Monday, February 20, 2017

A Peculiar Fear of Singing

I have always been nervous when it comes to singing in public.  God has gifted a great many people in a variety of ways, and the Scriptures tell us that some are given to mission work, others to teaching and preaching, and still others have the gift of music.  My particular set of spiritual gifts, however, do not include song.  When it comes to music, I should probably stick to listening.  

Normally I am okay with this reality.  When I hear a song that I like on the radio for example, I make sure the car windows are rolled up before I belt out a tune while driving down the road.  This is for the benefit of those around me in the other cars, as well as any innocent pedestrians that may be out walking when I drive by.  You can thank me for this later.

Recently my son's Webelos Cub Scout den was challenged to fulfill a unit entitled 'Duty to God and You.'  It sounded fun, so I offered to lead the kids in this area.  The boys and I had to create, plan, and perform a worship service in public.  Things were going well, but I did notice there was one part of the service that included music.  

After laying out the sermon message and some other small details, I looked around for people who possessed some type of singing voice - at least a better voice than I had.  To my chagrin, there was no one to be found.  For this moment in time, it was up to me to lead the song in front of a room full of people.  Though I rather enjoy public speaking, I have to admit I was apprehensive about the singing.  This would be something new for me ... there was no turning back now.   

Although insignificant by comparison with the many other things going on in the world today, this anxiety reminded me what it is like to have to trust that things will work out okay.  Whether you are leading a song in front of an audience, or doing something else for which you feel under-qualified - there remains a trust issue at the heart of the matter.  We all have a choice whether we will allow fear to lead us into anxiety, or not.  

I also believe it is a fair question to ask what the Bible says about the need to trust God and  hope that things will work out for the best (even if it doesn't feel that way at the time).  We are given a curious Scripture in the book of Romans.  It says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Rom 8:28).     

There is quite a bit to unpack in that one sentence, and we will address it shortly.  But I want to throw in another relatively famous piece of advice from the book of Proverbs.   It reads, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not to your own understanding." (Pr 3:5).  

I am beginning to sense a theme here.  Are you?  We are to trust in the one who made us.  The one who created everything wants us to know that we are loved, and we are to rest in the knowledge that if we allow him to, he will guide us to a place of safety.  But what about when things do not appear to be going so well?  What about when the Christian believer is cast into a sea of doubt, or when we are confronted with the prospect of persecution for our faith?  The road then becomes more difficult to navigate I think. 

Stephen was one of the first followers of Christ to be martyred for his faith.  The book of Acts records his final speech, and it is one of most poetic soliloquies any believer has ever recited.  Unfortunately, the end result of Stephen's testimony was ominous, to say the least.  He was a victim of the ancient form of corporal punishment known as stoning.  The astute reader will also note that Christian martyrdom still goes on in our world today.  It may not be a top news story anymore, but people are still dying for their faith, even in the twenty-first century.  This reality hasn't changed much in the last two-thousand years.

Whom then do we trust, when we come to an impasse in our lives and it appears that all roads lead to a dead end?  Who do we trust when we are laid off from our job?  When we are going through a divorce?  When we find ourselves on the proverbial road less traveled?

For this answer I think we must turn our gaze back toward Jesus himself.  In chapter 16 of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that, "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world."  

He has overcome the world even when it doesn't look that way, and even when it would be easier (or more reasonable) not to believe it.  This statement is so much more than  some empty platitude implying that 'things will get better' at some point in the near future.  In fact, these Scriptures point to the promise of eternal life that the Christ follower can bank on.  God is reminding us that there is something better than the temporary problems of our earthly lives. If God has overcome the world, then he has done so forever.  Even if we are experiencing turmoil here and now, we are given this spiritual guarantee that in the end, things will turn out okay.  One day we will wake up and the world will make sense again.  We need not take a position of hopelessness.  We weren't meant to.  

By the end of our Webelos worship service, the entire room had erupted into song.  Some of us had printed pieces of paper with the verses listed off, and others simply remembered the hymn from days gone by.  I began the chorus, and others joined in to finish it.  Soon enough (and much to my relief), my own voice blended into a cacophony of fifty other voices.  

Ultimately the service went well I think.  The boys did a great job, and the time went by quickly.  There were smiles on people's faces.  No one went deaf. 

