Thursday, January 29, 2009

What I Believe... About People

  • I believe that at their very core, people are bad. The precedent for this belief comes from the Bible, but there is very little in my experience or observation that would dispute this belief. If left to their own devices, people would devolve into deeper and deeper levels of selfishness, degradation, immorality, evil and sin. Ultimately, individuals would rise up against one another and threaten the very existence of humanity.
  • I believe that people have unlimited potential. It is from people that have received Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. People have given us the cure for polio. I believe that in the future there will be cures for cancer, for HIV/AIDS. I think that there will be new, greater, more beautiful art and literature. There is no end to what is possible for people.
  • I believe that, as bad as people might be, they can be fixed or redeemed. If this were not so, there would be no hope for humanity. I could not be positive about human potential if I did not believe that we could all be fixed. Not everyone will be fixed. There will always be those of us who prefer to live to and for ourselves. However, we can know that there is hope.
  • I believe that all people deserve a chance. Jesus taught that would should be willing to forgive people an infinite number of times. We must always be optimistic about how people behave and their potential to change. If I believe that they can change, I must give them time, space and understanding to allow that change.
  • I believe that all people should care for and love all other people. It is not easy (none of these beliefs is) but we should be understanding, patient and caring for others. Encourage others to move toward the change that is possible.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Programs I'd Like to Try

I have always tried to be a person who thinks creatively. For the most part, I think that I have succeeded. I am always looking for new ways to do old things. New routes to get to old places. New things to try. I like to go to new restaurants, listen to new music and try new television programs. I believe that if no one else has tried something, that maybe I should. If someone else has had success with a particular thing, I want to try it, but in my own way.

I am not exactly a maverick, but I want to be new, exciting and different. I think that originality and creativity cause excitement and growth. Well, I have some ideas that some day I will try. These are things that I am not doing now, or have not tried yet just because there is not enough time. But some day there will be. These three things are specifically designed to reach new people with the message of Jesus. (There are a hundred other new things that I would like to try just for the sake of trying them.)
  • Movie Club. It has been said that modern theology is being created in your local movie house. I would love to organize a group to go to movies together about once a month. After the movie the group would retire to a coffee shop or ice cream parlor to discuss the film, and to specifically address the spiritual implications of it.
  • Book Group. As a person who loves reading, and who loves to talk about what he is reading, I would love to have a book discussion group that focuses on reading "secular" books, but with an eye toward spiritual content. This group would be open to all, but would give Christians a chance to share their particular perspective on modern literature.
  • Dinner Parties. This program would have to be a somewhat closed group. We would eat at different homes, restaurants or have progressive dinners. I believe that 'real' things happen as people eat together. Lives can be changed in this program, and quickly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Three Kings: My Trip to Memphis

A few weeks ago I traveled with my family to Memphis, Tennessee. I had mixed feelings about the trip. I wanted to go to the place where rock and roll was born, but the trip was right after Christmas and I always get stressed out around the holidays. I wanted to go, but I did not want to go. I was conflicted. However, I was committed and so we went. Ultimately I had a great time. And I had a good time because of the three "kings" of Memphis.

Memphis is the home of Elvis, and so we had to go to Graceland. Graceland was the home of Elvis and the site of his death. It is billed as a mansion, but it did not strike me as such. It is a good-sized home with a quirky 70's decor, but there was nothing exceptional about the home or even the grounds. We also visited the Sun Recording Studio. It was at Sun that Rock and Roll was born. Elvis recorded there. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were all discovered there. Roy Orbison and Ike Turner recorded there. I felt like I was in a very special place when I stood where Elvis sang "That's Alright" and Johnny Cash sang "Folsom Prison Blues." 

But I was quickly reminded of how people are always looking for idols, for 'kings.' Rock and Roll has become a religion for many people. People like Elvis serve as gods in this secular religion. I was struck by how great it is to love rock and roll music, but to not need it as a source of meaning. I have a different King.

