Thursday, January 26, 2006

Looking for a Crisis

For many years one of the prevailing philosophies of Christian ministry in North America has been that of “meeting peoples’ needs.” It is a fine strategy except for one problem: Do people always know what they need?

Local church pastor Mark Labberton relates the following encounter:
A man once appeared at my office door asking for some bullet points on Christianity to help make sense of the dinner conversations he was having with his wife, a recent convert. He made it clear he was very busy, very successful, and didn’t really have time to study her beliefs – just bullet points, now, please.
It would have been easy to hand him a book or pamphlet. That can be good. But instead, I said, “I can see you are a very busy, successful person, so I don’t think that this is a good idea.” “Why,” he asked, frustrated. “Because,” I said, “if I were to give you the bullet points, and you were to really understand them, they have a way of working into a person’s life so significantly that your life could really get messed up. You would have to rethink the meaning of success, of time, of family, of everything, really. I don’t think you want to do that, do you?”
It was an effort to raise his thirst, not to give him answers. In his case, it worked.
-- “Pastor of Desperation”; Leadership, Winter 2006, p. 130.

Labberton notes two phenomena we see throughout the Bible. First, God doesn’t always (or even usually?) give people what they ask for. He notes that “Jesus’ ministry draws the desperate, not the satisfied. And once drawn, Jesus doesn’t necessarily give them what they think they need. ‘My son, your sins are forgiven,’ was not what the paralytic had in mind as his pallet was being lowered.” And second, “When needs are met and people are satisfied, they forget God.”

This raises a fascinating and profound question, “Which are we trying to do? Satisfy people’s needs or intensify their hunger?”

I recall reading (I’ve forgotten the source) that one of the functions of preaching is to “create a crisis in the listeners’ minds/hearts by showing the gap between where they are and where God calls/invites them to be.” Now that sounds kind of negative, doesn’t it? But what if you substitute the word “hunger” for “crisis”? That makes it a lot more appealing, doesn’t it? Wait a minute, you say! Isn’t the church supposed to satisfy peoples’ spiritual hunger, not create it? Listen carefully, friends. The answer is, No. It is God who satisfies our spiritual hunger. It is Kingdom living that satisfies our spiritual hunger. The church points us, leads us, encourages us, and equips us to satisfy our hunger through God. But the church will never fill us.

Anyone feel up for a crisis?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Riveting Redemption

When I was a newly baptized senior in college in 1983 I heard Elisabeth Elliott speak at a Campus Crusade for Christ conference in Kansas City on her husband Jim’s martyrdom in 1956 at the hands of a primitive tribe in Ecuador whom he and a missions team had tried to reach with the gospel. It was a riveting and inspiring story and one that I have learned more about in the ensuing years.

Elliott was one of those people whose Christian passion was awe-inspiring. While a student at Wheaton College he wrote: “God makes His ministers a flame of fire. Am I ignitable? God, deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame.”

Eventually Elliott discerned that God was calling him to the mission field, particularly to South America. “Why should some hear the gospel twice (i.e., in America) when others have not heard it once?” he asked. In corresponding with a former missionary to Ecuador he heard of a violent tribe – the Aucas – that had never been reached with the Christian message. Indeed, they had killed several Shell Oil company employees who encountered them. Several years passed as Elliott worked with the Quichua Indians while planning a mission to the Aucas, and married Elisabeth. Finally in 1955 he and one of his team members, missionary pilot Nate Saint, began dropping gifts from the plane, attempting to befriend the hostile tribe, and in January 1956 their five-man team landed on a beach of the Curaray River in eastern Ecuador. They had several friendly contacts with the tribe, but two days later all five were speared and hacked to death by Auca warriors. It was a huge news item at the time; Life magazine featured a ten-page article on their mission and death.

Paul declares in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things to work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” What happened later brought to life this great promise.

Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister; Steve Saint, his son; and the widows all risked their lives to travel into the Amazon basin and finish their loved one’s mission.

This is where the new movie, End of the Spear, opening in theatres this weekend, spends much of its time. Can you imagine Steve Saint meeting his father’s killer, a Waodani (formerly Auca) named Mincayani? Can you imagine many in the tribe accepting Christ and the tribe turning from its violent ways? Can you imagine Mincayani becoming a grandfather figure to Steve’s own children? It is all true, and it gives us a much needed reminder of the power of the gospel and of the transformative and life-changing nature of the love of Christ manifesting itself through forgiveness and reconciliation.

