Thursday, April 30, 2009

From the Dead

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

I am finishing a 3-message series this week on “Surviving the Economic Meltdown… and Being Stronger For It,” so I am coming at the above passage from the context of our present economic pressures. I think particularly of the suicides I have read about in the news of (usually) men who felt that ending their life was their best option in the face of huge debts and/or business pressures. Perhaps the most prominent of the ones who chose this last desperate measure was the 41-year old who served as the Chief Financial Officer for Freddie Mac, the (now) government controlled US mortgage lender and guarantor. The job was a pressure-cooker, with mounting public criticism of the company’s bad loans and retention bonuses, and investigations into its practices by two government agencies. One analyst called top jobs at Freddie Mac “a political land mine.” This good man, remembered by co-workers for his “extraordinary work ethic, integrity, and quick wit,” left behind a wife and six-year old daughter.

I do not know what it is like to “despair even of life.” I am thankful for that even as I feel great empathy for people who do know this painful lack of hope. Hope is our life blood. It gives us the will to live, to strive, to endure and overcome. That is why a dear scripture to me, one tucked close to my heart, is the benediction in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

I am struck by the vividness of the apostle Paul’s language when his hope was running low. He says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure.” Literally, “surpassingly beyond power we were burdened.” He then says, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v. 9).

It seems to me that this kind of comforting and hope-affirming realization doesn’t always come in the midst of the trial but only later, as we look back on the experience and say “Oh, now I see God’s hand in leading me through that.” The trial may still be difficult and draining, but hope gives us the small, life-giving pulse of anticipation that there will be a time when we can look back with our confidence restored. “He who has rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again” (v. 10).

Friends, there is nothing that God cannot help you get through. Nothing. He is the One who raises from the dead, including the deadness of hope.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well (Psalm 139:11-14).

Friends, may we abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rich Young Me

I am preaching on a passage (Matthew 19:16-22) this week that gives me the willies. The story of the “rich young man” is one of those unnerving encounters between Jesus and someone that leaves ripples and repercussions whenever it is told and wherever it is taken seriously.

It is a challenging passage because all three synoptic gospels include it but with slight variations (see Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23). Matthew and Mark call him a “young man” whereas Luke refers to him as “a certain ruler.” In Matthew’s portrayal the man asks, “What do I still lack?” in response to Jesus’ instruction for him to keep the commands. This gives us the impression that he is truly searching to fill an emptiness inside. Mark and Luke don’t mention this. Mark tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Matthew and Luke don’t.

In general we have conflated these three accounts and taken away the following basic lesson: The rich young man asks Jesus how to have eternal life and is told to obey God’s commands. When he indicates he already does that and he’s still “lacking,” Jesus tells him to divest himself of his material possessions and follow him. This is too much for the man and he sadly declines Jesus’ call to discipleship, thus indicating that for Christians whose possessions stand in the way of salvation, divestment is necessary. For the rest of us, no such problem.

Well, that’s convenient. Luke gives us an out (sort of) by saying the man has “great wealth.” Compared to Bill Gates, we do not. Case closed. But Matthew and Mark simply point out that the man has “many possessions.” (The NIV doesn’t help us by rendering it “great wealth” to harmonize with Luke). Hmmm. The man has “many possessions” and wonders why he is tired and searching. He tries to obey the commandments but knows something is missing. He wants to follow Jesus (perhaps) but can’t bear to change his lifestyle in order to do so. Hmmm. This may indeed be a story for our time.

One of the phenomena this economic meltdown has revealed is the stuff-itis prevalent among Americans. We knew this before, of course, but now it has really risen up and bitten us. We got caught with our hand in the financial cookie jar. We worked hard to enjoy a certain lifestyle and then advanced that lifestyle just enough that we had to work harder to maintain it, then advanced it, etc. Now we’re tired and frustrated. And through all this we say with a straight face, “Possessions don’t get in the way of me and God.” Really? Would we be willing to work less and cut our lifestyle expenditures significantly in order to experience less stress? It’s a challenging question because our lifestyle grows on us and elicits strong attachments from us, e.g., I want to give up my Blackberry monthly fee… just not my Blackberry! We usually assume the solution is to earn more money, but spiritually (and economically) the best solution is more often to downsize.

