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A Grace Understood

Grace.

It's one of my favorite topics, and the one thing that I pray about, thanking God, more than any other. I think God created grace because He knew I was coming along and would so desperately need it. In fact, my mom said I came close to being the boy named Grace. I think that was the same time she said I made her life pure hell.

I am enthralled by grace because I can think of no greater gift that God could have given us than that.

Note: This essay is a work in progress, and reflects a struggle I have had (and still have) to understand the dynamic of relationships. It is certainly not the final word, and may even be totally off base. Especially for that reason, I welcome your thoughts.

Some years back, I noticed a pattern whenever I took a new job. As I started in the new place, I was very happy, delighted at my new opportunity. On a honeymoon, you might say. Then, usually mere weeks later, I looked around and thought, "What was I thinking? I must have been crazy!" And I was in the dumps for a time. After that I got out of the ditch and began taking ownership of the job, making it mine and putting my stamp on it. And in time I came to enjoy it.

So went the saying I was taught somewhere along the road of my education. The subject was English, and the point was that context -- the words surrounding the word in question -- defines a word. You can't know what a word means unless you know how it is used in the sentence or paragraph. Context.

Words have context, but there are other forms of context, as well: social, religious, and more. Virtually every field of study has its own context.

One area where context is often overlooked is the Bible.

The Bad Woman, Part 2

The account in John 8, of the woman caught in adultery, is one about which I have written before, not long ago. But I am drawn to this story like a moth to a flame, and I want to write more about it.

I have puzzled over this, wondering why I find the story so compelling. I have looked for things I may have in common with the woman. It's been an interesting search, with some dead ends: I am not a woman, for example, nor am I an adulterer, at least in the sense of a physical act. If we consider the life of my mind, however....

I spend a good deal of my time with a community of refugees, a couple different ethnic groups from Burma. Many are professing Christians, some from an ethnic group that is well known among evangelicals as Christians.

I love these people, and enjoy them a great deal. However, I have struggled with their Christianity, which too often seemed to me a name only. A "Christian" was a nice person, someone who God would see as a "good boy" or a "good girl."

I decided to do a little informal research, so I asked a friend what I thought was an easy question, at least for a professing Christian.

"Who goes to heaven?"

"The kingdom of God is not mere words, but power" (I Cor. 4:20 (paraphrased)).


I have struggled for years with this statement of Paul's. If the kingdom of God is power, where is the manifestation of that power among us? It's hard to find. Are we not in the kingdom? I read credible reports from other parts of the world that sound like the next chapter of the book of Acts. But here....

Reading the gospels, I am struck by the actions of Jesus, as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, set free those oppressed by demons, and more. Demonstrations of power. And, significantly, he said these things were signs of the arrival of the kingdom. People knew he was legitimate and that the kingdom had come by the acts of power they saw through Jesus.

Older but wiser?

I've long been fascinated by the saying, older but wiser. It suggests that getting older means getting wiser.

But I have concluded that age and wisdom are not necessarily linked. There are many cases where age does equal wisdom, certainly, but there are also many folks of advanced (or advancing) age who are no wiser than when they were children. Perhaps that's why there's another saying: There's no fool like an old fool.

As I have gotten older, I have thought about this a good deal, and about the "accomplishments" in my life. "Accomplishments" is in quotes because, while a few are positive and praiseworthy, many are not. Perhaps you understand.

Memorial Day, 2011

A lot to think about today, one set apart for remembering those who gave their lives in service of the country. Truly, the American people and even the world owes a great deal to them. Without their service and sacrifice, there would be no freedom, here or elsewhere.

And yet... Is freedom really the result of military action alone? Is there a place in the purpose of this day to remember the true source of freedom? Is there a place to especially honor the one true and living God, without whom there would be no freedom, here or anywhere? Because, truly, the state of the culture of a people is based in the God or god they profess to worship. And only in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible is there freedom. And even more, the highest levels of freedom come in those people who truly know Jesus as Lord and Savior, people who, interestingly, dwell in the nations shaped by reformed Protestant Christianity.

Thank you, Father, and thank you, Jesus.

"It's obvious that God wants me in this business, and I'm going to put everything I have into it. After all, it's growing, so God is blessing it."

"I know we're going to move away from our friends and faith community, but I'm certain it's God's will, since he opened the door on such a good deal on a house and property in the country."

These are quotes from people who have explained to me why they were doing something that I thought was detrimental to their spiritual welfare. "The door is open, so it must be God's will that I walk through it."

Christian? What's that?

