Monday, October 30, 2017

Remember My Chains

Colossians has some of the loftiest language in Scripture used to talk about Christ as the "image of the invisible God." Paul speaks of the importance of understanding who Jesus really is, leaving behind what keeps us from God, and putting on the traits of Christ. It's clear that a lot of important things are happening. The end of the letter contains a list of personal greetings and comments. There's Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and Luke, the physician. Paul concludes by wishing them all grace, but before he does, he also says, "Remember my chains."

Those three words, remember my chains, take us into the reality of the present. Jesus is Lord, he is the firstborn over all creation, and all his enemies will one day acknowledge his lordship, but right now, please remember me and what I'm going through. I need your help.

This passage makes me think about how important it is for each of us to strive for deeper friendships among fellow believers. It isn't possible to know everyone, but it's critical to get to know some people well enough that you can share in each other's challenges. It's so easy to settle for a quick handshake and a surface level conversation about the weather. But I wonder, as we pass by each other on our way here or our way home, what are the burdens that people are carrying quietly? Many of us are too shy or humble to want to draw attention to our problems, but just the same, it helps to know that someone remembers your chains. "How have you really been?"  "I remember you told me about ____, have things gotten any better?" "Catch me up on how things have been going for you."

Even the apostle Paul needed to feel personally valued, no matter how strong he was in the faith. He didn't need them to fix it or solve it; just to support him as he endured it. And surely this is part of why God has given us the church, so that we don't ever have to face any struggle alone. Are you investing yourself in others enough to know what their struggles are? Are you giving them the opportunity to do the same with you and yours? There's probably someone near you right now who would feel a little better if they knew you were remembering them and their struggles.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

And Be Thankful

Colossians 3:12-15 contains a beautiful portrait of what a Christian life should be. There are several aspects of our character that should serve as ornamentation for who we are: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and--most of all--love. The one thing that all of these share in common is that they require conscious decisions. It takes effort to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, etc. Paul uses these to describe someone who has clothed themselves with Christian character. Being dressed and prepared requires that action of dressing and preparing.

In contrast, the life unclothed requires no such preparation. We could make a similar list for what describes a person who has not put on Christian character: uncompassionate, unkind, arrogant, gruff, impatient, unforgiving, and--most of all--apathetic. These things require no skill and no forethought.

If we are to overcome these, we are to let "the peace of Christ rule in your hearts...and be thankful (Col. 3:15)." That little phrase at the end says a lot. It is one thing to curb our behaviors. We can become less reactive and more prudent in what we say and do. But we are invited to change at the heart level. In every situation, be thankful. When people show you kindness and acceptance, be thankful. When you get the promotion, get the contract, and achieve the win, be thankful. But when you feel challenged, opposed, and defeated, continue to show the character of one who has wrapped yourself in Christian character. Let Christ's peace, and not your gut reaction, be what rules in your heart. Trust that God's strength will become even clearer because of your time of weakness. And be thankful.

A thankful heart on the inside begins the transformation of who you are on the outside.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Reflecting on Micah 6:8

For the last few weeks, I have written my bulletin articles as reflections on Micah 6:8. These are not deep exegetical efforts, but more devotional in nature. They are here for you to peruse if you would like.

Micah 6:8 - Knowing What Is Good
I want to reflect on Micah 6:8, a very significant passage. I want to look at one phrase at a time, trusting that God’s Word is a well not easily exhausted when we take time to drink from it. Here’s the whole verse: 
He has told you, O man, what is good—and what does the Lord require of you,but to do justice and to love kindnessand to walk humbly with your God.

Think about the first line. “He has told you, O man, what is good.” Though there are many things that divide people and cultures, there are also certain things that we all share. One of these is the seemingly endless quest for what is good and worthy of our time. Even in the Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness” is counted as an inalienable right, given to all human beings by our Creator, and which therefore no government should take away. Yet here in Micah’s words, we are reminded that for all the billions of dollars spent each year on vehicles, homes, vacations, sports, education, dramatic arts, music, and on whatever else it is we turn to seeking happiness, God has already told us what is good.

This should provide an immediate advantage to the children of God, because our lives should not be characterized by needless pursuits of frivolous things. True happiness comes from being at peace with the one who created us, and from showing love to his children. It is in fact possible to live a beautiful and meaningful life without ever traveling even a mile from the place you were born. God’s Word has come to us as a gift to be received, and here in our lives, God provides us with everything we need to flourish, right where we are. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t go out and explore this big beautiful world and meet the amazing people with whom we share it. We just need to understand that what can bring us truest happiness is all around us and within us, begging for our notice and cultivation. Seek first the Kingdom of God to find your joy there, and God will give many other good things to you as well.

Micah 6:8 - Owning Our Baptismal Vows
The second phrase of Micah 6:8 is in the form of a question. “And what does the Lord require of you?” 

The only way we can receive the grace of God is as a gift. It is unmerited kindness, which we could never fully repay. There is no measurement or criteria by which we could excuse ourselves from our shortcomings and limitations. We must all turn to Christ if we want to receive salvation, and allow the Spirit to strengthen our walk, making up for what we lack. Yet because we have received grace, our gratitude for this gift should become obvious in our conduct and character.

Micah reminds us that being saved does not come without expectations. In our weekly rhythm of worship and work, it is important to keep asking that question: “Here, where God has placed me, what does God expect from me?” Perhaps God has kept you where you are for reasons unique to yourself. Maybe you could offer a word of encouragement and be heard where others would be ignored. Maybe it is your talents that God intends to use for something larger if you were to make yourself available. It isn’t a sense of guilt, or an attempt to pay off our salvation debt that drives us, but instead our gratitude, and the privilege of getting to use what we’ve been given as part of the work that God is accomplishing in the world. This might make a worthy thought for you this week as you remember Christ in communion. “What does the Lord require of me? How could I honor my Lord more this week than I did last week?"

Micah 6:8 - Doing Justice and Loving Kindness
The third phrase in Micah 6:8 begins a response to the last devotional's question:
And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness

There is more to this thought, but let’s not rush ahead to it. Justice and kindness both cast long shadows of importance over Scripture. God seems to have a special place in his heart for widows, for orphans, and for foreign immigrants; all of who are vulnerable or out of place. If we want to have a heart like God’s, we would do well to cultivate love in our hearts for these same groups of people, and for others who are at a disadvantage. 

Could you even begin to describe the value that your immediate family members have had in shaping your life, for better or for worse? If you had a father or a mother who made time for you, who played with you, who talked with you about God and how the world works, can you even imagine where you’d be without the influence they have provided you? Have you ever had to make a move to a place where you knew no one and to be called the “new kid” or the “foreigner.” If you’ve not had the experience of losing a parent or a spouse, or being completely uprooted from all that is familiar to you, count your blessings. Many cannot say the same. 

We cannot always know a person’s backstory when we meet them, but it seems that we should always keep our thermostat set on kindness. If you were new, if you were vulnerable, if you had lost the person closest to you in your life, what would you want others to do for you? That’s a significant part of Micah’s phrasing, isn’t it? We’re called on to love kindness, but justice is something we are told to do. We cannot always ensure an equality of outcomes for people, but we can do everything within our power to give people a fair chance and better possibilities. There are people in your life right now who would give anything to be in your shoes. What could you be doing to help create that possibility for them, especially if they have no other good role models to guide them?

