Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sharp or dull?

I have a couple of axes that belonged to my father and to my grandfather before him. A good ax is quite indestructible.

The effectiveness of an ax is determined by the quality of the metal, the sharpness of the blade, and the skill of the user. No matter how skillful the user may be, a dull ax makes it difficult to cut wood.

Dullness comes from lack of use, misuse, neglect, as well as from ordinary use – the harder the wood, the faster dullness occurs.

Dullness happens inexorably and often imperceptively. Perhaps there should be a bumper sticker that reads, “Dullness happens!” Unless a person is alert to the dulling of his blade, he may not realize that he is working harder with less results.

To keep an ax at peak performance, it must be sharpened regularly (on a schedule) as well as periodically as needed. Further, in order to sharpen an ax, you have to stop working with it. But sharpening time is not wasted. Ultimately the “down time” for sharpening maintains and significantly increases productivity.

Proverbs 27:17 is a great reminder that these observations apply to me and my work: “As iron sharpens iron, so one many sharpens another.”

I get dull! If I’m not alert, I may not recognize how much harder I’m working and how my productivity has declined. I need to stop working at times to engage in sharpening.

Sharpening is the result of contact (sometimes abrasive contact) with other people. Contact with other metal may sharpen an ax or dull an ax, even as my contact with another person may do either depending on the angle of impact.

Some people sharpen me and others hasten the dulling process. Sometimes if I make a slight adjustment in our contact, I can turn a dulling experience/person into a sharpening one. Some people will never be sharpeners. I need to be sure that I get away from them long enough to get near someone who sharpens me.

I bring sharpness or dullness to others. It all depends on how I connect with them.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Needs and wants…a long time ago

Preparing for today’s sermon on Jesus’ story about the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), I ran into some very old but fascinating statistics about the average American's sense of what is a “need” and what is a “want.” It seems that during the century between 1840 and 1940 peoples’ perception of what they needed as well as their identification of what they wanted rose exponentially. During the same period, the number of manufactured articles in the US increased at an even faster pace.

In 1840 the average American needed 16 things and wanted 72 things in an environment in which 6,000 items were manufactured.

In 1940, people needed 94 things and wanted 484 things, while the number of manufactured items had risen to 356,000.

I wish I had been able to find similar statistics for the present, but I was unsuccessful in my attempts. I would like to think that the number of needs, at some point, would level off rather than continuing to multiply. On the other hand, probably no one would be surprised if the number of wants and manufactured items have both continued to increase significantly.

Intertwined with all of this is the subject of Jesus’ story: greed – the desire to have MORE. The rich man thought he had a storage problem. He assumed he had too little storage when in fact he had too much stuff. Both his storage problem and his greed problem would’ve been solved if he had determined to give generously to the poor, rather than hoarding for himself.

No culture has ever needed as much storage space as ours. We add closets, additional stalls in our garages, storage buildings out back, and even rent “self-storage” space somewhere down the road.

Somehow we don’t seem to recognize our addiction to SUPERSIZING and our aversion to DOWNSIZING, nor does it seem to occur to us that if we gave more away to those in need, both our storage problem and our heart problem might be resolved.

The author of Proverbs 30:8, 9 prayed a rather surprising prayer based on his remarkably candid assessment of his tendencies toward independence and idolatry on the one hand or unbelieving panic on the other. I wonder if I would dare to make his prayer my own?

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Speaking their language

This morning I was reading Acts 21 and 22. At the end of chapter 21, Paul spoke to the commander of the Roman Soldiers who "rescued" him from the mob.

He grabbed the commander's interest and attention by speaking his language, Greek (21:37). Moments later, Paul captured the attention of the mob by speaking their language, Aramaic (22:2).

When we send missionaries into a different culture, their first assignment is to learn to speak their language -- usually a multi-year process. We understand that if people are going to listen to you, you have to speak their language.

For Jesus' church, eager to tell His story to everyone everywhere, learning the "languages" in a rapidly changing and diversifying culture will be an on-going challenge. In many ways it seems as if the Babel-effect is accelerating.

Friday, March 09, 2007

I am so embarrassed!

I can't believe how many years I have studied the Bible with some degree of diligence, yet missed the in-your-face, pervasive emphasis about poverty and injustice and how God's people are to respond to it.

Last Sunday's theme in our "Stories Jesus Told" series was the vivid and frightening story about hell (actually "hades" in the Greek) in Luke 16. The full sermon is available at http://www.calvarymuskegon.com/. It includes a discussion of five different ways people understand the doctrine of hell, including the one I have tentatively adopted (a change from most of my life).

What now seems inescapable in this story that I completely overlooked in the past was the equally shocking theme of wealth and poverty in relationship to hades and paradise.

Obviously Jesus was not suggesting that if one is rich and wears purple, he is headed for the fire. Nor was He advancing the idea that if one is poor and licked by scavenging dogs he will sit beside Abraham in the great heavenly banquet.

