Monday, May 28, 2012

Jesus Wears Rocket Boots

Last night as I was putting my son to bed, we were tackling all the hard questions in life. My son asked a question about the Bible that I couldn't answer, so I simply told him that some things in the Bible we can't explain. They are miracles and we have to take them on faith that they really happened. I said, "take Jesus walking on water. We don't know how he did that, just that he did."

"Oh! I know," my son quickly interrupted. "Jesus was wearing rocket boots, like Iron Man!"

Ok, maybe we can explain everything in the Bible. I suppose when the sun stood still for Joshua, Superman was flying around the Earth so fast that it stopped turning. (It worked in the movie, anyway)

A child's imagination allows for robot armor, light sabers, men who turn green when angry, and talking animals. There's room in their little minds to accept raising people from the dead, driving out evil spirits, and.. talking animals. Maybe that's what Jesus meant when he said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Mark 10:15)

As we grow older, we also grow more cynical and skeptical. It is harder to accept Jesus walking on water; and even if we can make that logical leap, no way do we allow for Peter to do the same. Feeding 5000 with just a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread? Turning water into wine? These are harder to accept. Driving out demons can be explained away with psychology. We no longer have the faith of a little child.

Yet we spend billions to watch "The Avengers" while eagerly awaiting the next "Batman" and "Spiderman" release and speculating online about what, exactly, "Prometheus" is all about. We go in to the latest blockbusters willing to suspend belief for two hours. And then expect the Sunday morning sermon to be preached from science and history books.

I'm not saying we  should check our brain at the door to our churches. But rather we should allow for our imaginations to do just what God intended them to do- grasp at the unknown, wonder in awe at God's power and creativity, and maybe in some way be inspired to share our unique insights through art, music, or prose.

If we can be child-like watching our childhood heroes on the big screen, why can't we be child-like, as Jesus commanded, learning about our ultimate hero in Jesus? Miracles cannot be explained. If they could, they wouldn't be miracles. And as I had to explain to my son, rocket boots weren't yet invented when Jesus was alive. But I suppose that would have been a miracle too.

This is my first time joining my friend Duane Scott's blog-carnival "unwrapping His promises". Click the button below for more.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Pride of Superman

You have to have a certain amount of ego to be an elite athlete. You need to have confidence in yourself; that when you are holding the ball, you are better than the person standing across from you. Many celebrity athletes show this ego not only on the court or field, but also in their lives as they build for themselves personal empires made up of posses, fast cars, big houses and expensive clothes purchased with the staggering amounts of money these athletes make.

But sometimes the ego can grow a little too large, believing that not only are you better than the player across from you, but also your teammates next to you or even the coach trying to lead you.
No, I'm not talking about Kobe Bryant. I'm talking about Dwight Howard. (I promised he'd get his post, so here it is.) I admit I'm not much of a fan professional basketball, preferring college hoops. But when it comes to the playoffs, there are few things more exciting than the NBA. It's too bad the Orlando Magic didn't last long this postseason.

It's not that I'm necessarily a Magic fan, but I've been interested in Dwight Howard's career ever since I read about his Christian faith back when he was still a teenage phenom. So it made me sad when he got one of the Magic cheerleaders pregnant a couple of years ago. And it tore my heart when he started fighting with his coach, Stan Van Gundy earlier this year.

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

I would argue that Van Gundy's job coaching the Magic the last couple of seasons has been anything but a joy and more than a burden. So maybe it's a relief that the Magic fired him on Monday. Yet despite trying to appease their superman superstar, Dwight Howard still won't commit to returning to Orlando next season.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Back in 2004, Howard hoped his play on the court would "raise the name of God within the league and throughout the world." He prayed about being the number one pick in the NBA draft. And planned on using the hardwood as his mission field. But the past two seasons have been anything but an effective Christian witness as the bickering through the media reached a crecendo earlier this year once word got out that Howard wanted Van Gundy fired, an accusation Howard would vehemently deny.

