God's Sheepdogs

As God’s helpers, we’re called to be fierce or gentle depending on the occasion.

As God’s helpers, we’re called to be fierce or gentle depending on the occasion.

Mothers are strong.  There were no laws that I had to wear a helmet.  So I didn’t. I was nine, and I rode my bike everywhere and thought nothing of it.  Until that day.  There was a big hill on the gravel road that led to my house.  I had gone down it a hundred times before, but on this particular day there was some loose gravel near the bottom where I would reach top speed.  Some people describe traumatic events as if they occur in slow motion, but this was a blur. I vaguely remember the handlebars shaking violently, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground, wondering why my hands were so wet.  I had wrecked my bicycle and landed on my head. I suppose the impact had knocked me out for a few moments, and it took a little while for my vision to return and confirm that the wetness on my hands was in fact blood. I don’t know if it was pain, or fear, or shock, and I don’t know how long I had lain there in the middle of the road, but I found myself unable to travel on my own.  I must have been going in and out of consciousness, but I remember my mother cradling me in her arms, wrapping my shirt around my head, and carrying me the quarter mile walk back to our house for the car ride to the emergency room. (There were no cell phones then!) I was a big boy for my age, and my mother hadn’t been able to pick me up for a few years, but on that day she carried me hundreds of yards.  Sometimes when there’s great need in front of you, you find strength you never knew you had.

Shepherds take care of their own.  My mother was my shepherd on that day, and she rescued me with strength she didn’t know she had.  The shepherds of the world find strength to face threats in the field that can be great: lions, bears, wild dogs, depending on the geography and wildlife of the area.  The image of God (and later Jesus) in the Bible as shepherd is a beautiful metaphor for how God takes care of us. We find this same care in a mother’s love. I think God built it into the universe, little tiny imitations of God’s shepherding love all over the place.  Sometimes we need a little wake-up call, a little reminder that we’re supposed to be helping the Good Shepherd in our own lives.

My dad loves to go hunting, and on one particular elk hunting trip to Colorado, he found himself in the middle of a massive herd of some 3,000 sheep.  It was a wooded area, so he didn’t see it coming, and the herd was so big that he was in the middle of it before he knew what was happening, with sheep in every direction and more and more coming as far as he could see in the distance.  That’s when the dogs showed up. The enormous sheepdogs made a circle around him, baring their teeth and trying to decide if he was a threat to the sheep. Luckily for him, about that time the shepherd showed up and called off the dogs. It’s incredible that that many sheep can be transported hundreds of miles with only one shepherd on the watch.  But he can’t do it alone. He needs help.

That’s right.  I just claimed that we are called to be God’s sheepdogs, helpers of the Good Shepherd.  And as far as I can tell, it takes two extreme characteristics: sometimes we have to be fierce like those dogs circling my father, fighting injustice and standing up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and sometimes we have to have a gentle strength like my mother, carrying those who can’t carry on alone.  Make no mistake–the Good Shepherd is at work in this world, but sometimes the work of the shepherd is done by the sheepdogs. We have work to do. May we find strength and wisdom to be fierce or gentle as the occasion calls. May we never miss an opportunity to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world. ~Justin


"Day of Arising"

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“We had hoped he was the one…”  (Luke 24:21). Hope can drive you mad.  Especially if what you build up in your mind turns out to be far different from the reality you get.  When this happens, all you need is a shift in perspective in order to see more clearly again. Because life without hope is not living.  Hope is the fuel that keeps our hearts running. We need to keep hope alive to keep living, but sometimes it needs a little resurrecting.

“The Road to Emmaus” is an Easter story that finds its way into our lives every so often, but I wonder if we can see ourselves in the story.  Two disciples were on the seven-mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking about the latest gossip concerning Jesus, just recently crucified.  They were so concerned with their lack of understanding, their loss of hope, that they didn’t even recognize the resurrected Jesus when he shows up and starts walking with them.  They tell him all they know, confessing that they had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel. In their mind all hope was lost. The Christ, if he had in fact come, had been killed.

Then Jesus calls them foolish and “slow of heart,” saying “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things…?” (Luke 24:26 NASB).  Jesus then leads them in Bible study, taking them through all the places in scripture that confirm his identity as the Redeemer, and finally at last their eyes are opened as they break bread together.  

This story has been brought into our lives through the song “Day of Arising” by Susan Palo Cherwien:

Day of arising, Christ on the roadway, unknown companion walks with his own. When they invite him, as fades the first day, and bread is broken, Christ is made known.

When we are walking, doubtful and dreading, blinded by sadness, slowness of heart, yet Christ walks with us, ever awaiting our invitation: Stay, do not part.

Lo, I am with you, Jesus has spoken. This is Christ's promise, this is Christ's sign: when the church gathers, when bread is broken, there Christ is with us in bread and wine.

Christ, our companion, hope for the journey, bread of compassion, open our eyes. Grant us your vision, set all hearts burning that all creation with you may rise.

Dean McIntyre explains the lyrics on the Methodist worship website:  

Stanza one briefly recalls the events on the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24) where two unnamed disciples are walking, discussing the recent events that led to Jesus' crucifixion and the talk of his resurrection. He joins them on the walk. Upon reaching their destination and sitting down for a meal, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, and in those actions, "Christ is made known."

Stanza two identifies us today with those unnamed disciples on the way o Emmaus. We also often go about our walk, filled with doubt, dread, and sadness; but Christ is ever with us, always waiting for our invitation to remain with us.

Stanza three proclaims that Christ is always with us "in bread and wine" when the church gathers.

Stanza four offers a prayer that Christ will remain with us, offering hope in our journey, opening our eyes, setting our hearts to burn for the redemption and resurrection of all creation.

So where are you with hope?  I bet Christ is there, walking with you.  Can you see him? Sometimes it takes a little Bible Study and a little rest and a little food to see clearly.  May we learn to open our eyes. ~Justin


In Praise of Doubt

Doubt can lead to transformative experiences if you keep seeking.

Doubt can lead to transformative experiences if you keep seeking.

Experience changes everything.  Thomas wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared the first time (John 20:19-31).  He needed to see for himself before he was going to believe. And thus his title was forever enshrined as “Doubting Thomas,” and we all learn to wag our finger and shake our head at him from a distance.  But are we any different? After all, I can describe to you how to ride a bike, even explain all the physics behind how it stays upright and manages to go on only two wheels, but you don’t know how to ride a bike until you get on it and try.  And usually you fall down in the process. The same is true with faith.  I can tell you all day long about what I believe and why, but until you’ve experienced God for yourself, it’s still just an idea, and you have every reason to doubt.

In many ways, a healthy skepticism keeps a society functioning.  Otherwise demagogues take advantage of unsuspecting masses. A few years ago I saw a movie called The Invention of Lying, set in an alternate universe where lying had not yet been invented.  It was a little chaotic. If you asked someone how they were doing, they never just said “fine.”  Instead, they told you all their troubles and woes and everything that was bothering them at the time.  The main character has a revelation one day, and he walks up to the bank counter and asks for a large sum of money.  When they tell him he doesn’t have it in his account, he lies for the first time in history and says he does.  So they give it to him! It turns out we are right to be skeptical.

