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And the truth shall set you free . . . IF

Truth th
In John 18:38 Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” It seems humanity has struggled throughout the ages to discern truth. Yet in the movie A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, uttered those famous lines, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!!” While ruminating on the nature of truth I began to wonder if we Christians are a people who want the truth, not matter how grotesque it might seem because it flies in the face of the ideologies we create to live by. If so, then why are Christians so politically divided in America?

In John 8:31-32 Jesus tells the Jews, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus then engages some of the Jews in a lengthy argument about the veracity of his claim that he is the Son of God and the Jews claim that they were sons of Abraham (which in their minds was their ticket to heaven). You see the Jews had cobbled together a religious system, made up in part of customs and traditions, that they believed with all their heart was the path to heaven. And here this upstart Jesus comes along and tells them that their “truth” was actually a lie from their real father the devil. This was simply too much for many of them to bear. Jesus offered them a paradigm shift that would put them on the path of truth and eternal life free from bondage, but they rejected it.

To this day, people tragically look the truth in the eye and deny it. For example, Carol (not her real name) has been a political progressive all her adult life. She believed with all her heart that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was a wonderful program that would make healthcare affordable for everyone in America. The Affordable Care Act was a perfect fit within her worldview ideology. But recently her son and daughter-in-law found themselves unemployed and without healthcare insurance. When her son and daughter-in-law attempted to enroll in the Obama Care program, they were told their premiums would be $800 a month. Obamacare considers $800 a month for an unemployed married couple with no income to be “affordable.” When Carol’s son and daughter-in-law shared this with her, she found it difficult to accept the truth and became angry. Oh the irony of the unaffordable Affordable Care Act.

Now before you blast me for using a program cherished by lefties as an example, allow me to offend my brethren right-wingers. My gut tells me that before all is said and done, conservatives may have to eat crow on the issue of climate change. My point is still valid: many on the right will deny the truth of climate change even if the proof becomes indisputable.

As Christians, we must be the ONE group that enthusiastically pursues and venerates truth wherever it is found. But in order to find truth we can’t indulge the tragic luxury of worshipping and living by flawed human ideologies we create to give us purpose, or to feel morally superior, or to feed bitterness and resentments, or to justify our lifestyle, or to grow our little kingdoms, or even to help others. Truth alone is purpose. And Christ embodies truth. Without Christ living in a person’s life, it is impossible to know truth consistently. Even with Christ living in our life, our sinful human nature has a powerful urge to cling tenaciously to those old ideologies we created to make us comfortable. Yes we can know truth, IF we are willing to find it with God’s guidance and embrace it even though it initially rubs us the wrong way.

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The Best Thanksgiving Ever

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God richly blessed me this Thanksgiving by allowing me to get a cold in the nick of time to graciously opt out of the feast at my in-laws. I told Cindy I was likely contagious and I did not want to get everyone and their children sick. I’m just that kinda guy, always thinking of others. Oh don’t get me wrong, my in-laws are wonderful people. I’m just not a social type. And the cold allowed me to endure Thanksgiving on my own terms: fading in and out of consciousness on the couch watching football while high on cold medication. It was glorious.

In any case, I got to thinking about gifts for Christmas while “languishing” on the couch. What should I get for my long-suffering wife, my adult children, our ill-mannered dogs, the geriatric cat, and, most importantly, my grandson? While thinking about these things it dawned on me that there is nothing I want for Christmas. This might be a first. In years gone by I have always had my eye on a new tool, or fishing rod, or shotgun, or camping gear. This year there is literally nothing I want. I’ve been praying for a season of wantlessness (yes I just made up that word). Apparently the Lord has answered my prayer, or I finally got tired of accumulating junk that goes unused only to eventually be thrown out as fodder for the county landfill.

I assumed it would feel good to want nothing for Christmas, but I find that I have an uneasy feeling where that feeling of want once resided. Perhaps this is due to living all my life in a culture that incessantly encourages us to want more possessions and experiences. Or maybe the hole left by want makes me ill at ease because want had become a part of my very identity. The reality is that our entire economic model in America is based on a growing population constantly in a state of want. I hope I don’t get culled from the herd for failing to do my part this Christmas season. Yet all my life in the church I’ve heard it said that we should let Jesus fill all our wants and needs, which always sounded like an empty catch phrase to me. But now that want has abandoned me, I find myself leaning more towards Christ and what he has to say about life. I would be lying if I said Christ has filled ALL the real estate formerly occupied by want. The truth is I feel (despite being an uber-introvert) a growing inclination to get closer to family and friends, as well as Christ. People are becoming a higher priority; and that part feels good.