"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'" (Hebrews 13:5)

I hope Howard isn't trying to get out of Orlando in search of greener pastures, or just more green. As a teenager, before receiving his first multi-million dollar contract, Howard declared, "I think I can make as much money or even more than LeBron. But it will be up to God for that to happen... I'm not trying to give glory for myself. I'm trying to give glory for Him." I haven't followed this story that closely, only knowing what the sports gossip blogosphere has been reporting, but everything I gather is that Howard simply wants a better environment to win. So is winning everything? Is that really what God wants from Howard? Or is it ultimately what Howard just wants for himself?

"whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cog in the Machine

When asked what he does for a living, a coworker of mine usually replies, "I'm part of the bureaucracy." A few years ago Monster had an advertisement where kids described what they wanted to be when they grow up. "I want to claw my way up to middle management" was one reply, followed by "I want to be a yes-man," "yes-woman," "yes, sir!"

Maybe you're stuck in a rut at your job and you feel just like this. Part of the bureaucracy, a cog in the machine. I doubt many of us aspired to this and we wouldn't describe our dream job this way. And so we come home exhausted, defeated, or burned out. We long for the weekends when we can literally take a break from the world and rest before we have to get in the car and go do it again.

Doesn't sound ideal, does it? Have you ever looked at church the same way? Is it a drudgery to participate as you take repeated glances at your watch to see if anything has changed? This description might not be your first thought, but I bet you can relate. Just like if you're stuck in a rut work, if you're stuck at church maybe it's because you're not doing what you want to. Or better yet, what you're meant to.

Isn't that how it goes? You go blind staring at your computer screen at work knowing you were meant for more than this. Isn't that what piles on to this feeling of frustration? Church is no different; as we fight off falling asleep during a sermon we think there must be more than this.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers [leadership roles], to prepare God’s people for works of service [service roles], so that the body of Christ may be built each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:11-12, 16) American church (TM) culture has convinced us that it is the few in front of the church, up on the pulpit, who are responsible for everything while the rest of us sit back and drop a couple of bucks in the tray to pay them. But the Biblical model of the church is not like this.

"As each part does it's work." Just like your job, well just like anything really, if you feel valued and are participating as part of something bigger you are more likely to derive satisfaction from your work. So we all have roles and it is just a matter of identifying what those roles are. Paul gives us samples here in Ephesians, but also in Romans 12 and twice in 1 Corinthians 12.

Of course, frustration also comes when we mis-identify our roles. At our jobs, we might think we'd be just right for that promotion but when we finally rise up, it proves to be too much for us. There's this concept called the "Peter Principle" where one can only rise to the level of their own incompetence. What that means is that theoretically, you keep getting promoted until you can no longer do your job (and your weaknesses are exposed) at which point you're stuck.

Other times it may not be the rise in position that we lust after, but a different position all together. Yet it might just be right where you're at is where you're supposed to be. This too can be frustrating. And it is no different at church. While there isn't really any means of promotion, we can all feel like we should be doing something else.

For me, personally, I've been frustrated at church because I have mis-identified my role. I've called myself "teacher" and on this blog "writer". I've considered that maybe I'm a "prophet" in the context of being inspired by the Holy Spirit to give a message in a specific context. But so long as I've been a disciple of Jesus people have told me, "you have the gift of administration!" and for the last twelve years I've been resisting that fact.

Back to work, the coworker I mentioned earlier and I have spent the last 4-5 weeks pushing paper, writing page after page, reviewing every word to make sure every i was dotted and t crossed. And as tedious as that has been, I've been good at it. Recently, I put together and hosted a meeting that was very involved and took up most of my time. I complained about how busy I was, but deep inside I could not deny that I actually liked it.

I've been on my church's board of directors for the last six years. Some meetings go better than others, but when I am honest with myself I see that this is what I am good at. I am good at organization (which is ironic since I am so unorganized): putting people where they need to be to be most successful (at work) and bring the most glory to God (at church). I prefer to work behind the scenes and while I crave the spotlight for the sake of my own ego, I am not comfortable there. I'm an "idea guy" and spend a lot of time thinking about how-tos. This is who I am and I need to embrace that.

