Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Scourge of Superficiality

Although there are plenty of problems in our society and culture, one of the greatest of them is what I will call "superficiality." We are a society that would rather deal with surface issues than the heart of a particular problem. We are more likely to put a bandage on a symptom, than we are to address the cause of that very system.

A friend of mine says that people put labels on things so they do not have to think about them. It is easier to pigeon-hole a person, a product, a problem than to identify and examine it. We are content with what we are fed by others. Our lives are simpler this way. But it was Socrates who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So many of us- including you and I, I am afraid- go through life without examining anything.

This problem of superficiality manifests itself in many ways, but some of the more significant are as follows.
  • Materialism. Marketing and advertising have caused a lot of our superficiality. We are buying into whatever Madison Avenue is selling at the moment. We have to have the latest brands, the best gadgets and the coolest stuff. By the way, not only is your VCR obsolete, but now your DVD player is too. (Don't get to attached to your Blu-Ray equipment.) One of my favorite questions in life is, "How did we ever get clean before there was Bath and Body Works?"
  • Reality Television. There is nothing real about reality tv, but the contestants become wealthy celebrities and we watch their every move. It is not the real world, but for some reason we want it to be. Most of the people I know are not reality tv material. We are all normal looking, boring people. There is not a single model in my crowd of friends.
  • Celebrity Worship. I said a lot about this issue in a recent post. Suffice it here to say that celebrities are superficial and the constant concern with the latest celebrity gossip is even more superficial.
  • Vanity. This one strikes home to almost all of us. We like ourselves. We want to look our best at all times. We want the best stuff, the best home, the best car, the best vacation. We love ourselves more than anyone else. In fact, some people love themselves so much that they change their appearance surgically or cosmetically. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Are these results of superficiality, or the causes of superficiality? You be the judge.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Celebrity Worship

Right now it is the children of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but you and I both know that in 15 minutes it will be some other celebrity romance, addiction or meltdown that will monopolize the attention of the US. We have become so obsessed with celebrities that we get gossip updates more often than Iraq war updates. In fact, we often think that they are more important.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is the morning "news" programs. There is less news than ever on the program and even more gossip. Today, on NBC, is a perfect example. Now lasting four hours, it is loaded with the latest celebrity news, scandalous behavior, human interest stories and concerts. You can get a few minutes of news once each hour.

Although I believe this celebrity fascination to be a generally bad thing, I am coming to believe that it could be a good sign. People crave the latest news and gossip about scandal for several reasons.
  • We secretly desire to be famous ourselves and are looking for pointers.
  • We are always on the lookout for ways in which we are better than famous people.
  • We truly believe that celebrities are better than us and this is our way of venerating them.
  • It is easier to pay attention to celebrities than to deal with the real news.
  • This news is always out there, so we might as well pay attention.

But I think there is one more reason. There is one thing that causes me hope for humanity, and American culture in particular. This pre-occupation with celebrities and gossip is a sign of the human need for worship. Did you catch that? People want to worship someone/ something bigger and greater than themselves.

Hollywood fascination is a sign that people have not forgotten the need to worship, to venerate the "other." Now, we need to get the focus back on God, where it belongs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Once More on the Arts

A recent article in the Indianapolis Star (July 27, 2008) gave some interesting statistics on the arts and specifically on arts in education. The resource cited is Americans for the Arts.

People who participate in the arts are...
  • 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.
  • 3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their school.
  • 4 times more likely to participate in a math or science fair.
  • 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance.
  • 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem.

Young artists are likely to...

  • Attend music, art and dance classes nearly three times more frequently than others.
  • Participate in youth groups nearly four times more frequently.
  • Perform community service more than four times as often.

Art does make a difference.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. Matthew 6.7

Sometimes, when my daughter was younger, I hated taking her shopping. Not only did she always want something no matter where we were shopping (her favorite store is still Menard's, the hardware super-store), she was consistent, and persistent in her pleas for the desired item. After a while it became tempting to make the purchase just to get her to quit begging. I could only take her being on my nerves for so long.

