’s performance implies, if not equality with God, at least a consumer relationship with the Almighty, as if we are somehow entitled to evaluate him like we would a merchant or service provider. Yes, we in America have so much cheek we feel entitled to voice our opinion on almost everything, and apparently that now includes God’s performance. It’s dangerous ground for mortals.

The Bible story of Job is about a man nearly destroyed by Satan through terrible loss and suffering. In the story we clearly see that God allowed Satan to harm Job. Naturally, Job (no privy to God’s motives) begins to question God’s actions, maybe even God’s character.

In Job 40:8 (The Message) God responds to Job: “Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong? . . .”

God has big shoulders and a thick skin, so I doubt an occasional survey of his performance is likely to send him back into the smiting business. Even so, we should tread lightly here.

Instead of evaluating God’s performance, I think it would have been way more revealing to take a survey of how we perceive God would evaluate OUR performance. Sadly, the authors of the PPP survey of God’s performance don’t seem to get it. That is, the current state of affairs is not a reflection on God’s performance; it’s a reflection of ours.

Anyhow, if you ask me God doesn’t require our approval, but he does cherish our love and respect.