It appears that sometimes in life, we will have to lead the song ourselves.  It can be a scary proposition, but we must do it anyway.  It will often appear that things are not going our way, but we must press on toward the goal.  We are to trust in God.  After all, he warned us that this world will sometimes bring trouble.  No need to be anxious though, he is an excellent singer.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Problem of Evil in a Civilized World

I am almost afraid to turn on the television and watch the news anymore.  It is difficult to hop around on social media lately as well.  Something has changed.  Someone is always angry with someone else.  It seems like there is either a war going on somewhere in the world, or at least the threat of a war.  I am reminded of a famous phrase from a popular movie from long ago ... 'There is something strange afoot.'

I think that we often read the words in the Bible that say "the thief comes to steal and destroy", but we gloss over them. Many of us may think that these words represent some mystical ethereal being called the Devil, but that they are more symbolic than factual. We think that spiritual warfare doesn't really happen, and most of the evil in the world can be attributed to human nature, war, lack of education, or something to that effect. But is that really all there is to the story? What if there were actually a real undercurrent of evil which exists in our world? Something stronger and more focused than just human nature?  Many feel it is outdated to think about the problem of evil in a spiritual way I suspect, especially in the twenty-first century.  But bear with me as we delve a little deeper into this subject matter, I think it will be worth your while. It will help make sense of some of the sobering things we see going on around us.  It is definitely an interesting time to be alive. 

I remember watching a documentary called 'Worse Than War' not long ago.  It did an excellent job of outlining some of the reasons behind genocide and the mass killing of entire segments of the human population. I'm not talking hundreds of people here, I'm talking millions. Nazi Germany, or even the Bosnian War in more recent history for example. Not to mention current headlines about Aleppo.  Wikipedia defines genocide like this: the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. An adequate definition I suppose. But now imagine that you lived in Darfur and you witnessed your neighbors, friends, and family being dragged into the street and murdered in front of you - only to realize that you were probably next. Or lets bring it even closer to home.  You are pulled out of your car at the stoplight, waiting to go to the mall to do some shopping, or on your way to work. Suddenly your life is in danger for no other reason than the color of your skin or your ethnic background.  You get the idea. An academic definition is good as far as it goes, but then reality comes rushing in. Compare the black and white films we used to watch in high school about the German gas chambers, and then contrast that with talking to a holocaust survivor. The problem of evil is real, pervasive, and widespread. It appears to be here to stay.

The film-maker in this particular documentary went and interviewed one of the men from Rwanda who participated in roaming groups which went into communities and wiped out families. You may remember this atrocity from news headlines years ago.  What he said was difficult to accept.  To paraphrase, he said "We would go in with machetes and [dispose of] whoever got in our way first. If they were fast and made us chase them for too long - we would purposely cause them more pain prior to death. If they submitted willingly to us, we would kill them quickly, or occasionally even let them live. Sometimes it was tough, because you would encounter young babies who would just start to learn to smile. They would smile at me, and then I would murder them."

When asked what caused him and his fellow militia soldiers to act like this, he said "I don't really know. I don't have an answer for this. We knew we were doing it, we were fully conscious... but it was like a kind of fog enveloped us. A current of great cruelty overtook us, almost like it was controlling us."

The documentary offered some different explanations for this type of cruelty: blind obedience, bias, racism, etc. These are all true, in so far as they go. But the answer that this man from Rwanda gave was much more haunting. It seemed to defy secular categorization.

The Bible tells us that evil is real. That it isn't just some aberrant behavior carried out by small portions of the world's population due to lack of education or divisive belief systems. There is something more going on, and none of us are immune. Americans are lucky in some ways.  My generation hasn't had to deal with conflict on our own soil really, apart from the events of September 11th in New York city. But this relative peace won't last forever. That great evils have occurred in the past, or that they will occur in the future - or even that they are currently happening - doesn't concern me as much as the reason they occur. If you answer that it is just part of human nature to seek out conflict, you may be right to a degree. But what happened to mankind, who can be loving and generous one moment, then awful and vengeful the next?  How have we fallen so far from the mark? I believe it was a fall indeed. The book of Genesis talks about the fall of man as a result of original sin, but not only that.  There are spiritually dark undercurrents that do exist in our world.  It is a problem that cannot be overcome (much less solved) without addressing the spiritual realm.  