Micah 6:8 - Walking Humbly
This thought is a continuation of the last thought’s admonishment. We are to do justice, we are to love kindness, but we are also to walk humbly. Humility is slippery, isn’t it? As soon as you claim to have achieved it, you’ve lost it. At this point in my life, my favorite metaphor for Christian leadership is the idea of creating space. I believe it ties in easily to humility. A good question for servant leaders is, “How do I create spaces where others can use their talents in a way that glorifies God, where they can be encouraged and strengthened, and where none of the attention is focussed on me?" A person who is confused or hurting needs a leader who makes space for them to share what’s on their heart. Even a simple hug is a way of making space within myself so that there is a place for you with me. John the Baptist had it right: “He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)"

Consider the significance of space. If you build a new home, the real value of a home is not in the foundation or the structure, but in the empty space contained therein where a family’s life can happen. The value of a bowl or a container is the kind of space contained therein where you place the things you desire to fill it. Much the same with a stage in an auditorium, it is the space it creates for communication and hearing that makes it useful. 

“Walk humbly,” Micah reminds us. What people need from us is not for us to be the container that is overflowing with our own ego, with our own stories of self-importance, or with our own agenda. Walking humbly means that I value you enough to give you space in my life while also resisting the urge to crowd it. It is amazing how much people can grow when they have the space to. Can you walk humbly enough to be the empty home where others can find refuge, the empty bowl that would receive and value what is special about them, or the open stage that celebrates them and allows them to cultivate their own God-given gifts? Humility is a tricky concept, but it certainly has to involve more of God and less of me.

Micah 6:8 - With Your God
In this final reflection on Micah 6:8, having been admonished to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly, Micah reminds us that we are to do all of these things “with your God.” God hasn’t just handed us an instruction book and left us on our own to figure it out; he goes with us. 

The key to spiritual growth is awareness. If we feel a need to rekindle our relationship with God, we tend to gravitate to those places where we have experienced God’s presence with the most lucidity. Whether it’s a favorite place on your property, a treasured vacation spot, or a seat near some dearly respected friends with whom you worship each week, it is easy to believe God is near in those places where we have had our closest experiences of him. But the truth is, you’ve never been any place where God is not. One of my favorite prayers is an old Irish one called “I Rise Today.” The prayer invites Christ’s presence in a creative variety of ways: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that seems me, Christ in every ear that hears me…” 

Something about the specificity of that prayer is helpful to me in remembering that whatever it is we are doing, wherever it is we are going, there are opportunities to experience God and ways we can honor God. This was as true of Paul’s sermons in the most impressive hearings as it was of his quiet conversations behind bars. Likewise, it's just as true of your morning commute, your afternoon cup of coffee, and your evening routine with your family. God’s presence is unchanging. It is our awareness that needs changing. In Scripture, “walking” is often used as a way to speak of a person’s life. Your life is your journey, and in Bible times, there was no way to journey that didn’t involve walking. You don’t have to walk alone, and you don’t have to travel to an exotic location to find God. You’ll discover he’s been there all along if you’re willing to include him. Do all of the things you’re doing, but do them with your God.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Faith Collisions

This is a picture from 1912 where some poor man is testing a rugby helmet. You can theorize all you want about the best places to put padding, straps, and protection. You can use dummies and simulations. But in the end, when you put on a helmet, the only true test that matters is when you have a collision that requires you to depend on it for your safety and survival.

I think faith works in a similar way. I'm not opposed to hearing a variety of ideas about God, the universe, and humanity's place in all of it. As you know, there are numerous competing ideas in the world about where we came from, what is morally good, and what is a worthy use of our time. But the only way to really know how much you can depend on the object of your faith is when your faith has been tested by some collision with reality. It is not the amount of faith we have that makes us safe and secure, but rather the one in whom we put our faith. It doesn't matter whether you have a beautiful, shiny helmet of a trendy brand or an ugly, colorless helmet with no label. What matters is how well your helmet actually protects you when you need it.

Many people are absolutely convinced that what is trendy must surely be what is best, and they will race ahead without ever giving thought to what might happen when in their life they hit a wall. Though we would never actively seek difficulties, James says that as Christians, we should be encouraged when we face difficulties, because the outcome of our tested faith is that we'll learn that God is solid and reliable, and because he's been reliable one time, we know we can trust him even more the next time (James 1:2-4). The good thing about collisions is that they get past the exterior appearances and force us to grapple with whether or not we are building our life on something solid.

Perhaps we are also wise to notice the three men in the back of this photo, conveniently not beating their heads against the wall, but witnessing the other man's collision. If you want to know the strength of a belief system, watch closely those who have held on to it through difficult situations. Think of all the cancer survivors we have at church. Think of those who had formerly been incarcerated or who have recovered from addictions. Think of all those who have lost spouses and even children, yet continue to worship among us each week. You may not have experienced the toughest challenges of your life yet, but you can learn a lot from those who have. Was the help that God provides enough to carry them through? Your collisions will come, sooner or later. Be thoughtful about how you are preparing yourself, and be sure you're putting your hope in something--or someone--on whom you can depend.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Having just returned last week from the mission trip to Costa Rica, I was reminded of what a refreshing thing it is to experience simplicity. There is nothing like waking up each morning with only one clear objective and one priority, which is to glorify God and to serve him wherever we are. On a mission trip, this is made even easier, because we have pre-arranged for things like meals so that all we're really having to concern ourselves with is the work for which we've prepared. There are no competing schedules or priorities. Beyond this, I can't express how much I enjoyed not watching the news for a solid week. I never had to hear the words, "Trump", "Russia", "Fake News", or anything else like that and I didn't miss it a bit. I got on social media once each day to post an update with pictures, but very little other than that. Once again, I didn't miss it a bit. 

It's not possible always to be so undistracted in our normal settings. There are work and family schedules and obligations, and current events which affect us. Even though we cannot achieve perfect balance in our lives, we will still benefit from the effort to live in a way that is more simplified and focused. I wanted to share a list with you I came across a few years ago by Richard Foster. Foster has written some enormously helpful books on practicing spiritual disciplines, and these are his guidelines for simplicity. They are worth considering. 

Richard Foster's Guidelines for Simplicity:
1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
3. Develop a habit of giving things away.
4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all "buy now, pay later" schemes.
8. Obey Jesus' instructions about plain, honest speech.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.

Have a great week...and keep it simple!

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Day 6 - Prodigal Son & Some Good News

We had a busy day yesterday and I didn't get a chance to post. There is quite a bit of routine to what is going on during the weekdays this week. VBS in the morning, prep work in the afternoon, and evangelistic worship gatherings in the evening.

VBS is running really well. One of the things I enjoy doing on mission trips is pushing people out of their comfort zones, and it is often the Christians from Costa Rica who have to stretch themselves. They have all the same timidness that we do about speaking, being in front of people, acting, leading singing, etc. I have continued saying to two or three of them at VBS, "Hey! I'll lead two English songs and then you lead two Spanish songs." Day 1 and 2 they looked at me like a deer in the headlights, but yesterday afternoon a bunch of them got together with a big group from our team and they were all practicing and teaching each other songs. This morning, I had told them that I wasn't going to help with the song leading because I knew they could handle it. And they did great. Hunter had gone on the trip before, and she took a lead role in getting the kids warmed up. The skits have all been great, and the children are loving all the booths. Carolina brought a bluetooth photo printer with her, a tripod, and some props for a photo booth. The little pictures we've been making of the children have been a huge hit.