The question of who is a Christian is a good one, I think. I have struggled long with it. In America, at least, the word is so broadly used as to be meaningless. I have had folks tell me that they were Christians, of course, because they weren't Jews or Muslims or any of the others, so what else would they be? Others say they attend church more or less regularly and are nice people who don't do nasty things, so they are Christians. Still others say they believe in Jesus, and therefore are Christians, though they are not part of a local church and their lives are unremarkable.

The greatest gift

I found myself puzzling over a question that I thought was a simple one. "What is God's greatest gift to us?"

Easy, right?

Of course, the answer that most often pops immediately to mind is Jesus. But I don't think that's the best answer.

I have written before of the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." I consider it one of the most profoundly thought-provoking films I have seen. In a compelling true story, it raises questions about the quality and purpose of life.

Lately, I have been thinking - again - about the basic question it raises: What constitutes a quality life? It's not an easy question, but it's one I think is worth consideration now and again.

Reading the story of numbers

It's been a while since I have written, and no doubt some have been sighing in relief, thinking "good thing." And some others have perhaps thought I should write more. Perhaps.

It's been a difficult time, and I have been uncertain what to write. But here I am. I am apparently incapable of keeping quiet for long.

An Open Letter

I don't recall ever writing an open letter before. I'm referring to a letter written to an individual, but publicly published. Nevertheless, I'm going to do it now. The catch, however, is that I am not going to identify the person I am writing to. He or she will know upon reading it. And I am told that the person to whom I write reads my blog. In this case, I especially hope so.

Some of us have the misfortune of being born into a family with a true gift for screwing up lives and making big mistakes. Everyone in the family has done it, and the only question is how long did we continue and how badly did it impact the rest of our lives?

Circumstantial evidence

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you wake up in the morning and think of the day at hand, and all you can say is, "Life sucks"?

Been there. Done that. No fun. You know you're in a tough spot when your prayer in the morning is, "God, please don't let me screw things up so badly today that you can't fix them."

Back to basics?

My life has been unexpectedly enriched by some of the improbable friends in it. Specifically, I am referring to my friends among the Karen population where I live. You never heard of them? Neither have most other Americans.

The Karen (pronounced kah-REN) are an ethnic group from eastern Burma. They have - like many other ethnic groups there - for many years been at war with the Burmese government. Several of my friends have disabilities from land mines and gunshot wounds.

Pure delight

A few weeks back, I was invited by some friends to teach them about the Bible. That in itself is pretty exciting. But this really got my heart going, because these friends are a family who came to America some three years ago as refugees from Burma. They belong to the Karen people, who have been the targets of severe persecution by the Burmese government. Many are professing Christians, but have never been taught anything about the Bible or Christianity. Their Christianity often consists in a firm conviction that Jesus is the savior, and Christianity is true, and little else.

I was reading recently - which for me is like saying I was breathing recently: stating the obvious - and came across the account of Paul's "Damascus Road experience" recorded in Acts 9. It's interesting reading, for sure, and marks the beginning of one of the most historically significant lives ever.

But Paul is well known, the subject of myriad books and sermons. My attention didn't fall on Paul, but on Ananias. Mr. Nobody. The guy who came from nowhere and apparently returned there. While he was in the spotlight, Ananias, a Jewish follower of Jesus in Damascus, was told by God to go to Paul and deliver a thirty-second message. No big deal. Sort of like Jesus to Peter: "Hey Pete, can I borrow your boat for a few minutes?"

Except...

While reading through my Bible, I see places - many places - where God speaks to people: Adam, Moses, Abraham, Samuel, David, Paul and many more. In some cases, he was downright chatty, and there were some fascinating conversations between men and God.

And as I read, I think, "What's so special about these guys, that God talked to them? Were they better than I am?" I just can't see a fundamental difference between us. What sets them apart was that God in most cases called them to some exceptional task for him. They were not in some way intrinsically superior.

I can't count the times in my life I have cried out to God for forgiveness. A depressingly high number. I have lived with an awareness of the depth of my propensity toward sin, and I have sought to be set free from it.

Yet, I have never felt a sense of complete release. It's like God was saying to me, "Okay, I'll forgive you this time, but...." Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. I think it's because that's my tendency toward myself: Conditional forgiveness.

There used to be a saying, in some of the more "folksy" parts of the church, that was used as a common greeting: "You got the victory, Brother?" It was a sort of baptized version of, "How's it going?"

A pastor in one of these churches decided the question assumed too much, and modified it: "You got the victory, Brother, or are things just going your way?"