Ephesians 6:12 says "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

There appears to be more going on behind the scenes than many of us feel comfortable thinking about.  And as such, I believe we must combat this malevolent force in a way that entails much more than simply bolstering our military might or securing our borders.  It must begin with the ardent prayer of God's people for peace.  It must begin with an understanding of what we are really dealing with, and a willingness to combat it on more than just a physical level.  There is a time and a place to use force as a method to protect ourselves and our family, and we cannot disregard that.  But it is not the only method. 

Fortunately for us, there is also good news.  If there is such a dark reality in our world, then there must be the opposite of that evil which exists also. There is always a balance.  We cannot call true evil bad, unless we know the greater good that is also at work. This I believe, at least in a round-about sort of way, points directly to the existence of a loving God. Do not let the fact that planet Earth can be a violent place sometimes wash away the fact that it won't be like this forever. The Bible tells us that there is a God, that He loves us, and that He has promised not to abandon us. We can focus on Jesus, and in so doing live out that part of our human nature that is divine and good. As a people we don't stay in our homes and hide from the outside world, afraid to venture out or unlock our doors.  But rather we go out into the world, and bring with us this light from above.  

Few people would doubt that true evil exists. But we are not given a spirit of fear either.  God has provided us with a knowledge and a picture of what is truly good and righteous in the Bible. And I believe that if we seek after it and cling to it, He will use us to reverse this dark undercurrent slowly but surely, one person at a time, and in ways we cannot yet fathom.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Better Left Unsaid

Words have a profound impact on our lives, and also a power in and of themselves.  Consider that in the beginning (if we look back at the book of Genesis in the Bible), God literally spoke things into existence.  God said, “Let there be light” or “Let there be an expanse between the waters”, and it would actually come to pass.  This is an enormous power to possess, and of course God used it wisely.  But what about you and I?

The Bible also tells us that the tongue is untamable by our own accord.  In other words, we cannot conquer it on our own.  Have you ever tried to go an entire week without engaging in gossip of any kind at work?  Or try to go a month without inadvertently annoying your spouse by saying the wrong thing.  If you cannot do either one of these things, then don’t feel bad – neither can I!

So, to frame the problem thus far, I think it is safe to say that we have something within us that has its own power, is disproportionately influential, and is untamable on our own.  This is a true problem, and one that I think is self-evident.  We can perceive this by simply looking around and listening to some of the things that people say to each other in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the office, or even in our own homes. 

Indeed the Bible says that the tongue also “makes great boasts”.  In other words, it often writes checks that our body can’t cash.  It gets us into more trouble than we would like to admit, and it often allows us to admit only that which gets us into trouble publically.  Think how much more we run our mouths in private, never getting caught!

In a famous piece of Scripture from the New Testament (James 3:6), it is said that the tongue can often corrupt the whole of a person.  And earlier in Matthew 15:11, we are told that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”  What is coming out of your mouth?  What is coming out of mine?  How does the church communicate with the outside world, and with each other?  Are we sometimes starting more trouble than not?

Trying to get a handle on mastering what we say matters quite a bit.  It doesn’t have to be a hopeless endeavor.  Society may often claim that we should just do the best we can, and if people get offended, then that is their problem.  This is what our culture often says I think.  The loudest talker gets the most attention.  But I think it goes deeper than this.  James also writes this in verse 9 of his letter to the church (and this is the real clincher): “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” 

So, here is what we are given to ponder.  We cannot be a spring yielding both fresh and salt water at the same time, it isn’t possible.  And when we really stop to think about it, that duality doesn’t make sense.  We must choose to act (and speak) either for God or against Him.

There is a story I heard once about a man who visited a pastor and asked for forgiveness after speaking harshly to his wife.  The pastor offered him solace, as well as an option to repent from what he had done.  There was only one catch.  The man was instructed to walk out into the town square and cut a small hole on the end of a feather pillow.  As he did this, he watched as the small feathers spread out all over the town – carried one way or the other by the wind.  He thought little of it, and went home and apologized to his wife, thinking the whole thing a bit odd.    

