Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I Cry

I know it's not the manly thing to do, but I'll write it out in black and white (or green and dark green) -- I tend to tear up at certain times. One of those times is every time I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. Yeah, a cartoon. But there's something about the simplicity of it all. I'm reasonably sure I watched this show when it first aired back in 1965. I would have been four years old at the time. So maybe there's a sense of nostalgia to it as well.

But it's not the kids tasting snowflakes that does it to me. It's not Lucy trying to label Charlie Brown's fear that puts the tear in my eye. The pathetic three-branch Christmas tree doesn't affect me either. It isn't even the kids dancing at Christmas play practice -- although I particularly enjoy Shermy dancing "The Sleepwalk" and Violet doing some bizarre kind of shadow boxing/twist movement.

But when Charlie Brown is ridiculed for bringing that all-but-bare twig back to practice, he turns to Linus and says, "I guess you're right, Linus. I shouldn't have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about."

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

Linus steps up and answers happily, "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about."

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"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'."

Linus then turns, walks back to Charlie Brown and plainly says,

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Posted by Picasa

And that's all it takes. Every time he says it, I get all choked up.

A little of my reaction could be because of the little crack in Linus' voice and the fact that it was a real child reading the lines. But I think it's the pure simple message that even a child can see. Christmas isn't about the materialistic orgy of buying and wrapping and baking and eating. Lost in the mountain of cotton-ball snow, pine needles, gift receipts, glittery cards, flashing lights and red-nosed reindeer is the hope of all humanity cloaked in the skin of a newborn babe.

Charles Schultz made anti-commercialism the theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas. That was 1965. Let's just consider how much more the world has drifted away from the true message of Christmas in those forty years. Even the word "Christmas" is frowned upon by an increasingly secular society. That's enough to make a person cry. The good tidings of great joy really are for all people, yet so few come to the stable to worship and adore Him.

Still the simple message from the mouth of little Linus Van Pelt remains. Christmas is all about God taking on humanity to live the perfect life which we can not live, then offering His righteousness to us. And the fact that this basic truth is a visible pearl within the oyster of the secular holiday season brings a tear of awe and gratitude to my eye.

Glory to God in the highest!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Moving Lightshow

Looking to get into the holiday spirit? How about a nice Christmas light display? (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Kevin at Short Attention Span.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Life Ain't Fair!

Over at I'm Not Crunchy!, Alice posed this question, "What do you think Jesus was more concerned about, freedom or equality?"

My answer was, "Neither":

We are inherently equal so far as our rights go. Yet Jesus wasn't so concerned about different social ranks - He taught us to come to Him from wherever we are. This isn't our real home anyway. Take a look at the issue of slavery. Jesus didn't free the slaves, nor did He consider them as lesser people. Those were not His concerns. Jesus said His mission was to seek and to save the lost. That came first. From that point, His emphasis was upon compassion, love and following Him to avoid judgment for our sins.
I've been thinking about that whole quesion over the past week. Freedom and equality -- what part do they have in God's Kingdom?

I think the key comes in defining our terms. Typically we think of freedom in the world's terms. We have freedom of religion and freedom of speech and all the others. We define equality as all at least having the same opportunities to succeed, if not all having the same thing to begin with. But that is such worldly thinking; or should I say, that's such non-Christian thinking. As I stated to Alice, Jesus' mission had little to do with freedom of association or the right to bear arms. He did not come to do away with social classes on this earth, but that seems to be a complaint of some who discount the claims of Jesus Christ.

The existance of evil is pointed to as proof of God being either false or impotent. Of course that is dealt with when we realize that God saves us from evil, not that He prevents it all from happening. But related to that objection is the idea of fairness. Certainly a God as described in the Bible would want everyone to be equal -- to possess the same amounts materially and inherently. Wouldn't that be what a God of love would desire? How does a good God who loves everyone and wants the best for everyone allow some to be filthy rich and others to be dirt poor? Or in short, why isn't life fair?

Let's get back to definitions. According to the dictionary, among the many meanings of fair the ones which concern this argument are:

1. Being in accordance with relative merit or significance: She wanted to receive her fair share of the proceeds.
2. Consistent with rules, logic, or ethics: a fair tactic.
Anybody who has lived more than a few minutes recognizes that not only is life not fair, it is also highly illogical (as Mr. Spock would put it). But then again, aren't the rules of logic man-made? Logic is all about reasoning. Ethics deal in morality, but again from man's perspective. And the relative merit or significance of our own concerns differs greatly from God's perspective to our own.

So the unfairness of life is something which is perceived by man, but not necessarily shared by God. I can watch TV and see Bill Gates, who is infintely richer than me and claim it's unfair. I can see Tim McGraw and see someone much more talented and whine that's it's not fair. I can note President Bush who is much more powerful, Brian Urlacher who is much stronger and physics researchers who are much smarter and a whole host of others who have what I would like to have.

Then I can watch and see the people of New Orleans, still trying to decide what to do with their ruined homes and possessions. I can learn about the people in Africa who are fighting a ton of diseases. And I can look around me and notice those who have run-down homes or no homes at all. Then there are the weak and sick, those who are unable to work or walk or speak or read. And I understand that this isn't fair from the world's perspective either. This also calms my cries of "Unfair!" a bit in regards to my own deficiencies. That's the thing about our blessings -- we tend to act like the things we want are much more important than the things we already have.

It's obvious that life isn't fair. We don't all have the same size bank account. Even socialism can't accomplish that without severe problems. We also are not given the same talents. Writing skills, math skills, constuction skills, artistic skills, physical skills -- we are not given equal amounts. Generally speaking, I wouldn't take my taxes to a plumber! The thing is, God tells us that this is going to be the case. He acknowledges this right up front. Jesus even told a story about three servants who were each given different amounts to take care of for their master. Worldly fairness just does not correspond with God's idea of fairness.

God wants us to use what He has given us. Those things which look so good to us from afar can often be handicaps to our relationship with Him, and to our happiness in general. Equality isn't the key. Our own perception of fairness isn't the key. It's being faithful with what we've been given.

In the same way, freedom is a laughable concept when you look at things from a Biblical worldview. We celebrate our freedom to do this and freedom to do that, but God knows that we are only free if we've been set free by Jesus Christ. Unless that happens, we are slaves to sin. Most people would deny this fact, but they'd be sadly mistaken. Just as the alcoholic claims she can quit "anytime" but lacks the strength to do it, we can't quit our sinful behavior on our own because we lack that strength. Freedom from sin is only through Christ, and even then we find ourselves creeping back toward the shackles when we think we can get away with it. What wretches we are!

If I find myself smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I have the freedom to tread water, swim the backstroke or the breast stroke or the butterfly. But no matter which I choose, I'm never going to make it to shore. I lack the strength. I have to be rescued or I have no hope. Our earthly freedoms are the same way. Unless the Truth sets us free, our earthly freedoms do us as much good as the freedom to do the side stroke or the Australian crawl.

Life ain't fair. That's apparent. We all possess different amounts of freedom, talents and material things. However, eternal life isn't fair either. God offers that to anyone -- absolutely anyone -- provided that "anyone" is willing to acknowledge the need for a Savior and accept the gift of grace and mercy. Forgiveness. It's not for those who earn it. It's not for those who deserve it. Because none of us do. And I'll take that unfairness any day.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Good Reads - 11/27/05

As you find yourself coming out of your turkey-eating, obsessive-shopping haze, how about a few things to help you clear your head? I've stumbled across some good stuff over the weekend.

Like this post from Teresa at Restoration Station comparing the problems she has had with her own won to the attitude our heavenly Father has toward us.

Feel like taking on pop culture? How about this post at Culture Watch where Douglas Groothuis correctly calls Oprah Winfrey a false prophet? He references Chuck Colson's commentary on the same topic. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Phil at Every Thought Captive.)

Phil at Pyromaniac puts out a great observational post about engaging postmodernists in conversation. The 'maniac does a great job of reminding us how their ground rules are stacked against anyone convinced of an opinion.

And if you've finished part 1 of Christian Carnival #97, try part 2 now posted at Thought Renewal.

Friday, November 25, 2005

OK, why turkey?

Like most good Americans, yesterday I found myself bellied up to a table filled with mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and of course the star of the show, the turkey. Please understand that if you didn't experience the same meal I'm not calling you a bad American, per se -- just one with poor Thanksgiving meal habits! How can you toss a platter of ham on the table and call it Thanksgiving dinner? Or lamb chops? Or venison? Isn't there only one way to celebrate all that God has given to us? There sure is. It's by serving the one true representative meat.

Alright, I'm obviously carrying the illustration a little too far. Or am I? Serving turkey on Thanksgiving Day is a tradition in most homes. Sure, there's a good chance one of these ignorant birds was on a platter at the Pilgrim celebration. but so was pheasant. Why did turkey become a tradition to the extent where some merely refer to the day as Turkey Day?