So what about us and our faith?  We’re all like Thomas before that second meeting:  none of us has seen Jesus face to face. So how do any of us believe?  How is faith possible in a modern world where resurrection is a scientific impossibility?

Let’s compare it to courage.  We are often mistaken when we hear stories of bravery.  We think those people must be fearless because they are brave.  But that’s not exactly right. To be fearless in the face of certain danger or death is much closer to insanity.  The truth is that the only time you can be brave is when you’re scared to death. Finding the strength to do what needs to be done in spite of your fears–that’s courage.  Fear and bravery have a mixed up relationship. The same relationship holds true to faith and doubt.

There is a big difference between faith as fate or faith as a choice.  Throughout history, many people have believed the same thing has the people around them without question, perhaps without doubt.  Their fate was to be born into a people of faith. But something strange starts to happen in the modern world where people move around a lot.  You start bumping into people who believe all kinds of things differently than you do. In the modern world, you’re faced with a few options to deal with the problem of multiple worldviews:  1. Ignore everyone, 2. Fight everyone, or 3. Talk to everyone and figure out where you stand. You see where I’m headed with this? Doubt, if coupled with a strong search for the truth, can lead to transformative experiences. And a faith that’s been burnt to the ground can rise from the ashes as something far stronger. But you have to keep seeking.

Faith would not be faith if it just means accepting the facts.  Faith transcends facts, moving beyond what is obvious. Faith is a choice.  Faith is a chance to rise above the cold, hard facts of life and believe in something more, in something better than the facts.  Thomas’ doubt led him to an experience that made is faith stronger.  Thomas was a seeker.  And so are we. Or at least I hope we are.  Don’t let your doubts get you down. Keep seeking.  And maybe one day Jesus will show up and change everything.  

~Justin


The Walking Dead

You can’t change the world. But you can change you.

You can’t change the world. But you can change you.

There comes a point when there’s no going back.  You’ve gone too far. You’re in too deep. You can’t turn around.  The only thing to do is keep going.

Turning points happen all the time, and we usually mark them with pomp and circumstance:  birth, baptism, graduation, marriage, death, etc. Those are just the big ones. Life is marked by thousands of little milestones we pass along the journey.  

We celebrate these positive turning points, often with public fanfare.  But we fall silent when it comes to the negative ones, the “little deaths”[1] we suffer even as we go on living.  People post pictures of prom and new cars and vacation smiles on the beach, but it’s more rare to see the private struggles come to light.

When the suffering outweighs the celebration, you’ve crossed the line into the walking dead–not the gruesome tv show that I’m too skittish to watch, but the gruesome reality where “little deaths” rule:  “physical sickness or disabilities, moments of transition and loss, failures, manifestations of violence, experiences and corrupt systems of injustices, and the like.” [2]  

But there’s hope.  And no, we don’t have to wait until we die to get it.  New life is possible now, even if you have to fight for it and die trying.  We have to become Easter people. We have to wake up. We have to make resurrection and new creation, not death, the center of our very being.  Suffering may not be your fault, but it definitely leads you to a turning point in how you face it.

When all the bad stuff adds up, it’s easy to sit back and talk about how broken the world is.  While that may be true, it pushes hope off the radar. If the resurrection only gives you hope once you leave this ole world behind, then you’ve missed the point of the New Testament.  Resurrection is now. Hope is now. Don’t just wait on heaven to make things better when you die. Do something now!  “Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead, and the Messiah will give you light!” (Ephesians 5:14). [3]

When Jesus walks out of that tomb, everything changes.  People had been waiting on God to make everything right, but Jesus invites us to play our part–to live as resurrection people, here, now.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5-6, ESV).

The message of Easter is hope.  The message of Easter is life–yes, for life after death, but also for new life now, even if you have to fight for it.  “The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” [4]

Easter is the biggest turning point the world has ever known, but most of us miss the point.  We think it’s about the future when really it’s about now. It’s calling us to wake up and do something about this broken world.  Don’t just sit back and watch it all fall apart. Take action. Fight injustice. Speak up for the oppressed. Fund the research for disease.  Share your brokenness and how you come to terms with it.

No, you can’t change the world.  Many problems are beyond us. But you can change you.  You can wake up from that life of the walking dead and claim your role as an agent of God’s new creation.  Waiting for a miracle? Be the miracle. Hope is right around the corner. Just keep walking.

~Justin

Notes:
1. Gordon W. Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 125.
2. Powery, Rev. Luke A.. Dem Dry Bones (p. 3). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Wright, N. T.. Surprised by Hope (p. 252). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
4. Wright, N. T.. Surprised by Hope (pp. 252-254). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

The Triumphal Irony

When you look a little closer, things aren’t always what they seem.

When you look a little closer, things aren’t always what they seem.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.  The crowd cheers his arrival. Just wait a week.  Another crowd cheers his death. He sees a beautiful fig tree in the distance.  But take a closer look. There’s no fruit. Take a look at the Temple bustling with activity.  But take a closer look. There’s no fruit. “The Messiah” literally means “the anointed one,” but it’s a woman, not the high priest, who breaks the jar of costly oil over Jesus’ head.  He is proclaimed as the Son of God, not by the high priest, but by a Gentile, and a Roman centurion at that. And all the while those closest to him, the disciples, are constantly sent on errands, displaying by their words and actions that they have no idea what they are doing.  This is not how it’s supposed to be.

But that’s how it was.  That’s how Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ final week, beginning with the Triumphal Entry in chapter 11.  What follows is what we call Holy Week. A story rife with drama and the unexpected. A story of Jesus turning everything upside down.  There’s nothing normal about it. Yet we have grown so used to it that its weight has become lost on us. We miss it because we’re so familiar with it.  Looks like we need a little defamiliarization just to see it again for what it is.

Conquerors entered the city triumphantly, after a big victory.  They had an escort, music, symbolic elements, and the whole thing culminated in sacrifice.  In 332 BC, Alexander the Great, according to Josephus, enters Jerusalem like this: “Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him . . . [then] he gave his hand to the high priest and with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest.” (Josephus, Ant. 11.332–36 [trans. Ralph Marcus; LCL; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1937], 475, 477.)  Likewise, when Mark Antony enters Ephesus in 41 BC, you could see “women arrayed like Baccanals, and men and boys like satyrs and Pans, led the way before him, and the city was full of ivy and thyrsus-wands and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysus Giver of Joy and Beneficent. For he was such undoubtedly, to some.” (Plutarch, Antonius, 24.3–4 [trans. Bernadotte Perrin; LCL; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1920], 187–89.

Now enters Jesus.   It’s a little different.  He enters now even though his victory hasn’t been won yet.  There’s the colt, the psalms, the branches, the cloaks thrown on the road, all echoes of scripture (Zech 9:9, 2 Kgs 9:13).  He hadn’t won this city. He was judging it. Jesus was not the nationalistic ruler some were looking for, and I pray the irony is not lost on us.  This is the Messiah we get, not the Messiah we expected−one “who triumphed not by killing but by dying” (Culpepper Mark Smyth & Helwys, 2007, 367).  