After this last big meeting we had a board meeting. And all this hit me. My gift is administration. I paused and prayed about it, thanking God for making me just like he did. And I felt a peace enter into me that has been missing for some time. I realized that much of my stress and frustration came from trying to be someone I am not. Peace came from thanking God for who I am. I am a cog in God's great machine. And I am ok with that.

So what are you gifts? What do you aspire to?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

More than Mom

Before all the flowers and cards last Sunday, there was a mom who loved you first. A mother who loved you before you could even open your eyes. Who rocked you to sleep. Who wiped away your early tears. A loving mom who sealed every Band-Aid with a kiss and the comforting words that everything was going to be all right. Who stayed up late waiting for you to come home. Who did countless loads of your filthy laundry, even after you moved away. A mom who loves you so much, you could never call enough.

Believe it or not, God loves you more than that.

Who can fathom the immeasurable extent of God's love? It is so far above what our thoughts can grasp that it feels like every slip-up and every stumble should diminish our value in His eyes. Yet that couldn't be any further from the truth.

God's love is more than we can imagine and we have so much more value than we ever feel. The closest we can come to relating to that level of love, that degree of sacrifice, is that of a parent. So I think of my mom and how much she sacrificed for my sake. I think of how much she has had to forgive me. And I think of how there is nothing I can do that would separate me from her love. And God loves me more than mom.

This post is part of a blog carnival hosted by my friend Peter Pollock. Stop over at his place for more blogs posts on "more".

Friday, May 11, 2012

Either Or

You cannot be compassionate without accepting.
You cannot serve without enabling.
You cannot forgive without being tolerant.
You cannot challenge without judging.
You cannot preach the Gospel without condemning.
You cannot promote something without opposing something else.
Religion divides, politics unites under causes.
Politics divides, religion unites under causes.
You cannot follow Jesus without voting _________

Do any of these seem unreasonable to you? They all sound perfectly logical and have just enough truth to believe. But they are all lies that Satan has used to have us argue that either politics and religion are one in the same or that one cannot have anything to do with the other. And we buy into the lies and divide our churches and our society along lines drawn by politics.

I was browsing through a couple of websites last night, from each side of the political aisle, both claiming to be Christian. I could not believe the hate and divisiveness that permeated every topic, every discussion. Each side assumes that you cannot be for a Social Justice gospel without voting a certain way, nor can you be against immorality in our culture without voting a certain way. Is it possible to  be compassionate yet still hold a high standard of morality?

One side argues that Jesus hung out with sinners, never preached about politics, and had in his small group of apostles an insurrectionist and a swindler. Oh and of course, his first miracle involved alcohol.

The other side argues that Jesus preached morality and religious purity and called his followers to repentance.

Why can't both be true? So long as politics gives us a choice of either/or between two candidates, we assume the same applies to our religion. Jesus didn't preach about politics even though he lived under an empire that promoted infanticide and embraced homosexuality because he cared more about how we live than how we vote. Any one of the Gospel writers could have added commentary to fit their political views but they didn't. God gave his Law to the Israelites not to make them morally superior, but to separate them from the world around them. So following Christ is about how we live, separate from the world's values; not about how we vote or what social cause we embrace.

