Thursday, January 29, 2009

"It's Not Bataan"

Whenever circumstances get hard for me I try to keep things in perspective by saying, “C’mon, it’s not the Bataan Death March.” I also tell this to my teenage daughters when they complain about some of life’s great hardships like having to walk sixty steps from the car to the mall entrance in the heat of summer.

After the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines in World War II, 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese were marched 60 miles by foot to prison camps. The cruelty was horrific, as wounded prisoners limped for days through hot sun with no water. Falling down and being unable to continue was tantamount to a death sentence. Merciful death was by knife or gun; unmerciful death was by torture far too graphic to be detailed here. Prisoners who tried to help others were brutally beaten. A friend gave me a book written and personally signed by a Bataan Death March survivor; it is a gripping account of courageous perseverance. Bataan is my hedge against self-pity.

I thought of this as I dug into I Peter 3:13-18 this week to prepare a message about “always being prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within us” (v. 15) as part of my series on the Great Commission. The Christ-followers to whom the apostle Peter writes apparently experienced harassment and (moderate) persecution on a regular basis. The letter is suffused with references like “suffering for doing good” (2:20) and “those who speak maliciously against you” (3:16) and “all kinds of trials” (1:6). Peter, though, says that Christians who are insulted because of the name of Christ are blessed (4:14)! This mirrors Jesus’ own assurances (Matthew 5:10-12).

When I compare the tenor of discipleship in I Peter with our modern, often petty fears about “offending” someone or getting “criticized” if we live out our faith too overtly, the comparison is painful. In short, just as the Bataan Death March serves as a hedge against self-pity for me, the lives of early followers of Jesus serve as a hedge against self-timidity. “C’mon,” I say to myself, “this isn’t Rome under Nero.”

Peter writes something particularly intriguing when he says that “the one who has suffered in his body is done with sin” (4:1). When we are willing to experience hardship and even suffering for our faith, it helps us be more serious about living Christ-like lives. This is a supernatural dynamic at work through the Holy Spirit. To use a modern term, hardship for our faith and growth in our faith are “synergistic.”

It is a good thing to remember as we live out our calling to be witnesses of the Good News who are “always prepared” to respond when asked about our faith. If we live devout Christian lives, people will ask us about them. If people ask us, we then give the reason for our hope and purpose. As we give this reason, people may criticize or mock us. We respond with “meekness and gentleness” (3:16). And we keep walking the walk and talking the talk. This is the way of discipleship. Will you walk in it?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The First Threshold

I have been preaching on the Great Commission this month and a book I am reading has given me a lot of food for thought. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp are both staff members with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship working as “missionaries to the college campus.” Their book, “I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus,” describes what they have experienced about how people born after (about) 1975 journey towards faith in Christ.

The authors describe ‘postmoderns’ as “more experiential than propositional in their connection to truth, more communal than individualistic, valuing authenticity over theory, and understanding struggle more than naïve certainty.” In the course of their work with college students and their interview of hundreds of 20-something Christians, the authors discovered that while each individual’s path to faith was a unique mystery, their collective paths had surprising similarities. Indeed, Everts and Schaupp identify five “thresholds” which people have to cross in their journey. I am going to write about these five thresholds over the coming weeks because I think they describe MANY peoples’ journey to faith, not just young peoples.’

Threshold #1: From distrust to trust. Somewhere along the line, the person has to learn to trust a Christian. This happens when the Christian does not push an aggressive evangelistic agenda but simply offers his or her friendship unconditionally. To many young people especially, say the authors, “religion is suspect, church is weird, and Christians are hypocrites. Relationships, genuine friendships, are our currency.” The authors note that this is the way of Jesus. “Jesus leaned in toward people, asked them to ‘come and see’ his life, went to their wedding parties. He took on flesh and pitched a tent among people. He incarnated.”

Last summer I approached a guy I had occasional contact with and invited him to have a cup of coffee so I could talk to him about “spiritual things.” He knew I was a preacher and he was clearly wary, but he agreed. We met a few days later and I told him that God had put a burden on my heart for him and I wanted to share my Christian faith with him. He was very perplexed by this (“Why me?”) but agreed that at our next meeting I could walk him through a short Bible study. We spent the rest of that first get-together just talking and getting to know one another.

I took him through that short Bible study and he had lots of questions. He confided that he has always been skeptical about the miracle stories in the Bible. He clearly wasn’t even close to being able to give his life to Christ. I told him that I would not pressure him, would do my best to answer his questions, and was going to be his friend whether he became a Christian or not. He is a fine person and I meant it. I hope I would have meant it even if he were not a fine person.

We have met a couple of times since and we continue to talk through some of his doubts and questions. We also chat about what is going on in our lives (it helps that we are about the same age). When I asked him recently if we could get together again, he said, “I don’t have anything new to share with you.” I told him that’s okay; let’s just get together and catch up. I am learning that the Great Commission is not about making people a “project.” It often starts simply by offering a hand of friendship in Christian love.

Thursday, January 15, 2009



I have enjoyed teaching the special class on Wednesday nights this month called “Understanding Male Sexuality: A Class for Men and Women.” This past week in the second session, I mentioned a certain conundrum which I will express in three parts: 1) Men are visually oriented and are stimulated and even aroused by provocative images. 2) Many women dress provocatively to be noticed by men. 3) Women want men to respect them as people and not see them as sex objects.