A different matter entirely.

Thoughts on hard places

Do you know the song, "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries"? Well, it's not true. In fact, it's a flat-out lie.

I suspect many of you would look at life and the world around you and agree. For most of the people I know and see in my world, life is difficult, and it involves more pain than we want to think about. It's a long ways from just sitting around enjoying good, sweet fruit.

In hard times, especially the ones that seem to have no end, I sometimes wonder what part God plays in this mess. Is he even in it? Can these things really come from a loving, sovereign God, a part of his will?

On the value of seminary

Anyone who knows me would laugh if someone asked if I place a high value on education. Of course, they would say. Larry breathes education, they would say. And while that's a little over the top, it's not far off. I love learning and I love teaching, and I believe both have great value.

I have graduated from college, then graduate school, and finally, seminary. I was once asked, in this process, what benefit I expected to receive from seminary, and what difference my time there would make in my life.

It just sneaks up on me

This morning, I read the short New Testament book of Jude, about disruptive and destructive people coming "unawares" into the church. In other words, they sort of sneak in, not revealing their true nature. And as I read, I was struck by some thoughts.

Recently, I have spoken with more than one friend, and heard the same thing: My prayer life is lifeless, and has become a matter of routine, and I am not enjoying the intimacy with God that I want and need.

I was recently in a conversation about the value of religion in general and Christianity in particular. It was an interesting discussion, and some good questions came up. One, in particular, I want to address here: Why does anyone need religion, and why, especially, should anyone become a Christian?

I'll begin with a caveat that this is a subjective response: I am talking about why it makes sense to me that religion is necessary, and that Christianity, for good reasons, some fairly objective and others quite personal, is not only the best choice, but the only good choice. Christianity is unique, and everything else fails careful examination. Also, I have made no attempt at some logical order or arrangement. I'm writing as things come to me.

Learning to Ride a Bike

I guess a lot of my young life was not that different from other country boys. However, I did live in the mountains of Colorado in my early years, and that perhaps made some small difference.

For instance, I often woke up to the sound of a large animal moving around outside my bedroom. I would, of course, immediately jump to the window to see what sort of wild beast it might be. Alas, it was never a lion or elephant or anything exotic, but only a herd of cattle grazing in what we called our yard. Our area was open range, and ranchers let their cows run loose. Another small difference was knowing that the our "play ground" was haunted by rattlesnakes and mountain lions. That scared the snot out of our sissy relatives who came to visit--Eastern city folks--but we didn't much care. We were, after all, bullet proof: We were boys.

The Perfect Place

I recently read a post on Facebook, from someone experiencing some extremes of weather - and perhaps some loneliness - saying that she needed to find "the perfect place." This, understandably, would be one with no tornadoes, no snow, no hurricanes, no.... Well, you get the picture.

My guess is that many of us have had similar thoughts from time to time. For me, it's in the peak allergy season, when it seems I am under attack by the entire plant world. The details of the weather, however, don't bother me much, for reasons you may understand later.

As you might expect in keeping with our superior status, Dean--my brother, two years younger--and I had our own private empire. We were the oldest of seven boys, and our territory was strictly off limits to our brothers, under threat of serious pain.

We were poor growing up. Money was hard to come by, but we were resourceful, and Dean and I had accumulated a small arsenal of rifles, pistols, and other assorted weaponry in the room we shared. I was, at the time, in junior high school, probably seventh or eighth grade.

Be followers of...me?

Paul wrote it: "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ Jesus." Can I say the same? What am I asking others to imitate, or to become? Is it one growing in the likeness of Jesus? One who is balanced? One who is passionate? A representative of Jesus? Or some sort of self-centered, distorted parody of a Christian?

There's a question that bothers me a lot. I have struggled with it for years. It's about sufficiency. It's about what I think is enough for my life to be satisfying, for me to say I have lived a life that has meant something. What's enough?

It's not as easy a question as I once thought. At one time, I would have answered that if I could only know God, to be in his presence and enjoy him, it would be enough. Nothing else would matter. After all, what more could I ask after that?

Resurrection Day

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, the traditional holiday marking the resurrection of Jesus. Most Americans don't associate Jesus or his resurrection with Easter. So here's the question: Is Easter about a real, historical event, where the man/God Jesus, who was killed and buried, physically came back to life? Or are people who agree with that statement living in a world of delusions?

Lies, fears, and hope

A while back, I was reading something that gave me the idea to make a list. More precisely, four lists. I would look back at my life and think of four categories of things that have been factors in shaping my life and how I have lived it. I did that, and I want to share something of what I learned.