But this does not mean to throw away your politics, rather it is a call to not put your faith in it. Instead put your politics into action:
  • Are you pro-life? Then love the unwed mother, accept her when her family rejects her.
  • Are you for the sanctity of marriage? Then remember the commands to keep the marriage bed pure, the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13, that marriage is as much about love as it is respect and that divorce is as much, if not more, a threat to the traditional family as gay marriage.
  • Do you preach against the immorality in our culture? Then preach against every sin, from gossip to gluttony, with the same amount of bile and venom you spew against the gay community.
  • Do you embrace and accept homosexuals? Then remember that although Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery he commanded her to leave her life of sin.
  • Are you compassionate towards the downtrodden, doing what you can to heal? Recall Jesus' words to the man healed by the pool to stop sinning or something worse may happen.
  • Do you believe that our nation is a Christian nation? Then remember that you are citizens of Christ's Kingdom first and that the first command of the Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in was to repent.
  • Remember that someone's station in life may have come about because of sin, yet it is an opportunity for the work of God to be displayed.
  • And before you judge the speck in another's eye, remember the plank in your own.
Unlike politics, following Jesus is not an either/or proposition; it is all or nothing.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Global Reach

Last weekend I attended the Antelope Valley Christian Writers' Conference. This was my fourth or fifth time attending, and while the pointers and tips are helpful, the fruit in attending is really found in the fellowship and encouragement to keep plugging away. Do I have a manuscript that I'm shopping? No. Am I taking baby-steps by submitting work to magazines and anthologies? No. Am I actively building my platform through social media? No, not really. So it would be easy to look at my "progress" and be discouraged and maybe even quit. So I need the swift kick in the butt at a forum such as this to continue on.

Meanwhile, last night my small group study met to discuss the fourth chapter of David Platt's Radical, titled "The Great Why of God". David has many versions of this succinct summary of God's purpose for our lives: God's extravagant grace is poured out on us so that his extravagant glory may be known in every nation. Put another way, God blesses us so that we can use those blessings to bring him Glory here, there, and everywhere (Acts 1:8). Or, God saves us to make his salvation known to the whole world. (Psalm 67)

Coincidentally (there are no coincidences with the Holy Spirit!) one of the keynotes last weekend was titled, "Until the Whole World Hears" (which tempted me to re-post this entry from last year rather than taking the time to churn out a new post this morning). The main point of this lesson was that through writing, God has given me the opportunity to reach the entire world for his glory. That sounds lofty, absent a bestseller. But through the Internet and social media, this is really true. Last night I used the example of my Twitter account. I am followed, or I follow, at least one person from every continent on this globe sans Antarctica. In my stream last night I had updates from literally all over the world. That may not be that big of a deal, since how many Twitter followers actually "know" me, but the truth is that through Twitter I have had conversations with an Elder in London, a missionary in Thailand, and a campus ministry in Indonesia. I also shared about when one of my friends got married a couple of weeks ago to a woman he met on the mission field, his wedding ceremony was Skyped all over the world. Another of my good friends here Skypes every Sunday service to his mother in Argentina.

Now I don't know if this blog will be read by anyone outside of the town I live in or beyond my immediate family, but if I don't write then no one will read it. In this world-wide web, I may be a whisper in a din or one among a multitude of bloggers, but I still have worldwide impact through the power of my words. And God only knows where that will lead me. One of my good blogger-buddies, Duane Scott, simply by sponsoring a child, will be travelling to Zimbabwe to write about his experience and the needs of the children there. Another of my friends, Jason Stasyszen, used his blog platform to raise money to adopt a child from Japan. And coincidentally (what did I say about the Holy Spirit?) one of the contacts I made this weekend, a pastor in Chicago named Dan Darling, is working on a book with another blogger buddy, Dan King. And what was Dan's first book? The Unlikely Missionary.

Until the whole world hears. And it is a small world, after all.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Flashback Friday: Gladiators

It's a little early for one of my flashbacks, only going back two weeks, but it is worth revisiting after the tragedy that ended Junior Seau's life. This was a post on our lust for violence in sports. Was Seau another casualty? It's too soon to say, but our appetite for the hardest hit has not been satisfied.