In Psalms 23 we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” These nine words take on a whole new meaning and significance when want fades from being a motivation in life. Just wish I’d got here a few decades back. So in the spirit of the real meaning of Christmas: I encourage you to get out there in the malls, shops, and on Amazon and want nothing . . . but Christ. It may be your best Christmas ever.

Does racism rear its ugly head in the church?

We hold these truthsIf you have the stomach to watch the news lately, you know that Michael Brown, a young black man, was recently shot and killed during an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This tragic event (whether it has anything to do with racism or not) inspired me to ponder if ethnocentrism still rears its ugly head in the modern church. Thinking back on my years in the pew, the answer is sometimes yes.

I once knew a worship pastor on the leadership team of a church plant. The church plant was located in a multi-ethnic community. After a couple of years, the worship pastor unexpectedly resigned and moved back home to an almost entirely white region of North America. A mutual friend later told me that the worship pastor had moved because he felt uncomfortable in a multi-ethnic community.

I know of one church that partnered with a smaller ethnic church in the same denomination. They shared the same building. The minority church, for many years, had to schedule their worship and their events around the needs and schedule of the dominant church, which was mostly white. The children from the minority congregation were criticized for being more unruly and messy than the children of the dominant church. Some leaders of the dominant church talked down to the pastor of the minority church. The dominant church didn’t think twice about expecting the minority church to make last minute changes to better accommodate the operation of the dominant church. Don’t get me wrong, the minority pastor had his flaws. All humans do. But most of the congregation in the dominant church remained oblivious to these discrepancies. They would be appalled if you accused them of racism. They take pride in being a multi-ethnic friendly congregation.

While visiting a church in another region of the country, I was told of some in the congregation who were enthusiastic that a smattering of black families had started attending services in their church, a church that had been white since its inception. Unfortunately some in the church looked askance at this change in the makeup of the congregation.

Granted, some of these suspect behaviors might have nothing to do with racism. For instance, it could be that the dominant church leaders who were critical of the ethnic church were merely jerks or self-centered and didn’t have a racist bone in their body. Either way it had the appearance of bigotry, albeit subtle.

I think these scenarios are more prevalent across churches in America than most Christians would like to admit. It makes us uncomfortable because we prefer to think the children of the Lord have moved beyond the ugly sin of racism. We don’t like to gaze deep into our hearts and think about how we view and treat people who do not share our skin color. Do we feel like we are better than them, like our race somehow has it more together? Yes, that’s a disconcerting question . . . especially if you were raised in a family that held these insidious views when you were growing up. How much of it rubbed off?

Tension naturally exists between what we know Christ would have us feel towards others and the way we have formulated an all-too-human (and flawed) opinion and stereotype about other races. Laws, protests, movements, and policies can help restrain racism, but ultimately they can’t fix the human heart. Only Christ can do that, and it must be modeled by the church. As an aside, America is not the problem; the human heart is the problem. I do not deceive myself into thinking America is perfect. She is not. But America has the best system in the world to live out “all men are created equal” . . . if her citizens join Christ in confronting sin in their hearts.

Oscars: Not the weenies

360px-ACMI_14When I was a child, our family gathered around the TV (or as my dad called it, “the boob tube”) each year to watch the Oscars. It was a chance to glimpse the glamorous world of actors, actresses, directors, and writers. Either I was too young to know or the media, back then, didn’t do as much reporting on the private lives of movie stars. I don’t recall any stories of paparazzi hounding the mundane activities of celebrities. When a star took the stage to accept their Oscar, we didn’t know much about the star’s private life. It was an opportunity for fans to briefly see their favorite actors in a mostly unscripted setting. These days, celebrities can’t go to the loo without their movements (no pun) photographed and reported. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like to know when Jennifer Lawrence gets her hair cut just as much as the next person (sarcasm alert), but will the information and visuals improve my life? (I know it wouldn’t take much to improve my life, but that’s not the point.)

Are we an overly entertained society? Most likely, yes. It feels like the entertainment industry is everywhere. It certainly feels like an element of entertainment has blossomed in the modern church, as well. Still, entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing even in a church context. Christ often used storytelling to add emphasis to his teachings. Give most of us straight information and we nod off. Insert the message in an entertaining story and we pay more attention. Jesus was and is a celebrity, except he is worthy of adoration for more profound reasons. With Jesus, what you see is what he is. He is the embodiment truth.