The next day he visited with the pastor again and told him what he had done.  The pastor smiled, and then said all that remained for him to do was walk around town and retrieve each one of those small feathers, hence acting as a symbolic way to retract each of his negative words.  The man immediately knew the preacher’s meaning.  It would be impossible to track each one down and then put them back into the pillow.  Once those words were out into the public sphere, they were out for good!  Forgiveness was offered, repentance was accomplished, but the damage had already been done.

So if we are imperfect beings (and surely we are), and if we cannot hope to master our tongue on our own (and the Bible says we cannot), then what is the solution?  How do we keep our own feather pillow from tearing open and spreading all over town?  How do we manage to stop hurting the ones we love with the things we say?

The answer is to bring our entire being into line, by working on controlling the mouth first.  Because you see, when we act to govern the things we say with God’s help (when we are slow to speak) … it is a mark of spiritual maturity.  We become walking and talking testimonies to a good and Holy God; and people around us will notice.  I once heard it described that you and I may be the only Bible that some people read.  In other words, their only interaction with God’s Word may come through watching what we do and what we say in public.  How about that for some pressure?

The only way to become a spring that produces fresh water on a consistent basis, is to submit to the renewal of the heart that only Jesus can provide. Because if Jesus saves us, then He saves us completely – our speech included.

Now don’t mistake me here, this doesn’t mean that we will never screw up again, or that we never say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  But it means as we grow in the spiritual grace that God has given us, the cruelty of our language begins to lessen.  We begin to crave gossip less and less.  We begin to favor the Word of God, instead of everyone else’s words.

We become, in effect, bearers of light in a sometimes dark and dreary world.  As sure as a spark can ignite a forest fire, so can words motivated by love, ignite the spirit.

So what does a renewed and redeemed voice sound like?  What does this “fresh water” look like?  When considering what to say, think about these things.  Are your words timely?  Do they come at the right time, when someone needs them?  Are they Spirit driven?  Were you listening to the prompts of God when you said them, or were you listening to your own will to fight back or get even? 

How about encouraging and loving?  Do your words uplift people?  If you see a church leader do you help to build them up verbally, or do you remind them of the few small errors they may have spoken during the sermon last weekend? 

The apostle Paul says that if we have not love, then we are merely banging gongs and crashing symbols.  The world has plenty of crashing symbols, be a bearer of light instead.  Choose your words wisely.

Finally, the Biblical account of James also says this, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  When we listen well we are emulating Jesus.  Jesus saw clear through to a person’s heart the minute he met them.  Though we may not always be able to do the same thing, at least by listening more than we talk, we are demonstrating the same type of spiritual maturity and humility.  We are actively working to preserve our own feather pillow.

Be slow to speak, quick to listen.  And sometimes, honestly, maybe things are simply better left unsaid.  I pray that this holds true for everyone reading this article, and that we operate from a renewed heart and a fresh water spring.  Not a judgmental nature or a proud heart.  Always easier to keep a feather pillow intact, than to drive around town gathering up feathers I suspect. 


Monday, November 28, 2016

Worth the Wait

 I recently finished the novel 'I Heard the Owl Call My Name' by Margaret Craven.   It was a magnificent book.  In the span of 160 pages, Craven managed to draw me in with subtle nuance and simple writing the way not many authors can.  More modern works of fiction seem to talk a lot, but say very little.  I can think of a handful of best-selling books that hit a thousand pages, but cannot hold my attention past chapter one.  This book was special.

The author writes about a young vicar who is dispatched by his Bishop to a remote Indian village in the Pacific Northwest.   Craven crafts a pitch-perfect montage of what it is like for the young preacher to show up with an American set of expectations, and discover a rich (though often confusing) set of old native American traditions instead.  In this village you see, there are elders who still teach the old ways.  They don't trust the vicar yet.  He represents an intrusion into their way of thinking.  A culture clash is in the works.   

Craven often mentions a feeling of "cautious waiting" that is  present in the indigenous people.  The vicar can see it in their eyes, and hear it on their lips.  He is never quite certain, however, just what they are waiting for.  That reason lies always just out of reach.  Maybe someday they will tell him.  Maybe when they trust him a little more.  