Many people view prayer in the same way. We think that if we do not get what we want the first time, we should ask God again, and again, and again... Eventually we will wear down the Lord's defenses and give it to us, whether we should have it or not. So we pray. And pray. And pray. It is sometimes discouraging, but we count it as faithfulness.

This is not what God wants, however. Before you think that I am against faithfulness or persistence, hear this: Trust in God. He knows what you want. He knows what you need. And most importantly, he knows his will for your life. It is not easy, but we are called to offer our prayers to him, and trust that he will answer. It could be- and often is- that our repetitions in prayer are a sign that we know we are out of God's will, or that we do not have faith in his ability. Give your needs to God and let him take care of them.

PRAYER: It is hard for us to feel that we are not in control, Lord. We want you to act, and to act now. We feel like if we tell you, over and over, our chances are better. Forgive us those sins, Jesus. Fill us with faith to know that you are in charge and taking care of us. Amen.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Different Kind of Entry

There has been a conversation brewing in my denominational area. I have very deep feelings about the issue of church camp. I want to share in this space my entry into the current conversation of the North Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. Much of what follows will make no sense without the context of the other participants, but you should be able to get the gist of my point.

Several years ago there was a shift in philosophy in the camping ministry of North Indiana. While the traditional program had been led by volunteers, pastors and local church lay people, it became apparent that there was a lot of inconsistency in this approach. Conference groups, led by the 4C's and then later the Board of Camps and Conferences, were developing programs, writing curriculum, supervising staff and making plans. There was a lot of ownership in the program among the churches, volunteers, pastors and laity.

However, camping began to shift from a volunteer-led model, to a professional staff model for our programs. This provided for quality, excellence and consistency across the program. There is little doubt that the kudos for Matt Poorman and others in recent days are a direct result of this change in philosophy. Our curriculums, programs, camps and staffs are generally better than they have ever been.

The biggest problem with this transition was that we never had a conversation about the implications of the change. (If there was a conversation there were a lot of people who missed it.) There have been several unintended consequences of this transition. Some of the more significant ones are:
  • Because of a shift to staff-directed programming, local church ownership of the program has dropped dramatically. I believe that this is a significant cause of the decline in campers over the past several years. Fewer people are involved in the planning and implementation of the programs.
  • Because of a shift to staff-directed programming, pastors and other volunteers were discouraged from participating. One way that this has significantly impacted many pastor-directors, including myself, is starting camps on Sunday rather than Monday. This means that preparations for camp must be made at the campsite on Saturday afternoon/ evening and Sunday morning. This is very problematic for pastors and other church leaders.
  • The shift to staff-directed programming has also led to an increase in fees. A larger staff requires more money. The increase in fees for all camping levels has caused even more parents to choose other options for their children during the summer. (An interesting note: In 1989 one week of "classic" camp at Pine Creek cost $90. In 2008 that same event was listed as costing $365.)

We have an excellent, staff-directed program. We need to either come to grips with that and all it entails- including fewer choices, higher fees and further professionalization, or begin to ask some hard questions and make some changes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

There is No Escaping

There are televisions everywhere! And I am a little put out about it. What is the deal with this, anyway? Can people not live for a few minutes without the artificial stimulation of television? I do not care if you have multiple televisions in your home, but they are now turning up everywhere in public places.

Here are some of the worst offenders:
  • Restaurants are filled with televisions. It seems to me that the art of dining and conversing is going away. It is hard to have a conversation when Chris Mathews or Bill O'Reilley is screaming at you from the other side of the room. Who can focus on people when there is a perfectly good football game going on just a few feet away? The thing that gripes me is when I take my newspaper (or a magazine, or a book) to a favorite restaurant for some time alone, and I am bombarded with noise! I understand the culture of the Sports Bar, but fast food, Mom & Pops and family restaurants do not count as a sports bar.
  • There is a television set in the waiting room at my doctor's office. There are magazines on tables all around. I make it a habit to carry my own reading material. But who can focus when Malcolm in the Middle is in trouble once again?
  • There is a TV in a local bank. Apparently it helps people lose track of how long their wait is. I do not know which is worse, the fact that the bank staff uses a distraction to disguise how slow they are, or that their customers are so dim-witted that they do not notice.