Some celebrities may be good people, but we really don’t know them. We connect in some way with their image, style, or the characters they portray for our entertainment. But if we had an opportunity to hang out with them for a long time, I doubt their real personality would be what we project it to be (unless they are capable of acting 24/7). For example, my wife recently spoke several times by phone with a woman she had never met in person. When she finally saw the woman on the other end of the phone, she didn’t look anything like the image my wife had created in her mind.

Celebrities may have a talent we enjoy, but it is healthier for us to view them as flawed people with many of the same shortcomings, hang-ups, hurts, and idiosyncrasies that plague the rest of us. Their celebrity status does not immunize them from problems. The greater danger for us is the insidious propensity of our entertainer-worshiping culture’s ability to influence the way we treat people who don’t have much status in our society. For instance, if I always have time to share a story and a laugh with the senior pastor at my mega-church but I don’t have the time of day for the church maintenance staff, then I have misunderstood the teachings of Christ. Everybody wants to hobnob with the well-know.

So when the Oscars air on TV in a few weeks, we can relax and root for our favorite flicks and actors, just so we don’t let the entertainment industry corrupt our soul. Go ‘Captain Phillips!’

Church: More Than a Building

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus ChristEvery now and then I come across a reminder that the church, even with its faults, is a beautiful and enduring blessing. The video below is such a reminder. When I watch a video like this, it lifts my spirit and reminds me that we are part of something that dwarfs every other institution on Earth. In fact, it is more than an institution. Some even say the church IS Christ. At the very least, the church is Christ (God) at work in the world through his followers. Anyhow, this video demonstrates that the church is way more than cool worship teams, Sunday school, dynamic preaching, and amazing short-term mission trips.

The Earth Groans Under My Feet

FEMA_-_264_-_Photograph_by_FEMA_News_Photo_taken_on_10-01-1989_in_CaliforniaLast night I was sitting in a home group and listening to a Bible lesson about Christ our coming king. One of the Scriptures we examined was Romans 8:22, which tells us that all of creation groans in anticipation of being restored after Christ returns. And I kid you not, a few minutes later we had an earthquake. One of the ladies said: “Hey, we’re having an earthquake.” (At first, I didn’t notice the earth was moving because queasiness and disorientation are part of my normal condition.) But once the earthquake was pointed out by the lady who noticed it, I felt it too. We later learned that, fortunately, it was only a 5.7 earthquake centered about a hundred miles to the northeast and there was little damage.

Coincidence? Maybe. I like to think that God occasionally emphasizes lessons with real compelling examples. That earthquake made our Scripture lesson VERY real to me. We have a tendency to talk and think in abstract ways about life, faith, God, and the interconnectedness of spiritual things with the natural world. But when the earth moves under your feet (no disrespect to Carole King intended), well, it hits home in a profound way. The earth, the universe, and all living things indeed groan because they crave restoration to the way they were supposed to be—a harmony of perfection instead of chaos and mortality.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

MP900321197I laughed. I cried. I found it exhilarating. (No, I’m not talking about a Justin Bieber concert.) I’m talking about church, specifically the contemporary church.

Beginning in the early nineties, Cindy and I made the jump from a high church format (no, it was not a church of stoners) to a casual church that included contemporary worship music. (There wasn’t even an organ in the building.) It was a dramatic change for us. We felt uncomfortable for a long time in the contemporary church. They actually had drums and guitars in the sanctuary. (How gauche!) Not that high church is bad or inferior, but the contemporary format and the style of preaching eventually stirred deep emotions in me. It often led me on an inward journey where God’s spirit revealed some things in my life that needed to change. Oddly, it was uncomfortable and fulfilling at the same time.

I would never want the high church format to disappear from the ecosystem of Christianity. It functions quite well for millions of Christians. In fact there are times when I am simply not in the frame of mind to worship to a contemporary beat and listen to a hip message delivered with polished stagecraft and energetic oration. In other words, I occasionally crave a more reverent tone. That’s when it’s wonderful to slip in and worship with high church believers.

One of my in-laws is in a mixed marriage: He attends a high church while his wife and children attend a contemporary church. Just recently, my wife asked him why he doesn’t go to church with his family. He said it was because the theology of the contemporary church was wrong. Specifically, he said the contemporary church in question believed in decision-based salvation. (Funny, I expected him to say it was because they have guitars and drums in the sanctuary.) At least his reasoning was not superficial.