Stacy and his merry men + Chelsea continue to do amazing work on the stage. Now they are ready to put down carpet, to stain it, and to do the trim work. The ramp on the right side turned out well.

During our break time today we took the group to an art marketplace downtown. Part of me loves going, but part of me gets irritated when some of the vendors try to rip me off. Even so, we all bought some nifty souvenirs and a few things I'm sure we will auction off later to raise money for future trips.

We've started coming a little earlier in the evenings before dinner back to the church building so we can sing together. It's been enjoyable. Tonight before dinner, we got all the ladies who have been cooking for us and sang to them "The Lord Bless You And Keep You." They were visibly touched.

Tonight was just fantastic. I had the privilege of speaking, and it was one of those occasions where I really liked the text I was preaching from (the Prodigal Son), and could just feel it was a significant event. I talked about the father and the two sons, and how both sons had been deceived by Satan in different ways, urging people to return home if they needed, and to welcome home those who have been far away. At the end of the sermon, a man came forward named Josue David. We took him to a back room to visit with him, and he was absolutely broken. He started gushing all kinds of things about his life and his deep desire to have hope and to be a better person and a better father. We were able to baptize him, and it was a very significant moment for everyone present. Very few dry eyes in the building.

Here's something I think is really cool: Some of our people met him while they were out door-knocking and passing out flyers about the VBS and evening Campaign. He talked to them, and they studied the Bible with him a little bit. Today he brought his boy to VBS and Carolina had the chance to talk to him and to give him the picture we printed of his son on a cute VBS-themed foam backing. He showed up tonight, was convicted in his heart by the message, and made a decision that he wanted to be a Christian. He said to us before we left tonight, "Next time when you return, you'll find me here." We told him that was our hope and our prayer.

Josue David was not someone they had been studying with before, and they had not even known him until the last day or so. They were only out distributing flyers because of the campaign, and they were having the campaign because our team made this trip. He came to the building for the first time because of the VBS, and in part because he was impressed with it, he showed up tonight. It feels really good to be able to say that because we made this trip, a person was saved tonight. We've had a great evening.

Tomorrow is our last day of VBS and the last night of the evangelistic campaign.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Day 4 - First day of VBS, the Evangelistic Campaign, and the disappearing-reappearing suitcase

Today was part of what I love most about organizing mission trips. There are months--in this case, years--of preparation all leading up to the time and place where you go. You make charts, plans, and assign tasks to a variety of people. Everyone does their part, and when the whole thing comes together, it is so much more than just the sum of the individual parts.

Our people had worked so hard creating backdrops and costumes for skits. Debbie had worked on scripts and had led rehearsals of the material. We tried learning some Spanish songs and decided who would do what in the various sections of the VBS rotation. But today, once we got it kicked off, it was so much fun to watch it all work.

I knew it was great when I saw the kids start engaging the skit actors, laughing at our "sheep" and Kailani, our wolf (defeated by the shepherd). When our shepherd left his ninety-nine sheep to look for the one and started calling for it, all the Costa Rican children had seen it wander off and started shouting, "It's over there!" 

They loved the snacks, crafts, games, and reviews. I brought an enormous inflatable beach ball with us, which was a hit. In my wisdom and presence of mind, I invited our one asthmatic team member to be the one who blew it up. He did in fact, and it turned out great, but upon realizing what I had asked of him, I had a face palm kind of moment. 

I was talking to Ronald today and telling him I thought things were going well and I was very surprised to learn from him that this was the first time the church had ever tried a program resembling the one we put together. VBS programs are so common in the States, they can seem almost overdone. I had thought it strange when we were coordinating the trip with Ronald, I could tell he was having a hard time grasping what we had in mind with the VBS, but after today's conversation, it all made a lot more sense. I think this is one of the neat things about these kinds of trips, when our churches provide each other with fresh ideas and perspectives. Sometimes an idea that seems like old hat to one group might be something new and life-giving for another. The kids responded wonderfully, and I think the adults who are volunteering with us were really pleased with the program.

Stacy Blair and his crew are doing an absolutely phenomenal job on the stage in the auditorium. In one day they did a full tear down of the old stage and had a functional stage in place for tonight. It's super solid. All they really have to do on it at this point is the finishing of the aesthetics, but the structure is done. We used it tonight! One of the things I love about Central Americans is that they waste nothing. Ronald knew about a family who could use the wood from the old stage, so their demolition was very gentle. They removed all the old nails and preserved all the boards to prepare to deliver it to the family who will use it. 

As we got closer to the Gospel Meeting tonight, we decided it was time for Jake to make a trip to the airport to see about getting his luggage. Carolina had offered to call over there before they went. From a distance, I could see her waving her hands around as she was talking on the phone and I knew what was happening, and that I wouldn't have wanted to be on the receiving end of that phone call. She is not at all afraid to stand up for people and to expect results from people who are shall I say..."competence-challenged." When they hurried over to the airport, the bag was there waiting for them. Sometimes a little extra encouragement goes a long way. :-)

So now Jake is proudly displaying some Nashville Predators clothing. This is because he has incredible taste, and also because he has his clothing FINALLY. 

A couple of other things today I found touching. I learned that two of the ladies who are showing up and volunteering to cook all of our meals for us are riding buses to get here 1 hour 45 minutes each way. It was just really humbling to know they are going to so much trouble on our account. I was thanking one of the ladies who cooks tonight and she said, "We do it because in our hearts, we have great love for God and also great love for you."

The other was our speaker for the Gospel meeting. Many people responded well to the speaker. He was eloquent and passionate. He spoke about the lost coin, and God's great passion for seeking us out because we have value to him. As he was speaking, he said something I didn't quite follow about how when he preaches, it's as if God gives him a "new tongue." What I learned after the fact is that the rest of the time, he always stutters, but when he preaches, he never stutters. It was an interesting thing to learn about him, and he credits God with the help. 

Tomorrow through Thursday will be the same basic routine with VBS and work projects in the morning and Gospel Meetings in the evenings. But along the way I'm sure we'll continue to meet new people and have pleasant surprises. The team has all showed up on time and been well unified in the things we've been doing. An unexpected blessing for us has been two girls named Shannon and Acacia. They are ACU students who are living at Ronald's house with his family while they are doing a language immersion school here in Costa Rica. They are very sweet and have jumped right in and helped wonderfully. I'm looking forward to getting to know them better this week, too.

You can be praying about one of the ladies who responded to the sermon tonight. She is very interested in church, and is requesting some personal Bible study. Ronald is going to work out a time with her and has asked me to accompany him when he goes. I hope it comes together, and I'm looking forward to it. 

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Day 3 - Church, Soccer, and Socializing

This was a really nice day. The weather down here continues to be very moderate and beautiful, mostly in the 70s. Our first activity this morning was going to church. Christians in Desamparados and in Central America generally are all "huggers." We got to greet a lot of the church members as they arrived.

The worship service lasted about 2 hours. Ronald did a nice job of setting up the week. It was clear they had been preparing for our visit, and he preached on the parable of the sower, anticipating the four daily emphases for our Pescadores de Hombres "Fishers of Men" theme. It was especially encouraging that they had two respond today, wanting to be baptized: a man named Gabriel and a woman named Jovana. They invite all the members to come up to the front who want to take pictures or video clips. The church surrounds the baptismal pool, which is located for them in front of the stage in an (unheated) hot tub-type setup. They had been studying with members of the church for several weeks. They allowed me to say a prayer of blessing for them after their baptism, which was an honor for me to get to do.

