What Others Say

This is a strong column - and timely. You articulate what our Bible class has been saying in our discussions lately. We see our world in need of a trustworthy compass.
- Norman W., Paducah, KY

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kingdom Preview

When my wife and I go to the movies, we try to get there early and grab a seat in the first row of the second section, you know, the one where you can prop your feet up on the rail. We settle in with our diet coke and popcorn, sit back and watch the previews of shows soon to be released. Like everyone else, we lean over and whisper to each other as we watch each trailer. “That one’s not for us,” or, “we’ll have to see that one.”

The Australian writer, Michael Frost, argues that Christians and churches are to be like movie trailers for the Kingdom. We are to live in such a way that when others see us they say, “I want to be a part of that,” or ”I wish the world was like that.” This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Whether we like it or not, our churches and our lives are being viewed like movie trailers by others. When non-believers look at our churches and our lives, they are whispering to themselves and to one another saying, “I’ll have to check that out,” or, “I wouldn’t want to be part of that.”

Jesus presented the clearest preview of the Kingdom. He invited others to look at his life to see what the Kingdom looks like. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-21).

The early followers of Jesus practiced Kingdom living in such a way that others were drawn to them and to their churches. This is why the Christian faith exploded in the first three centuries. People saw previews of the Kingdom practiced in the churches and the lives of believers, and they wanted to be part of it.

This is also the reason Christianity is stumbling in our day. Too often churches and Christians are selfish and self-centered, fighting among themselves and with others for dominance and control. When others see this, like patrons at a theater, they whisper to themselves, “That’s not for me.”

Every church and every believer must live in such a way that others see God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This is what Paul meant when he said, “But thanks be to God, who … manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 2:14-15).

Monday, August 24, 2015

Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy.  At least you would think so.  But few, it seems, truly find it. Even our American founding fathers stopped short of making any guarantees where happiness is concerned.  They merely included, as one of our inalienable rights, the “pursuit” of happiness.  Everyone has a right to pursue happiness, but there are no guarantees that anyone will find it.

In 2000 Kalle Lasn and Bruce Grierson, writing for Utne Reader, asked the question: “The economy is out of sight. Unimaginable luxury is all around. America rules the world. So why are Americans so unhappy?”  They went on to conclude, “Something is missing. Something essential and meaningful has been displaced by something . . . hollow.”

A study released last week might give us a clue about that “something” that is missing.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey, writing for the Washington Post, reported, “A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology by researchers at the London School of Economics and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that the secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion.”  The researchers discovered that participation in religious organization was the only activity associated with sustained happiness.

Why would this be?  It seems the clues are rather obvious.  Faith in Christ leads to the character traits and practices that promote happiness and fulfillment: honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, humility, generosity and love for God and others.  Living life in this way creates more fulfilling relationships in the family, business and the community.

When these traits are combined with a confidence that we are loved by God, that our lives have meaning and purpose, that we can be forgiven for our sins as we also forgive others, they add up to a powerful recipe for happiness.

I have been blessed with a long life, almost seven decades. This has  given time for perspective.  I have watched those who lived lives of faith who, as they grow older, increase in happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction.  And, I have watched others who chose a path pursuing pleasure, taking dishonest shortcuts they thought would lead to success and wealth, who have grown cynical, bitter and disillusioned.

 In the end, the latter wither away, isolated and alone, like Michael Corleone, in the final scene of The Godfather Part III.  The former, those who choose faith and involvement in Christian community, grow old with a twinkle in their eye and a smile upon their lips, grateful for God’s blessings in this life and expectant of the life to come.

Jesus told the truth when He said, “I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”  (John 10:10).  “In this world you will have difficulty.  Be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33).

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Universe Is Dying

Well ,it is settled.  They have suspected it for a long time. Last week scientists officially announced that the universe is dying.  Researchers from the International Center of Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) just completed their study of 200,000 galaxies.  They concluded that the energy created in those galaxies is one-half what it was two billion years ago.  Bottom line: the universe is winding down and, in 100 billion years, will be no more.

Professor Simon Driver, who heads the Galaxy and Mass Assembly project (GAMA) said, "The universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age. The universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze."

That the universe will fade away is no surprise.  The Bible predicted this would happen.  The earth will be completely laid waste and completely despoiled, for the Lord has spoken this word. The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away.” (Isaiah 24:3-5).  And again, “Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment.” (Isaiah 51:6).

