Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Irrepressible Gospel

Through evangelism, through repeated confrontation with the intrusive grace of God, the church can be born again. By letting God use us in his never-ending pursuit of the unbaptized, the baptized can rediscover what it means for us to be the church, that unlikely gathering of those who are called to sign, signal, and witness to the graciousness of God in a world dying for lack of salvation. – William Willimon, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized (Eerdmans, 1994).

I love how irrepressible the gospel is. I love how unstoppable the Holy Spirit is. I love how resilient and vibrant the church is. Just when I become worried that the Kingdom of God is faltering in the world instead of advancing, I am reminded of Jesus’ assertion that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church (Matthew 16:18). Assuming, of course, that the church truly acts as the body of Christ in the world.

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle (“Returning the Favor: Missionaries bring the Gospel back to secular Europe,” Kevin Sullivan, 6/23/07) spotlights what is taking place in Denmark as preachers from Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Iran and Latin America pour in and plant churches. Until a century ago, Europe was Christianity’s center of gravity in the world, but in the 20th century it became increasingly secular and its state-run churches increasingly impotent. Only about two percent of Denmark’s 5.5 million citizens attend church regularly. The state-run Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church is moribund. After U.S. Ambassador James Cain and his family arrived in 2005, for instance, they tried to attend a scheduled Sunday service and found the door padlocked. The next week they tried a different congregation; only nine people were present, seven of whom were Cain and his family and bodyguards. In 2003 a Danish Lutheran priest (whose salary is paid by citizens’ taxes) admitted publicly that he didn’t believe in God. Church officials suspended him for a month, but hundreds of sympathetic parishioners rallied to his defense, saying that a priest didn’t have to believe in God to promote Christian values.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. Indeed, one does not have to believe in God to promote Christian values, but the church is called to do far more than promote Christian values. It is called to be an outpost of the Kingdom, a mission center, a catalyst for “confrontation with the intrusive grace of God.” And when the church fails to be evangelistic and mission oriented, it becomes a dying shell of a body. And God’s Spirit goes elsewhere, like to developing countries, whose citizens for the most part are not comfortable and complacent, and wherein now reside the majority of the world’s two billion Christians.

As Ravi Chandran, the Filipino pastor of International Christian Community in Copenhagen, Denmark, puts it, “When we became Christians in the East, we read the Bible and it said, ‘Go out into the world and spread the gospel.’ And guess what? We came back to the West!”

I love how irrepressible the gospel is! I love how unstoppable the Holy Spirit is! I love how resilient and vibrant the church is when we understand that we are missionaries to a world dying for lack of salvation! Christian values programs eventually get padlocked. Mission outposts prevail against the gates of hell and apathy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Living With a Smile

This Friday Angela and I are driving to Tyler, Texas to pick up our daughter from Camp Deer Run. It’s about ten hours round-trip, and I came up with the brilliant idea of renting a “premium” car both for the fun of it and to save wear and tear on our car (note how I find some practical justification). We’ll bring great music cd’s, tapes, and make it a fun road trip. Yep, this is what passes for wild and crazy stuff in the Soper family. But seriously, it seems to me that this is a tiny example of ways we can add a little spice to the routine of our lives, something I do far too seldom.

Some dear church members in California noticed that whenever I visited their house I remarked about a framed list of “Life’s Little Instructions” in their breakfast room. I enjoyed reading that list and resolved to buy it if I ever found it in a store. Well, when I left Los Angeles they gave me the framed list (they couldn’t find a copy to purchase so they gave me theirs). May it fill you with happy resolve as it does me. And thank you again, Reuben and Rosa.

Life’s Little Instructions

Sing in the shower. * Treat everyone you meet like you want to be treated. * Watch a sunrise at least once a year. * Never refuse homemade brownies. * Strive for excellence, not perfection. * Plant a tree on your birthday. * Learn three clean jokes. * Return borrowed vehicles with the gas tank full. * Compliment three people every day. * Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them. * Leave everything a little better than you found it. * Keep it simple. Think big thoughts but relish small pleasures. * Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. * Floss your teeth. * Ask for a raise when you feel you’ve earned it. * Be forgiving of yourself and others. * Overtip breakfast waitresses. * Say “thank you” a lot. * Say “please” a lot. * Avoid negative people. * Buy whatever kids are selling on card tables in their front yards. * Wear polished shoes. * Remember other peoples’ birthdays. * Commit yourself to constant improvement. * Carry jumper cables in your trunk. * Have a firm handshake. * Send lots of Valentine cards. Sign them, “Someone who thinks you’re terrific.” * Look people in the eye. * Be the first to say “Hello.” * Use the good silver. * Return all things you borrow. * Make new friends but cherish old ones. * Keep secrets. * Sing in a choir. * Plant flowers every spring. * Have a dog. * Always accept an outstretched hand. * Stop blaming others. Take responsibility for every area of your life. * Wave at kids on school buses. * Be there when people need you. * Feed a stranger’s expired parking meter. * Don’t expect life to be fair. * Never underestimate the power of love. * Drink champagne for no reason at all. * Live your life as an exclamation, not an explanation. * Don’t be afraid to say, “I made a mistake.” * Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” * Compliment even small improvements. * Keep your promises (no matter what). * Marry only for love. * Rekindle old friendships. * Count your blessings. * Call your mother.