I was astonished as I came to the realization that the author had actually constructed a reading experience that matched this curious notion of 'cautious waiting' that her characters were feeling.  As each chapter unfolded, I found myself both wanting to finish the book in one sitting, but also a bit afraid to discover too much at once.  Almost like it would be cheating to skip ahead too quickly.  As if it would somehow defame the characters in the novel if I learned too much too fast.  

What does it mean  to wait on something like this?  I suspect it happens to many of us in our daily life.  We go one day to the next, never quite sure what is around the corner.  Sometimes fearful ... or at least cautious.  When we are in a position like this, I believe that to wait means that we cannot proceed in any direction until something occurs.  In essence, we are stuck for a period in time.  At least until whatever it is we are waiting on (whatever chapter we are reading through) unfolds such that we can again press forward.  We wait until we are rescued from our holding pattern.

Allow me to illustrate  further with an example from my own life.  Once I was at a family reunion out in the country.  It was beautiful and serene; many places for kids to run and play.  My middle son Gavin was doing just that.  He was maybe four or five years old at the time.  He is bright and energetic, and he was following the older kids around ...  running through the narrow foot trails on the steep side of a hill.  At one point I remember spinning around just in time to see him falling head over heels down the side of the embankment.  I couldn't get to him in time to stop his fall.  It was like watching something in slow motion.  When it was over, he stood back up, seemingly no worse for wear.  We drove him home later that day, not thinking much more about it.

The next day he began vomiting and exhibiting signs of a concussion, so we rushed him to the local E.R.  As anyone who has been to the emergency room knows, sometimes you are forced to wait for hours until you see a doctor.  During this time, my wife and I literally felt 'stuck.'  It was as if time stood still, and everyone in that small hospital room experienced exactly what Margaret Craven was writing about when she spoke of cautious waiting.   Sometimes, you simply aren't allowed to see what lies at the end of the tunnel - at least not in the way you want.  And not in the time frame you would prefer.  

What is it about physical pain and suffering that often brings about character building?  At times like these, I really wish that something else (anything else) would suffice.  But, it appears that God in fact uses these situations to get our attention.  I'm embarrassed to say, sometimes it takes physical pain to get my attention.  

The young vicar in the novel finally gains the trust of his native-American  congregation after suffering alongside them when one of their children passes away.  Craven writes on page 87, "But there was a difference now.  The cautious waiting was over.  That night he wrote to the Bishop and the Bishop's answer affirmed it.  'You suffered with them, and now you are theirs, and nothing will ever be the same again.'"  

We are waiting all the time on this planet.  We wait for a graduation date, or a birthday perhaps.  We wait for a friend or family member to come visit us.  Sometimes we wait for that certain something that we cannot quite put our finger on.  It is a cautious waiting, akin to the feeling you get when you know things aren't right in this world, but you aren't quite sure what will fix it.  In fact, I think we often find ourselves waiting on a savior.   

Isaiah 53 is one of my favorite passages from the Bible.  It shows us what Jesus the savior had to go through for our sake.  Listen to the words from the Old Testament writer as he recounts what the Son of God had to suffer through in order that his flock might come to trust him.  Verse 4 says, "Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed." 

It would appear that much like the young vicar in Craven's novel - we have a friend in God, willing to suffer not only with us, but for us.   He is the Savior that everyone needs, but not everyone has met. 

Eventually the E.R. doctor cleared Gavin that night, and all of us got into the car and headed home.  We were tired, and it was late.  What we had waited on so desperately and needed to hear so vehemently, finally came to pass.  We were told that he would be okay... just keep an eye on him.  We could now move forward as a family and continue living our lives.  That memory of having to wait for hours will be etched in my mind for some time to come.  

Similarly, when we encounter Christ as someone who meets us in the midst of our suffering - as someone who knows first hand what it means to endure and prevail - I think it changes us.  We can allow our cautious waiting to come to an end.  Somewhere deep down in our hearts, a veil of fear has been lifted.  The waiting can stop, and the living can begin.  

In a famous account from the Gospel of John, Jesus meets with a Samaritan woman next to a well.  When she comes to draw water from it, he engages her in conversation.  John 4:13 says this, "... Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life."    