I am sure that I am probably a minority on this issue. The televisions keep popping up so someone is watching them. Some people are enjoying them. But, I am not one of them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I Believe About Salvation

Where to begin on this topic? It would be fairly easy to rely on the “evangelical subculture” and its history of the last 50 years. I could focus on the “Four Spiritual Laws” of Bill Bright and the success of his Campus Crusade for Christ. It would be pretty simple to regurgitate the words and works of a personal hero, Billy Graham, who has devoted his life to getting people to accept the message of salvation. There are literally millions of Christians in the world today because of the work and ministries of these two men.

It would be easy to follow the “Romans Road” or do an exposition of John 3.16 and any of those would be a good view of the doctrine of salvation. Let me give you the basics:
  • People are sinful and separated from God. Every human has the natural tendency to sin. We have inherited this from Adam. This is called “original sin.”
  • The only way to be reconciled to God is through the initiative of God. You and I are incapable of avoiding or eliminating sin. We need God to take action for our salvation.
  • God’s plan includes the gift of his son, Jesus Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have the opportunity to be “saved.” Through his death on the cross, he took our sins so that we could be forgiven.
  • As we commit to live for and with Jesus, we experience salvation in our own lives. This is a personal decision that each of us makes.

Historically speaking, the experience of “being saved” has been a part of the typical church and family experience. However, over the last 100 years or so, things have changed. In the early part of the last century camp meetings across the United States emphasized personal salvation, in a particular way. Altar calls were instituted for the first time. Mourner’s Benches were used for individuals to pray and grieve over their sins. The Sawdust Trail became a metaphor for repenting and turning to God.

In the last 50 years evangelicals have formalized these modifications. In many congregations today the “sinner’s prayer” is required for holding office or assuming any type of leadership. The assumption is that if a person does not repeat a sinner’s prayer, answer an altar call or jump through some other specified hoops, he cannot be truly Christian. I want to help bring a different perspective to this conversation.

I believe that salvation, the act of sinners being rescued and changed, is a completely sovereign work of God. That means that even if you answer an altar call, the saving comes from God. But, we cannot limit God to working only through the sinner’s prayer. It is possible, indeed probable, that God often works without the assistance of a specific set of words. God does not need a formula to save people.

I believe that there are occasions when people get saved without the benefit of a sinner’s prayer. When an individual is seeking truth, trying to live a “good life” and being influenced by God, she may find herself “saved” without ever making a conscious decision. God is bigger than my definition of salvation, or my requirements for it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Matthew 6.6

Life is filled with bluster and noise. All around us we hear nothing but noise. We see nothing but garish exhibitions of attention grabbing hyperbole. Everywhere I go I am bombarded with media. There are very few opportunities for a quiet conversation, let alone silent reflection or thought.

Many of us fall into a trap that perpetuates this problem. In the car we play the radio. At home the television is on. At work we listen to an ipod. We are constantly filling our world with voices, music, talk, noise.

It seems harmless enough, but consider the following.
  • When we fill our world with noise, it becomes harder to hear the voice of God. Be quiet and listen to what God is saying. If you haven't heard God speak to you, maybe you are not listening.
  • When we are being noisy, we prevent others from hearing God. Never become a distraction that keeps another from the presence of God.Here is an assignment: Find a place to be quiet with the Lord. Go there and be quiet.

Speak to God, but more importantly, let Him speak to you. A little quiet will make all the difference in the world.

PRAYER: Silence makes us uncomfortable, O Lord. We are not used to quiet. We do not know what to do with stillness. Allow us to be still in your presence. Speak to us and let us hear your voice. Do not let us be distracted, or to be a distraction. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aliens and Angels, part 4

One last thought aliens and angels...