For lunch, we had invited the whole congregation to join us. In my own experiences, "free lunch" is always a great way to boost attendance, and I think it probably gave them a little boost this morning. We were spread out all over the place, and it gave us some opportunity to talk with the christians more.

Following lunch we changed clothes and headed to an athletic center that has a number of soccer fields to rent. They were all astro turf and covered. We started by letting the kids play first, and we introduced them to bottle link tag. Following them, the guys divided into teams of 5 and started playing a sudden-death style rotation where any time a team scored, the other team had to step off and another stepped on. We kept that up for a pretty long time. After the guys, we moved to a field outside that had come open and was a little nicer, and the ladies played while the guys cheered.

This was really nice in general because it gave us a fun and active way to engage the church members; laughing, cheering, taunting...whatever the moment called for. We want them to know they're not alone, and we want them to view us as their peers who care about them.

We returned to the hotel late in the afternoon exhausted but full of good memories. Tonight for dinner, we wanted to treat Ronald's family and some of the church members to dinner. We decided that Pizza Hut was probably the most likely option to please everyone. Nora and the girls got there ahead of us to reserve table space for 38(!).

If there's anything I learned from 7.5 years as a youth minister, it's how to estimate pizza quantities. My formula worked perfectly and I felt like a boss. Everyone was completely full and there were fewer than 3 pieces left.

It's almost 11pm and we just returned from Pizza Hut. Though we had a late start, we took our time and had a very enjoyable visit. I was pleased to see a lot of intermingling between Americans and Costa Ricans. I know the ladies were appreciative that we bought them dinner as opposed to having them cook for the group tonight.

Tomorrow begins the first day of VBS and the evangelistic campaign. I know the church has been promoting it. We're excited, but have absolutely no idea how many kids will show up. Our expectation is that each night we'll have a few more than the night before.

For now, it's time for bed.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Day 2 - Final Preparations and Electrical Outages

Today, much like yesterday, has taken some surprising turns, but has been a blessed experience. We've all been plagued a bit by the exhaustion that comes from a day full of travel, complicated by weather and missing luggage. (Still waiting on poor Jake's.)

We got a terrific breakfast this morning featuring very Costa Rican style foods, such as gallo pinto  and plantains. We went to the church building where the church members had started gathering and prepping to make some lunch for the group. The morning consisted of dividing up into several areas.

Stacy and a group went to the lumbar yard with Ronald to purchase the needed materials to rebuild the stage after they tear down the current one. We will wait until after church tomorrow before doing any demolition.

There was also a large group from our group, led by Debbie, who worked together with young adults from Desamparados to practice the four skits we have prepared for Monday-Thursday. They made a lot of progress.

The final group was working on separating out all the materials from our duffel bags so that we can be prepared for all the stations, each day of VBS. So much work has gone into the trip, and it's really gratifying to see the Costa Rican's eyes lighten up when they see some of the things we had prepared and brought with us. The materials look good, and we are feeling good about most of the things we've been getting ready for.

Our lunch was delicious. It was a sort of Italian-style dish with salad and fruit punch. We were able to surprise Maylee Johnston with a cake, card, and some singing for her 13th birthday.

The intention had been that for dinner tonight, we were going to take several of the church members with us--mostly those who had been volunteering on the VBS program--to a restaurant. But something happened in Panama that has created waves throughout Central America. I haven't really tried to catch up on the news, but there was some sort of explosion at a power plant that is a major provider for several nations. There are international connections, and therefore power outages from Mexico to Panama. In Costa Rica, the power has been mostly out, certainly at traffic lights. Porras showed his expert skill as a bus driver in taking us around town, but everything is very congested because of the lights.

When we came back to the hotel to regroup and learned a little more about the larger situation. We decided it was a more responsible choice not to go out driving around. We have missed the opportunity to connect more with the Costa Ricans but did make the most of our time here in the afternoon to connect better as a team. We've all struggled all day with tiredness, residual from yesterday's travel issues. We ended up having a very nice meal here at the hotel, and were able to work in an additional devotional time together, singing in the stairwell of our area of the hotel. We all talked about ways in which we want to stretch ourselves to grow and do more.

Tomorrow we will be worshipping with the Desamparados congregation, and then we have several things planned that will involve us with the whole church enjoying food and having fun together. Several plans have had to change here and there, but things are going very well.

Day 1 - Delays and Deliverance

I am writing this at 2:36am Costa Rican time, which would make it 3:36am CST. The journey to Costa Rica was quite an adventure. Everything went smoothly with our check-ins and our flight to Houston. At our gate in Houston, we discovered a group of around 10 ACU students who are also coming down for a mission trip this week in the mountainous area to the south.

Once we got on our way in Houston, we had been on the plane for a long time, and were within just a few minutes of landing when the pilot told us the clouds and rain in San Jose were too think, and we would have to taxi for a while. Eventually, our gas was going to get too low, so we went to another town called Libera, on the northwest coast of Costa Rica. We stayed on the plane for an hour or so as we waited for news. Jake, our traveler from Tennessee, was flying in on another airline. They ended up putting both of our planes down in Liberia, so we were really close, but not together. His airline decided to take all passengers by bus to San Jose, and we are still waiting for him at the hotel right now.

Ours was finally able to make the flight, and we landed uneventfully. We got our luggage without any trouble. The funny thing is that we arrived so late that all the employees really obviously didn't want to be there, so it was by far the easiest time through security and scanning that we've ever had!

Our dear friend Jose Porras was there with the iconic green bus to pick us up. We headed straight for a Denny's to finally get dinner around midnight. We were all tired from the traveling, but we are now at our hotel, which is very comfortable, and our rooms are all close together. We'll have a nice week here.

For now, everyone is in their rooms, and likely resting. (At least, they OUGHT to be!)

We're going to get a little bit of a later start in the morning to compensate for the lack of sleep. Tomorrow will be a day for getting our bearings and seeing what final touches need to be made to our plans for the work this trip.

The first day has reminded me of the benefit of disrupting your personal routines. It's nice to have an excuse for extended time with your Christian family. We have a great team this year with a lot of super-organized individuals. I think it's the best prepared mission trip I've ever been part of, at least whatever parts are under our control. Despite our frustrations with delayed landings, uncertainty about where we might have to spend the night, and great doubt that we'd ever get dinner, I think we'd all say that we had a great time on the plane. Lots of talking, laughing, and sharing stories about ourselves. Everyone seems healthy and happy so far.

The weather down here is cool but not cold. Feels just wonderful. We'll try to keep reporting in here every day. Also, we'll try to put pictures on the church fan page.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Egyptian Nostalgia

Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Perhaps. It does seem that with the passing of time, some of our memories become a bit more selective. When people pine away for the "good old days," I've always wondered if the "good old days" were really as good as some people like to remember them. Sure, we all have some happy memories of childhood delights and adventures, but not everything about growing up is joyful, nor are all memories pleasant ones. Somehow when we allow nostalgia to kick in, we can find ourselves longing for a better time that might not have ever existed quite as we are now remembering it. Take the Israelites for example.