I’ve always thought that all genuine Christians, at some point in their life, made a “decision” as to whether they believe in the divinity of Christ and that he suffered and died for their sins. Still, I ran this controversy of decision-based salvation by a friend who happens to be a deep thinker. Here is a paraphrase of what he said:

The evangelical church has this tendency to present the message of salvation a little too much like a sales pitch. After all, who doesn’t want to go to heaven and who doesn’t want to stay out of hell. And who doesn’t want a Savior who is there to help them through their problems. So when a pastor or a Christian friend pitches salvation to an unbeliever, the formula is simple: The unbeliever is coached to pray the sinner’s prayer whereby they admit their sinfulness, ask for forgiveness, and invite Jesus into their heart. There! The decision is made and the deal is closed.

My friend suggested that it’s possible that many people who come away from this type of salvation sales pitch are not saved. This type of quick decision-based path to salvation bothers the high priests of high churches. They may be right.

Perhaps contemporary evangelical churches need to proceed a little more cautiously when presenting the gospel. I am not suggesting we embrace legalism, but maybe salvation should not be treated like a sales pitch where the customer is presented with only the positive features of the product. Entering a covenant with Christ is a lifetime proposition that will have challenges along with rewards.

Do-It-Yourself Cremation

Glasnevin CemeteryThis actually happened. There was a funeral for an elderly gentleman who was loved by many in the community. During the funeral, the decedent’s grandson read some touching words to honor his grandfather’s life. The grandson read the eulogy on his mobile phone. (No, he didn’t call in his eulogy.) He read the eulogy from notes in his mobile phone. (Do they have an app for that?)Times are changing.

Prior to his death, my father made all the funeral arrangements with a family-owned funeral home that had served his small community for generations. When my father died, it was a tremendous blessing for our family to be unburdened with making funeral arrangements in the midst of our grief. All we had to do was dress up and go the funeral. His funeral took place in the state of Georgia. But something unusual happened on the day of my father’s funeral; or it seemed unusual in the eyes of this Californian. A group of mourners had gathered at my stepmother’s home. We all got into our cars and drove through the countryside to the site of the funeral. Along the way, nearly every car going in the opposite direction pulled to the side of the road until our funeral procession had passed. I noticed that the men who pulled over took off their hats in a gesture of respect. Wow! I have never seen that happen in California.

It used to be that funeral homes were considered a ministry or a sacred community service. Not too many generations before, families assumed the grim task of tending to their dearly departed. Somewhere along the way society made changes in the way we mourn and dispose of our deceased relatives. Recently, I have read reports that the funeral industry has become excessively profit-driven. The implication is that many funeral homes take advantage of grieving families to nickel and dime people in a moment of weakness. I am sure there are still reputable funeral operators, but the thought of death used as a profit-driven venture with shareholders to satisfy . . . well, it has an irksome feel to it.

When I was a child, I occasionally hung out with a kid who lived nearby. His dad was a gruff logger. When his dad died of natural causes, his family shocked the community by insisting that they would dispose of his remains. Legend has it that they went up into the mountains where they built a massive bonfire and cremated the poor fellow. (That’s how we roll in my hometown.) Some in the community were horrified. Others were sympathetic because the family of the deceased was poor and probably could not afford a funeral. Even the police got involved because, apparently, do-it-yourself cremation was against the law. I sort of admired the family’s actions. (I must have Viking blood in my veins.)

Anyhow, as we age and pass away, death can still be a powerful opportunity for those who follow Christ. The only time many people darken the door of a church is at weddings and funerals. A funeral might be the only time a person will ever hear about Christ. As the massive baby boomer population ages and exits this life, there will be a lot of funerals. In fact, I am sure there will be a lot of unconventional funerals as boomers try one last time to express their individuality. I hope Christ is not forgotten in the mix. The important thing to stress is that for believers in Christ, the tomb is empty.

Guns or the Jesus Way

There was a predictable spike in gun sales after the Aurora Colorado shootings. While perusing the news, I stumbled upon an interesting article on this subject in a Christian publication. The writer of the article favored gun ownership as the last line of self-defense when other options have been unsuccessful. The comments about the article generally fell into two camps: (1) Those who believe it is acceptable for Christians to own a gun for self-defense and to protect the weak. (2) Those who detest guns, or fear guns, and see no place for the them in the life of any Christian who follows the instructions of Christ that we are not to resist evil people (the turn-the-other-cheek doctrine). This debate has been going on for a long time.