By the way, if you haven't picked it up by now, I believe that sometimes humans call angelic encounters alien encounters. I think that sometimes we try to explain the unexplainable. For many people it is easier to believe that there is life on another planet than to believe that there is supernatural life.

Why do we always assume that aliens are smarter, more advanced than humans? If there are aliens on other planets, why must they be savvy, wise and established than we? Is it possible that we are the most advanced? Isn't it conceivable that we are closer to finding other life forms than they are to finding us?

It seems to me that science fiction always depicts the aliens as aggressive and superior in strength and intellect to we humans. We are constantly defending ourselves and living in fear. (Part of this may be explained as a natural balancing. We- established, wealthy, western-Europeans- have always been the more advanced and aggressive. We have enslaved, diseased and displaced numerous people groups. Perhaps our fear is a sort of emotional karma.)

I would like to propose that if there is life "out there" it is just as likely that we have the technological advantage. We may very well be the most advanced and superior of the millions of life forms in the universe. It makes a better story to be on the defense, but if we are imagining what may be, we need to be reasonable and find balance. The odds are not stacked against us. We may very well be #1.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Aliens and Angels, part 3

Recently, our space program sent another probe/ mission to Mars. The purpose of this mission is to discover whether or not there is or has ever been water on Mars. This, NASA believes, will help us to understand whether there has ever been life on Mars, or whether life may be sustainable there sometime in the future.

I have no problems with the space program. It is exceedingly interesting and often exciting to learn about space, planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, black holes, etc. I believe that we should learn as much about the world as we can. We should explore and experiment. We should study and learn. However, I do sense one great problem in this, and similar space expeditions.

We assume that there is a de facto connection between water and life. And, in fact, on earth that is true. Water is the one component that supports all life forms on earth. We no that if there is no water there is no life. But, it seems to me, that this is not necessarily so in all cases.
  • First of all, just because all the life forms that we are aware of require water, this does not mean that all life forms, even on earth, require water. It is possible that there are as yet undiscovered life forms that have no need for water. Not only that, it could be that there are some things that we assume are not life, but in reality are.
  • It could be that there are dimensions of life that are not discernible to humans. There could be "gasses" or vapors that are actually living beings.
  • We cannot assume that life on another planet must be confined to the limits we have on earth. If it takes water to have life on earth, we must realize that there may be entities that are living, but do not require water in other places.

It seems to me that we humans, particularly in the realm of science fiction, like to imagine alien life forms. However, our imaginations are puny in comparison to what we already know is real. We need to be able to imagine life in completely new and different ways. Then our explorations will be revolutionary, and productive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

O LORD, I have heard Your speech and was afraid;
O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years!
In the midst of the years make it known;
In wrath remember mercy.
Habakkuk 3.2

This passage is filled with important stuff for us to know and remember.

  • Listen to the voice of God.
  • Be filled with respect and fear toward God.
  • Pay attention to the work of God.
  • Do not take God's word and work for granted.

These are all great points, but as we continue our year of prayer, let's focus on a line right in the middle of this verse: "Revive your work in the midst of the years!" This is a heartfelt prayer to a God who desires to do a work.

Our American founding fathers, as well as many others then and now, were deists. That is, they had a belief in God, but to them God was unattainable. He was far away and relatively disinterested in the work of humans. Basically, desists believe that people are on their own. If you want something done, you need to do it yourself.

This is why prayer is seen as a course of last resort. If we cannot solve the problem ourselves, we will then turn to God for assistance. But our God is not at all like that. He is here. He is interested. He cares and loves each of us very much. When you and I neglect our relationship with the Lord, we turn away from what he wants to do in our lives. That is why today, and everyday, we should pray for God to revive his work!

PRAYER: Refresh us, Lord. Refresh our spirits that we may follow you with new vigor. Renew us, Father. Renew our minds that we may learn and know you more. Revive us, Holy Spirit. Revive us that we may ever live in your presence. Amen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Aliens and Angels, part 2

Last week I went with the family to see the Disney/Pixar movie WALL*E. As usual, I came away amazed at the animation (although I think I am now officially at animated movie saturation level). The story was excellent, if a little bit preachy. This is definitely not a movie for only children. In fact, it may prove to be completely unappealing to children altogether.