So who are we in the story?  The religious leaders being judged?  The money-changers making a profit off of ritual religion?  The ones cheering in the street, not quite sure what’s going on but caught up in the excitement nonetheless?  Those going about their business not taking notice of this landmark occasion? I hope we’re the disciples. I hope Jesus has sent us to prepare something, and I hope that we go do it even if we’re not sure why.  

So what are you doing to get ready?

~Justin


God and the Echo Chamber

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“Be careful.  Seminary could be your cemetery.”  There was always a twinkle in his eye when he gave me sage advice on the steps of the church.  But not this time. He was serious. And this was not exactly how I wanted to start my academic ministry experience.  But I was undeterred. Shaken, perhaps. But I went to seminary anyway and gave it all I had. I didn’t understand where he was coming from then, but I think I’m starting to get it now.

Most people live in fear.  Now they would never call it that.  They don’t have nightmares. They aren’t looking for a place to hide.  But fear is unconsciously guiding their daily lives. Some fear is easy to see−an abusive relationship, uncertainty over a lost job or chronic illness, violence.  But other fear is hard to recognize. How do you know what you’re unconsciously afraid of? Start paying attention to what you avoid. How quickly do you change the channel when it lands on that news network?  Who can walk by your car in the city, making your reach to lock the doors without thinking about it?  Have you ever taken the long way around the office just to keep from having a conversation with someone?  Which family members do you cringe to invite over because they’re so loud about their opinion?

You see, we’re afraid of disagreements and uncomfortable encounters, so we avoid them at all costs.  We’re not even aware of it half the time. We’ve been conditioned to avoid religion and politics in polite conversation, and as a result we’ve forgotten how to talk about those subjects politely...or maybe even altogether.   It’s much easier just to block someone out than to engage the difficult conversation. It’s like life has become a Facebook feed where we pick and choose who we listen to. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding something crass or blatantly inappropriate on the internet, but the problem comes when we lose the ability to talk to anyone from the other side in real life.  Just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them. We, as a society, must learn better the art of healthy disagreement.

We create an echo chamber when we only see what we want to see and only listen to what we want to hear.  It doesn’t matter if you do this on purpose or not. Eventually, you forget that there are other ways of seeing the world, and you stop growing personally and interpersonally.  It’s like being stuck in the social mud. You can create an echo chamber with anything, including supporters of a particular sports team, cohorts who share your profession and jargon, or people who share the same hobby or passion.  But most people create an echo chamber for politics or religion, and they might not even be aware. There’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, but it becomes a problem when you start to look down on those people.  

You see, it’s a slippery slope when we start to see people who disagree with us as “evil.”  That’s how the seeds of dehumanization are planted. People cease to be people in our minds once we associate their entire identity with an idea.  We all know that there’s more to a person than their opinion about a handful of ideas, but how quickly we forget when they disagree with us! If God is only at work with people who think exactly like us, then that’s a sad state for the world.  God is not the god of the echo chamber. God transcends those arbitrary divisions we create, and we can too. All it takes is learning how to make friends.

The renowned sociologist Peter Berger says “The most important vehicle of reality maintenance is conversation” (Berger 102).  It turns out that we need disagreements and doubts to really see ourselves honestly. When you make a friend outside of your political persuasion or religious affiliation, it changes two things:  your view of where they’re coming from and your view of yourself because “If people keep on talking with each other, they will influence each other” (Berger 2). Research has shown that “When people gain a new friend who is religiously different, they feel more friendly toward that religious group as a whole” (Berger 106).  Now I’m not advocating all of us walking around with religious labels for everyday interactions, but once you have a positive relationship with someone, there ought to be a healthy way to approach religion and politics in conversation that doesn’t end with one party storming off. It starts with how you see others, and the truth is that we are all beloved children of God, so we ought to be able to see each other as such.  To do so is to change our point of view, to learn to “regard no one from a human point of view” because “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21 NRSV).

The truth is that God is bigger than our religion, and we’re all trying to figure it out as best we can.  I for one need as much help as I can get, so I say let’s “fight the good fight” by standing up for civil conversation before we all forget how to speak.

~Justin

Source:  Peter L. Berger The Many Altars of Modernity.  de Gruyter, 2014.

Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness

“Son, can you measure the dock?”  I was eager. I was nine. This was something I could handle on my own.  It was my pride and joy to help my father in any task around the house, especially if it involved tools.  And this seemed easy enough. We were rebuilding the old dock at the family pond, and Dad needed my help. I was so caught up in getting the task done that I didn’t stop to think about it.  I hurriedly hooked the tape measure on the end nearest the shore and backed up. Did I mention that the dock had no railing? It wasn’t until the water closed in around my ears in what felt like slow motion that I realized my mistake.  I had backed right off the edge into the water, but lucky for me, it wasn’t a very tall dock and the water wasn’t very deep. I sputtered and spit and lost a shoe in the mud, but we both had a good laugh. It was a lesson in paying attention, of being mindful.

You see, every day we walk a fine line between mindlessness and mindfulness.  Think about one thing too much and you cease to think about anything else. The word “worry” comes to mind.  Or if you can’t really stay focused on anything, your day becomes wasted right in front of your eyes. In some professions this lack of focus can become deadly.  If you’re a bus driver with a mind prone to wander or hyper-focus on something that happened yesterday, you’re putting your life and all your passengers’ lives in danger.  For pilots it’s even worse. In the Air Force they call it a “Loss of Situational Awareness.” As humans we make an average of about 35,000 conscious decisions per day.  That’s a lot to think about.  So how do we cope? Well, we institutionalize behavior or make habits in order for some things to become automatic and require less thought.   Think about all the things you do without really thinking about it: brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, getting dressed before you leave the house, polite conversation at the grocery store, even taking a particular route driving to work.  

When it comes to faith, what have we institutionalized?  What habits have we made that we might be unaware of, mindlessly going through the motions?  Is it singing the songs without actually hearing the lyrics?  Is it zoning out during the sermon? Is it praying the same prayer until you’re not even sure what you’re saying?  Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinithians 5:17, CEB).  It would seem that we’re called to renewal, called to shake things up a bit instead of falling into the same old ruts.  

Christians have had a tendency to shake things up a bit throughout history, chiefly during this thing we call the Reformation, literally designed to re-form the church.  But on a personal level it can be as simple as reading a book by a new author or starting a podcast or joining a new social group.  In recent years, the ancient practice of meditation has resurfaced as a positive way to reduce stress and increase self-awareness...but under a new name:  mindfulness. “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”  Ironically, seeking mindlessness in the right way (by meditating and letting some things fade into oblivion) can refocus your brain to be mindful of the right things.  

So catch yourself worrying this week and think about something else.  I think you’ll be surprised at how much more room there is to think about other things (like God) when you’re not obsessing over details you can’t change.  And maybe try something new. Like meditation. You never know what new revelations await until you go looking. ~Justin


Seeking Transformation

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“What are you doing?”  The bricklayer looked annoyed, his concentration broken by the idiotic question.  Could there be any doubt? Wasn’t it blatantly obvious? “I’m laying bricks!” he snapped and went back to his work, not bothering to turn around and even see who was talking to him.  Sir Christopher Wren, the famed architect of the 17th century, continued walking, his curiosity piqued. This wasn’t just a wall. It was a part of Wren’s greatest masterpiece−St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  “What are you doing?” he asked the second bricklayer. Though he still didn’t turn around, this time the man sighed, stared off into space, and said, “You gotta earn a living somehow, eh mate?” Wren continued.  This time after posing the question, the third bricklayer straightened up, turned around, and with a wry grin, he said, “As it were, I’m building this great cathedral for the glory of God!”