Their slavery in Egypt involved unpaid labor, whips and beatings, and targeting by government officials that labeled them as menace and threat to society. Their young baby boys were systematically executed so they'd become a people without men. They cried out and begged God to deliver them, and God answered.

Their delivery from Egyptian slavery involved the direct intervention of God himself. There were natural disasters, plagues, and miracles. There were guiding towers of clouds by day that became fiery pillars by night, leading them wherever they ought to go. And as they went into the wilderness, they neither planted nor harvested, but God dropped bread from the heavens called manna so that they had only to gather and eat what they needed, day by day.

Knowing what we know about the Israelites' experiences, I find Numbers 11:4-18 to be one of the most jaw-dropping passages in Scripture. They complain as they weep:
"Oh, that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look was better for us in Egypt."
Wouldn't you love to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them? Such whining! Such ingratitude! Your freedom came to you as nothing short of a divine miraculous intervention, and the only thing you do in response is cry and complain about the food? Are you really longing for the very place from which you begged God to deliver you?

But before we judge them too harshly, I wonder if we are sometimes guilty of the same kinds of actions. Can you put yourself in the mental and emotional place where you were when you became a Christian? Perhaps you were in tears as you confessed your deep need for Jesus to save you. Can you still feel the water on your skin as you were lowered into it and then raised back out of it? Do you remember the sound of rejoicing that accompanied your rebirth? You might have thought to yourself, "This is the best moment of my life. From here on, for me to live is Christ. God is all that matters. I'm giving him my life, no matter what."

In the time since then, have you ever varied from that course? Has your passion ever diminished? Have your priorities gotten clouded with other agenda items that help you with self-promotion rather than Kingdom-promotion? Have you complained about the inconvenience of serving God and gathering with the saved?

The book of Hebrews has a conspicuous central theme: Jesus is better. The writer seems to be addressing Jewish Christians who in the face of persecution were tempted to fall back on Judaism the way that the Israelites had fallen back on Egypt nostalgia. Commenting on this exact comparison, the writer urges Christians not to fall into the same sort of disobedience as them, and continues:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)
If we are to use our memories for anything, let us remember our confession. Let us remember how badly we needed deliverance, and how strongly we had committed ourselves to walking a better path. Jesus is better than what we had without him. Don't ever forget it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What Bible Translation Should I Use?

In ministry, by a wide margin, the most frequent question I receive from people has to do with what Bible translation they should use. The truth is, no translation is perfect. In fact, since translations have different philosophies behind them, it's actually pretty hard to even speak of one being "better" than another because it all depends on the purposes for which you are using a translation. Basically, there are two approaches, and all philosophies fall in between the two at various points on the scale.

At one end is a word-for-word translation approach. This means that the translators try to use a minimum number of words to correspond to every word in the original texts. If you are a person who likes to zoom in and do very specific word studies and pay close attention to what words are used, this is a better type translation for you to use. The benefit of this type of approach is that there will be a largely literal translation from the original languages, and you will have fewer added phrases which are included to help with clarity in other translations.

The down side of these kinds of translations is that they tend to be stiff, and sometimes the wording is confusing. The truth is, Biblical languages are quite different from English in the way they are structured and in the way verbs and tenses work. Some words are actually untranslatable because of how they function. Other words are used because they have more than one possible meaning; both of which might be implied. A good example of this is John 1:5, where it says that the darkness did not "κατέλαβεν" the light. This word can either mean "understood" or "overcome" and it's likely that John would intend both meanings. Which do you choose? It's often not easy to decide! Word-for-word translations are helpful for doing highly analytical studies of a few words at a time. The most word-for-word approach is an interlinear Bible, and starting from here, some other translations that lean this way would be the NASB, with the ESV and NKJV on the more moderate end.

On the other end of the scale is a thought-for-thought approach to translation. There are a lot of places in Scripture where a word-for-word translation would make no sense in the English language. For example, Philippians 2:1b would literally say, "...if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of Spirit, if any bowels and compassions..." It was the cultural belief that your intestines were the seat of your emotions and often in Scripture, strong emotions are expressed in reference to one's lower guts. But this isn't how we would typically speak of deep emotions, and so a thought-for-thought approach is helpful here; probably even necessary. I would translate the passage something like: "...if any comfort from his love, if any sharing in the Spirit, if any feelings of deep affection or compassion..." It makes a lot more sense to the reader that way. The best reason to use a thought-for-thought translation is that it will read naturally and more beautifully, and you'll likely walk away with a better comprehension. This approach is used heavily for children's translations and for translations intended for people with limited knowledge of the language in which they are reading.

The down side of thought-for-thought translations is a translator's bias has a better possibility of imposing meanings on the text. They are trying to express an equivalent idea, and not necessarily using the exact words. So these translations are not useful for doing specific word studies in English because they will contain a lot of wording intended to help the reader that might not be in the original texts. At the extreme end of the thought-for-thought method would be paraphrases like The Message, which might even try to go for a whole paragraph at a time, rather than a just a phrase or a thought. Beginning at this end, you would have the CEV, the NLT, with the NIV towards the middle.

Somewhere in the center, blending both methods heavily, you would have the CSB and the NRSV. It is also great to know about the website which has dozens of translations available for free and is an easy way to compare options before choosing one to buy. I personally own a lot of different translations, and I love them all for different reasons. Whatever version that would inspire you keep the Word as a more active part of your life, I encourage you to go for it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Royal Hospitality

When we speak of our Presidents, one of the ways we evaluate their performance is by looking at what they have done during their first 100 days in office. In fact, as I am composing this, Donald Trump is just wrapping up his 92nd day in office. Presidents, Kings and Prime Ministers have a unique opportunity to act in ways that affect large numbers of people, reaching even billions through what they do. It is hard to know, during the time of a leader's tenure, exactly which of their deeds will define them in the years that follow them, especially after some of the political banter has died down.

Some of our leaders establish their legacy in unflattering ways, being remembered for their failures, ineptitude, or indiscretions. Others are cherished and romanticized for their victories, economic expansions, or eloquence. While all leaders have a collection of attributes, both positive and negative, it is still usually a more narrow set of actions and circumstances for which they are remembered.

This is also true of many people we encounter in Scripture. Despite the fact that Thomas was the first person in Scripture to speak of Jesus as "God"--not just an authority, but Deity--we still always call him "doubting" Thomas because of his former skepticism. Antonius Felix was the Roman procurator of the Judea Province from A.D. 52-58. The thing for which we remember him best came when he and his Jewish wife Drusilla requested to hear Paul speak about Jesus. However, as Paul began talking about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and told Paul he would talk to him more about these things, "When I have a convenient season." "Don't be like Felix," we warn. "If you wait to follow God until it's convenient, then your 'convenient season' may never come!"

Of course, one of the greatest villains in Scripture would be the Pharaoh to whom God sent Moses. We remember him for his murderous acts against innocent babies and his harshness towards the Israelite people in slavery. But there is another member of Pharaoh's household whom we see in a much different light: his daughter.

Being part of the royal family must have brought a lot of opportunities to do things of perceived significance. Regardless of whatever else she did in her life, today we remember Pharaoh's daughter almost entirely for one simple act of compassion. She saw a baby, floating in a little basket among the reeds, and even though she knew he was just a slave, condemned to die by her own father, she decided to save his life rather than to ignore it. She never could have imagined that the most significant act of her life would be this generous gesture towards a child. Of course, this child grew up to be Moses, the great leader of God's people.