The first group contains regrets. That contained far too many items. It included my desires, both that many were and remain unmet, and the idea that I thought I could make things happen to satisfy these deepest longings. The result was a wreck. Also included are injuries, both those inflicted on me and those I have inflicted on others. There has been much pain, some mine and some caused by me in others, acting out of my own pain into their lives.

Options: A blessing or...

I was praying and thinking about a friend recently. This is not an uncommon activity for me, but as I prayed and thought, something came to mind that I want to share, because I think it has wide application.

There are many blessings and advantages to living in America. We are a privileged people, and have myriad options in life. We're the envy of much of the world. I am glad to have been born an American.

But...

A puzzlement

God is a God of justice. Therefore, how could he arbitrarily designate certain people as "created for destruction"?

Poor me? Or cherished by God?

You know, sometimes nothing seems as appropriate as a good old, wallow-in-the-muck pity party. Know what I mean? Like, once in a while, someone needs to remember Me, that there are things I want in life, a lifestyle that I deserve. That's only reasonable, right?

But it seems like the life I want and deserve isn't happening, and I don't like it. After all, it's my life, and it's only reasonable that I have just a bit of what I was made for.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't mean luxury. A modest house, a pickup truck, and perhaps a smallish sailboat, and I'm a happy man.

Or not.

I live in the present, the now. So do you. So does everyone. Yet, some of us live under rules imposed by our past, living in a bondage to people and events long gone. Nevertheless, we live in the present. Others live focused on the future, caring little for the problems of now and thinking only of what lies ahead. Nevertheless, they, too, are in the present.

We are creatures of the present. We may carry our past, like a heavy weight chained to our back, or we may be oblivious to the world around us now in our fixation on the future, the world of our hopes and dreams "then." But either way, like it or not, we cannot escape the "now." And the present makes certain demands on us, like it or not.

So how are we to understand the present? What is the purpose and meaning of our pain, our unfulfilled longings?

The Shack

Well, I finally did it. I finally got a copy of The Shack, and sat down to read it. When it comes to fiction, I am not on the cutting edge of things. But some folks have asked me to read it and respond. In fact, they asked me back when the book first came out, years ago. So, promptly answering the call of friendship, here it is.

I confess I am not much of a reader of fiction. It's not that I don't like it, but that I have so much other stuff to read, I just don't have time. But I was up to my eyeballs in the theology book I was reading, and needed something "light." So I picked up The Shack.

My first concern was that I would lose interest and not finish. That didn't happen. I read through it in less than 48 hours.

Reflections on life

Sunday, January 3, 2010, a man died. A life ended. It was not unexpected, and in fact, came far later than anyone expected. Three days ago as I post this, there was a funeral, and people were given a chance to stand and speak of the man, telling of memories or stories of his life.

I have been thinking for some time about this life, since long before it ended, but especially as I listened to those speaking and I observed his sisters, nieces and nephews, and especially, his own sons.

It's that time again

Well, it's that time of year again. You know, the one everyone says they look forward to, but are glad when it comes only once a year. The time when Americans go on a materialistic spending orgy, wiping out the progress of the past year toward a debt-free life.

You know what I mean, of course. It's Christmas. Just a few more days, and it'll be here.

Christmas is a topic of disagreement among Christians. Some want to celebrate it to the full, while others say it's a pagan orgy, and should be avoided.

God is good. Always.

God is good. God is always good. God is good in every situation. In our blessing, He is good. In our unfaithfulness, He is yet good. In whatever comes upon us, God is good. Whether our trials are the making of others or of our own bad choices, God is good.

So, because He is good, He can be trusted. He can be trusted absolutely. He never fails, and will never fail us. God never forsakes us, though we are found faithless.

Life or death

"The choice before us isn't just whether or not to listen to our Scriptures and place our faith in [Jesus]. The choice is whether or not to have any meaning and fulfillment in our lives. That's why Moses told us, shortly before we entered the Promised Land, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

You are chosen. Will you heed the call?"

by Avi Snyder, writing in Issues, published by Jews for Jesus.

Eric recently posted a comment to one of my "articles," asking what he should do to prepare for vocational ministry. He sparked some thoughts in my mind, and I want to share them.

First, I think there are some things that are obvious for anyone in leadership in the Church or any other Christian organization. One is a measure of theological understanding. By that I mean the leader should understand and live by the basic teachings of Christianity, and have a good measure of knowledge and understanding of the nature and purposes of God. This seems evident to me, but isn't evident in many churches.