There’s probably a lot more legend to that story than anything else, but even if it’s not factual, its truth remains:  how you choose to look at something affects what you see.  In other words, if you seek transformation, that’s what you’ll find.  Everything you look at will change.  Each of us goes through life falling into one of the three categories above at one time or another, depending on what we’re doing.  

  • Task Oriented:  just going through the motions to get the job done

  • Means-to-an-End:  recognizing the banality of the work, but accepting it’s necessity to earn a paycheck

  • Being a Part of Something Greater:  accepting your personal limitations but recognizing your role in the “big picture”

The surprising thing is that you are more in control of making meaning than you think.  Each of the bricklayers above was doing the same job. But they all saw it differently. Changing your perspective is everything.

As Christians, we are called to seek transformation−not only in ourselves, but also in our community.  And if we learn to look at it the right way, the work we do in our everyday, ordinary lives can take on more special meaning if we see it as playing a part in what God is doing in the world, as become a Kingdom Builder here on Earth.

Once you master the Kingdom perspective, it starts to transform the world around you.  The homeless man in the Wal-Mart parking lot starts to look a lot more like Christ.  The same is true for the hungry, the strangers, the sick, the prisoners (Matthew 25:35-36).  And if you start seeing the Christ in them, the Christ in you becomes a little easier for others to see.  Before you know it, both the world and you are transformed, and we’re all one step closer to the Kingdom.

~Justin


Same Same but Different: Islam and a Line in the Sand

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“El burro, por favor.”  The scene was tranquil as the sun danced on the water, a light breeze drifting in from the ocean, fluttering the umbrella of our beachside cafe table in Valencia, Spain.  But the waiter’s face was anything but tranquil. We thought it was a simple request, but he looked like he thought we were out of our minds. He had brought the bread. We wanted butter.  But our limited Spanish vocabulary couldn’t produce the word. My friend knew that in French the word for butter is “beurre.” Nerds that we were, we knew that Spanish and French share a common language (Latin), so many of the words are similar.  We tried to turn “beurre” into Spanish, and the result was “burro.” After a few tense moments of head shaking and hand gestures, he brought the butter and we discovered that the word “burro” has nothing to do with butter. We had been asking for “donkey” for our bread.  Sometimes what seems so close together couldn’t be further apart.

But I suppose the opposite is also true:  sometimes what seems so far apart is actually not all that different.

I never knew that much about Islam.  I had always thought that it was the opposite of Christianity in every way.  But last night I heard a story that challenged my way of thinking, so I looked it up to see if it was true, and here’s what I found:

Ethiopia is the oldest Christian nation, with a rich history going back millennia, interweaving legends and rich historical artifacts, from the Queen of Sheba to monolithic, cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock.  In the year 615, Islam was in its infancy, and its new followers were being persecuted in Mecca, mostly for claiming there was only one God (“Allah” is just the Arabic word for “God,” closely related to the Hebrew “Elohim”).  They fled for their lives, seeking refuge in the kingdom of Axum (modern-day Ethiopia) under the Christian King Ashamah Negus or Al Najashi. Shortly after their arrival, a group from Mecca arrived, asking the king to kill the “heretics.”  Trying to sort it all out, King Najashi questioned the Muslims on what they thought about Jesus. They responded, saying that “Jesus is considered to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary” (Wise).  The king conferred with his counselors, and after reaching a decision, he came back to the Muslim refugees, and with a stick he drew a line in the sand, saying the “difference between the message of Mohammed and Christianity is the difference between this thin line.” And he let them stay in Ethiopia, offering them as much protection as as the Christian citizens of his country.  This was remarkable in a time when many Christian groups killed anyone they discovered disagreeing with their version of Christianity.

I think this story offer us much wisdom for today, especially in light of all the misinformation going around in the world.  It offers a model for how to build relationships with people of different faiths, and thus become a positive witness for Christianity in the world.

  1. Witness by Listening - King Najashi didn’t tell the refugees what they should believe.  He asked them to tell their story. After all, if you want someone to listen to you, isn’t it much easier if they know you’ll listen to them too?  Respectful dialogue is much more effective at building a relationship than a one-way exchange of information.

  2. Witness by Respecting Needs - The refugees were in danger, and the king kept them safe even before he decided he was on their side.  Some needs are all-consuming, and if you can understand that need and help do something about it, it goes a long way toward building a positive relationship.

  3. Witness by Finding Common Ground - The king knew the refugees were different, but he found common ground.  So often in life we focus on what’s different, so much so that we leave little time for common ground.  What would happen if people from different groups (political persuasions, social classes, races, religions, etc.) had conversations about what they have in common?  It seems to me that the differences might fade to the background, enabling you to see the human being in front of you rather than an idea you disagree with.

Christians and Muslims have a long, checkered relationship.  But this story from Islam’s beginning gives me hope that there’s a way to live together and have a conversation, to see each other as people and not as ideas.  Maybe we can find common ground. God willing.

~Justin


Lent & Renewal:  Revival and the Self

Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust. But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow.”

Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust. But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow.”

“Out of the ashes we rise.”  The image is vivid, provocative, unexpected.  Fire consumes everything, and yet, we find a way to keep going, to rise to the occasion and find renewal in the face of destruction.  More than a time to swear off sugar and feel sorry for yourself, Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and self reflection.

I didn’t grow up with Lent or Ash Wednesday.  In fact, I’m not sure I even knew what they were until after high school.  So I’m still learning. Because change and the same old thing can sometimes be enemies of growth (leading to either discomfort or stagnation), many Protestants abandoned some of the ritual traditions of the historic church calendar, but many ancient practices are finding new life as they themselves rise from the ashes.  

Lent (“the lengthening of days” or Anglo-Saxon for “Spring”) began as preparation for Baptism for new converts to Christianity.  It was a time of self-reflection and repentance—a time of turning one’s life around, embracing a new life of following Christ.  Today many people see it as a time to feel bad about yourself and think about death and suffering.  But that’s only the first part of the story. Lent is an invitation to look again at your own life in light of the life of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The emphasis is more about finding new life rather than feeling bad about your old one.  

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The traditional saying accompanying the imposition of ashes is rather dark and morbid, and we find in it a challenge to our grand egotism and inflated view of ourselves.  But also in it we find a reminder of a cycle that should play out daily in our lives—that of death and resurrection. This cycle of renewal is built into many Christian traditions, but it’s easiest to see in Baptism where, as Baptists practice, the believer is “Buried with him by baptism into death” as they are lowered beneath the water, and then “Raised to walk in newness of life.”  

But we get it wrong.  Instead of focussing on the “newness of life” part, we carry our sins around with us, resurrecting sins instead of letting ourselves find new life.  We keep resurrecting our old self instead of letting it die. We dwell on the past, and we don’t forgive ourselves for all the things we are ashamed of.  And as a result we bring our own demons back to life, time and again resurrecting the shadows of the past. But Ash Wednesday calls us to “repentance”—not to feel sorry but to turn our lives around.  And to do that you have to let your old self die. You have to let your past become dust. You have to throw a little dirt on the grave of all your shame and regret.

