Thursday, July 31, 2014

Relax! It's Worse Than You Think

When we look at our public life and think we are worthless or don't match up, or when others see the person we are in public and treat us as not-good-enough ... stop and honestly think for a moment.

What if they ALSO knew your inner thoughts and feelings? If we could record all of your thoughts, daydreams and feelings and project them up on a jumbo-tron for people to gather and watch, would you want to be in the room? No way! None of us would.

Why not? Because as bad as we may feel or look on the outside, let's be honest, ... it gets much darker and uglier on the inside.

So, if I know this is true about me, and someone says (through word, implication, body language or behavior) something negative, insulting or offensive about me, then my response can honestly be, "You don't even know the half of it!" "You think I'm a jerk? Dude, you should have heard what I WANTED to say!" (Not that I should even be thinking it, but that is just further proof of my point that we don't measure up to any standard of "good" that we would like to claim for ourselves.)

So I don't measure up to the standards or expectations of others ... or even myself? So what? I DAILY fail and fall short of the standard of the Creator of the universe. Something is very very wrong in me. Something is broken. Something is flawed. I don't want the things I should want. I don't do the things I should do.

Have I let you down or offended you? Did I let myself down? Big deal, what's that compared to God, whom I let down, insult and defame on a regular basis? Despite my efforts to not do so. My Creator made me for a purpose, and I am broken and don't fulfill that purpose.

Wow, that's depressing. How does this possibly make me feel good?

I'm glad you asked.

However bad or low someone else makes me feel ... or I make myself feel ... I know that I deserve far worse and far more ridicule and scorn than I am getting. Especially from God. Because God doesn't give me what I deserve. Through Jesus Christ He gives me Grace and Mercy and Love and Peace. Not because I earned it or deserve it or have anything to offer Him in return. Simply because He's God.

And that's just how He is.

He gives Grace to the humble (James 4:6). But He opposes the proud. Pride is what puffs us up and wants a higher self-image than we deserve.

Someone insults or mocks me or depression wants to take me ... "Yeah, I know. You're right. I'm actually worse than you think (or even I realize), but I'm trying to be better. I'm not there yet, but God's working with me, and He loves me. ... Me! He loves ME! How crazy is that?!"

And knowing that despite it all, that He loves me enough to offer me grace and forgiveness I can find some peace ... knowing that while I may be flawed and broken now, one day I will be whole again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is Theology Practical?

You don't talk about politics and religion in polite company. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. The idea being that these are such devisive topics that it will quicly turn impolite. However, I would say that to never consider or discuss such important, life-affecting issues with at least close friends and family may be downright rude. Of course, if opinions were currency I would be considered wealthy and generous.

I once had a systematic theology book given to me titled "Practical Theology". It was sitting on my coffee table, and a friend commented something like "'Practical Theology', isn't that a contradiction?" I was floored. This was by no means a dimwitted, shallow-minded, surface level thinker. She was the sort to think things through and not shy from tough issues. So hearing her claim that a person's thoughts on God had no practical purpose was astonishing. Once I unleashed a rant on her stating the error of her ways (maybe not the wisest approach), she did back track a little and conceded some, but still, this has rolled around in my brain for years now.

However, I am understanding more and more where this idea comes from. We live in a bizaar type of cultural skitzophrenia where we buy into both naturalism and relativism at the same time.

Naturalism, usually taught through public education, claims that only what can be observed in the physical world is real and (in most cases) denies any non-natural, super-natural or metaphysical explanations to things. If such things do exist they are perceived as irrelevant.

Relativism on the other hand, usually gained through media/entertainment, is all about experience and feelings, claiming that we can't really know anything for sure so everything is true/good/etc. as long as we believe it is.

So we are trained in school that supernatural things don't matter (if they even exist), and trained by pop-culture to go with what we feel. "So God, if He even exists, is not something I feel like thinking about (you know with the judgment and morality thing), so therefore it doesn't matter because I choose what is important for me and besides I can't see Him anyway ... if He's even real."

Is it any wonder that even more deeply thinking people would consider the study of God as an impractical pursuit?

One of my favorite quotes is from AW Tozer in "Knowledge of the Holy" where he explains, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us," and "because we are the handiwork of God, it follows that all our problems and their solutions are theological."

There is no more practical question for human beings than what we believe about God, who He is, and who we are related to Him. That understanding will shape every other belief, choice and aspect of our lives. However, since He is both outside of nature and absolutely objective, this runs against the grain of both the naturalism and the relativism in which we culturally walk daily.