I have seen a documentary featuring Steve and Mincayani and theirs is a deeply inspiring (and funny) relationship. I am confident the movie will be worthwhile and that you will be challenged and blessed by seeing it. Just as with Chronicles of Narnia, make sure to see this not just because it is a good film, but because doing so will help convince the industry that there is a receptive audience for Christian oriented movies like this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Allow me to appropriate the national pastime (no, not shopping; baseball) to illustrate a point about how “the way we think” has changed over the centuries. In pre-modern times, an umpire would say, “I call ‘em as they are.” In other words, there is objective truth that can only be labeled such. It either is or isn’t a strike, and that’s the way I call them. In modern times (Enlightenment through late 20th century), an umpire would say, “I call ‘em as I see ‘em.” Which is to say, I try to call it a strike when it’s in the strike zone but sometimes my own preferences and biases play a role and in that sense the strike zone is, admittedly, a little bit subjective. In post-modern times, the umpire says “It ain’t nothin’ till I call ‘em.” Meaning, there is really no objective strike zone (truth); it all depends on what the umpire decides is a strike. Each umpire has his own personal strike zone, and it’s not a ball or a strike until he calls it.”

Keep this analogy in mind as we skip on over to a recent news item (“‘Truthiness’ is word of the year,” AP/; 1/7/06). The American Dialect Society (full disclosure: I am not a member) appoints a panel of linguists each year to choose a word that “best reflects” that particular year. And the winner for 2005 was … “truthiness,” defined as “the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.”

Notes Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology (full disclosure: I once owned a Toyota, parent company of Lexicology): “truthiness” means “truthy, not facty.” “The national argument right now is, one, who’s got the truth and, two, who’s got the facts. Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we’re not going to make much progress.”

I am glad this august group has given a name to a phenomenon that, frankly, I began to observe in the 1990’s, when I noticed that advocates for certain causes would quote statistics that, later, they admitted were false, but for which they did not apologize because their cause is a “just” one. For example, remember the “fact” that more wives are beaten by their husbands on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year? Complete myth. But this “truth” was propagated because the “cause” of preventing spouse abuse is a just one (and indeed it is). And the statistic that second-hand smoke causes 400,000 deaths per year. Completely ridiculous. But anti-smoking advocates feel so strongly about their cause that the accuracy of the “facts” they quote to further it is almost incidental, i.e., they ain’t nothin’ ‘till I call ‘em.

So, what does all this have to do with the Christian life? Simply this: The Christian faith makes a number of concrete, objective faith claims (e.g., God created the universe, Jesus is God’s Son who lived in human form, he died on the Cross and was raised from the dead, etc.). We do not need to apologize for that, although we do need to be humble in admitting the subjectivity of how we understand and appropriate those claims. Pontius Pilate’s question indeed is one for the ages: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). And let it be noted that Jesus did not say “Truthiness will set you free” (John 8:32).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Extra Measure

At about 11:15 last night Angela was asleep next to me and my daughter Morgan was seated in a chair at the foot of our bed as the two of us watched the final moments of UT’s dramatic and exhilarating national championship win over USC in the Rose Bowl. All game I had watched with appreciation as these two outstanding teams fought gallantly for the upper hand, but I wasn’t rooting for either. Having lived in L.A. from 1994-2003, I became a fan of the Trojans, but my regional loyalty favored the Longhorns, with the net result that I had no clear favorite. That changed with about 5 minutes left in the game when I watched my sweet daughter cheering so hard for the Texas that I decided I wanted them to win for her J (As usual, she was not to be denied).

I was struck this morning by the summation of one sportswriter, who said, “USC was excellent, but UT was magnificent.” But of course one UT player was particularly magnificent, the new hero-of-the-universe, UT’s quarterback Vince Young.

Here is what I saw. I saw a superb athlete lift his game above the other superb athletes around him and give the extra measure that made all the difference. There is no other way I can put it: the guy physically and willfully undertook to win the game for his team, period. He was unstoppable. It was mesmerizing.

Now permit me to take this sports moment and, ahem, run with it.

I left that experience pondering how the extra measure can make so much difference. And here’s why that deserves our consideration. Most of us don’t have the extraordinary gifts (honed by years of work and discipline, of course) of Young, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Lendale White, et al.. But what difference could the extra measure make in our life?

What if we went from cooperating with our spouse to generously affirming and supporting her/him?

What if we went from tending to and cherishing our kids to lavishly loving and investing ourselves in them?

What if we went from being a steady and good friend to a fiercely loyal and giving one?

What if we went from being a respectable and responsible church member to a passionate and committed follower of Jesus?

Many times it’s that special, willful decision to give the extra measure that changes things dramatically. Certainly, you have to pick your spots – it’s impossible to give a 4.0 effort in everything. But what a difference it makes when you pick that spot.

The columnist George Will once observed that the function of sports in a society is to show us (and thereby inspire us to) excellence. And, once in a while, magnificence.