Ash Wednesday calls us to reflect on our mortality and confess our sins “before God within the community of faith,” but it also calls us to “proclaim the grace of God, as well as reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us” (Duck 131).  I would add “to be reconciled with ourselves.”  

So as we enter Lent this week, seek renewal!  Seek revival! Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust.  But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow” (Palmer 116).


Same Same but Different

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“Oh, don’t worry!  The 6 o’clock ferry sank about a month ago.”  She said it so matter-of-factly, so calmly like it was some common, everyday occurrence.  I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, and I was hoping there was a joking tone in her Irish accent.  “Pardon me? It sank?!?” “Oh yes, it’s in the bottom of the harbor. There’ll be another one along at 3 AM.”  There was no twinkle in her eye. She was for real. This was no way to start my 6-week backpacking trip through Europe.

It was 6:10 PM, and my train was late to the port because a “bridge was out.”  Now I had to find something to do until the 3:00 AM boat to Dublin, Ireland arrived at Holyhead, Wales.  My Spring Break from Oxford University was not off to a great start. There was no place to sit at the port, so I started walking through the town as it grew colder and darker outside.  I had never felt more homesick in my life. Then I saw it. A neon “Open” sign on a small restaurant. I now had a warm place to sit and something to eat. I struck up a conversation, and it turns out the waiter liked bluegrass music.  As “Sweet Home, Alabama” came on the jukebox, people started to sing along. Even though I was more than 6,000 miles from Atlanta, I was right at home.

There’s a saying in Southeast Asia, from street vendors to philosophers to t-shirts:  “Same Same but Different.” If you’ve ever traveled outside of your culture, you know how unsettling it can be at times.  But it just takes finding something familiar for you to realize that, even though we are all different, we are still the same in many ways.  It’s possible for Georgians to find “Southern Hospitality” in New Hampshire, or barbecue in Greece, or folks who play the “fiddle” in Russia.  Everyone in the world puts their spin on the human experience, but if we learn to look beyond the surface, we can find all kinds of unexpected points of connection.  

The Gospel is no different.  The same story has taken root across many different soils in this world, and each time it blooms into something beautiful, different every time, but still the same.  Take the Gospels in the Bible, for instance. They all tell the same story, but they go about it in different ways. In Mark you find a sense of urgency and even secrecy, embracing the “hiddenness of divine mystery,” allowing for candid honesty “to acknowledge the reality of suffering, the difficulty of discipleship, and the not yet” part of expectation (Hays page 96, Reading Backwards). In Matthew you  find how Jesus fulfills and transforms Old Testament teachings as he embodies “‘God with us,’ the living presence of God who is to be worshiped as the holder of all authority” (Hays 98).  Luke “emphasizes promise and fulfillment” as he sets the stage for the story of Israel’s redemption (Hays 99).  Mark starts in the wilderness, and Matthew and Luke start at Jesus’ birth, but John goes all the way back to the beginning.  John takes all of the symbols of Israel’s worship (the Temple, the good shepherd, the sacrificial lamb, water, lights, etc.) and shows how they were all signifiers of Jesus (Hays 101).  

Each of these variations of the same story spoke to different audiences.  Each of us encounters the divine in a unique way.

Can the Christ in you learn to see the Christ in your neighbor?  It’s there. It’s the same. But different. The same forest is made up of thousands of different organisms.  So it is with faith. So has Christ come for all. So may we live into this truth.

~Justin


Accidental Enemies:  Encountering Otherness

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“NO!  TAP. WATER.”  I was practically yelling.  And my hand gestures were getting...let’s say quite “out of hand.”  But the man behind the counter kept offering me a bottle of water which I knew was not free.  I was in the Mall of Georgia food court, and I love Chinese food. Especially cheap Chinese food.  But I didn’t want to pay for a drink. And the miscommunication was starting to get to me. (Why is it that we talk louder and slower when we think someone doesn’t understand us?)  I assumed the language barrier was insurmountable, and I was on the verge of walking away when the Asian man behind the counter smiled, picked up a pre-made tap water, and said to me in perfect English:  “Here you go, man!”

In Luke 6:2728, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (NIV).  But what happens if we’re the ones who inadvertently mistreat a fellow child of God, accidentally treating them like an enemy?  We need to be honest with ourselves and be careful how we treat others, especially if there’s a cultural or racial difference involved.  We make so many assumptions in this world. The problem is that we don’t realize we’re doing it. I assumed the food court worker didn’t speak English well because of the way he looked, and this must have become so normal for him (white people assuming things about him) that he made a game out of it.  What I did and thought on that day was something born out of unintentional, unconscious racism, a problem I didn’t know I had. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never hated anyone or actively sought to cause them harm because of the color of their skin. But I’ve come to learn that there’s a subtle form of obliviousness when it comes to race that can affect you unawares.  I’m not saying that everyone is racist, but I am saying that race shapes how we think whether we’re aware of it or not.

It’s hard to change your mind when you’re not even aware what you’re thinking.  You see, if you’re part of the dominant/majority race or culture, you can’t see it because you don’t have to.  It’s become so normal that it’s invisible to you. Like going nose-blind to smells in your house or a fish unaware that he’s swimming in water (unless you take him out!).  If you’re like me and white in America, you’ve been swimming in whiteness without even realizing it.

It’s not a liberal or conservative issue.  It’s a human issue. We build up an idea of what “normal” means, and anything that we encounter outside of that narrow bubble, we subconsciously label it as “a bit odd,” “different,” or “other.”  And if you’re not careful, you can unconsciously treat “otherness” as inferior and second-class. It’s easy to see racism that wears a mask or carries a flag at a rally. It’s harder to see unintentional racism that causes you to accidentally mistreat others, to speak condescendingly, to be surprised when people who look differently than you have something in common with you.  I couldn’t see it in my own life until I read an article called “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.”   The more I looked into it, the more I read by this same author, the more I realized how she was describing me:  “‘How has your life been shaped by your race?’ This is rarely a difficult question for people of color, but most white participants are unable to answer” (DiAngelo).  I never realized that my race was affecting how I saw and treated others.  Now that I’m aware, I keep coming back to the words of Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NIV).  I don’t want people to make assumptions about me based on the way I look.  I don’t want to be judged based on stereotypes. I don’t want to be treated as “other.”  There’s no room for that in the Kingdom of God.

Lord, may we learn to see others as you see usas your children.

~Justin


Living in the Moment: Reflections from Refugee Camp

Mae La Camp, Thailand - Photo by Rob

Mae La Camp, Thailand - Photo by Rob

Morning has dawned at Mae La Camp where I spent the night among about 40,000 Karen refugees from Burma, some of whom have lived in this camp for more than 30 years.  The camp is located about 8 hours north of Bangkok by car and in the hill region so the morning is quite chilly.  It isn't often in Southeast Asia that I have actually seen my breath condense into the morning air, but I can certainly see it here.