However, it would be hard to miss the point that what we do with our resources and how we respond to suffering and need are infallible indicators of the true condition of our heart.

Perhaps the rich man’s wealth served to isolate him to some degree from the suffering of the beggar at his gate. But, it did not excuse him from his heartless and wicked indifference.

In today’s “flat earth,” I have to be willfully indifferent to isolate myself from the horrible suffering of poverty and injustice in West Michigan and the world. The comfortableness of my middle-class suburban lifestyle has isolated me, but does not excuse me.

This is the only one of Jesus’ stories in which a character is named. The pathetic beggar is “Lazarus.” His name meant “God is my helper”—it must’ve mocked him with the realization that God didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of helping him. Yet his angel-escorted-arrival at the heavenly banquet table next to the father of Arabs and Jews would suggest that his trust in God was not destroyed by his earthly suffering.

By naming Him, Jesus humanized a person who had been dehumanized and marginalized by his community. We’re more comfortable if we don’t know a beggar’s name for the same reason we avoid eye contact with him. If we look him in the eyes or give him a name, he becomes a person – a fellow human being like us who is suffering and needs our help. It’s easier to walk by if he isn’t a real person to us.

How big a deal is it whether or not we use our resources to help the needy?

If asked, “What was the sin of Sodom?” most would respond with a hot-button moral issue. How shocking when the Scripture (Ezekiel 16:49f) describes a different primary issue: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Jesus’ story in Matthew 25 describes entrance into or exclusion from God’s kingdom on the basis of whether or not people fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned.

We tend to think our reward will depend on how often we went to church. The Bible says it will be based on what we did for the poor and needy.

I am so embarrassed that these themes have been largely absent from my teaching. I repent. God is changing me. Do I ever need it!
Which church would you choose?

A regular email I receive from MondayMorningInsight.com posed three sobering questions recently:

1. If you weren't on staff at your church, would you worship there? I think we've all served at churches that we wouldn't worship at. (I know I have). And many times we are in the process of transitioning them into a church that we'd love to attend. If you're in that position right now, this is still a great question to ask. Why wouldn't you want to worship there? And what is keeping other people away from the church that you serve?

2. If you didn't know ANYTHING about Jesus, what would you know about him after a normal weekend at your church? Think about your service yesterday. If you didn't know squat about Jesus yesterday morning; what would you know about Him or think about Him today? This is a question that we need to ask each and every week. How does your church communicate Jesus?

3. If you had a loved one who didn't know Christ, and they had one week left to live, would you take them to your church or another? In this last question, it goes one level deeper. How's your church doing at communicating the main message? Truthfully; would you take your dying unsaved mother to a service at your church or another church across town? How clear is the gospel presented in your church?

Those are great questions, not just for church staffers, but for anyone to ask about the community of faith in which God has called them to share life.

The consumer mindset so prevalent in our culture has infiltrated the thinking of many Christians so that rather than investing themselves and their resources to help their church become more formative, caring, and missional, they "jump ship" for another church where "their needs are better met."

I am very thankful for the church to which God has called me. I do not hesitate to invite people to our celebration gatherings and LIFEGroups. Yet, I am painfully aware of how far we are from the "beautiful bride" Jesus longs for, and how far we have to go if we are going to effectively model and pass authentic Christianity to our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the dying church of America is whether it is able and willing to make the changes necessary to be incarnational to future generations in this rapidly changing world. I am committed to spending whatever years God gives me to that process.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

And You Thougtht You Were Worshipping

My daily Bible reading this morning took me to Isaiah 58. God's people were frustrated because they felt that their worship and pursuit of God were stellar and yet God didn't seem to notice or reward their self-acknowledged spirituality.

God responding by exposing the hypocrisy of their worship because their lives were selfish and self-centered resulting in failure to show loving care for others and in ungodly conflict with each other.

God described the kind of "fast" He desired: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58:6-8).

This chapter was another rebuke to me as to how much our Western "churchianity" has become focused on "going to church" instead of the church going into the world's pockets of suffering to carry out Jesus' mission. God is unimpressed with my "worship" if I am not immersed in feeding the hungry, bringing justice to the oppressed, providing shelter for the homeless, and clothing the naked. May God forgive my comfort, self-centered ignorance and indifference!

When I started my current sermon series on "Stories Jesus Told," I had no idea how much God was going to speak to me (and to our church) on issues related to using our resources to relieve suffering. Nor did we realize how appropriate it would be to follow up (right after Easter) with a special four-week series we're calling "Justice and Mercy." God's providence in the sequence and timing is evident. I'm praying that this special focus, April 16-May 6, will help us to translate into action what God has begun speaking to us about. We plan to focus our celebration gatherings, LIFEGroups, adult Discipleship Communities, and student ministries on the theme of Justice and Mercy.

I hope I'm ready for this and I pray that I will never be the same!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Too much of a good thing?

Computer viruses are bad. Right? Very bad!

So anti-virus programs are good. Right? Very good!