Our culture screams at us to not worry about or not waste our time with seeking God or thinking about theological things, meanwhile our heart whispers to us that we were made for something more than this world has to offer. As CS Lewis said, "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."

With that in mind, knowledge of God and related things (theology) becomes the most practical thing in our lives. That being the case, how could we NOT discuss this with others?

Friday, July 25, 2014

I'm a Selfish Jerk

Reposted from a year or so ago, but still a good thought.

So today I had to deal with some insurance and medical stuff for my daughter. Through some mess up or the other, the insurance will only speak with me and not my wife. While we are trying to get it changed, the process takes time. My daughter has a persistent rash and some other symptoms and is overdue for her 3 year checkup, so we are trying to get her in ASAP. Unfortunately, the new insurance had her down with a doctor who isn't taking new patients. I had to find a doctor who is taking new patients and accepts the insurance then call the insurance and get that set up and then call the doctor and make an appointment. They set the appointment for Monday, but my wife wanted in sooner, so I had to call to see about getting a sooner one, etc. etc.

My job allows me a small amount of freedom and flexibility. In the midst of all of this, I am at work trying to get work done but also have some school work that I would rather spend my “flexible” time doing. Long hold times, bureaucratic muck-ups, lost study opportunity and rude CSRs were all wearing on my already raw nerves. So where did my selfish and pride filled heart direct all that angst?

At my wife, of course.

Here I am working to pay the bills, studying to further my 'career', I have a sermon to write and errands to run of my own. I am busy doing good and worthy things. How dare she not be able to take time out of her day and take care of this! Doesn't she realize how busy I am?! ARGH!!!

Then that pesky Holy Spirit tapped me on my spiritual shoulder and reminded me that I am to love my wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25): He sacrificed Himself for her. My pregnant wife (who's “morning sickness” doesn't seem to know when morning is over) is home with a rather rambunctious and hyper toddler who's bum is itchy and allergies are in full swing. Throw on top of that the seemingly endless unpacking we are doing on top of trying to keep the house clean and maintaining some level of sanity.

And here I was, upset and frustrated because I had to use my 'precious time' dealing with aggravation and stress of doctors' offices and insurance providers. My selfishness was saying that what was needed was for my already-at-wits-end wife to be the one to deal with this mess and this stress and leave me to my cushy job and my stressful-but-highly-enjoyable school work. What a jerk!

No, I am happy that God allowed me to handle the mess and stress of dealing with overworked nurses and “I hate my life” customer service reps. Its those moments when we are able to say, “Here let me bear that for you” that we see real Grace and real Love lived out.

If my frustration and aggravation allowed in even some small way for my wife's day to be a little better …. thank you, Lord for allowing me to suffer through that.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

God and Suffering: What's the Point?

Note: This post is not meant to comfort and ease. It is an attempt to consider a usually not considered perspective.

If you've never heard of Dennis Prager, he's one of those radio talk show guys railing against this or that issue of the day. On politics, he's pretty solid, but his religious and spiritual views leave me flat. I find it hard to listen to people too often who's fundamental life-shaping principles are off, even if we do agree on most other things. One good thing about Dennis is that he will do an "Ultimate Issues Hour" where he addresses some major spiritual or life impacting issue. Kudos to Dennis. He will actually bring on people he disagrees with just to bring up the conversation and get people thinking.

Well, a while back he had on Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a best selling author, who has been described as “America’s rabbi.” He has a book out called "The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Suffering and Tragedy."

The whole basis of his book is that God does not want us to suffer, and therefore in the face of tragedies (like Sandy Hook) we should not tell people that God has an ultimate purpose or that their loved ones are "home now" with God or any other number of plattitudes we tend to offer. He said, on the program, that we shouldn't seek to find the good in a tragedy, but instead recognize that all suffering is evil and seek to end all suffering.

That's when it occurred to me that Shmuley has an idol problem. He has placed comfort and physical, earthly well-being above the holiness and glory of God.

God's main concern with our well-being is not our physical conformt or emotional satisfaction, but our spiritual condition, namely our righteousness (or our tremendous lack thereof).

Shmuley contends that God could easily find some way to teach us our lessons or get His points across without allowing suffering. But really, I think Shmuley misses the boat. Ending suffering is just simply not on God's top priority to-do list.