And although the movie is primarily about a robot who lives on earth after our planet has been abandoned by all the humans, I was struck by the humanness of the robots. In fact, I was reminded about the humanness of all aliens and robots in all movies that I have seen. It could be that we humans are so unimaginative that we cannot comprehend creatures without roundish heads and two eyes. There are always arm-like appendages on science fiction creatures. Why is this?

Aliens, and angels for that matter, probably bear little, if any resemblance to humans. Remember that any creature created was made by the same being who gave us the earth worm, the elephant and the duck billed platypus. Creatures from other planets do not have to look like us.

Take a trip to your local zoo. You deserve it. You have been working hard. Challenge yourself to stay away from the primates. They look pretty much like us, after all. Notice the diversity with which God created. Reptiles, fish, marsupials, birds, mammals are amazing in their differentness. That does not even take into account all the insects, microbes and plant life that we do not want to see at the zoo. So why must aliens look like us?

I'm not sure that I believe in "aliens," but I do believe in angels. Isn't it possible that alien encounters are really angelic encounters? And isn't it possible that there is life on other planets, or in other dimensions, that looks nothing like what we know?

I firmly believe that faith in God is not threatened by such consideration. I am encouraged to eliminate all the artificial limits that I have put on God. He can do anything, anywhere, any time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Aliens and Angels, part 1

I have been thinking a lot about aliens lately. Please do not think that I am one of those "trekkies." I am not. I enjoy Star Trek and Star Wars as much as the next guy, but I do not read science fiction. I do not even watch the NASA television station. I don't, as a general rule, think about UFOs, Roswell, Area 51 or alien autopsies. I am a normal guy who is aware of all these things, but takes them with a grain of salt.

However, I have been fascinated by one thought recently. It seems to me that usually Christian people (and church people in general) discount all stories about "close encounters" or alien abductions. For the most part we think that people who have these experiences are unbalanced. We seem to believe that we are the only ones in the universe. Oh sure, we believe in the angels and in demons and all that stuff, but we think that the only non-supernatural life in the universe is here on earth.

This is a problem because it makes some big assumptions that we really do not have the grounds to make. First of all, it gives humanity an importance that I do not believe can be justified in the Bible. I will grant you that humans are the highest life form on earth, but beyond that the Scriptures are silent. Why do we get so egotistical to think that God made us on this planet, and that is all?

It is completely possible that there are other galaxies with solar systems that can support life as we know it on earth. (This does not even take into account that there may be other forms of life that we cannot even comprehend.)

Remember that the story of the Fall includes the fall of Lucifer and his supporters. In fact, we can see in Genesis 6.2 that some angelic (sons of God) beings were marrying and reproducing with humans. It is completely possible that there are some angelic beings living on other planets even now. In this way of thinking, is it even possible that Cain did not marry his own sister, but an heavenly creature (cf. Genesis 4.17)?

One last thing: It is completely possible that UFO sightings and alien encounters are real. It could be that people, on occasion, get a glimpse of what heaven is like. Sometimes they may see angels (or others) who come near to earth.

Don't always assume that we are the only ones. And especially don't assume that those who have unusual experiences are crackpots.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably. Hebrews 13.18

I work really hard to do the right thing. I am always trying to be nice to people. I generally avoid sin and most of the temptations that many others are prone to. I do not drink, smoke or chew (and I don't date girls that do). I am not a gambler or a gossip. For the most part I have a clear conscience. I have a deep and sincere desire to live honorably.

And that is just what worries me. Just when I think that I am living above reproach, the enemy is poised for an attack. This just as true today as it as in the first century. We want to live a good, wholesome and holy life, but we are tempted to sin and we struggle. That is another reason we need to pray, and pray hard.

Do not assume that you will not fall into sin. Know that everyone has the same sin-nature. You and are liable to slip and sin. Pray that you can avoid all the evil in the world.