While in Memphis we spent some time on Beale Street. They say that Beale Street is the top tourist destination in Tennessee. I was surprised by this. It is just a few blocks long and lined with night clubs, bars and gift shops. On one end of the street is the home W.C. Handy, on the other there is a statue of Elvis across the street from BB King's Blues Club. BB King serves as the patriarch of Beale Street, the blues scene and all of Memphis. 

BB King, the second "king" of Memphis made me think of the blues. Often people look to other people, to music, to substances for help in solving their problems. Good news for me is that I do not need any of these solutions. There is help. There is an answer.

I did not get to see the third "king." The Lorraine Motel in Memphis was the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I didn't get to see Martin Luther King, but I saw where he gave his life for his cause. There is a museum at that site now. There is also a shrine to Dr. King.

That site gave me courage. I was encouraged to stand for my convictions. To make a difference in the world. To be willing to sacrifice. 

What a trip. I enjoyed it, completely. I may have to go again.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Weekly Prayer Thought

Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.  Luke 6.28

I was noticing the other day how grumpy I was. In fact, I was down right negative. I like to think of myself as a positive and hopeful person, but I was in some kind of rut. I could not think of anything good about anything, or anyone. People were mean. They were uncaring. They were egotistical. They were stupid. I was not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. They were all bad in my book.

That is when I came across this passage. What conviction! No matter how bad people are; no matter how hopeless; no matter how annoying, I am to pray for them. Even if they hate me... still I am to pray for them.

But let me take this challenge- and it is a challenge- one step further. If we are to pray for others, even when we are not happy about it, we should pray that they would be happy. Pray that your enemies would be blessed. Pray for those you do not like. Pray for your boss. Pray for your teachers. Pray for everyone who treats you poorly. 

When you do this two things will happen. First of all, you will start to see a change in the person you are praying for. God will answer your prayers and people will become better. Secondly, your attitude will change. You will begin to feel the love of God toward others, even those you do not like.

Prayer: It is hard to love some people, Lord. It is even hard to pray for them. But I understand that you are bigger than my prejudices. You want to do a great work in me and in others. Begin to do that today. Bless those who I have problems with. Forgive me when I am hateful or bitter. Forgive me and my enemies and help us to be reconciled. Amen.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Talking to a friend the other day I said something that I had never even thought about before. But upon reflection, it turns out to be very true. Everything in this life is against you. Everyone you know (and even those that you don't) are working to bring you down.

This is a sad statement, but unfortunately I am afraid that history, and my own experience, bear this out. To begin with, the historic foundation of the Christian faith asserts that all people are essentially sinners. People are evil. People sin. And not only that, they want to sin. (There are many passages that support this. Begin with Romans 3.10, 23; 6.23.) The normal spiritual state of people is that they sin.

In the most basic terms we can see this in our desire for self-preservation. Generally speaking, humans are selfish. We want to look out for ourselves, take care of ourselves and protect ourselves. This selfishness flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus who said that we should think of ourselves last. We are to put the needs and interests of others above our own. Whenever we do not think of others first, we sin.

We see this self-interest at work every day. It is easy to point it out in others, but honesty compels us to confess to our own selfishness as well. We are more concerned with us, than with them.

And all of that brings us to our premise. Everyone is more concerned about themselves and their needs than they are about you. It is a harsh reality, but one we must consider. But this causes us a great amount of confusion. Taking it seriously will cause us conflict. For if I am to survive in this world, I must look out for myself. After all, no one else is looking out for me. But when I look out for my own needs I only exacerbate the problem.

So here is a simple solution for beginning the process of making the world a nicer place.
  1. Care about other people. Whether they care for you or not, you should care for them.
  2. Be careful to not get yourself run-over. Take care of your own needs because no one else will.
  3. Encourage others to think about making things better.
  4. Consciously make decisions based on more criteria than your own needs.
  5. Help others who are hurting or down-trodden.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Small Minds, Big Hearts (Be Kind Rewind)

I am sure that no one has ever thought of Jack Black as a leading man- type. It would be a stretch to even consider him a thinking-man's actor. We are used to seeing Jack Black starring in silly, slap-stick, slacker roles like Nacho Libre and School of Rock. Occasionally, we are surprised to see him in something like The Holiday. But our expectation is that a Jack Black film will be silly, harmless, thoughtless fun. Turn on the DVD and turn off the brain.