There are others that come to mind, but I want to pass over them for now and talk about one of the central principles of effective "ministry" or Christian leadership. And as I write this, it occurs to me that these things apply to anyone who would serve God and know him, not only those in formal leadership positions.

I'm referring to a person's relationship with God, and I want to briefly discuss five points that I think are fundamental to a successful spiritual life.

Desperate evangelicals?

From the cover of Christianity Today magazine, October 2009:

"Evangelicals desperately need moral and spiritual renewal -- on that everyone agrees. But what do we do about it?"

Indeed, what do we do about it? Are we really desperate?

Over recent years, I have been disturbed as I have noticed myself becoming increasingly impatient with churches I have belonged to. I have been frustrated for a couple reasons. First, I have felt like I was becoming anemic, trying to live and grow to maturity on spiritual and intellectual baby food. Then, second and perhaps worse, I felt like I was the only one, that there was nobody else who felt as I did.

I am not one who enjoys going about criticizing and stirring up trouble. I try not to be a "professional gadfly." I respect the importance of the biblical principle of not attacking those in authority, since all authority comes from God. So I have gone privately, talking with pastors and church leaders with whom I had an established relationship, telling them of my desire for more depth and meat in teaching.

The response has been discouraging.

The question of the presence of God - is he here or not - has long been a fascinating topic for me. I think it's a very important question. We often assume God's presence and approval of our worship and ministries, and I wonder if that's wise. Is there evidence to support our assumption?

On the one hand, we have to say of course God is present. God is present everywhere and at all times. He can't not be present with us. Scripture is clear on the belief in God's omnipresence (Psalm 139, for example).

And yet...

As you received...

One of the things I miss, living in the Midwest, is time with my brother. We're from Colorado, and he stayed there. We used to have good - sometimes good and intense - conversations whenever we were together. Being separated by several states has left a hole in my life.

One conversation I remember was while driving through the mountains on our way home from a visit to our Dad, on the other side of the hill.

If you've read this blog much, you have likely read his statement before: "Christians talk about how we are saved by grace, but after that, they live their lives like it's all about works. No grace to it."

What life is good enough?

I know who I'm not, but who am I?

Periodically, I find myself wanting to watch a movie. Not just any movie. I'm not really a film buff, and don't watch many. But this is for a specific movie, a relatively old one that I originally thought had a pretty stupid story line. The movie is "The Kid," starring Bruce Willis. It's about a 40-year-old man meeting his 8-year-old self and learning who he really is.

Am I dead? Or am I alive?

Have you ever been reading somewhere and come to a place that just rivets your attention? You can't get past it, and keep coming back, over and over?

That happens to me now and then. This time, I have been reading in Paul's small letter to the Colossians. I find it amazing that there can be so much to digest in so short a letter. If I read Colossians every day for a year, I think I would still not fully understand all there is in it.

In this particular instance, I am struck by two words, each of which occurs two times: since and therefore.

A couple weeks ago I wrote of events at a meeting of a house church group, where a woman was ill and asking for prayer, and nobody moved. Two elders were present, but nobody responded. Finally I stood, laid hands on the woman, and prayed for her healing. Nobody joined me. But she was healed.

This is the follow-up on that incident.

Last week, the meeting began with a meal, as usual, and with three songs, as usual. However, after the singing, the leader, rather than starting the discussion, stopped and said we would first pray for three people, two present, with a need of healing. I was surprised, but pleasantly so.

The Leadership Imperative

Last night was our house church meeting. It's a night I normally look forward to, but this time the events of the evening left me deeply disturbed. What happened raised in my mind questions of what things characterize Christians. How are Christians - the people of God - different?

There was some discussion about living as a Christian - mostly things Christians do not do. And it's evident, I think, that socially and personally destructive practices should have no place in the life of God's people.

But I have been concerned that "Christians" very often define themselves by what they do not do, or do not believe. The world sees Christians as people who are against everything fun, interesting, or pleasurable. Christians often come across as colorless, bland and boring people who have little or nothing positive to say about anything.

About four years ago, I had a major life change. I retired. I moved to a new area and became involved in an urban church. My vision of retirement included writing and teaching at a college or perhaps a church. I thought it was a good plan, but it seems that when God got my proposal he just rolled his eyes and laughed.

Learning to be retired - especially for a country mouse trying to be a city mouse - has been difficult, but not without benefits. Our church is nearly half refugees and immigrants, and it's nice to know there are refugee kids, new to America, who consider me their grandpa, and who look to me for help and advice.

