Monday, December 8, 2008

Simply Jesus

I've always admired the "good news" of Jesus for its simplicity. I once heard a story about a Buddhist healer who was engaged in deep conversation with a friend over the differences between his beliefs and those of Christianity. The Buddhist healer remarked, "The path of Buddhism is a very, very difficult path; the journey towards enlightenment is very difficult, and even those who struggle rarely obtain enlightenment," then he moved to Jesus, "Christianity is like cheating: You give your life to Jesus and He instantly takes you to enlightenment." The "good news" of Jesus is simply that every person on this harsh planet has a shot at hope and true life. The CEO working on the top floor of his building, the philosopher who lectures at Stanford, and the bum on the street corner who can hardly remember his name; they all have a chance to be enlightened. 

I myself was enlightened by the "light of the world" when I was 15 years old. A friend of mine invited me to a small, unassuming church in the middle of our town. The preacher, his father, was not eloquent in his speech or presentation of the gospel message. "Preacher," as his congregation called him, was a short man who sometimes forgot what he wanted to say and told jokes that were most likely passed along via email forward. Nevertheless, what Preacher lacked in elegance he made up for with substance. He had a simple story to tell, one that included God, man, and a rescue mission. Preacher himself had been rescued from a life of alcohol abuse and selfishness. His message was laced with his failures so he could emphasize God's victory in brining a dying man to new life.

I cannot begin to tell you how many lives Preacher touched with the simple message of Jesus. His congregation was small, but it boasted lives that had been wrecked and rebuilt, and then sometimes wrecked again. Divorcees, widowers, blue-collar workers, and single moms were easy to find in the Friendswood Baptist Church. The respect Preacher had amongst society's outsiders was clearest when Preacher became sick with cancer and the congregation was invited to pray over him. As Preacher kneeled in the center of his church and the hands of those who had been touched by his message were now touching him, a young boy with Down's Syndrome hit his knees to hug Preacher. The child had a bold love for his Preacher, who probably preached more than once about the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to those who are sick and weak. The Kingdom of Heaven was on display that morning as Preacher was hugged and touched by those whom this world had refused to embrace.  

Preacher passed on from this life yesterday afternoon, around 1:30pm. I don't have enough words and you don't have enough time to communicate and understand how powerfully God was displayed in this man's life. Even yesterday, when I went over to McCauley's house to grieve the loss of his father, Preacher's wife was quick to give glory to God. I told her that I wouldn't be the man I am today if it weren't for Preacher. Preacher's wife, Faith, grabbed my arm and said, "That was the Lord." God has been made real to me through the life of a Preacher who carried a simple message of hope. My prayer for you who read this is that you would simply look to Jesus for true life, hope, and peace. 


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Apocalypse Now

I am easily affected by seasonal change. When fall's first cold front brushes across the Texas landscape, its cool kiss invigorates me and I experience a sudden rush of energy. The overcast clouds of winter create a ceiling over my head and instantly I become more contemplative, wondering, "What's beyond?" By the time blue skies stretch themselves out in the spring and summer, I am ready to stop wondering and start wandering. I suppose if I didn't live in Texas I would be more able to appreciate the seasons. Here, seasons are like an annoying relative who never shows up on time and then overstays his welcome. 

As I get older the seasons begin to run together in a fluid freshet of time. I can now look back and catalogue years of my life into particular seasons. For example, my four years in college stand as a season of great maturity and spiritual searching. In short, seasons seem much broader in my mind than simply fall, winter, spring, and summer. As a student of culture, I've been observing the western world and picking up on an obvious seasonal trend. 

The 90's stood as a time of great enthusiasm and optimism. In America, the economy boomed early on and it seemed like there was no limit to what we could create or innovate. The internet was birthed, cell phones made it into the hands of every person alive, and the dot-com industry erupted. The Dow Jones industrial average soared, NAFTA was created and trade increased, and abroad the EU was formed. In science, String Theory was developed, a sheep was cloned, and the Hubble space telescope allowed us to see beyond the stars. I could go on but you get the picture. Art imitates reality and movies are no exception, as big budget films originated in the 90's. Additionally, movies like Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and Shawshank Redemption promised the public we had learned from our past mistakes and were hopeful for the future; or so it seemed.