But, that is not the case with Be Kind Rewind. It not only surprised me, it has become one of my favorite films. Black plays Jerry Gerber, the classic conspiracy theorist/ political antagonist. Everyone is out to get him. The government is bad. Big Brother is everywhere. Jerry sees a problem around every corner. One night, while trying to sabotage an offending electrical station, Jerry became magnetized. He did not realize this until the video tapes in his friend's store started coming up blank.

Never mind that the store only carries VHS tapes. Never mind that Jerry's friend, Mike, played by Mos Def, is not competent to run the store. Never mind that Jerry is magnetized. You must go with this movie for awhile. To keep the store in business, Jerry and Mike begin to "Swede" the movies. They undertake the process of making their own low-budget productions of the movies that are damaged.

Ultimately the sweded versions of the tapes become much more popular than the originals. The store does a great business with this bootleg undertaking until the movie industry and its lawyers discover this infraction. You see, Jerry and Mike are infringing on copyrights by making their movies. All their tapes are destroyed and the store seems doomed.

I will not ruin any more of the story because everyone should watch this movie. There is a plan to save the business, which turns out to be the only way to save the neighborhood. Jerry and Mike are instrumental in the plan to save them both.

What strikes me about this film is that the two protagonists are idiots. There are no attempts to make them seem to be underestimated. They are simpletons through and through. What we quickly learn, however, is that no matter how simple a person may be, he/she can make a difference. Intelligence and complicated thinking are good, but not the most important things in life. 

Learn to care about people. Be committed to what is important. Work with other people. Value the thoughts, judgements and personalities of others, even if they are different from your own. Love everyone. Stay positive, even in the face of adversity.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A New Day

So I read a bulletin on MySpace questioning whether or not Barack Obama was the best man to be President. It was a thoughtful entry written by a high school student who wondered if perhaps Obama would not have won if he was not an African-American. Here is a part of my response to that young patriot.

I believe that Obama would have won this election anyway for at least three reasons.
  1. We are suffering from Bush overload. There have just been too many mistakes, misjudgments and missteps in the last eight years. You may be too young to remember (although I am sure you know this), Bush never had a strong mandate from the electorate. He lost the popular vote in 2000 and barely won in 2004. Because USA was never fully behind Bush, his policies were scrutinized more closely. Between the two wars, the economy and the erosion of civil rights, coupled with the increase in executive authority, almost any decent democrat would have won this election.
  2. Barack Obama is won of the most inspiring and eloquent speakers we have seen in a long time. He causes people to believe that we can be a better place, a better people, a better country. No politician has done this since Robert Kennedy in 1968. (I don't remember that, but I have read about him.) If Obama was a white man with the same gifts and beliefs, I think he would have won the election.
  3. He did get a lot of votes simply because he was black. Our problem, as middle-class white people, is that we have no clue how significant that is for African-Americans. We have always had candidates who looked, acted and talked just like us. Obama's victory was as large as it was largely because he became a symbol for African-Americans and minorities all across America.
I think that most people who voted for Obama truly believe that he is the best man for the job. These other factors support that idea.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Practices of the Christian Faith: Worship

True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the

Father is seeking such to worship Him. John 4.23


One of the key practices, or disciplines, of the Christian faith is worship. It is essential for the life of every Christian, but at the same time there are a number of misconceptions about worship. Let’s tackle those misconceptions first.