When we find God, we are truly found.  The wait is over, and there is no need to go thirsty anymore.  No need to wander aimlessly through life from one day to the next without purpose.  Jesus is the last chapter in a novel dedicated to pointing people to eternal life.  We will no longer be stuck.  We have been cleared by the E.R. doctor; the nightmare is over. 

Gavin is older now, so are all my kids.  I frequently get a kick out of watching him run and play with the other kids.  He has almost no recollection of that day in the  emergency room years ago, and I am grateful for that.  But as he gets older, he will face the same difficulties we all do in life.  My job (so far as I can tell) is to show him that he may suffer sometimes in this world, but he need not suffer alone.  He may be forced to wait on God occasionally, but he will not wait in vain.  And when he is older, I will have a book for him to read.  It's a story about a young vicar who visits a remote village and learns how to live an abundant life in Christ.  I wish this same abundant life for everyone reading this article.  It is worth the wait.


Monday, October 10, 2016

So, What's the Catch?

Nothing beats a family vacation when it comes to candid moments.  A recent trip that my family and I took to the east coast was no different.  There were many destinations and tourist attractions along the way, but one place stands out from the rest.  From the minute we pulled into our resort in Williamsburg, Virginia everyone was impressed.  Lush accommodations and sprawling architecture were the norm, not to mention the ivory spiral staircase which greeted us as soon as we arrived in the lobby.  We were all very grateful to be there after the long drive from Iowa. 

My wife had found this little piece of paradise for us as part of a timeshare program.  In order to stay three days rent free, we had to attend a two hour seminar hosted by the resort sales staff.  I typically abhor this type of thing, but we both agreed that it was only two hours of our life, and well worth it for the free stay.  So we unpacked our car and checked into the condo.  

The next day we showed up at 9:00 a.m. sharp for our meeting.  We were greeted by a nice young man with a Manila folder.  He ushered us over to a table where we quickly exchanged polite introductions.  After asking us some questions designed to figure out what type of vacation we liked best, the game was on.  We were first set in a room and required to watch a twenty minute video.  You know the one: where Bob and Jane Smith go on camera and talk about how life changing and wonderful the resort is.  We were then escorted around one of the model homes so we could see what awaited us for only $300 - $600 per month.  I didn't like those numbers.  I don't think that mattered however, as our tour guide didn't miss a beat.  

I exchanged glances with another couple across the hallway during our little walk-about.  I think they were on the same type of tour because the man's facial expression matched my own.  Both of us wanted nothing more than to leave this place immediately and begin our real vacation.  I gave him the all knowing wink as we walked by. 

The two hour sales pitch quickly turned into four hours, and the more often I said "no", the longer the tour went.  When it finally became clear that we weren't going to buy a condo, my wife and I were shown out of the building via a small back door (out of public view no doubt).  I secretly wondered if we were going to be forced into some type of vehicle with tinted black windows and whisked away to a special room for guests who didn't cave into the pressure.  No matter, it was finally time to hit the beach!

This engaged my mind however, and I thought about how many other things in our world might inspire this type of suspicion?  We are always asking "what's the catch?"  If you go to an amusement park or a museum for example, you are forced to exit through the gift shop.  If you visit the used car lot looking for a vehicle - you are often sized up in the first five minutes by the salesman.  

This produces inside of us a hard, cynical edge I think.  After a while, I wouldn't be surprised if everyone began to resemble a well dressed man with a manila folder, or a used car salesman.  Advertising is a billion dollar industry in our country.  Television commercials nowadays must be brighter, louder, and more shocking in order to capture our attention.  Always a sales pitch, and always a catch. 

What about when we turn to the arena of spiritual things?  Do the same rules apply?  Must we approach every spiritual truth claim with the same dogmatic mistrust?  I would say a degree of prudence is usually wise at any given moment, but what if there really are  churches out there that don't just want your money?  What if there is actually a holy book that can change your life for no money down?  

I often think about the promises of Jesus in the Bible.  Love him or hate him, the one thing you cannot do is maintain an impartial distance regarding the things he says.  In fact, Hebrews 4:12 says, "For the word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow..."  And the words of Jesus of Nazareth are certainly no exception to this.  Try reading the Sermon on the Mount for example, without being changed in some way.  