Certainly a good size turkey will work to feed a large family. Jamming about fifteen to sixteen adults around a big table and then taking another dozen kids pushing them up to the smaller and more rickety "kids' table" then trying to pass out cheeseburgers or spaghetti just isn't as practical. One big bird will serve the whole assembled clan and allow for a couple of day's worth of sandwiches on top of that. Yet yesterday, I sat down with my wife, three kids and three other relatives for a turkey dinner. That's right, eight of us tried to devour a fifteen pound bird. A lasagne may have been more practical, but turkey is the Thanksgiving tradition.

We get incredibly bound to our traditions. We get romantic notions of "the way things used to be" which often color our outlook on the way things truly are. In this Associated Press article about the changes in the American South, we read about Vernon Yates and his concern about the changes in his town of Cary, North Carolina.

Nearly surrounded by pricey subdivisions, the cinderblock Yates Grocery and Farm Supply sells neither anymore. As if things weren't bad enough, style maven Martha Stewart has chosen this Raleigh suburb to build a signature neighborhood of houses designed after her homes in Maine and New York. Holding court near a potbellied stove, the 69-year-old man in the suspenders and NASCAR shirt laments that his old customers have been replaced by fast-talking, SUV-driving Northerners who don't seem to be able to read a STOP sign. ''It's all gone,'' Yates, pausing for another spit of tobacco juice, says of the Southern town of his youth. ''Everything is completely different from what it used to be.''

How quickly traditions can vanish and how traumatic it can be for those who equate "the way things use to be" with "the way things are supposed to be." According to sociologists, that attitude itself is a kind of tradition which is slowly dying off. George Barna writes in his book, "Revolution",
Change is a natural, positive, and irreplaceable part of growth. Leaders often remind us that what got us where we are is not the same stuff that will get us where we want to go, so we must change. Psychologists remind us that repeating the same behaviors merely generates the same outcomes, and therefore precludes rather than produces positive change. In other words, to grow, we must purposefully alter our routines and approaches. And the Bible is equally clear in telling us that God did not send Jesus to die so we might be comfortable and complacent, but so we might die to self, pick up our cross, and follow the way of the Master.

What's more, Barna shares that the older generations -- the Baby Boomers and the Builders -- are losing their power in society. That power is being seized by two younger generations who embrace constant change and innovation. Thus, the traditional is society will soon be lost. It won't be long before, as Mr. Yates put it, "Everything is completely different than it used to be." But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Barna seems to say it's a good thing. But just look at the pain it's going to cause. The institutional church already holds a very tight grip on tradition. We tend to stick to what has worked in the past, even though our definition of "what has worked" doesn't always square with reality. Too many people in the church live by the motto, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but don't see the cracks in the walls.

To return to my turkey analogy, many people seem to claim that having ham for Thanksgiving dinner is wrong. Pecan pie instead of pumpkin? You must be a heretic! They foam at the mouth as they cling to the bowl of cranberry sauce as if their very lives depended on holding on.

I sure see a lot of this attitude in the church today -- in my own congregation, in other congregations, and in Christians I meet on the street. Some live their lives as if everything rested on the foundation of tradition rather than the foundation of the Gospel itself. Collect the offering in a different manner? It's wrong. Chairs instead of pews? Dishonoring to God. Choruses instead of hymns? Heresy. After all, the previous generations cut their teeth on hymns and pews and offering plates so it must be the method approved by God. Of course that argument falls apart when you read that much of the hymnal is younger than the Constitution, but that can be conveniently swept under the rug. I'm still waiting for some real traditionalists to bring back chanting and speaking Biblical Greek.

The sticking point is determining the line between tradition and Bible. Frankly most traditionalists aren't willing to explore those implications. It's much easier to gorge themselves with a turkey dinner and condemn all those with ham breath.

I love traditions. And at the holidays, I participate in a lot of them. The Advent candle will be lit this Sunday. The tree will be decorated and the Christmas program will be rehearsed. Yet the meaning of the season is not diminished without any of these things. While traditions are not evil, placing them in a position of supreme importance is. A quick glance at the four Gospels will tell us what Jesus thought about elevating tradition to the importance of Scripture. Yet still we are afraid to let go. Is it because we refuse to give up a comfortable life and a complacent faith to actually pick up our crosses to follow Him? I'm afraid in too many cases, it is.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

"It's all about me!"

For a laugh, head to and watch this TV record offer parody. It's a good reminder that worship is about God and not about us. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Todd at Monday Morning Insight.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Fast or Famine?

It's a holiday week with a lot of things going on. In the blogosphere, I've noticed that Dan from Cerulean Sanctum has called for The Blogout for the Kingdom, where he urges bloggers to lay off the blog for this week and instead go out and do the work of the Kingdom instead of just writing about it. A few have taken Dan's suggestion. I commend all of those people for doing so. Dan wrote that he was going to handwrite "letters to folks who have blessed my walk with Christ, thanking them for what they poured into me." That's cool. I hope that the other bloggers who participate will experience the thrill of being used in a great way for the Kingdom.

I don't want to appear as if I'm ridiculing or belittling the efforts of any of these bloggers, because I'm not. However I'm hoping that those people and every single one of us can take it to the next step.

I've struggled with a weight problem for most of my life. I know a thing or two about diets. That doesn't mean I can stay on one, but I know all about 'em! What I've found is that for a diet to work, a person has to change his lifestyle permanently. A year of dieting followed by a year of not dieting will usually turn out badly. It's the yo-yo diet effect. The weight goes down, the weight comes up. You get the picture.

I've known people who will fast as a quick diet. Take two days off from eating. Then on the third day, they head to the nearest smorgasbord. Obviously that makes no sense, but they were convinced they were doing something good.

I've known people who signed up with weight loss programs where you eat specially prepared and packaged food purchased from the weight loss center. Usually it works very well, but once they stopped buying the special food the weight came back. If you want to keep weight off, you must keep a lifestyle you can live with until they load you into the hearse. A quick 20 pound loss may work to get you into an old pair of jeans or to look good for the class reunion, but there are few good lasting effects.

In the case of blogging, a fast can be very refreshing. It's a chance to clear your head. It provides an opportunity to spend more time with family or accomplishing good for the Kingdom, as Dan is promoting. But might I suggest structuring your normal routine to put that stuff first and moving the blog down the priority scale a bit. We're not to be working toward our own glory anyway, right?

I've read countless posts about bloggers feeling pressure to post and others apologizing for not posting. Perhaps our first priority as bloggers should be to bring us closer to our Savior and not to move us up the TTLB ecosystem. My call is for bloggers not to be slaves to our blogs. Our everyday lives should provide us the time to interact with people who need our encouragement, support, interest and company. Blog because you have something you have to say instead of simply coming up with a post. And above all, work toward glorifying God through all we do -- especially that stuff we do while away from the keyboard.

Now if you'll excuse me, Thanksgiving is coming and I'm going to blow my diet.

How To Get Here - Nov. 2005 Edition

Don't worry about missing your exit on the Interstate. Fret not over hidden street signs. No need to panic when the map is lost. You can get to Attention Span via any number of highways. Just look at the searches these people used to find me:

maryann nude gilligan - I must have missed that episode.

sugar cream pie recipe - This is no recipe blog, but there's always room for pie. Especially Wick's sugar cream pie.

Christian's who posed nude - I'm not sure, but I think someone with limited knowledge of apostrophe use is looking for a few good hypocrites.

if everyone was like me what would my church be - An interesting question. I hope I answered it somewhere along the line.

SONG C'MON EVERYBODY - I don't think I've ever mentioned Eddie Cochran by name, so I doubt this searcher found what he was looking for.

wife is control freak
men fear of commitment - Sounds like a man and wife each found Attention Span, huh?

Those will get you here. But to get to Christian Carnival XCVII, just head to Thought Renewal, this week's host, where part one is posted. Lots of great holiday weekend reading there. Yours truly is represented twice, technically. My own entry, The Downward Slide is in the Sky Swings section, while Jeff the Baptist's reaction to my post, Advertising Our Faith, is on the thriller.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Book Review - "Leaving the Saints" by Martha Beck

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I don't do a lot of book reviews, but I thought my recent read deserved a place where I could give overall impressions instead of interacting idea by idea. It is a book I had never heard of before I spotted it at the local library. I sort through the new books in the faith section every month or two, trying to find something intriguing that I might have missed. This one caught my eye, as it was about a woman who had left the Mormons. I didn't know the name, but thought it would be something different for my evening reading.