"You will never give your approval to those foolish racing and throwing feats, and yet more foolish leapings. You will never find pleasure in injurious or useless exhibitions of strength. Certainly you will not regard with approval the strivings after an artificial body that aim at surpassing the Creator's work." -Tertullain (c. 197)

"In the chariot games, who does not shudder at the madness of the people brawling among themselves?" -Mark Minucius Felix (c. 200)

"Yet they call these "sports" in which human blood is shed!" -Lactantius (c. 304-313)

*Quotes from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David Bercot, ed. More thoughtful insight from our Church Fathers can be found at this blog post from the Vatopaidi Greek Orthodox Monastery.

"Are you entertained?" -Maximus (Gladiator, 2000)

As I write, I'm watching Sportscenter on ESPN as they discuss the upcoming NFL draft. Ironically right after debating the characters and checkered pasts of prospective draftees and whether that will affect their draft positions and potential career they continue the story of the "bounties" that the New Orleans Saints paid out to their players based on how vicious the hit and/or the star status of their victim. The NFL came down strong on the Saints, suspending just about everyone in the front office and coaching staff and the question now is not if, but how hard, the NFL will penalize the players involved [those sentences have recently come down: a year suspension for a linebacker, 3-5 games for two others. More penalties may still come]. Meanwhile we cheer on convicted felons (Michael Vick, Ray Lewis, Pacman Jones, et al) and alleged felons (Cam Newton) so long as they help our fantasy football team.

Two days ago [April 21] in the NHL playoffs, Phoenix Coyote winger Raffi Torres laid out the Chicago Blackhawks Marian Hossa, who had to be taken off the ice in a stretcher. Torres is suspended indefinitely [now reduced to 25 games and is under appeal] (his third suspension of the year). Media outlets like USA Today question if the on-ice violence has skated out of control. (Since the start of the playoffs, the NHL has suspended 8 players and fined two more, not including the pending judgment on Torres.) The Governor General of Canada (Canadian proxy to Queen Elizabeth II, yes I had to look that up), David Johnston, calls the violence this season anti-Canadian and undermines Canadian culture. Serious words considering that hockey flows through Canadian blood.

As aghast as we make ourselves out to be over these trends, our eyes are glued to ESPN's "Top Plays" which highlight the hardest cross-check in hockey or tackle in football. We were just as complicit in baseball's steroid scandal, as we drooled over highlights of "back-to-back jacks!" "walk-offs" and "bombs" made more frequent by the use of performing enhancing substances. And our money lines the pockets of basketball millionaires who complain about playing for certain coaches (Dwight Howard, who has his own post coming), having to feed their family (Latrell Sprewell and many others), or not getting paid to play in the Olympics (Dwyane Wade) as we wear their jerseys, buy their shoes, and pay tickets to watch.

At what point are we going to pay to watch "athletes" try to kill each other in the arena as was the case in ancient Rome? Oh wait, the popularity of boxing, "the gentleman's sport" or the "sport of kings", is being usurped by Mixed Martial Arts. (interestingly it is argued that the popularity of professional boxing began to wane when in nationally telivised bouts a year apart two fighters died. Benny Paret went into a coma after sustaining 29 straight hits, with 18 blows coming in six seconds, from Emile Griffith before the referee called the fight in 1962. A year later when Davey Moore lost to Sugar Ramos by knockout, he hit his neck on the bottom rope as he fell damaging his brain stem.)

And it's not even isolated to sports. Cross "The Running Man" with "Battle Royale" and you get this year's biggest box-office hit, "The Hunger Games".

So where's the line? How violent do sports need to become to turn us away? How much more can we tolerate overbearing parents fighting at Little League games before we're disgusted to the point of not participating? How much more corruption do we need to see in amateur athletics (I'm looking at you college football) before we say enough is enough and turn of the major networks who pay out billions to broadcast athletes that don't get paid.

I can't cast stones as I'm as guilty as anyone. But the recent headlines have caused me to pause and reflect on what I value and why I'm such a sports addict. Truth be told, I haven't had cable or satellite in nearly ten years. I always say if I were to subscribe, it would be for sports. As I've noticed my interest wane just by not watching as frequently, I wonder if it wasn't for the internet if I'd even care at all. But I still want my fix. Last year I swore off college football over the absurdity of conference realignment. But I couldn't stay away. I've lost interest in the NFL as I no longer spend all day Sunday watching games. Yet I participated in a fantasy football league last year. When is enough going to be enough? I'm not asking you, I am asking myself. Am I entertained?