But what happens after the universe disappears?  For some, the end of the universe robs life of any meaning.  Nick Stockton, writing for WIRED magazine, put it this way, “To the extent that anything was ever important, it won’t be. Time, space, energy, matter—all gone. ... Just the fact that you are alive now is a novelty, a signal that vanishes against the vast noise of cosmic space.”

The Bible has another story.  For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create.” (Isaiah 65:17-18).   “The heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. ... But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”  (1 Peter 3:10-13). John the Apostle wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth passed away.” (Revelation 21:1).

All that exists today had to come from somewhere.  Scientists call it the Big Bang. And all that exists today will vanish away.  In this the Bible agrees with the scientists. Our universe had a beginning and it will come to an end.  But there is more. The One who created our known universe is also the author of a new creation that will replace the one we know now. 

Jesus said, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Authenticity

I stepped up to the counter and handed the cashier my twenty-dollar bill.  She glanced at me, lifted the bill up to the light, squinted and examined it, then laid it on the counter. She whipped out what looked like a felt tip marker and marked it. After a long second, she placed it in the cash register and gave me my change.  It seemed simple enough. But it made me wonder. 

What made her think my twenty might be fake?  Did I look dishonest? I reminded myself that it was standard procedure.  She had been taught to check every twenty because you never know who might pass a counterfeit.  You can’t recognize honesty or dishonesty by a person’s looks.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just as easy to discern fake people as it is to recognize a fake twenty?  What if we could hold people up to a light, squint and examine them for watermarks, or just swipe them with a pen and watch for discoloration?

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Sometimes the people we trust the most disappoint us. That was the case with Richard Nixon. After winning the presidency by a landslide vote, the Watergate investigations revealed a man far different than the public image. One of our great difficulties today is the widespread doubt that no politician can be trusted. They seem more intent on vilifying their opponents and promoting their own agenda than engaging in sincere dialogue.

We all know that no one is perfect.  We are all human.  We are all sinners and we all make mistakes. We are not looking for perfection.  But we are desperate for authenticity. We are desperate for authenticity in parents, teachers, employers, employees, preachers and politicians.

Jesus ranked authenticity among the highest of virtues. His harshest words were leveled at those who pretended to be what they were not. Speaking to people of his day, Jesus said, “You're like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it's all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you're saints, but beneath the skin you're total frauds.” (Mt. 23:27-28, The Message).  He warned his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1).

What really gets scary and complicated is to examine ourselves. Am I authentic?  Is there any hypocrisy in me?  Are we being open, honest and authentic with one another? Someday, of course, there will be a test. God will hold each of us up to the light. He will examine us for authenticity. Are we people of authentic faith living authentic lives?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Our Moral Drift and the Way Forward

It has been three weeks, and I cannot get Sandra Bland out of my mind.  The video of her arrest after changing lanes without giving a signal is haunting.  Sandra was understandably upset.  How many times have we all changed lanes without giving a signal? She was simply moving over to let the policeman by.  It seemed like such a trivial stop.

She showed her irritation.  The officer was insulted and grew angry, demanding she put out her cigarette. She refused.  He threatened to “light her up” with his Taser, forced her from her car, manhandled her off to the side of the road, wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed her and carted her off to jail. Three days later, unable to post bond. Sandra Bland took her own life.

The video is disturbing because of the injustice of it all.  It is even more disturbing because it represents our cultural drift from the values that make life work.  Our politicians hurl insults at one another, calling names, seldom restrained by the truth.  People scream at one another in movies and dramas, releasing unrestrained anger.  We laugh at the snide remarks of comedians. The principles of courtesy, respect, patience, honesty and forgiveness seem to be slipping away.

Have we slipped our Christian moorings?  Are we adrift in a sea of uncertainty that has no true North, no compass? Is the contemporary GPS leading us off a cliff?

We turned to science and technology believing they would pave the way to a brighter future.  And, while science and technology have given us a healthier and higher standard of living with conveniences our forefathers never dreamed, they cannot provide the values necessary for living with each other.

The stones that pave the path for our future are the same stones that paved the pathway for our forefathers.  They are found in the Commandments: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother.” (Mark 10:19) 

They are found in the words of Jesus:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Be merciful as your father is merciful.”  “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down and running over.”  They are found in the Lord’s Prayer.