It turns out that the book, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith, was written by Martha Beck, daughter of famed Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley. This book caused quite an uproar early this year in the Utah area for the simple reason that Beck accuses her father (who passed away in February) of sexually abusing her for three years as a child. That was the lightning rod of the writing, but there is a lot more to look at within the pages.

Beck's story is one of an intelligent woman who moved east to pursue her education and begin a family. After the birth of her second child, who was born with Down Syndrome, she longed to be back among the people who would lovingly accept her and especially her baby boy. Yet as she became a part of the Mormon community again, she wrestled with the beliefs of the Mormon Church -- beliefs which her father had boldly defended. She was the daughter of a hero of the faith among the Latter Day Saints. Yet she had her doubts, especially with issues like the role of women in the church and in the family.

Throughout a short time, Beck begins to recover memories of her father performing some kind of weird Egyptian ritual over her as she was tied naked to the bed. The memories were backed up by physical scars which obstetricians had assumed were from childbirth, but were much older than that. Eventually figuring out what had happened to her, she called her mother who pretty much confirmed everything before changing her story a few days later.

Mixed into this story is Beck's search for faith, which begins with attempting to reconnect with her roots but moves into an exploration of many religions. Always a voracious reader and a curious student, Beck ends up taking portions of many schools of thought and putting them into her own mixture of mysticism, Eastern philosophy and New Age thought. Her thoughts are typical of many who refuse to disavow anyone's truth but claim it is simply truth for one person but not another. If you're looking for Beck to find Christ and recognize the truths of Scripture, this isn't the book to read. But considering how much she has survived in her life, it's amazing she has any deistic belief at all.

The sexual abuse angle grabs all the headlines. After all, Nibley was regarded as Mormon royalty, as it were. Think of Josh McDowell, Simon Greenleaf, Walter Martin and a half-dozen other Christian apologists rolled together and you'll start to see how important Nibley's work is to the Latter Day Saints. Beck also hints that sexual abuse is much more prevelant among the Mormons and it is hushed up because the men hold religious authority over the women. There are too many consequences for a woman to speak against a man in the church. But what really opens eyes are the academic claims made in the book. Beck describes the situation at Brigham Young University in the early 1990's where faculty were being called before church officials for such things as writing for non-church-approved professional journals or expressing doubts about official Mormon doctrines in front of students.

The charges include one involving the legacy of her father's work. She describes being told by a fact checker from Nibley's many writings that around 90 percent of the attributions in his books were either completely out of context or made up entirely! This is passed off as ridiculous by the Mormons, but I cannot find any direct study which would prove or disprove the accusation. One would think the Latter Day Saints would get somebody working on that and publish the findings, assuming they are false. However with the portrait painted by Beck of her gifted, but incredibly eccentric father, it isn't tough to believe that he would play fast and loose with the truth.

Add to the attribution claims, the story of the Book of Abraham -- part of Mormon scripture, alledgedly translated by founder Joseph Smith. When the original papyri were discovered, they were proven to be nothing like Smith wrote down as his "translation" and which Mormons accept as truth. Nibley had been called upon to defend the Mormon version as true in spite of huge amounts of evidence to the contrary, but eventually came up with an nonsensical circular argument. All of that happened around the time Beck was supposedly experiencing her sexual abuse at her father's hands. All very strange.

After I finished the book, I turned to Beck's websites to find out more about her story. She includes a section of letters she has received since writing the book. Many are from women thanking her for coming forward with her story because they are facing the same kind of situation. Still others spew hatred with Beck for her accusations or for simply speaking out against the Mormon church. Here are a couple of samples:

I wish you love and peace and luck on your journey down your stream. And I thank
you for helping to strengthen me on mine.
Name Withheld By Request

You are a disgusting piece of filthy garbage.

In the 1980's my husband and I discovered our son-in-law and others in our ward in Bountiful had abused seven of our grandchildren (his own four children and his nieces and nephews) as well as other children in the neighborhood. Among the participating adults in this "sex ring" were the daughter and son-in-law of an Apostle of the Mormon Church [name withheld]. About six years later, we discovered our son-in-law had also abused three of our daughters when they were small children when he first met our daughter whom he married. Ours is a horrific story and pretty complex. Our lives and those of our entire family were blown apart. To some extent, they still are although I believe most of our family is at a very good place now... The reaction of LDS ward, stake and general authorities was appalling...I share this morbid tale with you so you can know how much your book has meant to us. My approach to child abuse has always been skeptical caution until the facts are known. Martha, dear child, I know you were abused by your father in the nightmarish ways you remember. Your story rings totally true to me, and I assure you, many people's do not. I understand why you had to write it and I believe it will be a gift to many people including perhaps, in time, some in your own family of origin and certainly your own children...Your openness has to be an example to all the "church intellectuals" teetering on the edge of despair.
The Church has certainly improved in its attitudes about abuse and I believe has been forced to be less protective of perpetrators among its members and more realistic about the extent and nature of abuse among the Saints. But in a system where image must always come first, there's a long way to go. Hopefully, you've given them a shove along the way.
Name Withheld By Request

What you write in your book is a disgrace to not only the Mormon faith but society in general. Why do you chose to taint a faith that millions of women, including myself, count as the greatest influence and gift in their lives? You are entitled to your own beliefs, but the things you write should not be shared in a national book. They are better shared in private with your psychologists to help you appropriately work through the "trauma" the Mormon faith has apparently caused you. Why keep others from experiencing the same joy I and many others find in living the Mormon faith. It is simply wrong and distasteful.
Laura B.

From what I've read, you've been through the temple, you've experience all that we have, you KNOW what REALLY goes on and you know the truth, yet you make up these stories and lies, hoping to make a bestseller list with your book? You're an idiot Martha, just because a couple of people offended you, doesn't mean that all Mormons are that way. You're small minded and very selfish. I will smile the day you burn in hell for all the lies you've made up. You must really be friends with Satan, oh wait no, you must be screwing Satan - is that it? Is he promising you salvation if you write this book and screw him? Shame on you Martha, you know better.
Nathanael & Melissa S.

Interesting stuff, huh?

I cannot pass an accurate judgment on Beck's claims of sexual abuse. Her siblings and mother claim she is a victim of a false repressed memory. She presents a good case, but I'm in no position to confirm or deny. But what I do know is that Beck is an excellent writer. She alternates between retelling her journey and describing a conversation/confrontation between herself and her father ten years after she first made her accusation. She approaches some very heavy subjects with just the right amount of humor to take the edge off for the reader. According to the book jacket, Beck is now a "life coach" (a title given her by someone else) and writes a monthly column for O: The Oprah Magazine.

One last note that caught my attention: Beck's husband is an interesting character in the book. The product of a Mormon family also, he supports his wife through a ton of persecution and the expected family difficulties. He leaves the church before his wife, but the two of them work well as a team through a long series of crises. Then in the acknowledgments of the book, Beck mentions that somewhere after the events described in the book, the two of them "decided to live our lives separately, but continue to raise our children together." How odd that after surviving so much together that the couple would then choose to separate.

The book is a good read if you would like insights into the beliefs and especially the secrecy of the Latter Day Saints. But if you're looking for a life coach, I'd look elsewhere.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Downward Slide

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It's always an easier trip down the slide than up. Besides my own experience on playground equipment, I've watched my own kids. After a while they get pretty good at climbing back up, but with nowhere near the speed as going down. They always seem to be a bit more winded after trying to go back up. Riding the downward slide is easy.

Since I've been remembering so much about my college days, it was only natural that "Tom" came to my mind. Tom lived near me in the dorm. I got to know him through a friend of mine who had gone to high school with Tom. Those two roommates, my roommate and I would play cards, share rides, listen to music and generally just hang out a lot together. On Sundays, the three of us (not including my Catholic roommate) would attend church together. For a while anyway. The pastor left that Presbyterian church and Tom lost interest for a while. I found another church, Tom's roommate continued at the Presbyterian church, but Tom gave up church for a while. We'd still have the occasional conversation with religious overtones, but more and more Tom seemed to be unconcerned with his faith.

Nobody pressured Tom to continue looking for a church, and perhaps that was wrong of us. Tom was gone many weekends, so it didn't seem like that big of a deal. Then one day, he came in and told us that he had a new job out of town three or four nights a week, including weekends. As it turned out, that job really pulled him down.

We began to notice things on occasion; small things mostly. He didn't seem to care much about his classes. One day as we played cards, he took a pipe out of his desk drawer, stuffed it with tobacco and lighted it. We sat there wide-eyed, watching him, but Tom couldn't understand our problem. It was just a pipe, after all. We pestered him until he put the foul-smelling thing out. He didn't quit smoking it altogether-- just around us. Which was fine, I guess, but his choice of tobacco wasn't the sweet, fragrant smell I was used to from pipes. Tom's pipe reeked of newspaper and trash fire.