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Homeless Jesus

"Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Matthew 8:20

A headline over the weekend caught my attention. It was a story about how off-duty LAPD officers were helping a cat rescue organization to save dozens of stray cats on Skid Row. The irony of this heart-warming story is that living among these cats are hundreds of homeless people. And while these volunteers are trying to find caring and loving homes for the kittens they save, I wonder if they have the same care and concern in their hearts for the people living there on the street. Interestingly, the news left out the part about the church who had been taking care of the cats as a secondary concern while ministering to the homeless. That church can't afford its rent and will have to move, leaving the cats. Sure there are other churches, other ministries, and other volunteer organizations in and around Skid Row to take up the slack meeting the needs of the people there, but it seemed like a glaring omission in the media coverage.

That news got my wheels turning and reminded me how just a weekend before I bought a new mattress for our master bed. It was past time to replace our second-hand mattress that my wife and I have been sleeping on ever since we were married, so we took advantage of a deal at Costco. As I was loading the mattress to the top of my SUV many commented on how I was going to have a great night's sleep that night. Feeling pretty good about myself, I pulled out of the parking lot and got stuck at a red light. There, at the intersection, was a homeless man asking for change. I felt embarrassed giving him a relative pittance while we talked about the quality of sleep and the comfort of my new bed. He wasn't critical at all, in fact he could have been any one of the other shoppers at Costco wishing me well, but the circumstances from where he was relating hit me to my very core. Here I was, taking home a new mattress, talking about quality of sleep to a guy who that night would be sleeping under a bush.

And the wheels in my head kept turning, reminding me of a date I had with my wife down in downtown LA a few months ago. After a delicious dinner, the group we were with walked down to a trendy pastry bakery/restaurant. The place was packed and the line for dessert went out the door. The restaurant side of the house was bustling with Gen-X-ers dressed to be seen. But just outside the door were two men, a father and a son, who were wearing the same clothes they've been wearing for weeks, if not months. They weren't pushy or overbearing to ask for change. In fact they just sat right outside the door quietly, carrying on a conversation with whomever would listen. After our expensive dinner and debaucherous dessert, it was literally the least we could do to buy these guys some coffee. While our friends waited, we handed the cups over and engaged in a brief conversation. After retuning to our group, one of our friends told us, "oh, you guys are so sweet." Sad, my heart responded that sweet had nothing to do with it as I had to fight back the criticism that my wife and I appeared to be the only two who cared.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my best friends who leads a church in Bakersfield, inspired by "freegans", shared how they have partnered with a local Trader Joes to provide food to one of the local food banks. Trader Joes has a bad reputation for throwing out food that is perfectly good, but not "pretty enough" to put on their shelves or that hit the sell-by date. So he and his wife started "dumpster diving" and then approached Trader Joes to start working together to provide that perfectly good food to the homeless. Twice a week they fill several shopping carts with food and either take it to the bank or distribute it first-hand in the community.

Another irony hit me as my church started to get more involved with our local shelter. As we surveyed their needs, they told us they more than enough volunteers to help with their soup kitchen but they still had a huge need there. They said they had no volunteers to help on Wednesdays and Sundays. Why? Because most, if not all, of their volunteers were from churches. Something about religion that God accepts comes to mind...

Do you know what else is ironic? Jesus was homeless. The Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father, walked this earth with nothing. Consider the scripture above as you read the account of the Samaritan woman in John 4. From her point of view, Jesus was no different than a homeless beggar asking for change at an intersection. Think of that the next time you're stuck at a red light.

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Luke 12:48

This post is part of a blog carnival hosted by my good friend, Peter Pollock. Visit his site for more entries on the topic of "much".