Mae La is one among a number of camps for Karen in this part of Thailand.  I came here first in about 2008 or 2009 when I served as the Global Missions Coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and my purpose at that time was to see the camp and to then help CBF churches in the US prepare to receive Karen refugees to the United States.  Many did resettle in places like Atlanta, Louisville, Richmond, Fort Worth and other areas.  But always the possibility of returning to Burma (now Myanmar) has caused others to remain here in the camps in hopes that one day they might be able to go home.  The United Nations has already cut rations to the refugees who remain and there are rumors that soon all rations may be cut off.  Challenges to returning to Myanmar include the fact that many Karen no longer have homes and property there since other people have now moved in and taken their former land, so there may not be much there for them to go home to.


It has been my privilege to stay at the Kathoolei-Karen Baptist Bible School and College.  This insititution educates about 400 students, preparing them for ministry among Karen, Chin and other Burmese tribal groups.  The work is impressive and the faculty are dedicated and committed followers of Christ whose deep passion is to see an educated ministry for Karen churches.  Thra Wado, the vice principal of the school, has been my host.  In my interview with him yesterday, he recounted his own experience in fleeing Burma as a child after the burning of his village.  He realized that he could not pursue schooling since his village no longer existed; so, he made his way to this camp to attend high school and later to graduate from this Bible school that he serves.


One of the professors here was married in October, but he and his wife cannot live together because they have been assigned to two different camps.  They married in October and spent a week together.  He then saw her in December and he is hoping that she can come here to visit him in April.  I asked him about his hopes and dreams for the future and he responded simply that he doesn't think much about the future.  He simply tries to live in the moment, confident that God will take care of the future.


Most of the faculty here have not had an easy road to gain their theological degrees.  Generally, they have had to finish at the Bible School here and then make a very dangerous journey across Myanmar to Nagaland in India where they spend three years pursuing a Master of Divinity degree.  The journey to Nagaland takes anywhere from two weeks to one month, depending on the time of year and traveling conditions.  


My prayer for myself and for you this morning is that we all manage to live in the moment today and to not worry quite as much about the future as we are prone to do.  My new professor friend here put it quite well.  Best to live in the moment and leave the future to God.  For obvious reasons, that spiritual truth is much easier for me to grasp here as I see people living it out all around me.  

From Mae La,

~Rob

Miracles, Disenchantment, and Fish

“…as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.”

“…as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.”

“And Lord, we pray for healing.”  There were tears in the room, but that circle gathered around the hospital bed seemed to breathe as one in that moment.  And our collective grief and worry seemed to subside, just a tiny bit and for the briefest of moments. The report from the doctors was not good, and they were taking this case “moment by moment,” which made us all think we’d better make every moment count.  It was hard to sleep that night, but I went back to my daily routine with a tinge of grim expectation for news. Then I got a text.

“The doctors can’t explain it, but she’s getting better!”  And so she did! I remember thinking, “What just happened? Did the doctors miss something the first time?  Or did we just have ourselves a little miracle?!?”

Ours seems to be an age of disenchantment.  Much of what used to be unexplainable has now been explained, and so we’re all left with an abiding lack of wonder in our lives.  I’m one to believe that God is at work through doctors and science and medical advancements. But what of the unexplainable? What of miracles in an age of scientific inquiry?  

I’m inclined to agree with Albert Einstein on this one:  “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”  But oh the irony...according to the internet, we can’t confirm that Einstein actually said this!  So did that prayer years ago change God’s mind and save that young girl’s life?  Or did it change us and our outlook on the situation? To me the miracle is that even after medicine and science had “failed” us, we stood in that circle and felt real hope amidst the uncertainty of the outcome.  No matter how it turned out, we felt God’s presence with us. Did that change the outcome? I have no idea. But it made that moment better, and we were less alone. And as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.

In Luke 5:1-11, the disciples had been fishing all night to no avail.  They were tired. The tried and true methods had failed them, and they hadn’t caught a single fish.  To me that’s the definition of disenchantment: what used to work has let you down, so what’s the use in trying again?  You can just hear the disappointment in their voices as Jesus tells them to throw the net out just one more time, this time on the other side of the boat.  In verse 5, “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets’” (NIV).  You know how it ends.  The nets were so full of fish they had to call for help.  

So you’re tired.  You’ve been up all night.  And you’re not sure anyone is even listening to those prayers.  What does the “other side of the boat” look like for you? Does the prayer need to change?  Has it already changed you? Or have you been staring at the miracle all along, mistaking it for science?  The most important thing is that you’re not alone. And it’s ok to call for help whether you’ve caught any fish or not.  ~Justin


From the Outside In:  Baptist Mission Comes Full Circle

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“You don’t belong here.”  It’s a message heard by marginalized people across the ages in one way or another.  This time it was the British East India Company sending the message to American Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson who arrived in India shortly around the outbreak of the War of 1812.  Not to be deterred, the Judsons made their way to Burma where it took 3 years just to learn the language. But Adoniram was a linguist, and he soon had written a grammar of the language and began translating parts of the Bible into Burmese.  He tried to assimilate into the culture, but soon realized that he was destined to always be seen as an outsider. He stayed the course, even though it took 12 years to make 18 converts. Finally, with the help of a donated printing press and a fresh translation of the Gospel of Matthew, a congregation began to form, and "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time" (chronicler Maung Shwe Wa).

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From 1824-1826, Burma went to war with Britain, Ann died, and Adoniram found himself in and out of prison.  But he found a surprising ally in a converted outcast and murderer named Ko Tha Byu of the Karen people who quickly spread the Gospel to jungle tribes whose oral tradition contained stories much like those of the Old Testament.  In 1835 Judson finished his translation of the entire Bible into Burmese and married fellow missionary Sarah Boardman. By the time of his death at the end of his 37 year career as a missionary overseas, Judson’s initial goal of 100 members had bloomed into a thriving network of 100 churches with over 8,000 members.  As a result, modern-day Myanmar now has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide with “1.6 million Baptists in more than 4,700 churches in a country that is an estimated 90 percent Buddhist and 4 percent Christian” (Baptist News Global).  

The modern military government in the region has not allowed missionaries since 1967, and recently the Karen people have fallen under persecution in Burma, now Myanmar, and had to flee as refugees because their home country “never claimed the Karen, nor did bordering Thailand, which maintained them in refugee camps they used as a military buffer zone. The Karen were stateless persons.”  Those who made their way to the U.S. have partnered with numerous CBF churches across the country, and as they have learned about American culture, we could learn a thing or two from their “culture of evangelism” in which everything about their faith is taken very seriously.  Christians from across the world are making their way to America for a variety of reasons, and it would seem that we have a lot to learn from them.

Some groups across Asia and South America are now sending missionaries to the US.  The Gospel has come full circle.  It seems as if we have become to the new mission field, and the places to where we used to send missionaries are now preaching the Gospel to us.  The reasons for this role reversal are incredibly complex, but people like Rob Sellers have theorized that “A lot of people in the West are much more likely to validate different religious, political or social ideas than our parents — and certainly our grandparents — were apt to do. [They] are disenchanted with the established church. They perceive the church to be rigid, legalistic, formal, out of touch, superficial and old-fashioned...If Christian people and churches were to set up their commitment to addressing human needs around the world, I believe more 'secular' people in the West would take notice and be more likely to participate” (Third World Faith).