If one anti-virus program is good, two are better. Right?

Not necessarily!

In fact, by 2 a.m. this morning, I was totally convinced that when it comes to computer anti-virus programs, you really can have too much of a good thing.

For several days my computer has been getting painfully slower and slower like an arthritic senior in damp weather. Finally, about 11 p.m. last night, it decided to slow to a virtual stop. The problem is, my sermon for tomorrow, and a great deal of my "life," were now unretrievable on this recalcitrant beast called a lap top. Okay, so if my life can be locked up in rebellious technology, maybe my life has become a little pathetic. Sorry.

With computers, shutting down and restarting cures a lot of junk. But, after initiating and watching a number of horrendously slow and fruitless restarts (kind of like watching paint dry), I finally chased down a technical support number for Dell. If you haven't yet discovered, technical support is now an intercultural experience. After a couple of very frustrating contacts, a sweet lady in the Philippines was very helpful but ultimately connected me to a $79-just-to-get-started-for-pay-technical-support-person not covered by our service contract. Actually, I never did get connected or pass my credit card numbers to an unknown person in order to rescue my stalled life.

While on hold, I slowly navigated through the add-and-remove process and wiped out one of those good anti-virus programs. INSTANTLY, MY COMPUTER WAS WELL! Hmmmm. I guess you can have too much of a good thing, aka, two good anti-virus programs.

Going to church (that may be an interesting alternative to "being the church") is a good thing. Right? So going to church a lot (a concept which seems quite building- and program-oriented) is a really good thing. Right? I grew up in the era when good Christians went to church "every time the doors were open." I apologize to all those to whom I encouraged that abominable idea.

Maybe going to church a lot is not a good thing. Maybe the church in the USA (one of the few places in the world where the church is in decline) has substituted "going to church" for "being the church." We feel like good Christians when we go to church, whether or not we really are more and more like Christ.

Perhaps our seemingly infinite expansion of meetings, events, and programs (all likely good in themselves--like my two anti-virus programs) has been substituted for authentic Christianity and the enactment of Jesus' mission in the world (redeeming sinners and relieving suffering--bringing the newness of the kingdom of God to broken people and a broken culture/world).

At 60, I'm slowing down (not quite as badly as my computer last night) and I sense that I'm running out of time. I want to invest what time I have left in moving toward a different model of being Jesus' church--His new community bringing new life to a broken world. That's why the pastors are talking quite a bit about "sharpening our focus" and "doing less better." It's not just about doing less things though. It's about trying to do the right things -- nurturing relational communities that are formative, caring, and missional. But we don't want to just add that to an already too full menu.

I guess you can tell that I'm thinking that our model of church and Christianity may have inadvertently (with all good intent) become too much of a good thing.

Friday, March 02, 2007

President's Wife Pregnant by Alien

Have you seen that headline in the news? Probably not, but you might expect it in one of the tabloids at the grocery checkout. I always marvel that anyone would spend money on such obviously sensationalized idiocy.

The Discovery Channel seems to have become the video version of the grocery store tabloid. Consider the recently announced television "documentary" on "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." Not having seen the program, it may be that the sensational topic is presented with appropriate contradictory information.

The advance publicity reports that Jesus' tomb has been discovered in Israel with burial boxes which once contained the bodies of Jesus, Mary, Jesus' wife, and Jesus' son. Archeological, statistical, and DNA evidence are marsheled in support of these conclusions, which, of course, would disprove the physical resurrection of Jesus, a sine qua non doctrine of Christianity.

Nevermind that no serious scholar, atheist or Christian, gives the slightest credance to these claims. The discovery is not new. The tomb and burial boxes were found in 1980. No one then or since thought they were of any significance, until a talented movie producer grabbed it for a sensational, if ludicrous, story.

Christ followers must never fear having their faith questioned or examining any claim to the contrary. By definition, faith commitments are not always testable by the scientific method. But, we must never fear or run from true science. We believe that God's Word, rightly interpreted, will be in agreement with God's world, rightly interpreted. God's word and world inform each other, and, in my conviction, will never ultimately contradict each other. There may be temporary tentions and apparent contradictions because fallible humans sometimes misinterpret the Word and/or the world. Christ-followers must continually pursue better understanding of both.

There are issues of interpretation where I believe the "jury is still out" as to whether the current interpretation of the Word or the current interpretation of the world is flawed. In some cases, both contemporary interpretations may be incorrect. Ultimately, I believe that the Word and world will be seen to be in perfect harmony, though maybe not entirely this side of the "restoration of all things." Then theologians and scientists will be completely agreed and God will be glorified by our better understanding of His revelation and His creation. Don't be alarmed if we don't get it all worked out right now, and don't be overly dogmatic where Scripture does not clearly demand it. Both theologians and scientists probably need a bit more humility than they sometimes display.

In the mean time, forgive my sarcasm if I suggest that the alien impregnation seems more credible than the claims of the "lost tomb of Jesus."