Perhaps we spend too much time on the things we believe to be "major", shaking the right hands, getting invited to the right places, and having the right letters after our name. Jesus says that even the simple act of giving someone a cup of cold water because of him will be rewarded (Matthew 10:42). Just like Pharaoh's daughter, we can't know ahead of time which of our actions will be the ones that most define us, and if we learn anything from her, it's that we cannot neglect unexpected opportunities for kindness and compassion. The truth is, as Christians we're already adopted members of God's royal family. What promotion could be more important than that? As members of God's household, we must be the ones who make time to value those whom the world doesn't. There are already enough people who are too busy and too self-centered. Because God has lavished us with his grace, it is our role to extend the same kind of royal hospitality to others.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting to Know Your Risen Savior

If what you are wanting is a Savior who mostly stays out of your way, a Lord who makes no demands on your time, energy, or priorities, or a Teacher whose ideas you are free to pick through and select what parts you like best, then perhaps the Roman government did us all a favor. A dead Jesus is a much easier Jesus to deal with.

Jesus' journey to the cross, beginning with his birth and continuing to his death is largely shaped by a downward movement. In Philippians 2, Paul shares a hymn about the life of Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
He released his claims to divine glory. He reduced himself to servanthood. He poured out whatever was left in his death on a cross; mocked and humiliated. His execution left him so thoroughly devalued by the world that the apostles wouldn't think of going to see him early on that Sunday morning, instead allowing a few servant-hearted ladies to rise up early and go to do the dirty work of preparing his body. (I saw some irony in the story this very morning, knowing that several servant-minded women came to our church much earlier than anyone else to do the dirty work of preparing for today's activities. If the first resurrection appearance tells us anything, it's that God has a special place in his heart for servant-minded women like these.) Since Jesus hadn't died well in their minds, at least they could give him a decent burial.

When Jesus is dead, we can do with him what we want. His commands can be reduced to suggestions. His demands can be reduced to options. Much like any other historical person or artifact, we can poke, prod, and determine value, chewing up and swallowing what we like while spitting out what we don't.

Perhaps on this Sunday morning you've come here for a viewing of the body. He was, after all, an innocent person who died unjustly. Perhaps you came with a funeral in mind. Let's hear a few favorite memories, share some of his better quotes, and pay a few respects before we get back to doing with our lives whatever we please.

But if you came this morning to pay your respects to a dead Savior, I'm afraid you've just missed him. Don't be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Though you could go and see the place where they laid him, he isn't there. He's gone on ahead of you, making preparations for you, and when you get there you'll see him, just as he told you. Meanwhile, be sure to go and tell the others the good news.

Before we could even finish preparing the body, before we could even work out the details of a proper funeral, Jesus came back. Death couldn't hold onto him. It is not a dead hero whom we've come to respect this morning, it is our risen King who is now reigning at the right hand of God.

This is a new type of Jesus we are experiencing, and we would all benefit from getting to know our risen Savior. Jesus may have emptied himself to the point of death on a cross, but because of his obedience, he snatched victory out of the hands of death and is now glorified again in the presence of God. That Christian hymn that Paul quoted speaks of his humiliation, but it also speaks of Jesus' restoration to glory:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Revelation that God gave to John contains several striking images of our risen Lord; all of which are worthy of reflection, but I wish to reflect on the vision found in Revelation 1. Jesus will go on to give specific messages to specific churches, but he begins with a few words that should mean something to all Christians in every church.

Allow yourself to get caught up in John's vision of this mysterious Savior we follow:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
In fact, before he even speaks, the mere appearance of Jesus in this setting tells us something about him. There is a lot of symbolism going on here, just as there is in much of Revelation. We have the lampstands with their candles burning, representing churches, all of which should keep our lights burning to shine hope on our community.

But John also references that Jesus had seven stars in his right hand. The stars, we are told, represent the angels; God's messengers to the different churches. The word "angel' in the original languages also means "messenger," and this is significant, because much of the ancient world believed the stars contained messages. The stars, they believed, contained a map of human history and determined its course. So they read their horoscopes and stared into the sky with great diligence, desiring insight into how to navigate the confusing waters of life. The stars would often be symbolized by the seven most prominent heavenly bodies, the ones that could be seen with unaided human eyes: the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Much in the way we Americans display "In God We Trust" on our currency--whether we mean it or not--ancient coins would sometimes indicate what they believed determined the course of history. 
Here in our encounter with Jesus, we find a Lord who holds the seven stars in his hand. Whether you trust in the stars, the stock market, or your favorite cable news network, the clear message here is that whatever it is you believe drives the course of human history, it is subservient to the will of Jesus Christ. The Lord of Lords is the one who determines the course of human history, and holds it within his hand.  

In the presence of one as powerful as Jesus is presented here in John's vision, what would you do? Fight or flight only works when you can overpower or outrun someone, and to try either would be obviously futile. So instead, John falls down as if he were dead. Jesus places his right hand on John's shoulder, and speaks to him. I believe Jesus' introductory words here are meaningful to all Christians in every generation.
Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
Christians need not waste our time with some of the world's hypothetical questions. If you knew you couldn't possibly get hurt, what would you do? If you knew you couldn't possibly fail, what would you try? The one who leads us has conquered death. There exists no adversary whom he has not already bested. The only questions we should be wrestling with are: What does Christ call me to do next? and What could possibly be holding me back from trying? It is not only the difficult things that we can do with Christ's help, it is often the things we believed were impossible

Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1-2:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 
We are to be people characterized by hope and courage, because in Christ, there is nothing left to fear. 

Sometimes when we want to refer to the entirety of something, we refer to the beginning and the end. We've studied everything, we say, from A to Z. We've been everywhere from coast to coast. We've looked it over from top to bottom. Jesus will later say he is the Alpha and the Omega. He is our beginning, he is our end, and he is our everything in between. 

In a similar vein, John introduces Jesus to us in his Gospel in the following way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
If what we desire is a meaningful life, then we should follow the one who is before us. We should acknowledge the one who remains after us. We should honor the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. In Jesus we find life as it is meant to be lived. His life is our light. By looking to him, we can see enough to take the next step on a path that leads us where we want to go. Getting to the end takes patience, but taking one simple step with true light is better any day than taking many stumbling steps into uncertain darkness.

All elements of this are important. It is significant that Jesus actually died, because it means that he experienced the very worst of what humanity could do to him. We could use our greatest weapons of deepest treachery, and after we had done our worst, he overcame and conquered them all. 

Jesus says clearly that he had died, but now he is alive, and there remains nothing that can kill him again. Had Jesus merely died, we would have no reason to be here. There are many great teachers who have lived and died, and none of them warrants a weekly period of remembrance, or the constant commemoration of their life. We are free to disagree with and dispense of dead teachers. If Jesus were just another dead teacher, Paul believes this would create a domino effect of bad implications in the life of the church, which he describes in I Corinthians 15:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
It is bad enough to be mistaken. But if Jesus isn't risen, we are liars about God. Our faith is a waste, and we are pitiable more than anyone else in the world. But because Jesus is risen, we can read Paul's ideas in reverse.

"Behold! I am alive forevermore," Jesus says. And so we know that because Jesus is raised, our teaching is valuable, and so is our faith. We are God's true representatives because we are telling the truth about Jesus' power over death, through which he redeemed us from our sins. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ are now reigning with Christ. Because of he hope we experience in Christ, we are of all people most to be envied, for we've found a fountain of life that can nourish the soul of every person who drinks from it.