But then there is the good news of the Bible itself.  It claims that we can be saved from our sins.  That there is much more to life than just this world.  It would appear that the promise of salvation has no catch.  But it does have a cost.  That cost was described to us in all four Gospels.  It is the fact that Christ was crucified for our sake, and that he took our punishment upon himself.  You see, even this cost was paid by someone else on our behalf.  

In a matter of speaking, it appears we really can stay rent free in the timeshare condo after all.  No monthly cost, and no twenty minute video.  The only requirement is that we decide for ourselves in His favor.  They used to call this 'making a decision for Christ.' 

Romans 10:9 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible.  It is kind of scary also, because there isn't a catch here either.  It simply says this, "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  It's hard to find fault with this type of divine simplicity.  God offers a gift, we demonstrate acceptance through what we say and what we believe - and He will do the rest.  No trial period or up front deposit necessary.  

If the young man at the resort had this type of promise waiting for me, the end result may have been different.  One of my greatest fears is that many will miss the forest for the trees when it comes to God's offer of salvation.  People may view it with the same type of suspicion we are so used to applying elsewhere.  They may invoke cynicism instead of acceptance.  In short, I worry that many will miss the proverbial boat.

God is good, and He is patient.  But He will not wait on us forever to make a decision.  It's time to think seriously about Romans 10:9.  A sales pitch without a catch will invite either skepticism or gratitude.  When it comes to God, I believe gratitude is usually the best option.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Place to Call Home

My family summer vacation this year was superb.  It had all the bells and whistles a person could ask for.  My wife did a great job planning the excursion, and even went so far as to outline each day's events on an excel spreadsheet.  We had decided to travel by car across country to Virginia and Washington D.C.  The scenery was breathtaking as we traveled through the Appalachian mountain range.  God knew what He was doing with the American landscape in this part of the country.  I suddenly felt very grateful to be alive.  In fact, I remember one day where we followed a looming thunderstorm in it's early stages of development, all the way to our first hotel.  The reflection of the setting sun against the tall, billowing cloud was like something out of a National Geographic magazine. 

Our stay in Virginia was also picturesque.  Only an hour away from the ocean and boardwalk by car.  Not to mention some plush accommodations in the resort itself.  From there, we turned the car toward our nation's capitol.  The whole family was excited.  There were monuments to visit and photos to take.  Once we arrived at the hotel in downtown D.C., it was time to unload and get checked in.  Up until that point things had gone very well.  Probably a little too well.  It was time for a good vacation story;
time for one of those Chevy Chase moments. 

You see, when you travel to a large metropolitan city from rural Iowa, you forget that buildings are often constructed in a way that focuses on conserving space.  We had now exchanged the solace of wide open mountain ranges for the concrete jungle.  And from this point forward, I would become intimately acquainted with the hotel's underground parking garage.

From the moment the gate went up and I pulled the car in, stress and claustrophobia took hold.  There was barely enough room to maneuver my mid-sized SUV around the corners, much less fit into one of the parking spots.  It felt difficult to breathe.  The painted lines were practically stacked on top of each other; or so it seemed.  Most of the signs read 'compact vehicles only'.  Oh to be driving a Volkswagen Beetle just then!

Things became worse as I met another vehicle attempting to exit the garage.  The driver had the same panicked look on her face as I did.  "Lucky people" I thought to myself.  They were allowed to leave this underground shop of horrors.  I estimated maybe two or three inches between our cars as we glided past each other - too afraid to make eye contact.  And then soon after, the sound of people arguing followed by a loud crunching noise that rang out from the other bay.  No doubt one of the other vehicles over there didn't quite make it around the bend as safely as I did.  Did I mention it was hard to breathe down there?  

The pinnacle of anxiety came when I finally gave up and tried to exit the garage, only to find that there was no way out.   You heard me correctly ... it was a dead end at the very back of the ramp.  In order to leave, you had to turn your vehicle around completely or go in reverse out of the gate.  I tried twice to do this but my car was too big.  I had to admit defeat and eventually pulled over into a corner next to a stack of wooden pallets.  I cannot remember the last time I had felt so out of place.  There were literally (and figuratively) no available spots left for my white SUV.  No safe recourse available.