As Dale Bruner puts it in his commentary on Matthew, “The final tragedy of this young man who wants to have everything, even religion, is that he is not a free man. He does not have money; it has him. He is, as we say, ‘had.’”

We have been “had” whenever we think we can have the best of both worlds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taking Up the Cross, Literally

A much-heralded but little seen movie has been languishing in theatres across the nation and will soon disappear into DVD-land. The movie moved and inspired me so much that I called people on my way home and told them about it, raved about it at dinner to Angela and the girls, made everyone within three family tree branches of me promise to see it, and arranged to watch it again with Angela two days later.

The movie is called “The Cross.” It is a true story presented in documentary form. The main person is Arthur Blessitt, but if he won an Academy Award it would be for best supporting actor. The main character is the twelve-foot wooden cross he carries with him… across the entire planet… over a forty-year span. I’ll let that settle in for a moment.

Blessitt’s journey began with a simple act of obedience. He was ministering to the hippies in Hollywood in the 1960’s and opened a coffee shop called “His Place.” He felt God calling him to put a large wooden cross on the wall inside, which he did (the details are very funny). Shortly thereafter he felt God calling him to take short trips with the cross along Sunset Strip, giving out food and telling people about Jesus. Soon, he felt God calling him to carry the cross across America. Blessitt explains that growing up as a Christian, he never had any particular attachment to the cross, per se. He didn’t have one in his room, didn’t wear one around his neck. He was as baffled as anyone when a 12-foot wooden cross became the centerpiece of his life and ministry.

He left Hollywood on Christmas Day in 1969 and walked across the country. (He was arrested in Mississippi for holding hands with a black man while praying with him). Everywhere he went he told people about Jesus and God’s love for them. The physical cross became like a beacon of hope to people as he gently, peaceably, lovingly offered his simple message in town after town. Crowds gathered. People wept. The actual film footage of this happening is simply breathtaking to behold.

In 1970 Arthur felt called to carry the cross in war torn Northern Ireland. He then began intermittent trips to specific countries to do his ministry while marrying and raising a family. In 1988 he felt Jesus tell him to carry the cross in every nation, which he completed ten years later. Then he launched out to carry the cross in every island group throughout the world as well. In 2008 at age 68, he felt that he had completed what God had called him to do; hence the documentary.

The parts of Arthur’s story that moved me most were the instances in which he faced danger and was told by everyone not to go, but resolutely decided that God’s call was stronger than harrowing circumstances. You will not believe the footage of him in northern Ireland, Beirut, and Nicaragua during actual street battles walking with his cross. Or the time during Spain’s fascist era when the authorities brutally club him, arrest him and confiscate his cross, all on videotape (!), while onlookers rush to keep the cross raised high during the melee.

The document’s narrator observes that “We started out thinking we would make a movie about what Arthur did with the cross, but we ended up making a movie about what the cross did to Arthur.” And to you and me, Lord willing.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Counter Movement

This week’s cover story of Newsweek has captured many peoples’ attention with its dramatic title (“The End of Christian America”). I found Jon Meacham’s article, however, to be thoughtful and fair. His basis for the story is the recent release of the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). Among its findings: From 1990 to today,

* The percentage of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation has increased from 8.2% to 15%.

* The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen from 86%to 76%.

* The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has risen from 1 million to 3.6 million.

Another piece of data intrigued me: Fully one-third of Americans identify themselves as born-again Christians.

And my favorite factoid: A fifth of “atheists” in a recent Pew Survey said they believed in God!

The source of this last revelation is a rebuttal opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (4/6/09) by John Micklethwait and AdrianWooldridge titled, “God Still Isn’t Dead.” They make the correspondingly thoughtful case that “Betting against American religion has always been a fool’s game,” and part of what we are seeing is evidence of peoples’ growing distaste for “the fusion of religion and political power.”