  • Worship is not necessary for those who are truly in touch with God. This may be true in the most academic sense. However, most of us do not live in a theoretical world. We are in real places with real problems and temptations. Worship is crucial for us as we seek to know Christ and grow in him.
  • Worship can only happen in a church. How wrong this is. We should be worshiping God every day, and in every place we are.
  • Worship is an obligation that Christians must fulfill. Too many of us have a sense that Christianity is all about rules and regulations. We think that we are required to obey, required to live a certain way. We need to begin to view worship not as a rigid observance of an ancient ritual, but as a living event that refreshes and renews us.
  • Worship is something that keeps us faithful to God with no benefits. This is a wide spread, but seldom discussed, opinion. Open your eyes! There are many benefits to corporate worship: fellowship with other Christians, insight into God’s word and plan, inspiration for life.
  • Worship is a dead exercise that has no meaning for contemporary people. I believe that in many cases this may be true. However, if it is true it is because of the attitudes and expectations of the worshiper. God certainly does not want worship to be lifeless or meaningless.


But if there are that many things that are wrong with our attitudes toward worship, what is right about it? What can we do? What can we expect from worship? How should we approach worship?

  • We should worship God as true worshipers. That is, we need to come to Christ with open, honest, expectant hearts and attitudes.
  • We should worship God in spirit. This means that worship is not an exercise of the mind. It requires a commitment of the heart. There are mysteries involved in worship.
  • We should worship God in truth. Integrity of heart and mind are essential for worship. Do not approach God with an eye toward impressing someone else.


I hope this is helping you get a picture of what worship can be- of what it ought to be. But let me leave you with a couple of questions. Ask yourself these questions regularly. Keep a log of how you answer. “Did God show up in worship?” “Did I notice?” I believe that if you were alone in worship, it was not God’s fault. The Scripture says that God is seeking worshipers. If we come in spirit and truth, he will meet us.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Weekly Prayer Thought

If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. Matthew 18.19

I read the other day that 12% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. ( Now I have some serious questions about whether or not a person can truly be an atheist, but I thought the total, 12%, seemed very high. That means that more than one out of every 10 people does not believe in God. This does not take into account the number of people who believe in the god of some other religion. What this boils down to is that there are a lot of people in this country, with a lot of different beliefs.

Then a friend gave me an article about a new study on prayer being conducted at Indiana University at South Bend. This study claims that over 90% of Americans say that they engage in prayer. ( The first and most obvious problem is that there are at least 2% of the people who pray, but do not believe in God. But more importantly, we can gain great comfort and encouragement from knowing that most people are praying.

Since we pray-ers are the overwhelming majority in this country, we should...
  • Not be embarrassed about talking about prayer.
  • Offer to pray for co-workers, friends and family members. After all, they pray too.
  • Be willing to ask others to pray for us. They are praying already. We should get them on our team.
  • Work together to form prayer teams. We gain encouragement and discipline when we work together on a project. Why should prayer be any different?
  • Expect God to do great things because of our prayers.

So pray. Pray with gusto. Pray with confidence.

Prayer: It is great to know that we are not alone, Lord. We have you with us all the time, but what comfort to know that so many people are praying. Help us to fulfill our responsibilities to you and to others, and to allow others to pray for our needs. Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Do or Done?

The biggest problem with religion- all religion and all religions- is that they are focused on rules and regulations. We are constantly being reminded of what we can and cannot do. We are confronted with laws, commands, statutes, regulations and codes. It is enough to make your head hurt. And mine does.

This is a difficulty because no matter how good you are at following rules, eventually you are going to mess up. You will falter. There will be a violation, a discovery of the violation and eventually there will be punishment. You see, we are not perfect. At our best, we struggle with desires and wishes that will hurt ourselves and others. No matter how much we try, no matter how committed we are, we will violate one of the "do's" or one of the "don'ts".

I believe that Christianity is different, however. There are rules and expectations in the Christian faith, but they are less important than the central figure of the story. Jesus had an understanding of the imperfections of humans. He knew that we were going to sin. He knows even now when we sin. But the Christian faith (it is even hard to call it a religion at this point), is centered not on what we do or do not do. It is focused on what has already been accomplished by Jesus.