The image we should have in our head of Jesus as he broke the chains of death is not that of a hero making a narrow escape of a dangerous situation. Jesus' actions more resemble an explosion of dynamite, crumbling the walls and breaking through the gates of death, who had absolutely no chance of holding the King of Kings. Jesus has taken over, and he is the one who now holds the keys.

I am reminded of a story about a factory. It was a business with a long history, and one gentleman in particular who had worked there for many years. As it grew in complexity, he understood better than anyone else how it all functioned, and the different components worked together. As the years went by and the factory came under new management, the younger management wanted to cut costs, and saw little use in paying an older person so much, when they could hire younger guys for a lower cost and longer hours. So they unceremoniously let the older gentleman go. After a few weeks, something went wrong. Production came to a halt. The young hotshots tried what they knew, but to no avail. It became clear that the only solution short of tearing down and rebuilding the whole factory was to give a call to the gentleman who had been released. A humble phone call was made, and he agreed to come for an hour or so to have a look, understanding he would bill the company as a consultant. After only a few minutes with the machines, he went to one in particular, took out a piece of chalk from his pocked, and marked one section of the machinery with a giant "X". "Here's the problem," he said. "Remove the cover, replace these parts, and it will all work fine." They did what he said, and everything happened as he said it would. The people were pleased to be back in operation. A few days later they received a bill from the gentleman, with the cost being $10,000. The bookkeeper was indignant. How could he charge that much money for only a few minutes' work? So they demanded an itemized list, explaining the cost. The man sent them a second bill, this time itemized:
1 piece of chalk: $1
Knowing where to draw the X with the chalk: $9,999
It's good to be the one who holds the keys. And if you aren't the one who holds the keys, you want to be on good terms with the one who does.
We can disregard him or devalue him if we want, but Jesus is the one who holds the keys to the afterlife. There is no Plan B; no option that allows us to bypass him if we want to have entrance to the presence of God. Jesus wants us not to be afraid, because even though he died, he now lives forevermore, and if we clothe ourselves in him, there is nothing strong enough to take us from the grip of his grace. He shows us the road to where we want to go, and he holds the keys to the kingdom. We can't afford to neglect him, and can find comfort in knowing he hasn't neglected us.

Note: This sermon was preached on April 16, 2017 at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

More Than Technique

I like talking to people on airplanes. You never have any idea who it is that might end up seated beside you for an hour or two. My temporary acquaintances have included a has-been 80s punk rocker who now paints houses in L.A., the CFO of Johnson & Johnson, a Vietnamese legal assistant for an immigration lawyer, and the manager of a Nike sock factory in Mexico City (he offered to ship me free socks). However, I think my favorite conversation was with a classically trained artist from Belgium who has spent the last several years as a celebrated part of the art community in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, her work will be on display next year in Nashville's Parthenon, a very high honor.

We were talking about different philosophies of art, and she lamented how so much art is being created without any real passion or meaning the artist is trying to convey. I was surprised to learn from her how popular abstract art has become. She spoke with frustration about a mediocre student of hers who, within a few months of learning to paint, was selling abstract works for several thousand dollars each. People like abstract art because all they do is select a color scheme that matches their living space and the painting fits right in with no particular shapes or bodies that would cause it to stand out. Real art, she believed, should have something to say. Good art should not be expected merely to blend in, but to matter.

At the other end of the spectrum, we were talking about some of the artists I've seen on social media who can replicate real objects with such total perfection so that you could not distinguish whether you were looking at a photograph or a drawing. In her mind, this was more respectable, because it at least required skill. But in the end, "Though it's very impressive, it's just raw technique," she said. "Most of them aren't really saying anything with their work. It generally doesn't inspire or convict you." There is a need for artists to stay relevant so that their works are marketable, but she urged that an artist must not give up their true voice just to produce what would sell easily. They should care about what they produce.

All throughout Scripture we are reminded that our talents and skills come from God. We develop and refine them, but God gives them. I think of the wisdom of Joseph, received from God, in guiding Pharaoh to prepare Egypt for the coming famine and to grow their economy when all others were declining. I think of Bezalel in Exodus 31 who was filled with the Spirit of God "to make artistic designs." I think of Jesus' parable about the talents. Some of us are given more than others, but all of us are accountable to God, not only to have skills or to use skills, but to glorify God with our skills.

If you're going to be good at something, be sure that your talent means something. We each have our own forms of art, and our own gifts that someone might observe and say, "Isn't it amazing to watch them do what they can do?" It would be a shame to be gifted in powerful ways by the Almighty, and to only ever use these gifts for material gain or self aggrandizement. Be whatever kind of artist God has made you to be, but do something with your work that will make God proud that he chose to give you the abilities that you have.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Theological Puberty

Once when I was talking with a couple of respected ministry friends, the three of us ended up musing for a while on why it is that young adults, especially as they get to college, will bite--hook, line, and sinker--onto some deeply flawed belief systems and find them totally convincing. In context, we were talking about what is called 5-point "TULIP" Calvinism. (You can Google it if it's unfamiliar to you.) Since I brought it up, the biggest problem I have with Calvinism is the kind of God that system requires for the way it interprets reality. Namely, God's total pre-determined control of history removes our free will and implies that when we do evil, it is because God made us to do so. I can't get comfortable with a God who designed me to do evil, gave me no choice but to do what he designed me to do, and then would send me to Hell for doing it. But this post isn't primarily about refuting Calvinism.

As I was expressing my utter disbelief that people buy into this way of thinking, my friend made a significant point. He said, "You know, Mark, I think the reason that a lot of younger people find this belief compelling is because when they encounter it, it is often the first time in their life they have every thought deeply and academically about God, and even though the system has significant flaws, it is both deep and academic and therefore appealing as a more mature way of thinking. It's their way of hitting theological puberty."

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of my own history of beliefs. Though I didn't take the bait on Calvinism, I spent a chunk of my college years holding some other beliefs that I now see as completely misguided, mistaken, and actually heretical. In truth, I have to judge lightly because I was susceptible, too, and needed time to mature. I was also reminded of the haunting conclusion from Christian Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). Based on his research, Smith said that even though many teens claimed to be Christian, when they would explain what they thought it meant to be Christian, their actual beliefs didn't resemble Christianity at all. Smith coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as the actual belief system that most teens are following. Here are a few of the key characteristics: Thinking that a God exists who ordered the world and watches over people. Believing God wants people to be nice to each other. Thinking the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. Believing God does not get involved much in people's lives unless they need him to solve a problem. And finally, assuming all "good" people go to Heaven when they die. It's pretty concerning that most young "Christians" could describe their whole belief system without expressing concern about evil and without needing to say the name "Jesus" at all.

I say all of this to invite us to think about the level of depth which we strive for in our learning about God, and especially in how we teach our children to think about God. Parents, if you think a youth minister can accomplish in one or two hours a week all of the knowledge and experience of God that your children need, the evidence says you are gravely mistaken. We need to be studying Scripture together, and asking the hard questions about how the different ideas fit together. We need to be turning to Scripture as we try to make sense of the challenging circumstances we encounter. Paul warns about the importance of helping each other reach maturity in our thinking so that we "may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:14)" Maturity requires ongoing effort to know and understand the God we follow, and the more we neglect our quest for God, the more we end up warped, deficient, and easily impressionable.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Minding the Excluded Middle

In 1982, long-time missionary and missiologist Paul Hiebert published an important article he titled "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle." He was addressing an issue that many missionaries face when they have grown up in a Western culture that is deeply skeptical of anything supernatural, yet are suddenly trying to work in a culture that believes nearly everything is tied to the supernatural.