When the year turned 2000, a seasonal shift occurred and nobody knew quite how to react. Enron filed for bankruptcy, 9/11 shocked the western world (and our economy), the war in Iraq divided our country, and an energy crisis was acknowledged. All of a sudden our bright future looked grim and art, staying true to form, began to imitate reality. Movies became increasingly dark and apocalyptic; books and music carried the same themes. I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, No Country for Old Men, and Donnie Darko all express a disgust with modern-day humanity and a sense of things coming to an end. Even the pop-happy band Matchbox 20 changed its tune. The group released a song called, How far we've come, in which Rob Thomas prophecies, "I believe the world is burning to the ground," and "I believe the world is coming to an end, oh well, I guess we're gonna pretend." What are those who create culture intending to communicate to us and to the world?

I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's newest book The Road, a post-apocalyptic story about a boy and his father traveling through a burned and ravaged America. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and is being made into a major motion picture. Even in this depressing book where humanity has destroyed itself and continues to do so, hope abides. The young boy reminds his father at one point "we're the good guys" and "we carry the fire." Much like the scarred countryside in The Road, my culture is a ruined landscape that offered fruit and vegetables but yielded weeds and thorns. No matter how much success the 90's brought us, it never succeeded in insulating us from evil. Humanity seemed to sit on top of the world and somehow we were surprised when it abused its power. So what hope is there for humanity if humanity can't even save itself?

Matters of hope, justice, redemption, and even the  restoration for a weeping mother earth provide the frame for the gospel message. "Gospel" means "good news," and the good news for our broken culture is that we don't have to depend upon ourselves for hope. When ethnic cleansing represents the most vile, selfish, and abusive act man can commit, we look to the One whose selflessness can change the heart of a brutal dictator. When child prostitution becomes a country's national pastime, we look to the One who said, "to these [children] belong the Kingdom of heaven." Jesus is the hope of nations because He can change hearts and will one day rule in true justice and love. The Kingdom of Heaven is the only hope for a world that is dreadfully tired of man's progress being spoiled by none other than man himself. It's no wonder why Jesus didn't respond to the passers by who jeered him to "come down from the cross" and "save yourself." It seems He knew that man had already worn out that option and would continue to do so. What we needed was something beyond ourselves to reach in and pull our hands out of the mess we made. Praise God for a Savior. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Constructing Kingdoms

Many churches seem to prioritize their time, efforts, and money around building campaigns. I once met a man who had faithfully attended his church in South Houston for over 20 years, since its inception. I asked him how he felt about his church home and why he stayed there for so long? He proceeded to tell me about the numerous building campaigns they had successfully planned and accomplished. His face was beaming with pride on behalf of his church and their new, multi-million dollar facility. They were clearly a growing success.

However, in my conversation with this suburban family man, there was no mention of the relationships he had undoubtedly formed over the years. Not once did he cite an example of his church’s involvement in the surrounding community. Instead of commending his church’s ability to serve, he praised their ability to spend. All across the western world, this is the pattern of pride I have witnessed in the evangelical community. Bigger means better while success goes hand-in-hand with excess.

It’s almost as if we are trying to keep up with the quickly constructing cities we live in. After all, the buildings that receive the most attention are in the highest places, owned by the largest and wealthiest companies. Their towers dominate our skylines, exerting influence over all who sit in its shadows. From their top-floor, corner offices, CEO’s map out the landscape so as to divide and conquer as far as the eye can see. Who wouldn’t want that sort of supremacy or clout in their community? Couldn’t the church gain that kind of influence and use it for good?

While having lunch with a friend who once attended a megachurch, I asked him how some of these churches could reconcile spending more money on an air conditioning bill than on the poor and broken in their own communities? He told me straight-faced, “The bigger they build, the more people they believe will be attracted to hear the gospel.” I certainly understood the logic, but I’m afraid the means do not justify the end. I think we have confused Kingdom ethics with those found in the business world.