If indeed you call yourselves Christians, and rest on grace, and make your confidence in God;

If you say you know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the Word;

If you are confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in your mind,

You, therefore, who would teach others, do you not teach yourselves?

You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?

You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery?

You who abhor idols, do you rob God, even worshipping yourselves as idols?

You who make your boast in grace, do you dishonor God through making His grace a small thing? Know this: "The name of God is blasphemed among the people because of you."

(Romans 2:17-24, paraphrased)

If you died right now...?

If you died right now, would you go to heaven?

Have you ever heard that question? Ever asked it? When I was growing up in a wound-very-tight fundamentalist church, that question was at the heart of "witnessing." It was at the heart of "the gospel." We were expected to ask The Question of people we encountered. Few of us did that, but that's another matter.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting question. If I died right now, what would happen to me? What happens to anyone at the end of this life? Is our ultimate destination heaven? Hell? Neither? Does the Bible care? Should we?

I've been in a rather unusual pattern of Bible reading lately. I read straight through Jeremiah and then Obadiah. After those, I moved to Revelation. I just finished - a quick, non-analytical read, to get a new sense of the larger picture and flow of events. And, of course, to better understand what happens at the end of the story. It's a fascinating read, and I recommend it to you.

Now, I'm starting John's gospel. I figure as long as I'm in the neighborhood, I might as well spend some more time with John. I've read all his stuff before, several times, but an occasional refresher is a good thing. Like coming back to see an old friend.

Jesus likes me! Really!

If there was ever a question with a predictable answer - at least among Christians - here it is: "Does God love me?" Of course He does. God loves everyone, doesn't He? I mean, we all know there's only one acceptable answer to the question. Even if we don't really believe the answer.

A more interesting question might be, "Does God like me?" That, as they say, is "a whole 'nother matter."

As I have asked people these two questions, invariably they answer, without hesitation, yes, God loves me. But very often, when I ask the second question, they get a distant look, sort of a sad expression, and shaking their head, they say, "No, I don't think so."

Memorial Day 2008

Today, as I write, is Memorial Day. It's a day that is important to me, one when we remember and honor those who have died in American military service. It's a moving time for many - myself among them - and a party time for others.

Memorial Day is important to me for a couple reasons. The first is obvious: We owe honor to those who sacrificed their lives in our place. Our freedoms - which we take so much for granted - came at a high cost. Many men and women have shed their blood and given their lives to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to live in the greatest freedom and opportunity of any nation in history. And much of the world looks with longing at the great blessing it is to be an American citizen.

So who's the fool?

I need to blow off some steam for a few moments, about something that just bugs me a lot. Please bear with me.

I am amazed by the number of people who (1) profess to be a Christian, but define the term according to their own whims and convenience, or (2) simply blow off the entire "God-thing" as unworthy of their consideration, which is perhaps the same thing in different words. These groups are large, and the two have some common characteristics. We find many of the first group in churches, but a lot of them are staying away from "organized religion." We also find many of the second group in churches, and others who would not set foot in a church. They have some things in common.

What a wonderful world

I usually write about theological matters, and seldom go outside that for my topics. Some folks like that, some don't, and most don't care. Nevertheless, today is an exception.

Sunday afternoon, Mother's Day, after three days of being sick, then struggling through a fun but exhausting birthday party with about 35 Burmese refugee friends at our house, we went for a ride "up the river." Now, there are a number of rivers in this region - the Illinois, the Meramec, the Missouri, the Kaskaskia, the Des Peres - but around here, "the river" is the Mississippi. The River. We drove up the highway along the Mississippi, giving this country boy a chance to get out of town and regain his sanity.

In my last two posts, I have written, first, about the powerless church, a church that is increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly secularized America. Then, I wrote of the first step in renewing the church, bringing it to life, the first step in becoming a credible factor in society: reclaiming the gospel.

But there's another question - a big one - as yet unanswered: How does all this happen? How does the church reclaim the gospel - the whole, biblical, life-transforming gospel? And how does the church go from being "just words" to living out life-transforming power? How do we move from being an irrelevant subculture of more-or-less nice people to a community of radically committed followers and representatives of Jesus?

I think there are two major factors: our concept of God, and leadership.

"...I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'but the righteous man shall live by faith'" (Romans 1:16-17).


A few days ago, I wrote about the secularization of America, and the powerless American church. While I believe everything I wrote is true, it's incomplete. I have long subscribed to the philosophy that anyone can complain and point out problems, but unless the complainer also brings potential solutions, he's part of the problem.