Suffering is a result of SIN, and it will end when everything is made new as explained in the book of Revelation. God's issue is with the root cause of suffering (sin) not how much of it we experience.

Oh, you need examples. Ok.

In John 11 Lazarus dies. Jesus KNOWS he is sick and will die. He purposely waits for Lazarus to die and THEN goes to Bethany. Read the story. Mary and Martha are definitely suffering. Not to mention the other mourners that are mentioned. And what about Lazarus? Any death causing illness could not have been pleasant to endure, especially one that took days to kill him. There is lots of suffering going on ... and Jesus could have spared them all if He would have just come sooner (actually, He is capable of long distance healing). But he didn't ... ON PURPOSE. The greater thing for everyone to experience was not a lack of suffering, but to witness that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah who held power over death.

In John 9, Jesus heals a man who had been born blind. A MAN... adult. So for several decades this guy ... and his parents ... had to suffer the hardships of blindness in 1st century Israel. The disciples of Jesus were debating about WHY the man was born blind, and Jesus' response ...? "that the works of God should be revealed in him."

That's it. All the suffering of this man's life, not to mention the hardships it put his family through, for decades, all so on this one day Jesus could display the power and mercy of God by healing him.

God has bigger concerns than our temporary, earthly comfort.

But Shmuley's a Jewish Rabbi, not a Christian. So let's go Old Testament.

Check out Numbers 21. The Israelites start bad mouthing Moses and God, so what does God do? Verse 6, "So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died." And that's not suffering He "allowed", God was the CAUSE of that suffering.

Have you read the book of Judges? God uses foreign nations to send judgment on His people. When a foreign power takes over (especially back then), they don't just take over the capital and hang out new flags. People (God's people) would have been killed, beaten, have their possessions taken, and let's not even dwell on what the conquering people might do with the women. And this pattern repeated over and over.

In Exodus, the plagues that God sends on Egypt.

God is not concerned about our comfort level here on earth. We have a far bigger problem: SIN.

The perfect, righteous, holy, Creator of the universe looks at mankind and sees a hard-hearted group of rebels. We, by nature, are sinful, treacherous, usurpers in open and defiant rebellion against God. The Bible says we are "storing up wrath" (Romans 2:5), and one day God is going to settle this once and for all.

If what it takes to get the point across to us hard-headed stubborn rebels is some suffering ... then suffering is what God will give us.

And it is possible that He also just simply allows suffering to occur as the natural consequence of sin, just so that we get the picture of how serious and damaging sin is. Sin is our problem, not our suffering.

Jesus didn't come to end our suffering. He came to forgive our sin. And one day when He establishes His kingdom and puts and end to sin ... the suffering will be gone, too.

But I will agree with Shmuley on one point. People who are suffering do not need our platitudes ... they need our compassion. In John 11 when Jesus goes to bethany to raise Lazarus, He doesn't give Mary and Martha a sermon on divine purpose and the Messiah's reign over death. He doesn't explain how God has a higher purpose or that Lazarus is home now. He weeps with them.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Science, Religion, and the 'Preferences of the Human Heart'

I have a special event coming up at my church addressing the scientific validity of Darwinian Evolution. As I have been thinking on this topic and meandering around cyberspace looking at blogs and YouTube videos, I came across this quote:

"The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart." ~Walter Lippmann

Now, I have no idea who Walter Lippmann is, and I have very little interest in finding out. This quote, however, jumped out at me as a great example of how the naturalistic, humanistic, and secularistic philosophies have infected our culture. I have observed more and more that, even among people who claim to be religious or even Christian, the starting point for their assumptions and view of the world is not Christ or God. It is from a secular mindset.

This quote says that "science" rejects the belief that the forces behind nature are contingent upon "the preferences of the human heart." 

First, "science" doesn't accept or reject anything. People do. Science is a method of investigating the world (and not the only one). It may also describe the body of knowledge gained by that method, but that "knowledge" is itself subjective and at the whim of the scientists.

Second, I would completely agree with Mr. Lippmann that the forces of nature are not contingent upon the preferences of the human heart. And he might be surprised to know that the Bible would agree with Him as well. The forces of nature are contingent upon the will of the Sovereign Creator who made them. The preferences of human hearts do not enter into it.

Oddly enough Mr. Lippmann seems to have gotten things backwards. Religion points to God as the force behind nature. It is science which, as a body of knowledge and theories, is based on human understanding. It is largely influenced by the biases and philosophies of the human scientist making those theories and conclusions. Biases and philosophies which are "contingent upon the preferences of the human heart."