The stones for our pathway forward are found in the fruits of the Spirit that overcome the flesh: “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, ...  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23).

Faith that fosters forgiveness and respect is essential to our survival. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

How Big Is God

Two weeks ago, the New Horizons space probe sped past Pluto, sending back images of the distant dwarf planet.  New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 at Cape Canaveral setting a new launch speed for any space craft at approximately 36,000 mph.   It flew past Jupiter in 2007 receiving a gravity assist that accelerated its speed to more than 45,000 mph.  Even at this mind-boggling speed, almost 100 times faster than the cruising speed of a jet liner, it took nine and one-half years to reach Pluto. Scientists are continuing to exult as they examine the images sent back from the edge of our solar system.

Last week the Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, uncovered our closest “Earth-like” planet. Orbiting a sun similar to our own, the planet known as “Kepler-452b” is 1,400 light years away.  That means that a craft traveling at the speed of New Horizons could reach our closest “cousin” in a little more than 20 million years.  Quite a leap, considering that the earliest civilizations on earth appeared a mere 6,000 years ago.

This gives us a small sense of how infinitely big our universe is.  We have difficulty getting our minds around it, especially when we consider that our sun is only one of billions of stars in our galaxy and there are billions of galaxies.  When I stood under the night sky in Wyoming I was struck by the almost infinite number of stars that filled the night sky. But, according to astronomers, these stars represent a tiny fragment of the total stars in the universe.

God is creator of all this.  To use an anthropomorphic metaphor, He holds the entire universe in the palm of His hand.

In the Psalms, the Bible says, “He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” (Psalm 147:4-5).  And again, O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens! ... When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him?” (Psalm 8:1,3). 

Indeed, when we consider the vast expanses of space and time, we are overwhelmed, not only with how immense the universe is, but how insignificant we seem to be. We live on a tiny planet in a remote corner of the vast cosmos, and the appearance of humans is relatively recent in the economy of time. Just yesterday, it seems.  Or, perhaps more accurately, just a moment ago.

God is infinite and eternal.  We are finite and mortal.

Here is the greater mystery and miracle.  The Master Designer of the universe is intimately aware of each human being.  He knows you!  He knows me! We are important to God.  Jesus taught that God notes the fall of the tiniest sparrow in the most remote forest and He counts the very hairs of your head. (Matthew 10:29-31).

He who created the vast universe in all its complexity created us and has declared His love for us.  How can this be?  Jesus said, “With man it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Master Potter

A few miles north of Waco on the east banks of the Brazos River sits the Homestead Heritage, an agrarian community committed to preserving nineteenth century craftsmanship.  The community offers shops where visitors can observe “artistry-in-action” complete with a pottery barn, blacksmith forge, grist mill and a carpentry shop.  George and Laura Bush commissioned the Homestead to construct and furnish their house at the Crawford Ranch.

Recently we took our grandchildren from Wyoming to the Homestead. When we visited the pottery shop, I marveled at the talent of those who worked there. The artists applied water and shaped the clay spinning on the potter’s wheel in front of them. With nimble fingers and just the right amount of pressure, they brought the clay to life and shaped it into the form they desired.

Pottery is an ancient art.  For thousands of years the trade was passed down from generation to generation in cultures around the world.  Communities developed around clay deposits in India, China and the Middle East.  Archeologists continue to excavate pottery from the earliest sites of civilization.

Jeremiah must have marveled, as I did, when he visited a potter’s house in ancient Jerusalem.  When he watched the clay spin upon the wheel, he saw the potter’s ability to change the shape of the clay in an instant.  He sensed God speaking to him, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand.” (Jeremiah 18:6). 

Isaiah made a similar observation. “Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay? That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”; or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?” (Isaiah 29:16).

God has made each of us unique.  We are, each and every one of us, special in His sight.  He never abandons us or gives up on us.  Like the clay, we continue to be molded in His hands.   With every pressure, whether success or failure, joy or sorrow,  God is fashioning us so that we can reflect His glory, bless others and be filled with joy. He wants us to love ourselves and one another just the way He made us.

This is what Paul meant when he said, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28).  All things work together for good when we realize the Master Potter is shaping us for His purposes on the earth.

He says, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me,  Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).