I don’t want to downplay the ARIS’s findings, lest I manifest the same complacency and denial General Motors executives did in the 1960’s and 1970’s when they took the view that, “Yes, our market share has fallen, but we still dominate.”

Here is how I see it. American culture is definitely moving away from its de facto partnership with the Christian church and “Christian values,” but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The simple historical fact is that the Christian movement has floundered when it has the patronage of society’s power centers and flourished when it had to rigorously assert itself in the midst of cultural and governmental antagonism. Whenever Christianity has been the preferred or even mandated religion of a government and culture, Christians have become lazy and the “movement” has faltered. As Micklethwait and Woolridge put it, “Religion, no less than software and politics, is a competitive business, where organization and entrepreneurship count.”

Isn’t it significant that, again quoting the WSJ article, “in Latin America, Pentecostalism has disrupted the Catholic Church’s majority, five of the world’s ten biggest churches are in South Korea, and in China more people (about 100 million) now identify as Christians than as Communists.” This is Christianity at work as a counter movement!

We celebrate today the heart of the Christian faith, that the Christ who died for our sins to reconcile us to God has risen. He has risen indeed! And he sends us into the world as his followers to winsomely live under his Lordship and enthusiastically tell others about Him. When we do these things, no one will wonder if it’s “the end of Christianity” any where near us.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"What They Need is a God"

A recent Time magazine article spotlighted “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now. One of them was “The New Calvinism.” The article noted that “Calvinism is back… complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination.” The author suggests that this renewed view of God is partly a reaction to American conservative evangelicalism’s fuzzy Jesus-is-my-friend theology. As the influential Calvinist Albert Mohler notes, “[Young people] have plenty of friends: what they need is a God.”

This doctrinal shift certainly has an inherent appeal during difficult times. It is much more comforting to believe that the economic meltdown, shrinkage of one’s retirement savings, loss of a job, foreclosure on a house, etc. is just part of God’s predestined plan and we must accept his will and be at peace with it rather than taking any responsibility for it.

You can probably tell where I stand with this. I have noted with increasing exasperation in the last decade the prevalence of “Everything happens for a reason” and “This is all just part of God’s plan” explanations from both sincere Christians and otherwise unreligious theists. The fact is that there has always been a tension between our belief in both God’s sovereignty and human free will. Christians have wrestled with this in every age. How much does God involve himself in daily affairs? How do we know when something is his plan and when it is not? Can we resist God’s will? How much responsibility do we bear for the circumstances in our life? Calvinism to the extreme (an important caveat) says, in essence, “If it happens, it is God’s will.” I am preparing a Wednesday night series on this subject because it is such a fascinating, challenging, and relevant subject for Christians.

Interestingly, during Lent this year I have been meditating on Psalm 139, which includes the following: “You saw my unformed substance. In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them” (v. 16, ESV). It would be difficult indeed not to read some degree of divine determinism into scriptures like that!

Here is where I struggle. I love the idea of a Big God. I believe that God is sovereign, omnipotent and omniscient. I resonate with commands in scripture to fear (reverence) God and submit to Him. I think that many Christians, including myself many times, are far too casual and cavalier about our worship of and service to God. At the same time, I believe strongly in human free will and responsibility. I believe I CAN resist God’s will, and often do! I believe I can create messes in my life that God did not plan and with which he is not pleased. I believe, as I take Romans 8:28 to say, that “[God can cause] all things [to] work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV), meaning that when bad things happen, whether they were God’s plan or not, he can help me find redemptive good in them, be a better Christ-follower for it, and glorify God through it (see also Romans 5:1-5 and James 1:2-4). I believe Jesus is both my Lord and my Friend.

So I am intrigued by this new trend among Christians in America. I welcome a renewed emphasis on a mighty God, AND I am not ready to let myself off the hook about my own responsibility.