I’m treading on sensitive ground here, so let me say first that men are responsible for our thoughts, actions and words. Period. If a Christian man takes seriously Christ’s call to holiness, he will take the necessary steps to discipline himself. Part of this is to refrain from putting himself in surroundings that tempt him strongly to lower his standards. As Job famously said, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (31:1). Christian men likewise must show this purposefulness.

So I want to look at this from the female perspective, setting aside any obligation women might or might not have to make life less fraught with temptation for men. What leads some women to dress provocatively? (I realize provocative is a relative term depending on culture, customs and tastes). I asked the women in the class this question and I received thoughtful and varied responses. To wit:

* “We don’t do it to help or hinder men – except for a few women with an agenda. Most women want a little attention – just to be noticed enough to be called beautiful, but it seems like it only happens (i.e., compliments) when we “provoke” it with our clothes. I also know that some women just don’t understand how powerful their clothing choice can be!”

* “I think women dress the way they do because they like men to look at them because it makes them feel pretty. They want their man to see other men looking at them.”

* “My personal opinion is there is no explanation that fits just one person. There are some women out there who “dress to kill” and hate men, but they know they can “control” them. There are some women who have no clue. There are some women who try very hard to be ‘proper,’ but media plays an important role in their demise.”

* “Every woman that I know wants to be beautiful. Not trashy, or sexy, or hot, but beautiful. … But look at where the bar has been set (e.g., magazine covers with air-brushed women). What makes it even more disappointing is that when men talk about the physical beauty of a woman, you very rarely hear the praise of a woman who is modestly dressed. We need men who will not only turn away from pornography and verbal praise of the air-brushed & photo-shopped women but also who will speak of realistic beauty, who will stand up and call their wives (real women) beautiful.”

At the risk of making a complex phenomenon too simple, it seems clear to me that men hold the keys to the “solution” (in a micro sense). As fathers, we can love and guide our young daughters so that they are confident in their outer attractiveness as well as their inner beauty and intrinsic worth. As husbands we can express our appreciation for our wives’ beauty and specialness.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Rebirth is Real

Non sequitur: (literally, “it does not follow”). An inference that does not follow from the premises. For example, “As a Houston Texans fan, I want the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl” is a non sequitur. So is, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.”

But the latter is the title of an editorial in the New York Times by Matthew Parris (12/27/07), who grew up in Africa and recently came to a surprising conclusion about what that continent needs. After traveling there recently as part of a charitable relief program supported by the Times, he confides:

"[This trip] inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But traveling in Malawi (where he grew up) refreshed another belief, too, one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes peoples’ hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

Parris describes how he used to applaud the practical work of mission churches in Africa while pitying that salvation was “part of the package.” He would allow that “if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.”

But in his subsequent travels to Africa, Parris has not been able to escape the conclusion that Christian faith does something inside people. Of particular importance in Africa, it liberates people from the “crushing tribal groupthink” and the “whole structure of rural African thought” that “grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity” and results in a kind of defeatist passivity.

"We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had Africans working for us who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall."

Christians sometimes lose confidence that the gospel really is “the power of salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16); we can even be ashamed of the enormity of its promises. We are tempted to concentrate on more “tangible” kinds of outreach and help. But there is no substitute for the inner transformation that rebirth in Christ brings.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


It is a new year and I must begin by reflecting on the last week of 2008, during which Angela and the girls and I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia for a Soper family reunion that originally had been scheduled for Thanksgiving 2005 in New Orleans but was postponed due to Hurricane Katrina’s bleak aftermath. It takes a lot of planning to get twenty-two people from seven states together over the Christmas holidays, let me tell you. Most people flew in but Angela and I thought it would be a nice family bonding experience to drive twenty-six hundred miles in five days. This was a lovely thought that lasted all the way through Beaumont (outbound).

The highlight of my trip, aside from seeing all the folks, of course, was the afternoon we spent touring Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful mountain-top estate/plantation. I didn’t know much about Jefferson other than that he was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, was our third president, during which he masterminded the Louisiana Purchase and financed the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and that he founded the University of Virginia. I will tell you that those accomplishments only begin to testify to his impressive character and giftedness. As President John F. Kennedy put it when he welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Jefferson achieved distinction as a political philosopher, statesman, horticulturist, archeologist, and inventor. He began studying Latin, Greek and French at age nine and eventually mastered seven languages. Did I mention he played the violin? He was an inventor of some renown. His house is filled with little contraptions and devices he conjured up and assembled to expedite household routines. His design of both the campus layout and architecture of the University of Virginia continues to draw accolades.

I remember a particular moment of personal inspiration during the tour. We were in Jefferson’s bedroom/study, and on his desk was one of his inventions, a manual copy machine on which, as one writes on a pad of paper, a dual pen in a parallel holder writes the same thing on a different pad. The tour guide was telling us of Jefferson’s legendary work habits; his motto was, “Never let the sun catch you in bed.” The first thing he did every morning was to step outside and check the temperature, which he recorded in a meteorological diary. Then he sat on his bed and placed his feet in a bucket of cold water on the floor for a minute or two. This (evidently) helped him wake up and focus his mind.

Well, that sent me over the edge. I went from dutiful admirer to awe-struck pupil. A bucket of cold water first thing in the morning! I love it! I can’t wait for Angela to try this and tell me how it works.

But seriously, Thomas Jefferson loved life and wanted to absorb and experience every possible molecule of it he could, to the point of wanting to be fully awake as soon as possible every day. And it seems to me that this might be a good thought to carry into a new year: What do I need to do to be more fully awake to God, my life, and people each and every day?