One day, the three of us found his pouch and added to it. We ground up dead leaves from a rubber tree plant in our room and mixed them with his tobacco. He never seemed to notice. So every week, we'd replentish his tobacco supply. That one pouch of tobacco lasted for months, until Tom finally decided he didn't like smoking a pipe anymore. How we managed to keep from laughing when we saw him take out his pipe is beyond me!

As it turned out, it wasn't the poor taste of Tom's tobacco which drove him from his pipe. It was the taste of a new smoke. We found out because Tom's roommate needed to borrow a pair of scissors, so he opened Tom's desk drawer to find a pair. Inside was a different kind of pouch -- a Ziploc bag half-full of pot. At that moment we were more filled with anger than anything else. How could a clean, mostly straight-laced kid turn into a dope-smoking college student who cared nothing about the classes he had taken that job to pay for?

We didn't confront Tom. Instead we tried to redouble our own efforts to be his friends. But by that time, Tom had made his plans to drop out of school. I'm not sure whatever happened to him; whether he continued the downward slide or if he worked his way out of it. I really wonder where Tom stands with his faith today.

The episode with Tom always reminds me of another guy who started off good, but took the big slide. Solomon had it all. The throne. The godly heritage of his father, David. The loyalty of an entire nation. The call from God to finally build a temple. And as a young man, Solomon had the humility to admit that what he needed most from God was not gold and silver, but wisdom. Then God tossed the wealth in to boot. He had everything, and early on he showed how much God has blessed him.

But somewhere along the line, Solomon started the downward slide. Maybe it was the temple building project. Perhaps it was the pressure of keeping track of all the riches. Assuredly all the women, wives and concubines helped King Sol lose hold of the top of the slide. And slide he did. So much so, that by the time he pens Ecclesiastes he is proclaiming the worthlessness of pretty much everything. Despair drips from every letter of that book. And we're left to ponder the details. What happened? How could a man whose request for wisdom had so impressed the Almighty become a wise old teacher finally aware that he no longer knows the answers?

What happens to people like Tom and like Solomon? I've had the whole "once saved, always saved" argument with people on both sides.

"He must have never been saved in the first place," one person would claim.

"Then what do you have to say about a conversion experience which changed a person's outlook and behavior for many years," the other side counters.

I'm not interested in sorting out eternal judgment. I just ache for those people sitting at the top of the slide, and for those halfway down, and for those who are just reaching the bottom. All those prodigals who have walked away; or perhaps just slid away. And I hope they'll be able to lean on Jesus and learn to climb back up.

A Plank in the Eye

Saw this article in an Auburn, California newspaper thanks to Todd Rhodes of Monday Morning Insight. What I saw made me sick. Pictured were a group of three protesters with picket signs -- the good old "Repent Ye" kind which have been so caricatured in the past.

What this lovely threesome were upset about was a new church in town who ran a promotion to give more than 200 people a discount on gas. Not even giving away gas, mind you. Giving a discount. I have a hunch these folks were upset about more than a lousy gas discount, but that's not the way it appeared to the average passerby or even most people picking up the newspaper. It looks like one church protesting another. This has all the witness potential of one believer suing another.

Of course the motive behind the protest is a belief that there is only one way to properly worship God -- their way. Unfortunately that motive clouds any valid argument they may have. Church marketing can be debated. The trend toward mega-churches and a lack of Biblical preaching can be discussed among Christians. But closed-minded public protests only make Christians look like idiots.

One of the most telling paragraphs is a paraphrase from one protester. Responding to a request to listen to the Sunday sermon from the new church, the 20 year old picket sign holder told the paper that he would listen to sermon but suspects the church is misleading people. In other words, he is protesting on an assumption! He doesn't even know what's going on at the new church -- he just "suspects". Perhaps someone should point out the 18th chapter of Matthew to this zealous protester.

It's a shame that some people wish to draw attention to themselves as the "true keepers of the faith." The picket signs are annoying enough -- trying to communicate the Gospel, but conveniently leaving out all that business about doing it with gentleness and respect. But to publically take another church to task over what they assume another church to be doing is inexcusable.

Oh, and one final irony... the protesters with the picket signs are members of a church called, The Church of the Divide.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thrown Together - part 3

In the comments for part 2, I was asked, "Is there a part three?" Truthfully until Carol asked the question, I really hadn't thought about it. She asked what I had learned through all the losses I suffered in such a short time, and there are many things that I have picked up in the years since those tragedies and more still which I still need to learn. But before I can deal with any of that, I need to tell one more story. I hadn't really thought about this in terms of being "thrown together" but I think in some ways it still fits the criteria.

I was painfully shy during most of my school years -- especially with girls. By the time I gained a little confidence at the age of sixteen, I was steadily being turned down by members of the opposite sex. The confidence which I had slowly built was being torn down twice as fast. However by the middle of my junior year of high school, a girl had taken an interest in me and we began dating. That relationship lasted through my freshman year of college, which was her senior year of high school.

My girlfriend decided to attend a college not too far from mine, but shortly after beginning classes she found someone else. After faking fidelity for a few months, finally she dropped the hammer on our relationship. That hammer hit me dead in the skull. A relationship which I assumed would be forever became history in the blink of a fickle woman's eye. I was back to being a single guy once again.

The thing is, I wasn't any better at being a single guy in college than I was in high school. I was still being rejected steadily, sometimes in the most obnoxious ways. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends on a large campus and even though women didn't want to date me, they didn't mind hanging around me. That would have to do.

After college, I moved to Michigan to take a job. There, I was all alone. And I felt alone. I worked evenings, so it was hard to meet many people, let alone single females. One day I saw an advertisement for a singles group, so I called the phone number listed with the ad. The voice on the other end was male... and not exactly youthful. I was undeterred.

"I'm interested in learning more about your singles group," I said.

"Oh, that's great," answered the man on the other end of the line. "Tell me, how long have you been a widower?"

My jaw hit the floor.

Scratch that possibility.

I started to wonder if perhaps I had been called to be single. It didn't seem right to me, knowing myself the way I did. I wanted to find someone to love and to share my life with. But maybe God wanted me to take the apostle Paul's approach. I know that if I had no family I would have the potential to devote a ka-jillion more hours to Bible study and ministry. I also realize that potential means nothing. The reality would probably be that I'd have a ka-jillion hours in front of the television studying the Top 100 Moments in Sitcom History and The History of the Interstate Highway System. I'd never follow through. So why would God want me to be single?

After Michigan, I moved to central Indiana, unloaded my belongings into a new apartment and began a new job. The story was the same. Eventually I met a woman at work who I liked spending time with. It wasn't a romantic interest, but it was someone who I enjoyed being around. She was just a few years older than me. We spent a lot of time together -- especially finding new places in town where pie was served.

One day this woman invited me to go watch her son's football game. Tagging along for the trip was her eighteen year-old daughter whom I had met in passing once before. We spent the crisp autumn afternoon sharing a thermos of hot chocolate and a blanket. I didn't realize what was happening. God was throwing a couple of people together.

The phone calls started sometime later, along with a few visits. When we finally had our first date, it had been so long since I had dated I was scared to death to mess it up. I stood awkwardly by the car at the end of the evening before she finally put me out of my misery and kissed me.

My wife told me once that one reason she took a romantic interest in me is that one night as we talked on the phone, I mentioned that I had candles burning. I've always liked candles. That night I had two pina colada votives burning on my shelf. Somehow from that revelation, she figured out that I wasn't like the other guys she had dated. Kudos to her for figuring that out! Had I known that candles could have been the solution to my problems with women, I may have set my apartment ablaze trying desperately to show my sensitivity!

We continued to date for a year exactly before I proposed while kneeling beside a bench in a forest clearing. I had to wait about 15 seconds to get her attention, as she was busy watching a deer who had apparently come to witness the event. We were married the next summer on her 20th birthday. It was the happiest day of my life.

Today I have the most incredible wife in the world. Not only has she gone from being the wife of a radio DJ to the preacher's wife (talk about different set of expectations!) but she has become the mother of four wonderful children, three of whom we have had the pleasure of raising together. She puts up with me in all my weirdness, my laziness, my thoughtlessness, and my helplessness. She challenges me to become a better husband, a better father, and a better Christian. I am a much better person today simply because of her.

It's been more than 16 years now since my career as a bachelor was mercifully ended. And while I couldn't understand for so long why God would want me to be alone for so much of my early adulthood, I now understand that it wasn't time for me to be married to my wife. After all, she was only 18 when I met her. I had no business being around her when I was lonely five years earlier! As frustrating as it was for me to admit, God actually knew what He was doing.