Much of American Christianity has failed to live counterculturally by giving into the American business model. The Tao of the business world is build big or go home. Unless your company is building, spending, and growing, success will be as fleeting as yesterday’s stock scores. Amongst countless passages about the Kingdom of God advancing as a covert movement, I am reminded of Matthew 20:20-28. The mother of James and John approaches Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and asks that he grant her sons seats of power in the Kingdom. Knowing that he is on his way to die, Jesus questions whether James and John are ready for such a position of humility. To make his point clear, Jesus compares those who rule “the nations” with those who rule in his kingdom. Exertion, pressure, numbers, and strength mark one kingdom, while the other is best seen in the heart of a servant or slave. This is what Jesus means when he later says, “my Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).

So what should be the next move for the American church? Should we tear down the large buildings and go underground? Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not knocking all large, wealthy churches. I am simply asking for motives to be checked and philosophies of ministry to be reexamined. In my city of Houston, two churches are forking over a ridiculous amount of cash in order to construct enormous white crosses and consequently “mark our city for Christ.” Is this the way Jesus and his original disciples sought to impact their world? Are we fighting for positions of power in our culture by using the tools of the culture or the tools of Jesus’ humble Kingdom? To quote Philip Yancey, “history shows that when the church uses the tools of the world’s kingdom, it becomes as ineffectual, or as tyrannical, as any other power structure.” Only time will tell if the American church will follow this fate.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Modern Babel

The Old Testament scares me. Weird names, fantastic stories, and a God who frequently frightens me. For these reasons and so many more, my wife and I have been casually walking through the OT at the beginning and end of each day. Personally, I think it's silly to run away from something you either don't understand or are afraid of; so we press on. Reading through the OT chapter-by-chapter has its adventures and doldrums. Some days we read genealogies and others we ponder in silence the magnificence of the Hebrew text. Most days we end our reading with more questions than answers.

This morning we were in Genesis 11, which oddly enough contains a story and a genealogy...we were in the double-bonus round. The chapter begins with a story about all of humanity speaking a unified language and working together for a common goal. Nothing strange there, just themes that could be found in an Obama address. The story goes south when God sees the "children of man" building a tower into the heavens. What follows is a confusing statement from Yahweh that left me rereading the passage several times over:

"And the LORD said, 'If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.'" (Gen. 11:6-7)

Why would God do such a thing? His behavior seems comparable to the bully at school who sees you dominating a healthy game of Jenga, and then knocks over the carefully stacked blocks for a few laughs! Was God afraid of modern progress and an impending industrial revolution? Is Yahweh a spiteful God who likes to watch his creation scramble like ants under a magnifying glass? I am no Hebrew scholar and my OT is weak at best, but I think I understand God's motives and it fits well with the entire scope of the OT.

Early on in the OT, Adam was charged with a guilty verdict and it wasn't because he enjoyed fruit from a naked chick. It's pretty-well understood that Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, so they took the apple and ate. The apple itself wasn't evil, it was the motive for eating the apple that plunged humanity into ruin. All of humanity, from generation to generation, cannot help but replace God with themselves or deficient deities. It's no wonder Yahweh establishes the first commandment to be "You shall have no other gods before me." We cannot resist the temptation to be all-powerful and all-knowing.

When Friedrich Nietzsche penned the prophetic words, "God is dead...," he was responding to modernity's influence on the world and the church's inability to create or offer values in such a movement. In summary, Nietzsche developed the concept of the √úbermensch (Superman) and made it the goal to which humanity should ultimately strive. Humanity was to progress past silly ideas like God and create its own values, replacing God in a creation role and thus rendering Yahweh (and other deities) useless. Man replaces God and becomes the Superman.

In Gen. 11, God is trying to prevent history from repeating itself when he destroys the Tower of Babel. Adam and Eve couldn't resist the opportunity to become all-knowing and consequently all-powerful. The same temptation is present in the unified building of the tower. Remember God's words, "If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them." God wasn't afraid of building projects or construction sites, He knew if they could create a tower into the heavens they would believe themselves to be the supermen of their day. There would be no need to search for a creator God because they had become that God. It would be anachronistic for me to blame Babel's fall on modernity, but modernity is certainly the culprit in God's modern-day demise.