You see, there are consequences for our actions. Sins must be answered for. Jesus fixed it so that he would answer for our sins. His work provides forgiveness for you and I. This means that the importance of Christianity is found in our relationship with God through Christ, rather than an adherence to a legal code. When I am in relationship with God he knows my attitudes, my heart, my priorities.

I can know that I am in good standing with God not because of my faithful obedience, but because of what Jesus has done, and continues to do, for me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Visitor

What a glorious surprise this movie is! Don't Miss It. One of the 10 best. I laughed. I cried. I loved it. Okay, I am probably over-selling this movie, but it was really enjoyable. I thought I was watching one movie, and then it turned into a completely different movie. But I liked both films.

The movie begins with a lonely, depressed, widowed professor, played to perfection by Richard Jenkins, trying to fill his time. He has tried writing, music lessons, staring into space, but nothing has worked. Finally, he is assigned to attend a conference in New York City. Fortunately he keeps an apartment in the city, although he has not been there for many months, since the death of his wife. 

When he arrives he is shocked to find that there is a young couple living in his apartment. They are not exactly squatters; after all, they are paying rent to a mysterious man. But they definitely do not belong. After considering kicking the intruders out, the professor decides to let them stay. The three quickly become friendly and emotionally attached to one another.

The fly in the ointment is that the couple in the apartment are foreigners. He is from Syria. She is from Senegal. The cultures all clash, but everyone learns, grows and benefits from the experience. We sense that the professor is beginning to recover from his grief. The reticent Senegalese girlfriend is slow to come around, but she soon learns to appreciate her new host and his ways as well.

I will not give away what happens next, except to say that the young couple are not only foreign, they are in the USA illegally. There are complications. Watch it to find out what happens. You won't be disappointed.

One question that is never answered, but constantly asked is, "Who is the visitor?" The professor cannot be the visitor, for it is his home, right? But we see that Tarek, his Syrian drummer friend, becomes a host, guide and friend for him. Zaineb, the girlfriend, seems the most uncomfortable, but she quickly becomes cook to the group. Her art and cooking provide stability and a gathering place for everyone else. 

I believe that in this movie, like in life, everyone is a visitor. The question for us is, will we serve and welcome the visitors around us? Will we look for those who are lonely or grieving? Will we care for and take in the homeless? Will you and I provide a place for visitors?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Weekly Prayer Thought

Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. Luke 21.36

I just came through an unusual period in my life. (Maybe I'm still in it.) It is not necessarily spiritual laziness, but I would at least call it lethargy. I have kept up with my regular disciplines- Scripture reading, prayer, meditation, journaling- but there has not been a lot of pizazz in my walk with Christ. It has been a long time since I have had an "eureka" moment. You know what that means. A eureka moment happens when you receive some revolutionary new insight or revelation. It has been a long time since I have been to the proverbial mountaintop.

Although I am spiritually healthy, I would maybe describe my spiritual life, my relationship with God, as blah. That is why this passage is such a warning to me (and maybe to you too). Jesus is teaching his disciples- all of us- to always be on the alert. We must always be preparing and prepared for the work of God in our lives or the voice of God in our hearts.

There are several things that can cause us troubles here.
  • Sometimes we get distracted and lose our focus on the Lord.
  • At other times there are obstacles that keep us from a proper relationship with God.
  • There are always temptations that try to interfere and draw us away from Christ.
  • There are occasions when I am "too busy" to be bothered by God.
  • I have known people (and sometimes it happens to me) who simply get too discouraged to even think about Jesus.

Watch and pray. Be prepared. Do not be discouraged by temptation or evil. Stay the course. Focus on Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, you are good to us, even when we are not watching. Help us to be more vigilant, more focused, more committed to you and your word to us. May we not be discouraged, but always do your will. Amen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Small Things

Mother Teresa once said, "We can do no great things, only small things done with great love."

Read that again. Make sure you got it. The woman who became famous for doing small things with great love said that it is impossible for an individual to do any great things. I resist this idea, but I think that she is right. I want to do something big and lasting, and I want to do it today, right now. I want to make a big, fast difference. Mother Teresa is messing with my plans.