Between science and religion (especially Biblical Christianity), if one can be said to be based on the preferences of the human heart, it is most definitely science.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Generation Led Astray

The above link was shared by a friend on Facebook. It is all about how the younger generations are deluded narcissists. They have everything handed to them and everything in their lives are constructed to communicate how awesome they are. I remember as a tutor in both high school and college settings, I would see students making passing grades, but they could not even perform or articulate the fundamentals of a subject. I saw college students who couldn't read or do simple division but somehow graduated. In the article above, the author mentions Facebook where anything negative can be edited, blocked, ignored or otherwise ejected from life. Video games allow us to feel the high of (false) accomplishment, and reality TV show us “ordinary” people living extraordinary lives. All of this creates the idea that life is about us and that we are better/greater/smarter than we really are. Younger generations are being brought up separated from the reality of the inherent unfairness and hardships of life.

As a youth pastor, this is troubling for me on several fronts. Not only does such a delusion create negative effects that will ripple through society for many years to come, but a people convinced of their own (supposedly) inherent goodness are blinded to their own brokenness and need for a Savior.

On a purely psychological side of things, we have students who are being taught on every front that life is about them and that the point of life is happiness and pleasure. When this view of the world collides with reality, we get depression, anxiety, and fear that manifests itself is a myriad of ways from cutting to drugs to bitterness to bullying and many much more tragic behaviors. And popular culture's answer to these things is a need for more self-esteem, usually in the construction of an even bigger illusion of being OK. And so further down the spiral we go.

Doubly frustrating for someone trying to minister to teenagers is the fact that its not just the secular media giving them this idea. Even much of Christian music and teaching, though well intended, seems to focus on the love of God without giving much, if any, mention to the brokenness and sinfulness of people. So as I am trying to teach the bible and communicate the Gospel, I am being undermined, not only by secular influences, but also other Christian “authorities”. So that even the “good christian” kids who are actually trying to follow after Jesus, have this bombardment of YOU-centered ideas.

I can communicate to my students that Jesus died in order to glorify God. That His mercy and love and grace could be shown. But then they turn on the radio and hear that he “thought of me, above all” or other songs that focus and center on US instead of God. Or DJs that constantly pour forth syrupy sweet platitudes about how wonderful you are and how much God loves you. Yes, He loves us, but that's because He's God. That's who He is. Not because we are so wonderful.

The most tragic part of this is that, as the bible says, “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) Pride is essentially that frame of mind that builds us up in our own thinking and makes more of us than we really are. To believe such a thing is to build your life on a lie. Like the foolish man who build his house on the sand (Matthew 7) the foundation of your own greatness WILL wear and erode away by life and reality. It may happen slowly over time or in one tragic event, but eventually you are left alone and broken with nothing to rely on, to shelter you from the storms of life, because you put your hope in your own goodness, and that just wasn't enough to get the job done.

The truth, what the bible teaches, is that we are broken, we are corrupt, we are fallen and sinful. Dirty and hopelessly wicked before the awesome and eternal holiness and righteousness of God, who created us. But that brokenness and sinfulness can be “fixed”. We can be healed. We can be reconciled and made whole, but ONLY through the forgiveness and grace paid for by Jesus on the cross and the new life extended to us through the resurrection.

Ephesians 2:8, “It is by grace that you have been saved through faith.”

That faith is expressed in repentance, a turning away of our sin and our old way of thinking and living. We turn from all the junk the world's way of thinking has taught us and we run after God and His way of life.

Here is the real tragedy in the self-centered, “I'm so awesome” mentality that pervades the younger generations: A person who believes they are so great and that life is about them and their happiness will not repent of sins that they do not believe they have in order to receive forgiveness that they do not believe they need from a God that they believe just wants to take the fun out a life that they mistaken believe is all about them.

Not only have we created a culture that says life is about being happy and feeling good, but we have created a society built on the idea that we should not only feel good, but that we should view ourselves as inherently good, and anything that says otherwise is evil.

In such an environment and with such a view of the world, God's grace is either ignored as unnecessary or accepted as given. After all, “why wouldn't He love me? I'm awesome!”

And even if multitudes of Americans are able to medicate and numb away the pain of living in a broken world with a broken heart and live a moderately “happy” life, I fear that they will only have accomplished feeling good about themselves as they merrily skip down the broad road that leads to ultimate and final separation from God.