I'm not afraid of modernity, or any cultural phenomenon, and neither is God. I live with a scientist, so I love science. I have lived with a philosopher and I love philosophy. I'm not so naive, however, as to think I can use modernity's disciplines to build my way into the heavens. I will always discuss the mystery of God and search out answers while on this planet, but eternity is beyond me and modernity. The so-called definitive evidence of modernity is less-than conclusive and satisfies a man-made burden of proof. Babel fell because humanity is prideful. Humanity continues to fall because we refuse to admit our limitations and conceive of a being more knowledgeable, powerful, and loving than our minds can imagine. Think freely and do not be afraid...

Monday, June 2, 2008

I doubt it

I struggle with doubt. I sometimes feel I understand Rene Descartes when he began to doubt everything until he came to his infamous conclusion, "Cogito Ergo Sum" (I think therefore I am). Call it the curse of overthinking because I just can't leave some things alone. When a pastor preaches on Adam and Eve I can't help but spuriously ask whether or not they were real or just characters in a play? If a string of coincidences favor my way and clearly display God's handiwork in my life, I will question the coincidence. I am convinced that if God came to me and revealed his very form I would even then find a way to cast doubt on the experience as time passed. What is faith if I cannot stop doubting?

I recently read a debate between up-and-coming atheist Sam Harris and the pop-pastor Rick Warren. They exchange blows to each other's beliefs and, at one poignant point, Harris questions whether beliefs are really unbeliefs? When addressing Islam, Harris points out to Warren that, on the issue of Islam as a religion, they both stand "in a relationship of atheism." The Californian pastor fires back, "We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God." They have certainly centered on the real question, "Is atheism a lack of faith in God or belief that there is no God?" I have been wrestling with this very question, not in relation to atheism but to my own doubt. When I doubt am I expressing a lack of faith or am I believing something different about God than what I had beforehand?

If you read the entire Harris v. Warren debate, you will find that Harris emphatically expresses belief at various points in the discussion. Both men are trying to interpret the world around them through evidence, experience, and bias. After reading the article in its entirety, I have concluded that atheism is a set of beliefs and unbeliefs. Similarly, when my doubt peeks its head, I am interacting with beliefs about God and his character as well as unbeliefs about what I have known him to be. It is at this crucial pivot point where my experience is ushered to center stage.

My friend John Wilson once told me the greatest encouragement to his faith was the experience of his conversion. "The reason I continue to believe," he would tell me with great intensity, "is that I was once a certain way, living a certain way, and not wanting to change, then God interrupted my life with love and now I am heading in the other direction." Truth be told, John was a rebellious jailbird when he met Jesus and now he is an incredible family man and soon-to-be scholar. He would invariably follow his story with John 9:25, "though I was blind, now I see;" a quote from a blind man Jesus healed.

We frequently turn faith into this magic feeling we must always maintain or else face the terrible judgment of God. More often faith is presented as an act of remembrance in the life of a believer. In Psalm 103:2-3, David writes, "Bless Yahweh, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit..." David goes on to declare the wonderful things God has done to interrupt his world with love and mercy. He further reminds man how small he truly is in view of eternity (vv. 15-16). Faith as an act of remembrance is what Robert Robinson had in mind when he wrote in "Come thou fount," "Here I raise mine ebeneezer, hither by thy help I come." An "ebeneezer" is a stone of remembrance whereby the Israelites would remember God's help.