And now, on Epiphany, I am reminded that what God did was a small thing. Jesus, God incarnate, came as a baby in an insignificant village. And yet, that small thing has changed the world in huge ways.

So for now, for this year, let's take some steps to do some small things to change the world.
  • Our small things must be incremental. We cannot walk across the room until we take one step. We cannot walk across the country until we walk across the room. Do not be discouraged by the big picture. Visualize the first goal in the process. Start with one small thing and then celebrate that victory. Then take another incremental step. Mother Teresa's ministry began by helping one person.
  • We must be persistent in doing our small things. We need to keep going, even if we meet resistance, discouragement or even failure. Great things will not be accomplished by those who give up too easily.
  • Finally, we must take our small steps consistently. It is not enough to work at it for a few days and then take a couple of weeks off. We must be consistent in our work to have any kind of positive influence at all.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Reading Plan 2009

Last year was a complete failure as far as my reading life is concerned. In an earlier post I discussed the limited amount of time I gave to reading in 2008. There were too many distractions, too many limitations, too much stuff, and I was too lazy. 2009 will be different.

I am setting some goals for reading in this year. As with all my goals, I know that these are too lofty. I will not accomplish all these, but I will get some of them done. This year will be a better reading year than last year. I am sure of that. I will make sure of that.

In 2009:
  • I will read one book on prayer each month of the year.
  • I will read one book from the classics each month of the year.
  • I will try to keep up to date with current literature and read some popular titles.
  • I will read the New Living Translation of the Bible.
  • I will read fewer magazines and newspapers and more books.
  • My goal is to read 50 books this year.

It's a tall order, but I think I can do it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

At Risk of Sounding Weird

I do not want to sound creepy, overly-mystical or too "spiritual," but sometimes I get amazed at how things happen. I do not believe in coincidences, so that must mean that God is at work. Consider the following events that have happened in the last few days.
  • While traveling with my family, we got to Memphis, Tennessee safely.
  • Through some unusual circumstances (not coincidences) we were able to see all of Graceland for only $13. That's right. All of us got to see all of Graceland for about 10% of the normal cost.
  • On one evening two of us were able to have dinner and go bowling for no cost.

Tonight is the topper though. We heard that there was bad weather coming in at home, and we were driving. We were a little nervous, but on the way. However, about half way into the trip our car started vibrating and we heard a loud pop. A little while longer there was another pop and more vibration. We had to call a tow truck. When we got new tires for our trip, the tire shop did not tighten the lug nuts on the front driver's side. We lost two lug pins and the other three nuts were loose.

By the time we got that accomplished, we had to stop in a hotel. The people at my churches were willing to cover for me for Sunday morning. I am very blessed to have people that I can not only count on, but who will not be upset about taking care of things. That in itself is a great feeling. Tomorrow morning we will get those pins replaced and be on our way home. Finally. And God will get the glory for keeping us safe.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolutions 2009

It's a new year and that means- for me, anyway- a new set of resolutions. Each year I work toward doing a better job at being a human. I try to improve myself in some way(s). I think that I am pretty honest about my efforts, though. I know that every year I make too many resolutions. I should work on keeping it simple and only resolve one thing. (That would be a great resolution for next year.) Because of this, it is almost always impossible for me to fulfill or achieve my resolutions.

I am moving closer to a reasonable plan. This year there are only five resolutions. If everything goes well I should be able to accomplish them. We will just have to see.

One other thing, it's still early in the year. This should be considered a first draft. I may change, add to, or delete some resolutions. Let the reader beware.
  • In 2009 I will read the New Living Translation of the Bible.
  • In 2009 I will lose 24 pounds and get in better shape. (I think this is my first- ever weight and health related resolution.)
  • In 2009 I will learn how to record and post podcasts, and start to do it.
  • In 2009 I will write my book on prayer (whether I can get it published or not).
  • In 2009 I will copy- by hand- Ruth, Titus and the Sermon of the Mount- from the Bible.