And I guess that's the answer to the questions Carol put to me in my comments section. What I have learned through losing a grandparent, losing a child and losing a good friend in a six month period is the same thing that I learned through waiting out lonely years in search of a wife -- although it's hard to understand, God can use what you go through for your benefit. It's the biblical image of the refiner's fire. It burns. It hurts. It feels like you can't go on. But once you're out of the fire, you become purer and stronger. Admittedly we don't "cool off" from the fire immediately. I still have pain to deal with. I won't deny it. But the further from that fire I get, the easier it is to see the refinements that have been made in my Christian walk, my character and my life.

God knows what He's doing. What a concept!

My wife, our first summer together. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Advertising Our Faith

It's amazing. I take a ten-minute glide through a few of my favorite blogs and I hit a theme. At Cerulean Sanctum, Dan was imploring people to take the Christian fish symbols off their cars. Then at The Gad(d)about, Matt had written a great piece about not being a bad witness of our faith through our actions. Two sides of the same idea. That idea was simple: If we make any outside indication of our Christian faith to the world, then our walk had better not run the name of Jesus Christ through the mud.

Dan's logic was a bit strained for my liking though. It's a good point, but his solution is to get rid of any merchandise which identifies us as Christians. It seems to me that the point should be to live up to what we wear. In his comments section, Dan writes about we Christians destroying our witness by being overweight, eating junk food and wasting our money on tourist trap trinkets. Sure those aren't good habits and traits, but should we be covering up our faith or improving our lives?

I'm overweight. When I'm not wearing a Christian t-shirt, driving a car with a fish symbol or wearing a cross around my neck is it any different? I'm supposed to stick out as a Christian anyway -- by my actions. I'm not to live my life denying my relationship with Jesus Christ. What I'm saying is that I can have a bad witness without any shirts, hats, fishes or crosses adorning my possessions. I stand for Christ and when I screw things up, people should know that it's a Christian who blew it because they know I'm a Christian even without the merchandise.

I do have a bit of a bias. I sell Christian t-shirts. There's a link on my sidebar where you can see some of my merchandise. It's a side business for me, helping me to be able to live on a pastor's salary. I've been doing this for a dozen years, and I've seen and heard all kinds of things regarding Christian merchandise. Some shirt designs I won't even carry because I think they send a poor message. I've had customers ask for all kinds of unorthodox -- and I mean that literally -- sayings and pictures. I've listened as one women told a friend, "I could wear this shirt to church!" Or the ever popular, "I can use this to sleep in!" I like to tell them that these are to wear in public where non-Christians will see you and watch your witness. Frankly, I'm hoping some of those women aren't parading about in their sleepwear or hosting large groups of seekers in their bedrooms!

The point is that my view of Christian t-shirts and other merchandise is that they are to help us with our witness, not by showing off our "goodness" but by reminding ourselves to live up to what we wear. Use them to elevate our game, so to speak. I noticed one day that when I was wearing a shirt with a large picture of Jesus on the front that I was much more careful to avoid any behavior to make me look like I was checking out women. The shirt was a reminder that even if I wasn't doing anything, I needed to make sure it didn't look like I was doing anything. I'm not to be a stumbling block for others, after all.

Not that I condone all Christian merchandise. Slapping the Savior's name on a product isn't always in the best of taste. The Bible insoles are one such item. Then again, not everyone wearing Christian merchandise actually subscribes to all that the faith is all about. For years, Madonna paraded around with crosses around her neck while giving only lip service to her own translation of the church. Certainly there are people wearing WWJD bracelets and ballcaps with a church name on the front who don't care much about that church or even what Jesus would do. But the assumption is that a person wearing a cross must have some connection to Jesus. If that person doesn't act like Jesus would have us act, the world cries, "Hypocrite!" I think simply erasing the outward Christian sign is the easy way out. The renewing of our mind and the transformation of our heart should be evident to the world -- especially when wearing your faith on your sleeve, or your hat or wherever.

Matt's story of the obnoxious political freak with the church hat and Dan's obnoxious driver with the fish symbol on the van are examples not of a poor choice of accessories, but a poor choice of action. Perhaps if you're dim enough to be unable to behave yourself in public, then you should distance yourself from Christian wardrobe and immerse yourself in Christian Scripture. Aside from that, let's concentrate on living up to our status instead of dressing down to our desire.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Does God Need a Lawyer?

Apparently there's one man in Romania who wasn't paying close attention when he was baptized. He says the Almighty backed out of their deal.

"God received different material valuables from me, as well as prayers in exchange for promises of a better life. In reality, this did not happen - I found myself in the devil's hands," the plaintiff said.
The convict is serving 20 years in the west Romanian city of Timisoara. He apparently blames God for the troubles in his life and wants God brought to account for failing to fulfill the commitments He undertook and for taking bribes.
The plaintiff said that when he had been baptized in childhood, he concluded a contract with God that had legal effect - God was supposed to protect him from evil.

Wouldn't they have to figure out some way to serve God with a summons? (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Dave Barry's blog.)

Ah, well. No lawyers necessary to access the latest Christian Carnival now posted at Jordan's View. Stop by and check things out.

The F-bomb Revisited

Alright, I promised I'd post my opinion on the scenario I brought up here. Thanks to everyone for the insightful comments. I was a little afraid that all I'd see would be knee-jerk reactions and condemnations, but I should have realized that my readers (both of you) are excellent thinkers!

Again, the situation is this: A young poet on a journey back to God wants to read her poem from the pulpit at the Christmas Eve service. The poem quotes people using the f-word five or six times. The church is for those "on the margins of society" and is called Scum of the Earth. If you are that pastor, do you allow the woman to read the poem uncut?

My answer? No.

The comments in the original post spoke to this a little bit, but there is a need for a Christian -- even a new Christian -- to learn not to cause others to stumble. I think of it as a discipleship moment. Although the language of her poem may be authentic, it serves no purpose toward glorifying God. Since we're talking about something to be read from a pulpit, that's got to be the overriding factor.

Does it distract or take away from God? I believe so. Tony Campolo on more than one occasion began a speech this way:
"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a s**t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said s**t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
Did Campolo make a point? Yes he did. He shocked people into paying attention. He was trying to offend people, not with the Gospel, but with language. I could scream the f-bomb from my pulpit this Sunday morning and I bet people would be paying attention to the next few words out of my mouth! But would I be glorifying God by doing so? No.

The f-bomb is course language (mild understatement there) and as Christians we are to refrain from it. Certainly I understand that people sin and sometimes stuff like that slips out. But in the case of this poem, and for that matter Campolo's stunt, the use of course language is premeditated. I cannot find a good excuse for using it, especially from a pulpit. And on Christmas Eve, for crying out loud!

I also understand the context of the Scum of the Earth. I have no problem with that concept, after all Jesus hung out with those "on the margins of society." But at the same time, a different atmosphere doesn't change morality or Biblical instruction.

There is a danger with forcing new Christians to be completely holy immediately. Everyone knows we don't achieve instant sanctification when we bow to Christ. We begin a journey as a work in progress. Not everyone will see all their sins the first evening in the faith. Yet at the same time, as a pastor I would feel the responsibility for helping the poet a little farther along the road to spiritual maturity by censoring her remarks. As an emotional artist, she may not understand at first. She may even bolt from the Scum and even reconsider her new-found faith. But at the same time, it is a teaching opportunity. And asking her to rewrite the poem for a Christmas Eve service is a bit different than chastising her for writing or speaking that word. A pastor's obligation is to the community of believers in the context of a worship service. He is a shepherd to the flock. Sometimes shepherds have to make the hard decision.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thrown Together - part 2

After experiencing being thrown together in a dorm with a buddy and a lot of strange characters during my freshman year of college, an entirely new experience awaited me for my sophomore year. I knew a lot of people were either moving out of our dorm or dropping out of school entirely. And I knew that my roommate wouldn't be back either, meaning that I would be living with someone new. Maybe it would be someone I already knew from the dorm. Nah! The university would never do that. They'd much rather put a freshman in with an "upperclassman" to help with the newbie get accustomed to college life. This put me at quite a disadvantage because I had plans for the dorm room, and I didn't want some freaky freshman messing it all up. I was ditching my bed in favor of a fold-out couch, and that is generally something I'd check with a roommate about. But on move-in day, I had no choice. So up the elevator and around the stairs I came, hauling a 50-ton, ugly red plaid, sleeper sofa to my room, wondering who would be waiting for me when I got there.

The dorm rooms all had posters with names on the doors to help everyone get to know everyone else. When I made it back to room 404, I could see that the name "Ed" was printed there.

"Well, at least they didn't move me out of my own room," I thought to myself, somewhat sarcastically.

As I got closer, I could see the other name on the door. Ed. My roommate and I already shared the same name. Not to mention the same initial of our last names. I stood in the doorway and looked in to see a 17 year-old face sitting in a chair, looking through some papers.