My friend John proudly carries his ebeneezer stone of remembrance. When my faith is in peril, as it has been for the past five months, I need only return to "mine ebeneezer" to remember the God who rescued me from darkness. Beyond my conversion, I can bear witness to countless blessings and times when God has intervened to show me his unending love and affection towards me. What is your ebeneezer and when is the last time you sat before it? Gal. 2:20.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Song of the Week

This song makes me believe again and again in the love stronger than all of our doubts...

how long you have traveled in darkness weeping
no rest in language, no words to speak
but there in the wreckage beneath bricks and bindings
love has come, love has come for you

against the night sky of your waiting
your face is like starlight when he walks in
everything worth keeping comes through dying
love has come, love has come for you

so lift up your heart now, to this unfolding
all that has been broken will be restored
here runs deep waters for all who are thirsty
love has come, love has come for you

ten thousand angels will light your pathway
until the day breaks fully in the East
they will surround you and make your way straight
love has come, love has come for you
love has come, love has come for you

-"Ten thousand angels," Cademon's Call

Friday, April 25, 2008

See More Clearly

I love going to the gym because it is a spectacle of humanity. We are all in there putting our bodies through torture so we can appear less tortuous to other people's eyes.  One of my favorite things in the world is to catch the guys in the gym, and we all do this, looking in the mirror at their newly defined muscles. I will often look around to make sure I won't get caught and then, in a flash of brilliance, I lift my sleeve to reveal my own work of fitness art. "Vanity of vanities!"

Today I was washing my hands and caught another glimpse of myself in the mirror.  Only this time I felt pride well up inside of me concerning how my reflection looked.  I quickly turned away, not wanting to give my pride the fleeting joy it so greedily desires. The Scripture passage in 1 Cor. 13 quickly came to mind; it reads--

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (v. 12).

In the day of Paul, mirrors were hard to come by. They would often use a piece of polished metal to observe their own reflection; the best mirrors would be owned by the very wealthy. Paul probably caught a glimpse of himself in the water on occasion, but I doubt he knew his appearance well enough to associate it with his identity.  As he put it, "I have been fully known;" what else did he need than to be known by his good Father?

My culture places the highest premium on outward appearance, ignoring the realities of what makes up a person. When you look in the mirror, what you see is not "you"!  "You" are made up by your personality, character, sense of humor, and a million other non-physical traits. Our culture refuses to believe in God because they cannot see him, but we cannot see one another (see J.P. Moreland)! You don't see me when I pass you by, you see my shell.  "I" am a whole host of traits passed down from my family and developed through years of interaction with others. 

We as believers in the heavenly Father need only look to him for identity (I realize this is much easier said than done). We have been called sons and daughters, heirs, friends, and beloved. I am constantly fighting to remember who I am. I want to avoid being like Narcissus, the son of a god in Greek mythology who obsessed over his reflection and met his demise. Like Narcissus, I am a son of deity; the one true Deity. I only pray I can, like Paul, "look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). 

Monday, April 7, 2008

Will return soon...

Faithful readers,

As you have probably noticed in the past two months, I have not been very active in the blogosphere.  I have a lot to write about but I have been spending some time refining my motives for writing and being refined.  The last thing I ever want to do, even on a small stage like this blog, is to write for the sake of impressing others or appearing as wise.  I have been convicted and am seeking my good Father's face through this season.  Please stay tuned because I plan on writing again soon.  Much love!

John

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Where am I?

I'm normally not a sucker for reality TV.  I stick mainly to the news at 5:30, the Office, and the occasional, classic Simpsons episode.  Nevertheless, being a husband has changed my perspective on life and has opened my world up to new possibilities.  For example, I did not know that curtains made a room feel "warm."  Nor did I really know how a room could feel worm aside from turning the thermostat up to a higher temperature. When it comes TV, my wife does not watch very much, but she does enjoy Extreme Makeover Home Edition.  

Maybe its because I don't like weeping in front of other people, but I normally stand clear of EMHE because it sucks you in like an emotional shop vacuum!  They always have a family that is in serious distress and by the end of it you are blowing your nose and writing letters to ABC, thanking them for their inspirational programming.  ABC does not need my accolades!  Tonight, however, I was pulled in for the last 15 minutes of an episode that strategically caused me to cry and become nauseated; a volatile mix.  