For example, when Hiebert was a missionary in India, there was an outbreak of smallpox in his village. Western doctors nearby had unsuccessfully tried to stop the spread and so many of the villagers turned to a diviner who claimed they would need to sacrifice a water buffalo to the goddess of smallpox named Museum in order to appease her anger with the village. The elders of the village went around collecting money from every household to purchase the buffalo, and were highly offended when the Christians refused to give them anything because it went against their religious beliefs. Because of this, Christians were excluded from drawing water in the village wells or purchasing food from merchants. Things came to a head for Hiebert when a young Christian girl contracted smallpox. A church elder named Yellayya came to the school where Hiebert was teaching to ask him to pray for God to heal the girl from smallpox. In Hiebert's words:
"My mind was in turmoil. I had learned to pray as a child, studied prayer in seminary, and preached it as a pastor. But now I was to pray for a sick child as all the village watched to see if the Christian God was able to heal." 
Hiebert points out, correctly I think, that sometimes we have created an unhelpful divide between heavenly matters and earthly matters. There are all the great doctrines and theologies about the nature of God, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell. 'Separate and apart' from these are the things we deal with every week that we consider 'this-worldly' things, such as our vocations, visits to the doctor's office, the sources and types of foods that we eat, and the relationships we have with our family and friends. In between these things is an area that we do not address enough of the time. How do Heaven and Earth actually interact with one another?

To the spiritualist who sees angels, demons, and miracles hiding under every rock, the secularist offers a valid corrective, that empirical data matters and we have a role in contributing to the path of our lives. To the secular materialist, who wants to claim that we came from nothing, will return to nothing, and our lives mean nothing, the spiritualist offers a valid corrective, that there is much about the world which matters deeply, yet evades our ability to measure, categorize, or explain it.

Fortunately, as Hiebert points out, Scripture offers us a third path which refuses to devalue either the spiritual realm or the world in which we live. God's call to us for salvation has eternal spiritual implications, but is also deeply rooted expectations for the way we love and treat everyone around us, from the President to the 'least of these'.

It is here in the middle that we find important questions addressed. It gives us a healthy place for reflection about things such as the meaning of life and death for those of us still alive, the way we think about blessings, illnesses, successes, and failures, and the way we navigate life in this world through our own uncharted waters. Even if we're going to Heaven when we die, what is our purpose for being here until then? What is the significance of how we use our time and energy in the lives of people around us? How exactly do we involve God in our lives, and what actually happens when we pray?

Scripture affirms both the spiritual and the physical, and I am convinced that the more our churches learn to live and teach into this middle area which connects them, the more people will find our faith relevant and useful in the world they actually inhabit.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Making Space

If I could summarize meaningful leadership in one phrase, I would call it "making space." This begins with God. God imagined the living things he would create, and he made a space that we could occupy to fulfill the purposes for which we were made. To some degree, every time we empower another person to become more than what they are, we have created a space that they can inhabit in a new way. I think Ephesians 2:10 expresses this idea well:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. 
We have the blessing of participating in God's work, but it took God as our leader to create the opportunities for the good works we are able to do. It has something to do with our own initiative, but it has every bit as much to do with God knowing our potential and taking the initiative to give us the space to grow.

In every relationship, there are power dynamics involved. Generally, whether for reasons of age, experience, title, or seniority, in most interactions and scenarios there is a person who has more power and a person or people with less power. Whether they realize it or not, those with power are gatekeepers for how everyone else is able to function and to experience the possibility of growth. I want to invite you to think about the areas in your life where you might possess some type of control, and how people are being affected by your use of power.

What about the person with a great talent who is too shy and uncertain to ask for the opportunity to use it? How about the person who won't be noticed because of their ethnicity or economic status, for whom your influence might could open a door? Who do you know that feels bound by past mistakes and would be deeply blessed if someone were to offer them the chance to be thought of as a valuable person, and not just a "guilty" person? What would it take to create enough space for a second chance for them? What difference could a little of your assistance make? Many of us would not be where we are had there not been someone willing to take a chance on us and give us some space to grow. "Come and help me. Let me show you how."

This is equally true of groups. Need stronger relationships among your people? Create and schedule a space where friendships can develop. Wish that people showed more initiative? Ask them and learn from them what you could do to help remove barriers that are deterring them. Want to move in a new direction? Let your people help you to imagine the world you are all wishing to inhabit together.

People who don't feel powerful will seldom succeed in seizing opportunities for themselves, and might not get up the nerve to try. When you think about people who are a few years behind you, with a little less experience than you and fewer connections than you, I wonder in whom you might could invest a little of yourself so that they have the space to become something more? You--yes, even you--might be intimidating to the person who needs you the most, and doesn't know how to ask for your help. We should be grateful that God sought us out to bless us, even before we knew we needed him. Perhaps we can do the same for others.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

You can do anything you want if you just put your mind to it. Have you heard that before? Maybe your parents or a favorite teacher said that to you when you were growing up. It is a huge blessing to know people love and believe in you. It is an awesome experience to work hard for something and to have success and achievement. But I wonder if sometimes we've taken the belief that we're capable of doing anything and have mistaken it to mean that in our life we'll actually be able to accomplish everything that catches our interest.

I don't know about you, but I'm a recovering workaholic. Some of the most important people in my life are the ones who have urged me to quit biting off more than I can chew, to put on the brakes, to do fewer things, and to do them well. I have a hard time stopping the cycle where I take on a new task, convinced that with enough time I can master it or make it better, and then before I'm done with it, I've already picked up another. And then another. If I'm not careful, I'll end up with a pile of good intentions, but little accomplished that feels satisfying. 

In a timeless universe where our bodies would never wear down, we could learn to play every instrument, speak every language, build every structure, read every book, win every award, and accomplish everything we intend to do. But that isn't the universe where we live. We live under the restraints of time and of energy which get soaked up with the many thorns, thistles, and unexpected obstructions we encounter.

I'm reminded of the classic song lyrics from Jim Croce: "There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them."

We can do some things very well, but the truth is that all of us will have things we look at and say, "If only I had more time, I could have done more, and I could have done better." Knowing that we are going to have to leave some things undone should make us deliberate about what things we commit ourselves to doing. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24a-25:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
It isn't just the image of suffering for Jesus--picking up the cross--that's important here. It's also the idea that there will be parts of my life that I have to let go, because otherwise I won't give God the space in my life that God deserves. To deny yourself means giving up something. To lose something means you won't have it. On the face of these ideas, that sounds unpleasant. We really will have to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to God.

But at the other end of this promise is something more hopeful. Jesus assures us that when we willingly deny ourselves and lose something because of our dedication to him, by some wonderful mystery, it is for this very reason that we'll end up finding it again. "Great is your reward in Heaven," he says. Our losses, whatever they are, will be temporary, and God's generous blessings to us will one day overwhelm any sense of lacking we might have had before. Don't let the many things that interest you distract you from the one thing that matters most.