PRAYER: Oh God, our Father, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Keep our eyes focused on you, that we may avoid the distractions and pitfalls on the road of life. Keep us always in your care and protection. For yours is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Model Marriage

Christie Brinkley has been on television more in the last few days than she has been in the last 20 years. Where has she been? What has she been doing?

Oh, sure, there are those abdominal exercise machine info-mercials that she has been doing with Chuck Norris, but you know that's not what I mean. We have seen the lovely Christie going into court, coming out of court and talking about her time in court. The press is offering us Christie Brinkley as the misused and neglected wife in what appears to be sordid divorce proceeding.

There is no doubt that the marriage had problems. And I am fairly confident that it should end. There was extravagant use (abuse?) of pornography. There were affairs with teen-agers. Life was hard in the Cook- Brinkley house.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I have no sympathy with Peter Cook, Brinkley's soon to be ex-husband. For whatever reason he felt it necessary to spend thousands of dollars on pornography, with and without his wife. He also had an affair with an 18 year old girl and then paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep quiet about it. There is a fine line between adultery and prostitution, and an even finer line between an affair and child sexual abuse. No, this is man is not innocent.

However, let's not be too quick to paint Christie Brinkley as the victim. She has been an admitted participant in at least some of her husband's pornography viewing. Not only that, she is on her fourth divorce. I believe that there are times when people get in bad marriages and need to get out. I fully support those who have been mistreated and abused and their desire for freedom from maltreatment. But let's be very careful about calling someone a martyr or a heroine who has four failed marriages. This person needs to get some wisdom before her next trip down the aisle.

I know a couple who just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. I wish that they got as much attention as a flamboyant Hollywood couple's divorce.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I Believe About Miracles, Healings and Spiritual Gifts

To begin with, I realize that if you read this whole article, you may come to the conclusion that I am a little off-base. You might decide that I am a fanatic, or one of those “Jesus Freaks,” or a “holy roller.” Let me begin by saying that as far as those are negative connotations, I reject them. But if those designations are used as descriptions of belief or practice, I embrace them.

I believe that Jesus is the same now as he was in the New Testament. I believe that if he performed miracles and healings in the first century, then he can do it now. That means that if I were to negate signs and wonders today, I would have to reject resurrections, feedings, healings and more from the Bible. I am not prepared to do that. Hebrews 13.8 makes it very clear: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” If he is the same, it stands to reason that his works are the same.

But Jesus, in his teaching, went farther than that. He taught us that miracles would increase. In John 14.12 Jesus says, “Greater works than these he will do.” Is it really possible that you and I should expect God to work in miraculous ways? If that is the case, why haven’t we experienced this before now?

Here are a few answers to our “lack of the miraculous” situation.
  • We do not experience miracles because our enlightened minds do not allow for the miraculous. We believe that everything can be explained. If there is something that cannot be explained, we often dismiss it as a fiction. Consequently, we do not believe that God can do miracles.
  • We do not experience miracles because we were taught that miracles ended at the close of the New Testament. If we are not looking for miracles we will probably not see miracles. Many teachers have proclaimed that the age of miracles has ended.
  • We do not experience miracles because our wealth and science have convinced us that we no longer need miracles. A new prescription can heal me and my income assures me of a meal. Why do I need a miracle?
  • We do not experience miracles because we are comfortable with our predictable lives. A miracle will get us uncomfortably close to God and his power. We may be too intimidated for that.
  • We do not experience miracles because we have a need for control in our lives. Turning to God for help forces us to give up our authority and to turn to someone else for help.

A couple of cautions: Be careful that you do not seek miracles, but the miracle worker. Too many people get so enamored with the miraculous that they lose sight of God, the one who grants the healing. Although God does do miracles, signs, wonders and healings, the purpose of his power and working is to draw people to Jesus. He is not interested in more theatrics.

And remember that a miracle or a healing does not mean that you are somehow spiritually superior or more loved than someone else. An encounter with God is a blessing, not a competition. Remain humble and seek Jesus all the time, no matter what.