A blind, wheelchair-ridden man and his family were in a bad way because the disabled man, Patrick I believe, needed a lot of attention.  Apparently the home they had lived in limited his family's ability to meet his needs and EMHE was able to provide.  They built an apartment for Patrick that sat next to their parent's brand new house.  I won't go into details about all the cool stuff Patrick received because that was NOT the best part of the show.  At the end of the episode, Patrick starts playing the piano and singing a song that repeats the phrase "I believe."  Not a dry eye was in the house as Patrick lifted his voice to declare the things of this present age did not concern him because he saw through it.  I was truly inspired and a little embarrassed when my wife handed me the tissue she had been using to dry her eyes so I could dry my own.

One-by-one, each cast member for EMHE came in front of the camera to describe how they had only met Patrick once but now they were forever changed.  One man who works as a regular on the show could not stop from crying as he mentioned Patrick's joy despite his circumstance.  If you listened closely to the words of the song he sang, it was more than obvious that Patrick was a follower of Christ; a citizen of God's Kingdom.  God was using Patrick and his family to display unconditional love and what it's like in the Kingdom of God when the meek are blessed and the blind see (Matt. 5 & John 9). 

I certainly have been rejoicing in Patrick's story, but I have also been lamenting my own inaction.  I'm going to make a guess and suggest the cast of EMHE is not entirely Christian.  Yet, here they are making an enormous impact on the lives of families week-in and week-out.  Where am I?  Why am I not being provoked to action?  I am reminded of a friend who once read that Jack Johnson (the recording artist) passed through a town while on a surf trip, saw there was a need, and set up a fund for the impoverished children he interacted with.  How many followers of Christ do you know do the same in their own hometown where poverty is 15 minutes down the street?  Please make no mistake, my finger is pointed directly at me in this moment because I am ashamed of my inaction.  I want to be a part of a movement of believers who act when they see a need and jump when they see an opportunity to advance God's Kingdom.  Have mercy on me, Oh God.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Life well wasted

Today was suppose to be a great day.  I woke up next to my wife in our new, and cozy, 800 square-foot home.  Lately my home state of Texas has been doing its best impression of Seattle,but the sun was shining today and the warmth was welcomed.  Allison and I spent an inordinate amount of money at Target, the lower-middle class mecca, buying more stuff for our humble home.  Life was good in suburban America...until I turned on the 5:30 world news.

Wedged uncomfortably in between news about our failing economy and violence on the Gaza strip was a sobering story.  "One more story on our broadcast tonight," Brian Williams mentioned in passing, "Australian actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment of an apparent drug overdose."  Allison and I looked at each other in shock and in sadness.  I know that I am a Christian and that Heath Ledger appeared in Brokeback Mountain, so somehow I am pigeonholed as his arch nemesis.  Regardless of the evangelical earful he was given for playing a gay man who had a gay lover, the story of the man's real life is terribly sad.  
The next 20 minutes Allison and I discussed which movies of his we liked the most and the uncertain future of his two-year old daughter.

I am finally at an age where I no longer feel bulletproof.  I have had a couple of friends die, I am paying for insurance on all sorts of things in case of a terrible accident, and I am feeling more aches in my body now than I ever did before.  I am a 24 year old man with a wife, an American dream, and a heavy heart.  I don't have any particular affinity for Ledger over another actor in my age bracket, like Topher Grace, but I am still in mourning over my generation.  You would think after John Belushi, Chris Farley, River Phoenix, and now Heath Ledger, the youth of America would take notice of the emptiness found in the pursuit of wealth.  I understand that these men seem to be the exception and not the rule, but how many rehab scandals inside of US weekly do we need to read before we realize "the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil"?

So I sit here, in my bathroom with my laptop, thousands of miles away from Hollywood and I am still surrounded by my own poverty.  Why do I need shop at Target in order to have a good day?  Why do I complain about not having central heat and AC when God has given me everything, including His own Son's blood?  I'm not sure where this blog is going but I am not content.  I do not want to pursue a two-car garage, 3.5 kids, and a fat nest egg because it should be the end goal of my "pursuit of happiness."  I look to Heath Ledger and see a life poisoned by luxury.  He had everything and yet he still met his demise in despair.  I am content with my house, I enjoy Target, and I like having a car, but at what point do these good things become god things?  2 Cor. 4:18.