I think many of us have a story like this from our past.  One that we can whip out at a party or some similar gathering of friends and family.  One of those "you should have been there" type of stories that becomes more and more embellished upon each re-telling.  But the feeling stuck with me, even after my family and I returned home to Iowa.  That feeling that something isn't right, I don't belong here.  No safe place.

Famous author and philosopher C.S. Lewis wrote often about the notion that the physical world points to the more celestial (yet still very much existential) plane of existence.   If we are hungry, there is food to eat.  If we are tired there is sleep to renew us.  So in this particular case, Lewis may well have argued that if people don't feel like the world they inhabit is quite right ... then it may just be because we aren't home yet.  Not our real home at least.  Our hearts give an inner testimony to the fact that there is something greater beyond our current existence.  A place where the thin painted yellow lines of a parking garage don't overlap the spot next to it.  A place where we will finally feel like we belong.  An ultimate safe place to come home to.

I remember vividly a job interview I once had years ago with a large factory.  I was applying for the job of on site technical trainer, and the human resources person was very excited to have me that day.  From the moment I entered the building, however, I knew it was a bad fit.  They were interested in hiring someone who would drive a forklift and wear a hardhat.  Instead, I write articles and work with computers.  I remember being taken on a tour of the plant that ended very abruptly once they realized I wasn't wearing steel toed boots.  I wasn't allowed beyond a certain area without them.  I was out of place, and we all knew it.  There was something not quite right ... that feeling of being displaced began to surface once again.  

Job interviews and parking garages are one thing, but what happens when these feelings give rise to something a little more serious?  What happens when people allow that feeling of being lost to turn into feelings of hopelessness and despair?  It is easy to do I suspect.  On facebook for example, everyone looks so happy all the time.  They show photos of vacations and grand kids and new cars and big houses.  Only occasionally does real life sneak in, and someone posts something about a tragic event or an addiction they are struggling with.  I believe it is often the same way with churches.  People who are hurting and feeling lost may show up seeking after something, only to look around and see the Sunday morning facade of well dressed, upper middle class people singing and smiling.  "No one here is struggling the way I am" they might think.  After the third or fourth song about God's glory and spiritual renewal, this same person may feel like turning around and running for the door.  They don't fit in here, something isn't quite right.  They thought church would be more ... real.   They had hoped people would show their brokenness a little more openly.  They had hoped to fit in.

So what does God say about preparing a place for you and I in this world of displaced hope and fear?  John 14:1-4 relates some of the most comforting Scriptures out there.  It says, "Do  not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father's house there are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going."    

These are beautiful words, and the world needs to hear them.  Not only does Jesus tell us that he has a place for us, but he has also provided a road map on how to get there.  It is the gift of salvation offered freely to anyone who wants it.  An important stop marked on this road map occurs in the book of Romans, chapter 10 and verse 9: "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  

We live in a world where we can feel things aren't quite right.  We often feel out of place, alone, or displaced.  The Bible identifies this truth and then God provides an answer to it.  Something you and I can cling to in times of difficulty.  His offer stands to anyone who seeks after Him with all their heart, mind, and soul.  A mansion with many rooms awaits those believers who take seriously God's road map, and who listen to the command in the book of Romans.  No one stays lost in the parking garage unless they want to be.  It's better to follow the map.

After my failed attempt to park my vehicle underneath the hotel that day in Washington, I had decided to walk back up the ramp to the lobby and ask for assistance from the front desk.  I am perfectly aware that men don't ask for directions or for help when driving, but this situation called for me to swallow my pride and become humble.  The gentleman behind the counter was nice enough to leave his post for a moment and accompany me down into the coffin-like expanse of the garage.  It took us about twenty minutes, but we finally got the car parked.  I managed to squeeze into a spot next to one of the support beams that looked just big enough for a skateboard.  We even had to fold my rear view mirrors inward against the car doors in order to fit!

It appeared that asking for help and having a little faith was exactly what the doctor ordered.  I believe that the same prescription applies to the world we live in as well.  We need never feel alone or hopeless.  There are people in churches all around us willing to listen and help.  There is a God who loves us and who has prepared a place for us in Heaven.  A place to call home, where we will finally feel a sense of eternal belonging.  A place where we can finally find our way out of the parking garage.  A mansion with many rooms.