So, here's part two of my take on the state of the American church.

John Ortberg recently wrote this on the Out-of-Ur blog: "The recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicates that faith is going down across the board."

Ortberg is not the only one discussing this latest survey. A number of people are writing about it, and generally, the conclusion is that America is fast becoming a secular nation. Christianity is diminishing in influence and significance at an increasingly rapid pace.

Friday, I had a pleasant evening, with dinner at a small Mediterranean place near our home, followed by a movie, Evan Almighty. The dinner was passably good, but the movie, to my surprise, touched me deeply, and has had me thinking ever since.

The story is about a guy, Evan, who is out to change the world, and who gets elected to Congress on that platform. His life is radically rearranged when God takes his "change the world" talk seriously, and gives him a job to do: build an ark.

A slice of God's Kingom

A few days ago, I was invited to a birthday party for a pair of Burmese refugees, twin girls age 7. In the small crowd, there were uncountable children and three Americans. As the only American man, I was asked to bring some "encouraging words."

So I spoke - with someone else translating into Burmese - about God's grace and favor, and the great blessings he promises to those who worship and obey him. I talked about the rain falling outside as I spoke, which helped our food to grow. I talked about the good houses we live in - something new to my listeners - and about the family we have in Jesus.

Sunday morning!

Hallelujah! He is risen!

Hope for the world rose from the grave this morning!

A day of darkness

Saturday: Jesus is dead. Hope is lost. The world is black

What a week!

Good Friday, the worst/best Friday ever.

Hurting? Discouraged?

I had breakfast with a good friend this morning, as is my Sunday habit. Pleasant conversation. My friend, as it happens, is a professional counselor, and we sometimes talk about how we live and grow.

This week, we talked about medication for depression, and I expressed my concern that Americans might be medicating ourselves out of some good things. We don't like to be in pain or discomfort, physically or emotionally. As soon as we become depressed or unhappy, we reach for a pill. It's very similar to the too-common practice for unruly children. Medication.

To live or to die

I was listening to a sermon Sunday, and suddenly the phrase "grain of wheat" struck me and wouldn't go away. I have been struggling with the adjustment from employment to retirement. It's the hardest adjustment I have ever faced. Going from a lifetime of challenging jobs, supervising people, solving problems, having a purpose and goal every day, to...what?

Now nobody cares if I get up in the morning. Nobody cares how I spend my day. And from my perspective, the matter of my own significance is undecided. I want to be significant. I want my life to matter, to make a difference. It's too hard not to have something important as the outcome.

The best, or just good?

II like reading the Bible, and I do a lot of it. But I don't like it when people ask me what my favorite story is. There are so many, it's hard to name just one. But if I'm forced to do it, I guess the account of Elijah and Elisha, in II Kings 1, would be a good contender. You may know it, about the fiery chariot. It's the basis for the song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a nice song and understandable coming out of slavery - but not really what the story says.

My interest, however, is not fiery chariots. As fascinating as that is, there are two other things that grab my attention. First, I notice a characteristic displayed by Elisha throughout: He is an amazingly determined, focused man. It seems like nothing can sway him from his goal. And then there is the progression of places where the two traveled: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and then on across the Jordan River.

God's silence revisited

Back in October, I posted an article about God's silence. I want to revisit the subject, because I think it's a badly misunderstood topic for most modern western Christians. Here's some of what I wrote originally:

"Where is God? I mean, if God is everywhere, as theologians teach, and if God loves me deeply and wants a relationship of intimacy with me, as theologians also teach, where is he? I talk, talk, talk to him, and he is ... where? He says nothing. The conversation is decidedly one-sided."

A while back I posted a piece on the question, "If all that is permitted to you in this life is to truly know God, is that enough?" The question came out of watching the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."I have struggled mightily with the question since.

I would like to say, of course, that knowing God is central in my life and there is nothing to compare with it. Of course my answer would be yes. But I had trouble saying it without feeling like I wasn't really being honest.

And yet, the longing of my heart is to truly know God and to serve him. What's the problem?

Lent: Just more Catholic stuff?

Well, it's Lent. At least I think it is. Seems like I read it somewhere. Or... No, wait, I think it begins tomorrow. I never know about that Catholic stuff, you know? Seems like not many other Christians care too much about it, either.

I grew up in a Fundamentalist church, one that encouraged me to cross the street if I saw a priest or nun walking toward me. And I did just that. I was an arrogant bigot, and all I can say in my defense is that I was young and didn't know better. But I thank God that he freed me from that sort of nonsense a long time ago. And yet, there's this Lent business. Isn't that as Catholic as priests and nuns?