Not overtly spiritual (though you can read some of this in Ecclesiastes), but pretty good instructions for counting your blessings and living with a smile.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Last weekend I strained my lower back trying to be twenty-five years old in the gym instead of forty-five. I have never experienced lower back pain and it was quite uncomfortable. As I lay on my stomach Saturday night with ice packs on my back and Angela’s admonitions in my ears (“you need to start taking it easier,” etc.), I wondered what I should learn from this experience. Not to sound melodramatic, but I even asked God, “Lord, what do you want to teach me through this?”

You see, I don’t think God caused this injury to occur, but I do think he can teach me something through it. The popular saying these days is, “Everything happens for a reason.” I am uncomfortable with that sweeping pronouncement simply because it implies that God (or a cosmic force, or fate, since it is uttered by non-believers as well as believers) is orchestrating everything that happens. But my belief is that God does not orchestrate everything that happens (was he causing me to lift more weight than I should have?) but rather that he can help us find some good in everything that happens. In other words, he will help us redeem our experiences. As Paul tells us in Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (TNIV).

At any rate, as I sought treatment from a chiropractor this week, and marveled at how effective their “adjustments” can be, what became obvious to me is that I have neglected my flexibility and allowed myself to become stiff and tight. This is a prescription for injury. One of the things I have vowed (in the manner of the Psalmist, “O Lord, if you will deliver me from this I will…”) is to spend regular time in stretching and becoming more supple.

And it occurred to me (this is what I perceive God can teach me through this) that this resolve should far transcend the physical realm. You see, we can become tight and inflexible in other ways too. How flexible are you in your thinking? In your relationships? In your opinions? The definition of supple is “capable of being bent or folded without creases, cracks, or breaks; easy and fluent without stiffness or awkwardness.” Think of the legs of a dancer. Are you a supple person or a stiff person? Stiff breaks when it has to bend; supple bends and twists while retaining its form and shape. Supple has strong convictions but can wrap itself around and evaluate other viewpoints. Stiff has strong convictions but cannot bend.

Here are some ways to increase your flexibility, to pursue suppleness. 1) Vary your habits; routines are good servants but poor masters. Drive a different route to work. Sit in a different pew in church! Read editorials you know you won’t agree with. Talk to people you don’t have much in common with – and listen closely to them. Ask yourself often “What could I be failing to see?” in a certain line of reasoning. Assume other people have good reasons for their opinions and actions instead of dismissing them. A wise person once said, “Everyone is in some sense my master, and from that I may learn from them.”

We all could benefit from periodic adjustments. I think of Jesus as strong and supple.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Life on the Coastline

Once upon a time a group of people established a lifesaving station on a dangerous seacoast where many ships had sunk and people had died. The lifesaving station volunteers repeatedly sacrificed warmth and comfort, and even physical well-being, to rescue shipwrecked people off the coastline. This gave them great joy and purpose in life. They knew they were following in the steps of the Great Lifesaver in whose memory they established the station. The shipwreck survivors usually embraced the lifesaving mission and volunteered as lifesavers.

As the lifesaving station grew, the members put up sheds for the boats and lifesaving equipment. They established training classes on lifesaving, advanced lifesaving, and theories of lifesaving. In time the lifesaving station grew into a large compound with boat sheds, living quarters, a lounge, and game rooms. Strong opinions arose among the lifesavers about the proper techniques for lifesaving: should a rescuer do the backstroke or freestyle on his way out to rescue someone? Should the lifejackets be yellow or orange? Could different lifesaving stations cooperate with one another? Who should be considered a true lifesaver?

Off the coastline the shipwrecks continued, many people perished, and the lifesaving station leaders wondered why they weren’t making a difference in this sad phenomenon.

After a while some members concluded that the lifesaving station had lost sight of its original purpose: to rescue shipwrecked swimmers! So they resigned and established a lifesaving station farther down the coast. As the years passed, the new station followed the same pattern as the old one until another group pulled away and established its own station. If you visit that seacoast today, you will find a whole series of exclusive clubs on the shore. They offer classes on lifesaving, the lifesaved life, discovering your inner lifesaver, the purpose-driven lifesaver, right and wrong techniques for lifesaving, acceptable and unacceptable types of lifesaving equipment, and raising your child to be a successful lifesaver. They even have a lifesaving coffee bar featuring vanilla and hazelnut flavors. Plus mocha.

Relatively little time and effort is spent actually rescuing people, and the number of shipwrecks and drowning deaths in the area has stayed constant even with the proliferation of lifesaving stations along the coastline.

But some lifesaving stations have begun critically examining their practices and renewing their original mission. They are calling all their volunteers to embrace and participate in actual lifesaving, not just lifesaving theory. They are simplifying their operations and asking themselves continually, “How will this help us save lives? This simplicity and focus has galvanized and inspired the lifesaving station members, who were getting bored with all the activities anyway and wondering why they never actually rescued anyone. People are discovering the joy of lifesaving again. More people are being rescued. It is a beautiful thing.