"Hi, Ed. I'm Ed."

We were simply thrown together at random. Unless perhaps some people in Student Housing thought they were making a funny joke by putting "their Eds together!" OK, maybe not a funny joke, but you get the picture. Still I wondered why the two of us were cast into the same room. Apparently, Someone knew that this would be a good thing.

It was amazing how similar the two of us were. Aside from the whole name thing, we shared the same off-center sense of humor. Our birthdays were only five days apart. We each were dating redheads (at the beginning, anyway). We were both small town kids, although he was from Southern Indiana, while I was from the northern part of the state. Perhaps because of all this, we understood each other well.

The shared name became a gimmick for us. When someone would call, "Ed!" we would both answer. Even if we knew the person was yelling for the other Ed. Especially if we knew the person was yelling for the other Ed. It didn't take long for the guys on our floor to figure out that they needed to distinguish between the two of us in some other way. Our last names were too similar, so they eventually dubbed me "Big Ed" and my roommate as "Lil' Ed". Ed wasn't that little, but next to me he was. Hence the spelling, Lil' instead of Little. Besides his father was named Ed, so he was used to be Little Eddie or things like that. Soon after meeting, Big and Lil' (or the Eds as we were sometimes called) became fast friends.

I don't want to give the impression that we were mirror images of one another. I was Protestant, while Lil' was Roman Catholic. He liked to drink on the weekends, but I didn't. I introduced him to George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers. He refamiliarized me with Monty Python and Cheech and Chong. He danced with a German dance troupe, complete with lederhosen. I, uh, didn't. We respected one another's differences. We had each other's back.

And we played off one another flawlessly. One of our favorite pastimes was going to a weekend party and making up stories to fool other people. In 1982, every college party had a television tuned to MTV and there would always be girls (sometimes well on their way to being intoxicated) watching the videos. One popular clip was a John Cougar video where the singer's hair hung over one of his eyes. Without fail, one of the gathered women would burst out with, "Why can't he pull his hair away from his eyes?!"

So one night, Lil' gestured with the beer in his hand and said, "He wears his hair that way because he's blind in that eye."

"Really? You're kidding!" the girls would exclaim.

I'd was right there with him, taking a drink from my can of Pepsi. "Yeah, Lil's right. He had an accident when he was a kid. I think it was a small branch of a tree that poked him in the eye."

Lil' picked up on my cue. "Well, it wasn't just that he got poked, but the eye almost came out."

"That's true. I hear he can kind of see shadows out of that eye, but it messes up his vision, so instead of wearing an eye patch he just comes his hair over that eye."

We would go on for 15 to 20 minutes before the two of us would walk away, stifling our laughter. The story varied from party to party. Sometimes it was a stick, other times running with a pair of scissors was the culprit. Once we told them he had been scratched in the eye by a cat. It got to the point where we had to send the rest of our friends away when we started the John Cougar story because they got to laughing too hard for us to be believable!

It was odd knowing someone well enough to be able to finish one another's sentences, yet at the same time be able to see a different perspective. It was odder still that this was a person I was simply thrown together with by a Student Housing chart.

Lil' Ed and I roomed together for a year and a half in the dorm, then the two of us and two other friends rented a house off campus. Eventually the Eds shared living quarters for four years, including a year after I got my B. S. degree from B. S. U. He moved to the Dayton, Ohio area. I took a job in Michigan. We remained close, although it was much different than when we lived together. When I got married, Lil' Ed was my best man. About two years later, it was Lil' making wedding plans with a wonderful woman that my wife and I liked very much.

Then on a Saturday afternoon in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, Lil' Ed was on his way back from a dentist appointment on his motorcycle. Rounding an upcoming curve was a delivery truck, but the driver couldn't stay in his own lane. Ed tried to get past, but the truck continued to drift until he struck the motorcycle head on. Lil' Ed was killed instantly.

That was fifteen years ago. It was just months after my wife and I had lost our first son and only weeks since my grandmother had died. It was like death was a familiar visitor for us. I had lost someone younger and someone older, but this time it was someone of my own generation... someone so much like me. Already dealing with the Lord's call upon my life while grieving a son, He really had my attention now.

It was so empty as we carried Ed's casket out of the little Catholic church while a tape played John Cougar Mellencamp's song, "Small Town".
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me.

And we did.

Here was a man who came into my life as a complete stranger and became closer than a brother. We shared our hopes and our problems. We almost never fought although we didn't have the same opinion on everything. We came together from two different regions with remarkably similar backgrounds. And we remained friends until the end, even though the distance made it tough. We were just thrown together in a dorm room. But God used that relationship in both of our lives to bring us closer to Him.

God throws us together with all sorts of people every single day. Some pass through our lives quickly. Others stay a bit longer. Still others never leave. Then there are those who are gone, but not forgotten. I thank God for each person he's put in my life. Not all of them have the influence of a best friend or a spouse. Some may be no more than a voice on the radio or a face passing on the sidewalk. But make no mistake, God has blessed us with the people around us. Some may be an inspiriation or encouragement to you. Others are there allowing you to learn from their successes and failures. Another group may be there for you to be the example; the encouragement. But there's something about those very special people who teach and support you as you teach and support them. Those people are a heavenly gift no one can fathom.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Thrown Together - part 1

As an eighteen year-old high school senior, I tried not to give a lot of thought to the future. That's tough to do when colleges and universities from around 57 states are sending you course catalogues and slickly-produced pamphlets and postcards. Everything seemed to scream "FUTURE" while my mind wanted to stay focused on the here and now. After all I was a senior... popular... active... having a great time... not to mention that my girlfriend was a junior and would be sticking around high school after I had headed off to some unchosen institute of higher learning. I really didn't want it to end. I was going to leave a place where I knew everybody and everybody knew me, and be thrust into the midst of a place where I knew no one.

The compromise was to go to college with someone I knew and liked. And coincidentally one of the schools I was considering was both affordable and it came equipped with a few of my high school friends -- Ball State University. So I made my plans, filled out the forms and prepared myself for matriculation at ol' Ball U. One of my good friends and I decided we would room together, so we made sure to include one another in all of our student housing paperwork. I was not going to be thrown together with a dorm full of strangers.

Something I didn't consider was that the two of us were being thrown together into a collection of various and sundry characters whom I couldn't have invented with a pickup full of hallucinogens. The room on one side of us was the home for Bob and Dave. These guys were, shall we say, fans of cannibus. The sickeningly sweet smell of reefer smoke was a constant reminder that you were approaching their door. If they managed to come out for class or a trip to the restroom, a cloud would blow out into the hallway. Bob and Dave were harmless to others, but I can't imagine how many brain cells they still have functioning after all these years.

On the other side of our room were Craig and Gary. The two of them had been friends in high school also. Craig was a baseball player and kept a perpetual wad of "chaw" between his cheek and gum. He was rough around the edges, but a hoot to hang out with. Gary seemed to be the perfect compliment for Craig. Prematurely bald, Gary had a great sense of humor, likely developed from being relentlessly teased about his lack of hairline for years.

There were plenty of others just on our wing of the fourth floor. Mike, the techie with the lastest technology in his dorm room -- the RCA SelectaVision VideoDisc system (now known as, "What's that old piece of junk up in the attic?") Across the hall from him was Servando, who commissioned himself to paint a mural of the pegasus from the Steve Miller Band album, Book of Dreams, on the wall of the hallway. No one knew why he only worked on his masterpiece between 3 and 6 in the morning. At the end of the hall was Ray, the starter from the volleyball team. And mixed into the stew were Lenny (whom we quickly gave the nickname "Squiggy"), Paul (who was widely believed to be gay), Kevin, Jay, Brad, Brian, Jeff and a host of others who have faded into the recesses of my mind. What a crew it was!

We didn't all get along. A couple of those guys were rather intimidating. One or two others were just plain annoying. But we were all thrown together to plod along in a journey toward higher education.

Meanwhile, my roommate and I also had to learn to live together. Being with someone 24/7 isn't the same as hanging out at school or the occasional night of watching TV until The Star Spangled Banner played. And the longer we lived together, the more odd things we began to notice about each other. Well, I'm assuming he noticed odd things about me because I started filling out a three-ring binder full of things about him! Our friendship was a little strained because we each had those small and not-so-small complaints about living with the other. It was a bit of a relief when he told me that he wouldn't be coming back for his sophomore year. Except that again I would have to be thrown together with someone else and this time I couldn't close the door and keep them out -- I would have to deal with a complete stranger who would be there for most everything in my life.

It's funny that at least half of the guys I remember from my freshman year at Ball State weren't there for my sophomore year. A couple of good friends remained, but when I climbed the dorm stairs to the fourth floor to begin my second year of college it was like a movie sequel where a few things were familiar, but so much was different. Many of those people I'd been thrown together with were gone from my life forever.