Would I say yes?

Last night at our house church meeting, there was a discussion about Abraham following God's astonishing call, and what things we have in our lives that might prevent us from following Abraham's example.

It's a hard question to consider. There were a number of answers - family, job and more - but I wonder if they really hit the core problem.

A thought for reflection

I am one who is purpose driven, mission oriented, and not good at sitting around. But lately, there has been no evident purpose or mission in my life, a situation I pray is temporary. It's very difficult, but this question occurred to me:

"If all I am permitted in this life is to know God, is that enough?"

Surely, nothing could be better and nothing supplant knowing Him, and I am finding my mind quickly says yes. But my actions and the longings of my heart seem to disagree.

Have you seen the film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"?

Healthy? Or slowly dying?

How do we know if we're healthy? How do we know if our bodies are well and can be expected to serve us in good fashion?

I suggest that the mark of both health and illness is change. For example, if our body temperature suddenly rises, we know that our body is under attack and defending itself. If there is sudden pain, it's a signal that something is amiss. And even on the good side, we experience change, though more subtle. A healthy body is in a constant state of restoring and renewing itself. We are less aware of these changes, but when they stop, we know. When the changes in our body stop, we are dying, and it's only a matter of time before our bodies have no life remaining.

How do you spell success?

Perhaps it's a sign of age, but I keep coming back to this topic: What is a successful life? Put another way, what do we have to do now to be certain of two things: First, that it will be a good day when we stand before God and give an account; and, second, that the sort of legacy we leave to our children is one we are happy with. How do we want to be remembered?

When we stand before God, will we hear, "Well done. I'm proud of you." Or will he shake his head, with a deep sigh? When our grandkids talk about us, will they do so with pride, or with amazement at the mess we made of things?

That old song always struck me as a little sad, but not too interesting. After all, I wasn't in either category: tired or scared. But it comes to mind today, as I am thinking about someone I know.

He's an old man, in his 90s, who has been utterly miserable for years. It started when his wife died. He used to make her life miserable, and then she up and died on him. Now, maybe he's feeling like he has no purpose in life. I don't know. But over the past several years, he has been the loneliest, most unhappy man I have ever known. He wants to die, and - I know, this sounds cold - he really needs to die. But he's terrified of it. He's terrified of what might await him after he leaves here.

Is God done with me? Part 2

Continuing with the problem of why God would "pull us from the game" and, despite our gifts, training and desire, not let us do that for which we have prepared.

I wrote in part one of building character as one possible reason. And I am assuming in all this that there is no willful sin, which, of course, changes everything. Such sin is in fact a demonstration of a lack of character. But there's another reason, one that I think is also very important, and perhaps more common than we realize.

That's to bring us into a deeper relationship with God.

Is God done with me? Part 1

I had a conversation recently with a friend, someone who is very bright and is by any definition an achiever. My friend - a scientist - is now more than fully occupied with the non-science demands of raising a family. And my friend - while understanding the importance and privilege of shaping young lives - struggles with missing the mental challenges and the sense of fulfillment that comes from using a very good mind in one's chosen field.

I well understand the situation. As they say, "Been there, done that." And I don't like it. I struggle with it.

Paul revisited

If indeed you call yourselves Christians, and rest on grace, and make your confidence in God; if you say you know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the Word; if you are confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in your mind, you, therefore, who would teach others, do you not teach yourselves? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob God, even worshipping yourselves as idols? You who make your boast in grace, do you dishonor God through making His grace a small thing? Know this: "The name of God is blasphemed among the people because of you." (Romans 2:17-24, paraphrased)

Every now and then, something will come to my attention that I find somewhat startling. Often, these things prompt questions that some folks consider outrageous or worse, but that response doesn't bother me. After all, what's life without a little controversy now and then? Boring.

Here's what I noticed, and I wonder about the significance of it.

What have you been doing?

What have you done lately?

No, I'm not talking about getting the latest technotoy or buying a new car. Nothing like that.

What have you done lately that matters? What have you done that changes the world, helps others, and lives on after you?

Anything?

One of the saddest things I ever read was from the Greek philosopher Aristotle: "The masses choose the lives of grazing animals." Utter insignificance. Profoundly disheartening, and the most depressing part: "choose." People choose insignificance.

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  • Larry Baden said:
      Poonam, My apologies for the long delay in replying to your comments....
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      Remember what our Lord and Saviour said. "Its not my will that any sho...
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