In Matthew 26:51-52 Jesus is being arrested in the garden when one of his followers pulls a sword and hacks off the ear of a servant of the high priest. (That had to hurt.) Anyhow, Jesus immediately tells his followers to stand down. This is where Jesus utters those famous words that whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.

But hop over to the same story in Luke 22 and check out something that can be easily overlooked in this scene. In Luke 22:36, a short time before Jesus was arrested, he was talking to his disciples about the travel supplies they would need on their journeys to spread the gospel. He told them to pack a sword.

A team of theologians could write an exhaustive commentary on the apparent conflict between Jesus advising his disciples to take a sword on their journeys and, almost in the same breath, telling them that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword. Permit me to throw in my two cents worth. I notice in Luke 22 that Jesus is trying to tell his disciples deep truths about himself and the fulfillment of Scriptures. His ministry is almost over and his disciples, after years of instruction, do not fully comprehend all that Jesus has taught them. When he tells them to take a sword as part of their travel supplies, they quickly and enthusiastically respond that they already have two swords. Jesus tells them that’s enough swords. I can almost hear Jesus’ sigh of exasperation. His disciples understand the purpose of taking swords on their journey but they don’t seem to understand what Jesus is about to do on the cross for humanity.

Christ knows that his followers live in a dangerous, often lethal, and irrational world. Self-defense against criminals and defending the weak are not the same as enduring persecution for following Christ. However, relying too much on the sword (i.e. the gun) for protection in this life puts us in even greater danger because the gun can lure us into a false feeling of security, or exacerbate our fears. In other words, genuine peace of mind must first come from God.

In the interest of full disclosure, I own a gun. But the gun doesn’t give me as much peace when I put my head on the pillow at night as verses like Psalm 3:5: “I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me.”

Here’s my point: The gun is a tool that deals with symptoms, not the cause of evil. If we want to impact the root cause of humanity’s ills, we need to apply the majority of our efforts at wielding tools like the word of God and living a genuine Christian life. Ultimately, it’s Christ who transforms hearts from evil to good.

Everlastings

“But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him . . .” Psalms 103:17.

In the May, 2012, issue of Smithsonian magazine you’ll find an article titled “Onward, Voyagers” by Timothy Ferris. The article is an update on the twin Voyager space mission which, as Ferris puts it, “. . . has been outbound for the past 35 years . . .” Here are a few highlights from the article that provide a grand picture of our temporal home in the cosmos:

Voyager One is now 11 billion miles out from Earth. The Voyager probes are traveling at a speed of 40,000 mph relative to the Sun. Radio signals of Voyager One, traveling at the velocity of light, take 16 hours to reach Earth. Radio signals from the two probes, captured daily by the Deep Space Network’s big dish antennas, arrive at a strength of less than one femtowatt, a millionth of a billionth of a watt.

Here’s another fascinating excerpt from the Ferris article: “People ask when one of the Voyagers will encounter another star. The answer, according to JPL’s (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) navigators, is that Voyager Two, 40,000 years from now, will pass within 1.7 light-years of the red dwarf star Ross 248. But what that really means is that Ross 248, sweeping by Voyager Two like a distant ocean liner viewed from a lifeboat, will be seen from the perspective of Voyager Two to slowly brighten over the millennia, then get dimmer for many more.”

Wow! Sort of makes you feel . . . lonely in the cosmos. If the magnitude of God’s creation eludes you, try this: Late some night go outside and look up at the heavens and try to bend your thought to the regions behind the light of a full moon. If you are like me, your comprehension of the distances beyond the moon soon peters out, or you get a headache from straining for a measurement to which you can relate that’s not beyond human intellect. It’s just easier to go inside and shut out the night. Anyhow, that’s the point—God’s love transcends our ability to measure it. We can’t get our head around the distance and void in the universe any more than we can fathom the depths of God’s love. Or can we?

Jesus is our context. He brings the everlasting love of God within our comprehension, and goes a step further by actually placing that love in the believer’s heart. He can do this because he is also God. He stepped out from the everlastings and entered our little world. His sacrifice endows us with more than a peek at God’s love. The life and Sacrifice of Christ reveals the invisible depth of God’s love for all, who are willing, to see and receive. What a paradox—the incomprehensible love of God can be known because Jesus walked this tiny rock in the cosmos. That is so cool!