May we tell these stories and learn from them.  Transformation is never too far out of reach. ~Justin


Moving a Mountain?  Pick up a Grain of Sand.

I thought it was about getting done as quickly as possible. Turns out there’s a reason to slow down.

I thought it was about getting done as quickly as possible. Turns out there’s a reason to slow down.

“Let’s get to work.”  I stared at the square hole already about a foot deep.  Then I looked over at the ten-foot-deep trench on the other side of the site.  I looked back at the shallow hole where our work was to begin. I looked at the small spade in my hand.  You’ve got to be kidding me!  It’ll take about ten years to dig that deep with this tool!  It was the summer of 2005, and I was on an archaeological dig in Ancient Corinth, Greece as a part of Mercer’s Study Abroad program.  I was ready to work, but I was not prepared for the pace. The tools we had were small spades and brushes for gently removing handful-sizes of dirt from the site, the goal being to find a corner of a wall that had been uncovered about 25 yards away.  I spent an entire day moving small handfuls of dirt, and when it was time to leave for the night, you couldn’t even tell we had been there. I wanted more. I wanted big results, and I wanted them fast. The next day I looked around and found a proper-size shovel, and I moved some dirt!  Let me tell you, I had lowered the level of that whole an entire foot in about 30 minutes. Then I heard it. In my haste the shovel had scraped against something hard, and there was a distinct cracking sound as I followed through with my swing. My heart sank as we started clearing the dirt around the object.  I just knew I had broken some priceless work of art, a beautiful piece of pottery preserved for thousands of years in the dirt, surviving wind and rain and earthquakes only to be smashed to pieces by the impatience of an over-eager college student. I turned away. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t watch as the rest of the team unearthed whatever it was I had broken.  I suddenly realized why they had given us the spades instead of the shovels.

I got lucky that day.  It was just a thin rock.  But I learned a valuable lesson that day:  sometimes you have to take it slow before everything falls apart.  Sometimes the shortcut isn’t the best way. Sometimes you have to dig with a brush instead of a shovel.  We have proverbs like this: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or my favorite from my days teaching the research paper to middle schoolers:  “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”  

I think it’s the same with faith, but like everything else we get in a hurry.  We want to dig with a shovel. We want God to show up and fix everything right away whenever we ask.  But the faith that can move mountains doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.  When I first read that in my King James Bible at an early age, I had visions of snapping my fingers and watching one of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains float up in the air and replant itself a hundred miles away.  But that’s not how it works. That’s not even how you move mountains. Years later I would tell my students that if you have a mountain to move, don’t stare at it and get lost on how difficult it’s going to be. Instead, if you want to move a mountain, pick up a grain of sand.  And if you do that enough times, before you know it, you’ve succeeded in a greater task than you ever thought possible. The problem is staying focused and believing in what you’re doing. It’s all too easy to look at your lack of progress and give up entirely. But if you stay faithful, doing a little each day, you can do something great by the end.  

So what mountains are in your way?  Don’t sit back and wait on God to move it.  Get to work. Pick up a handful of dirt, and with God’s help, I think you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.

~Justin


Beyond Pain: C.S. Lewis and Finding Faith

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“It’s not supposed to be this way.”  We’ve all thought this at some point, at some injustice in our life.  As long as our life is relatively free from pain and loss as we’re growing up, we have no problem believing in the “goodness” of God.  But this is a fragile, understanding of God, a theology that has not been tested by the dark realities of this world. And all it takes is bad things happening to good people for anyone to start to question God.  Imagine living through the “War to End All Wars” which we now call World War I, and then in your lifetime having everything fall apart again in World War II.  The World Wars wrecked many, many Europeans’ concept of God. If God is good, how could all this happen?  And many gave up on God.  For many of us, the idea of national tragedy might seem distant.  But personal tragedy is no less devastating. So, how do you hold on to faith in a world of so much pain?  How does faith survive tragedy?

C.S. Lewis survived firsthand the frontlines of trench warfare in WWI, watching the same artillery shell that wounded him take the life of two friends right before his eyes.  As an atheist who paradoxically was “angry at God for not existing,” Lewis found a way to go on with life.  He had given up on God before the war (especially after the death of his mother when he was a child), but as an academic, he had friends whom he respected greatly, notably author J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings).   Through conversations with these friends and his own nagging sense of the possibility of God’s reality, he found his faith in 1929.  In his own account of this dramatic moment, he paints a vivid picture:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy).

Despite his reluctance to enter the faith, he spent the rest of his life defending it, answering many of the most difficult questions that can be asked about God, or providing stories which gave a metaphorical understanding of such difficult concepts.  He went on to author over 30 books selling millions of copies worldwide.

Perhaps his fame was due to his efforts in WWII.  He volunteered to serve, but after his request was denied, he found a way to contribute by giving wartime radio broadcasts.  From 1941 to 1943, in a world struggling to come to terms with the powers of evil and death all around, C.S. Lewis spoke on “religious programmes broadcast by the BBC from London while the city was under periodic air raids. These broadcasts were appreciated by civilians and servicemen at that stage. For example, Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman wrote:  ‘The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that.’ The broadcasts were anthologised in Mere Christianity” (Wikipedia).  His faith tested, he came out stronger, even helping others hold on to their faith.

Knowing that others have traveled down the road of doubt before you might not be much comfort, but when I travelled that road in 2006, I found answers in C.S. Lewis.  They’re not easy or simple (they won’t fit in this short blog post, for example), but they are profound. So I say, Keep searching.  Keep asking questions.  Don’t give up on God. God hasn’t given up on you.  And when it comes to pain, I’ll let C.S. Lewis speak to that:  “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain).  Pain can define us or refine us.  May we all find the right path. ~Justin

Changing God's Mind?

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Leave it to us to get it backwards.  I was 10 and someone was dying. I was asked to pray.  They died anyway. My heart sank, and all my little mind could think about was, “I must not have prayed hard enough.”  I had this guilty, sunken feeling for weeks. It felt like his death was all my fault for saying a weak, half-hearted prayer (I had said something silently to myself for about 30 seconds, and I quickly went back to playing Super Mario Brothers, not really giving it another thought).  Have you ever been there?

What happens in prayer is a bit of a mystery to us (as it should be), and depictions of prayer on tv and in the movies don’t help us understand it any better.  I recently watched an episode of Glee where the main character prays to “Grilled Cheesus” after seeing an outline of Jesus appear in his grilled cheese, and when his friend gets hurt in the process of him getting what he wants, he feels like it’s all his fault for the way he prayed.  We laugh, but in our own faith development, we all have room to grow when it comes to prayer. In fact, a misunderstanding of prayer has led millions of people away from the faith. It starts with a theology that sees God as some kind of adult Santa Claus who gives you want you want if you’re on the “nice list,” living a good life and praying hard enough.  The truth is a little more complicated. It can seem like some prayers work and some don’t. And all it takes is a few bad things happening to good people for you to discover that sometimes prayer doesn’t seem to change God’s mind. When that happens, some people choose to give up on God. Others look for a new way to see things.