I can't help but wonder why God puts certain people in our lives. What did I gain from knowing Servando, the Midnight Muralist? Was it important that I knew a guy who was forever saddled with a nickname because of the television show, Laverne & Shirley? Did I need to learn the intricacies of outdated technologies from a tech geek for a reason? Or were these people placed there so that I could be an example for them? Was the reason we were thrown together to benefit them, me, or both of us?

I'm so glad that God can teach me things through other people. That God can teach me a measure of tolerance by using a couple of potheads, or that He can show me joy and friendship through a rough-edged, tobacco-chewing ballplayer. It may seem like we've been randomly thrown together, but boy, it's incredible what God can do with a kettle of potluck stew!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The F-bomb on Christmas Eve

Now here's one to wrestle with. A young poet on a journey back to God wants to read her poem from the pulpit. She wrote it especially for the Christmas Eve service. The problem? She quotes others in the verse, and the others drop the f-bomb multiple times. If you are the pastor, do you allow her to read it and offend the congregation or do you force her to edit out the expletives and risk alienating her as she is slowly being conformed to the image of Christ?

One last proviso: the church in question is focused on those on the margins of society and is called Scum of the Earth. Let's just say it doesn't look like a typical Lutheran or Methodist church.

Here's a description of the situation from the Leadership blog Our of Ur. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Steve from Out in the Sticks.)

So what do you do? I'll give my opinion in a day or so.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Merry Chris... er, Happy Holidays!

I've got to admit that I get a little irritated with it. You know. The refusal of many stores to allow employees to say "Merry Christmas!" opting instead for "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings". (I'll ignore the fact that it just sounds stuffy to actually wish another person "Seasons Greetings". It reminds me of the Winnie the Pooh story where the characters wished one another, "Happy returns on the occasion of Eeyore's birthday!" But I digress... )

Earlier this week while channel surfing, I landed on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. Sitting at the discussion table with O'Reilly was a marketing expert who was discussing the whole idea of Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. The expert suggested that Happy Holidays was the smart wayto go since it was so inclusive. Why not include people of all faiths in the holiday well-wishing?

O'Reilly suggested that the vast majority of non-Christians were not offended by a cheerful Merry Christmas, but that there were large numbers of Christians who are offended when a story prohibits employees from mentioning the C-word. The expert boldly denied that Christians were offended by these decisions. Apparently this marketing guru has never visited this website (a tip of the ol' ballcap to Cindy at Notes in the Key of Life) or had spent much time asking people about this topic.

Mr. O'Reilly promised to conduct a scientific survey to prove his own contention correct, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. If I were called on the survey, I'm not sure how I would answer. I'm not really comfortable with the word "offended" in this context. I don't really consider myself "offended" but I can't say that it doesn't bother me. After all, stores like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sears and Kohls makes a few boatloads of dollars on -- dare I say it? -- Christmas. Hannukuh and the new addition to the holiday sweepstakes, Kwanzaa don't even do a fraction of the sales figures that Christmas does. If anything, I'd expect these stores to go out of their way to promote Christmas. The bottom line rules in retail. And after all, it's hardly a religious holiday anymore.

I'm still not offended, but I admit I'm bothered by the exclusion of religious symbols at Christmas time. Pretending that Christmas is solely secular is a bit like singing karaoke, then thinking you're a huge recording star. But I expect it these days. Certainly someone in my line of work realizes that the Gospel is an offense to a big chunk of the population. Still the fear of the religious aspect -- let's call it Nativitophobia -- is incredibly disheartening while out walking through stores or listening to the radio.

I have no idea how prevalent offended Christians are throughout the United States. Perhaps the marketing expert is right. Perhaps we just don't care.

But I doubt it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Priviledge to Come

I found myself listening to the same song over and over again last night.

Take me past the outer courts
Into the Holy place
Past the brazen altar
Lord I want to see Your face
Pass me by the crowds of people
The priests who sing Your praise
I hunger and thirst for Your righteousness
But it's only found one place

Take me in to the Holy of Holies
Take me in by the blood of the Lamb
Take me in to the Holy of Holies
Take the coal, touch my lips, here I am

It's not a new song, although it's new to me. It's actually almost 20 years old, but it's the version on Kutless' Strong Tower CD that's caught my attention. The music is great, but it's the lyrics which send me on a walk through the pages of Scripture. The book of Hebrews showing us Jesus, our High Priest. The apostle Paul assuring us that we can boldly approach the throne of God. The incredible sight Isaiah beheld. The Sermon on the Mount. Even the various maps of the layout of the temple in Jerusalem. It all aims toward one particular destination -- the presence of Almighty God.

If there's any one place I don't deserve to be, it is in front of my loving heavenly Father. I deserve to be in the presence of the God of judgment, but the God of grace and mercy? Not a chance.

I've never tried to drop by to visit the President of the United States. Despite that inexperience, I rather doubt I'd be welcomed with open arms. I cannot see ol' W telling the Secret Service, "Hey, show that little chubby preacher in here! I've been waiting to meet him!"

I have been to a few places where I had a special pass to go places where others couldn't. I've worn a special badge which allowed me access to the garage area at Indianapolis Motor Speedway while most others were not allowed past the gate. That little bronze pin told the security staff that I was welcome in a restricted area. If you've ever been backstage at a concert, you know the feeling of importance you tend to get. But that's just a fraction of how we are treated by Almighty God. There is no badge to wear or a pass to string around your neck. We are marked by the blood of the Lamb.

"What a priviledge to carry everything to God in prayer." Indeed. We need not fear being ruined as Isaiah feared. We are not put on hold or told to wait in the other room. We are escourted straight to the Holy of Holies. Into the presence of our Creator. All by humbling our hearts and coming to Him in prayer. There is no greater priviledge.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

By Request - Charismatic Headcase

I mentioned in my Good Reads post about Dan's post at Cerulean Sanctum entitled, How Not To Be A Charismatic Headcase, but I didn't go into a lot of detail. Frankly, being a non-charismatic, I don't necessarily feel qualified to comment. But since Dan asked if I had any thoughts on the subject, I'll venture out to the end of the limb and see how much weight it will hold.

I've actually addressed a similar topic previously. My post, Crazy or Normal, was based on a post from Michael Spencer at the Internet Monk. I can't get a link to his post, but it was about those of us who are ordinary or do not have any of the "special" gifts that a few emphasize so heavily.

First of all, Dan makes five specific calls to charismatics and the charismatic movement in general which would clean up much of the horrible and heretical which often takes center stage. They are:
1. Stop being so undiscerning.
2. Stop letting immature people minister to others "charismatically."
3. Stop overemphasizing the gifts and the people who have them.
4. Stop living in a charismatic ghetto.
5. Stop practicing magic.

I have no problem with any of these. As many of the commenters on that post have noted, most of these are applicable to non-charismatics as well. Far too many Christians are so undiscerning that they wouldn't notice a shovel hitting them in the face. I wrote in my other post that since I don't get any of that special revelation from God which some claim to receive, my life is lived and directed by discernment based on the depth of my relationship with my Creator. If we all made seeking discernment a full-time job, the Christian Church would experience such a reformation that the world would be shaken to it's foundations. But alas, we're sinful and lazy.

There's something about the context of a church which makes people think that only the godly occurs there. "We're in church! There can't be bad doctrine or unbiblical practice or (gulp!) SIN happening in this building! Not during a service!!"

How naive! I've sat in pews and heard people gossip with one another. I've known teenage boys who were lusting in their hearts after certain females -- right there during the sermon! Even more commonplace, I witness people who are supposedly worshiping God but actually are thinking about what they have to do later in the day or worrying if the people sitting in front of them can hear their off-key singing. Too many sitting in the pews don't come to experience God, but to experience a good feeling. Or even simply to satisfy their conscious. Presence in a church doesn't make everything which happens within it's walls "of God".

I have noticed more than a few people who get so wrapped up in running the church or being noticed in ministry that they lose sight of the God they are supposedly serving. A position of authority seems to trump actual spiritual formation for them. After all, who would question the faith of the Administrative Board President or a popular Sunday School teacher? Yet those responsibilities are less important than our personal spiritual walk.

Dan's complaint of believers who aren't mature enough to practice discernment, yet impugn others with their false revelations is a familiar complaint with me. I've talked to too many people who have been accused of having demons or being told that God has called them to do something which they cannot do. I guess even one person who life has been messed up by immature wanna-be prophets is too many people. I just wish there had been only one. It's not pretty seeing people wrestle with the words of someone claiming to speak for God but obviously miscommunicating. The damage these people do is an embarassment to the Kingdom. In spite of that, most Imitation Isaiahs seem to be clueless; claiming to be only the messenger and feeling quite spiritually full of themselves. Their own feelings trump anything the Bible might have to say to the contrary. Why is it that those who need discernment the most are the ones who think they need it the least?

It's also true that very few people are brave enough to read people's work if they know they won't agree with the theology or the mindset of the author. Hey, it's all I can do to get most Christians to pick up a book, period -- even the Bible! I've read blogs where people like Rick Warren or Jerry Falwell or Brian McLaren are castigated for their teachings, yet it is obvious that the blogger is simply parroting what was written somewhere else and not writing from personal experience. One of the more challenging books I've read lately is "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller, and believe me, there is plenty of difference in Miller and myself. But I enjoy being challenged. Far too many people are so intellectually lazy that they cannot handle a different idea. For that matter, so many people don't know what they believe in the first place yet have no interest in investigating anything that's not spoon-fed to them from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Dan's fifth call -- stop practicing magic -- particularly struck a chord with me. He writes:
"Nothing dishonors God more than attributing His power to objects, words, or certain rituals."
Most non-charismatics think this really doesn't apply to them. But it does. Some claim that if we don't close our prayers with "In Jesus' name we pray" that God won't answer. I know people who believe a person isn't saved unless they physically make a trip to the altar at the front of a church to pray the sinner's prayer. Then there's the whole issue of a "sinner's prayer" to begin with. And, although it's a topic all it's own, some teach that no one is saved without being baptized -- a certain ritual being put above God's saving grace.

But of course, the charismatic television services are where you see much of this. The "health and wealth gospel" or the "name it and claim it" stuff are particularly offensive. However the "specially blessed prayer cloths" are a bit humorous if you forget that some non-discerning people are being taken in by this nonsense.

I mentioned in my short reply to Dan that much of the "magic" stuff is at the heart of cultic doctrine. I'm currently reading a book by a woman who left the Mormons. In it, she talks about the special underwear (garments) which are to protect the body from evil and danger. Then there is the baptism for the dead and the secret rituals of the temple. To the unfamiliar, it reads like a Harry Potter novel. At it's root is the belief that we are saved by works, not by faith. That is certainly dishonoring to God, to say the least.

I don't know how widespread the abuses that Dan lists actually are within the charismatic movement. But I know that all five calls are fitting for charismatic and non-charismatic alike.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Good Reads 11/9/05

Erin has a short, simple and powerful post over at Biscotti Brain that everyone should see. Read Context and see what you think about the next time you see something that isn't where it's supposed to be.

Tired of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson speaking for you? Read Ignore that Lobbyist Behind the Curtain at Short Attention Span and see how these men have been used by special interests counter to the cause of Christ.

Chris Rice is working on overcoming the language barrier in Four-Letter Words at his blog, Deep Enough to Blog.

Dan at Cerulean Sanctum, a Charismatic, explains How Not To Be A Charismatic Headcase.

Meanwhile, Chad is having a Carnival Carnival of sorts at Eternal Revolution. The 2nd Edition of the God or Not Carnival was posted earlier this week, featuring thoughts from both Christians and Atheists alike. Definately some thought-provoking reading on the subject, "proof". To follow up that, Christian Carnival XCV is now up with some of the best Christian blog posts of the past week. Plan on spending some time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

How Do the Pagans Handle It?

Christmas is coming. I've seen the massive displays of fake trees, must-have toys and dancing Santas. I've already heard people talking about giving gifts that impress the recipient and about "wanting it all" in their stockings on Christmas morning. Already I'm feeling uncomfortable. I just hate the commercialism of the holiday. The religious nativity scene replaced by the secular Santa's castle and eight tiny reindeer. "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night" pushed aside for "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer". The celebration of the gift of Christ Incarnate ignored to celebrate the gift of bling. But I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Yet as I wandered through the maze of Halloween festivities just over a week ago, I was wondering how things got so commercial. I saw houses decorated in orange Halloween lights. I heard kids strategizing the best way to get the most candy. Spooks and spirits are friendly little critters made of cardboard. Inflatable pumpkins and black cats are anchored to stakes in the front yard of various houses. Somewhere along the line all the spookiness was sucked out of Halloween, and it has become a Celebration of Candy and Costumes. People still trick-or-treat, but it's very rare that I hear of anyone being "tricked" in the entire area. Sure, maybe an occasional yard with toilet paper-filled trees, but even that doesn't happen much. Outside of Devil's Night in Detroit, Halloween is pretty tame. And I wonder, how do the pagans handle it? After all, isn't it supposed to be their holiday?

It seems that we can individually pour whatever meaning we want into a celebration. Vain women can celebrate their 39th birthday repeatedly, hoping to stay young but not miss the chance for a party. Christmas can be about Christ, or for many the preference is to celebrate family or even simply materialism. Certainly those who focus on a tree stuffed with presents are missing out on the whole point of Christmas, but then again people have been missing the whole point of Christ for a couple of millenia.

Right now I'm in Thanksgiving mode. I watch characters on television talk about being thankful for what they have, but they never seem to actually do any thanking. To do so would cause too big of a strain on their rugged individualistic egos. Because aside from luck and circumstance, the person they are thanking is usually themselves. And how empty it is to thank oneself.

As we race through the rest of the holidays this year, it is so easy to be pulled away from the true meaning. Hey, I love a good Rankin-Bass Christmas special with the claymation animation as much as anybody. But missing the showing of Frosty the Snowman or The Year Without a Santa Claus is no big deal next to missing a celebration of God Incarnate coming to save the people from their sins. If the pagans can handle having Halloween go commercial, I think Christians should be able to handle the onslaught of Materialistic Christmas as well -- provided we do not lose our grip on its meaning and get lost in the current of wrapping paper and 50 percent off sales.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Water, Water Everywhere

I've had water on the brain the past few days. Water is interesting. Do you realize that water is the one thing for which everybody knows the recipe, but nobody ever makes? C'mon. Good old H-2-O. But we never have to mix up a batch. It's everywhere. And it's a good thing it is because we lifeforms rely on it being here.

In the Bible, water is used symbolically in a number of different ways. One of the first stories we remember from Sunday School is of a guy named Noah who has to build a huge boat to save his family and the various animals from a deluge of... water. The water symbolized God's judgment. It's strange that something which we are so dependent upon for life can be so damaging in large doses. In fact, unless we have something resembling "the right amount" of water, we find ourselves in trouble.

Last Tuesday I ran over to the church to work on a project. This church building is empty for much of the week. My office is at home. Most everything I need is at home. The only time the building is occupied is for services, youth meetings and cleaning. So I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised when I ventured down to our church basement to find two inches of water on the carpet at the bottom of the stairs. It seems the sump pump had failed and the overflow was sitting stagnant in three classrooms and a hallway. It took all week to get the water out, then the smell of wet carpeting out. Too much water. To be plain, any amount of water on the basement floor is too much.

But water isn't always found in the wrong amounts. And when it's not, water is very useful. Look at what Peter had to say about the flood waters:

In it [the ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ...
The flood waters also served as cleansing waters -- not clean on the outside, but clean on the inside. According to Peter, the flood symbolized one giant baptismal for the eight survivors. It's not the only place that the waters of baptism are mentioned in Scripture. Paul writes about being buried with Christ through baptism. It's a real symbol which identifies us with Christ Jesus.

Water was bubbling to my attention yesterday as well. Last night we had a baptismal service with another area church. I had the pleasure of baptizing two people. One was the first baby I dedicated way back when. The other was my oldest son. Yeah, you could say I was emotional! As I dunked each of the two into the water then brought them back out, they were saying to the world that they too were dead to sin but alive in Christ. The water symbolized the washing of a soul until it is whiter than snow.

But for me the most interesting way water is used symbolically in Scripture is illustrated beautifully by Jesus while talking to the woman at Jacob's Well. A lady with a bad reputation sneaked out in the heat of the day to gather water while no one is around, only to find a Jewish prophet who breaches etiquette to ask her for a drink. When she questioned Him as to why He would do such a thing, Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

The woman obviously didn't catch what Jesus meant. She started questioning how someone who couldn't get Himself a drink could draw a bucketful of "living water" -- whatever that was.

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The allusion is to a relationship that satisfies fully and saves completely. Still, I'm always reminded of Psalm 42 at this point; about the deer panting for streams of water and the Psalmist longing for God in the same way. Something about equating our thirst for water and our thirst for God. Scientists say that a human can only last about three days without water. Isn't it amazing that we can so easily do without our Creator for three days, but not our old pal, H-2-O?

"Lord, help me to rely on You, just as my body relies on water for survival. Allow me to thirst for You, but never fully quench my thirst. Call me to seek more of You until we meet face to face."