In the 1993 movie The Shadowlands which chronicles the life of Christian author C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), Jack says, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.”  Miracles happen, and outcomes sometimes take an unexpected turn. But there are some facts in life that don’t change no matter how hard you pray. Sometimes you don’t get the miracle you asked for. So does that mean that prayer is pointless? Hardly. When the facts don’t change, the only thing you can change is how you see them, your attitude, your resilience.  You can bring all your anger and confusion to God, and you can seek understanding and peace when things don’t make sense.

Prayer changes you.  That’s its purpose. You commune with God and bring to God all your cares and troubles and worries, and you walk away with the peace of God.  Paul tells us, “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, KJV).  Notice that it doesn’t say that you will get your requests or even get an answer. It just says that “the peace of God...shall keep your hearts and minds.” Prayer takes us one step closer to God and God’s peace, and it helps us face the realities of this world with a sense that we’re not alone.  

So pray.  And pray hard.  It can change everything.  But it starts by changing you.

~Justin


Hope Trumps Experience: Expectations, Confidence, and Resolutions

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“Do those things really work, doctor?”  I was skeptical, but this was the second double ear infection in both boys in two months.  I was looking for anything to clear the air.  “Well, yes, actually. If you get the HEPA air purifiers, they’ve been proven effective at removing household allergens and in general improving air quality in your home.”  I went straight to Wal-Mart. It turns out that $90 is a small price to pay for anything that might reduce runny noses (and by extension ear infections). I had the device set up before I had walked the dogs.  It was one of the Febreeze kind, so it instantly smelled good.  I could already feel the air being cleaned (and the chances of ear infections dropping dramatically).  The next day I sat down after the boys were asleep and breathed deeply. “Wow, the air is so fresh and clean,” I thought.  I felt good about myself, my choice in air purifying devices, and the new freshness of the air in my home. This thing is really working!  After a little tv, I turned it on high to run for the night.  But it sounded funny. I looked more closely, noticing a button to release the back panel.  I pushed it...and there...in the back of the device...the filters were still wrapped in plastic!  All my confidence had been wrecked by the reality that the air purifier had being doing nothing for two days even though my mind told me it was working!  

The Placebo Effect.  Science and the medical community have measured and proven that faith in your medicine alone can actually make you feel better and improve many conditions.  When testing a new drug, researchers have three groups: those who receive the drug, those who receive nothing, and those who receive a placebo (or a sugar pill...something that has no healing qualities).  The thing is, you don’t know if you’re getting the real medicine or the placebo. But the placebo group typically shows improvement. So for the drug to be approved, they have to prove that it works better than a placebo.  So according to science, your expectations have power.  There is a verifiable truth that your confidence in something has the power to make you feel better.  Doesn’t that sound a lot like faith? It’s a funny thing, but if you believe it’s working, it might be!

Some of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions.  Studies show that only 8% of people actually follow through.  I think it has something to do with expectations, confidence, and just overall faith in ourselves.  Look, if you take a sugar pill placebo and feel better, the pill didn’t do anything for you. You made you feel better.  We look for solutions outside of ourselves when all the while we already have what we need inside us.  Now don’t get me wrong: sugar pills won’t fix a broken leg or clinical depression. But there are all kinds of things about life that can be made better by a little more faith in yourself.  I think part of the problem is that we learn to look for evidence that it’s not working.  Thus we train ourselves to be skeptical, and we lose faith in our resolutions the moment we discover evidence that the diet is not working, that the kindness didn’t keep you out of the argument, that the person you’re trying to make amends with hasn’t changed a bit even though you have.  But real change takes time. Resolutions have to become habits, or otherwise they’re just fads that last a few days.

Colossians 3:12 challenges us to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (NASB).  Now there’s a list of resolutions that no one can master. But why not pick one? Write the word in a place you’ll see every day.  Perhaps tape it to the bathroom mirror. Pay attention to your daily living, and make a little note on the paper every time you get something right.  It’ll take some time, but before long you will start to expect something to happen, and you’re confidence in yourself will grow.  And forget about all the times when you don’t get it right. All they’re good for is skepticism.  We need hope to triumph over experience. Only then can you learn to “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,” and make a new reality where “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:16-17). ~Justin

The Light Hurts:  Gifts and Giving

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The shadows look so real.  But that’s all they are. Just shadows.  It takes the light to discover the truth−to see reality.  But sometimes the light hurts.  When I was a kid, my dad took me on all kinds of treks through the woods, and in the distance my mind would see all kinds of things in the shadows cast from the light shining through the trees.  For some reason dinosaurs were featured regularly in my shadow visions (this seemed to happen the most after I saw Jurassic Park in theaters), yet when I took a few steps and the light changed, it was always just trees and shadows of trees.  Sometimes I was relieved to discover the truth, but other times I was downright disappointed. I think part of me really wanted a brontosaurus to be lurking around the bend...but definitely not a velociraptor!

When I studied Classics in college, I learned there’s actually something to this light and dark thing.  Around 380BC a man named Plato wrote a book called The Republic where he describes his ideal society, and in one chapter he makes a famous comparison called “The Allegory of the Cave.”  He says we’re all a little like prisoners chained from birth to watch shadows on the wall of a cave, mistakenly thinking that the shadows are real (the details aren’t really explained...like who did the chaining or why...but the message is clear:  people mistake the shadow of a horse for the horse itself). But imagine if one prisoner broke free and ventured toward the light at the mouth of the cave−what a vision!  To see the real world for the first time!  Sure, it hurts your eyes at first, but how much more beautiful is life out there in the sun than all those shadows beneath!  

I think Christmas is like that.  We mistake the gift for the giving.  We trade reality for a shadow. As a kid there’s a certain magic to waking up, believing Santa brought all those presents in the night, faithfully descending every chimney around the globe and somehow knowing just what you wanted!  Then the light hurts when you discover the truth. The magic fades, but somehow the excitement remains. Or does it? The more gifts you receive, the less each one means, and it’s possible to expect that same excitement but be disappointed when it doesn’t come.  

This was my son’s first time really being aware of the magic of Christmas, and I’ve rediscovered my excitement through him.  You know, now that I look back, I don’t think it was ever about the gifts or the money or all the stuff. That was just a shadow.  What it’s really about is the human connection and validation that comes in knowing that someone cares enough for you to seek the things that make you happy and give them to you.  I mean, how much of that stuff really has any value? You find much of it at yard sales in a year or two selling at 2-5% its market price. Take a ceramic trinket, for instance. It’s basically just dirt (clay hardened in a kiln...but still mostly dirt).  It’s basically worthless. But if you know it’s hand-made, if you know the symbolism behind it, if you know it took great effort to get it to you, it can become a priceless part of your life. The spirit of giving, and not the gift itself, is really what Christmas is all about.

John knew about Plato, about breaking free of that cave and seeing the light.  There was a word for that. The Greek word for finding that ultimate reality was logos (or literally:  “word”−it’s where we get our words like logic, logical, logistics, etc.).  John knew all this, so he said something like: “Hey, all you philosophers!  You know that ultimate reality you’re always looking for? Well, it came to Earth.  His name is Jesus.” Except he said it more like this:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. (John 1, NRSV)

So don’t miss it.  It might hurt to discover Christmas is not really about the gifts.  Step into the light, even though it hurts. Embrace the spirit of giving that’s trying to light your way. ~Justin