Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tonight... on a very special episode of Attention Span...

If you've watched even a small amount of television in your life, you realize that when the announcer begins by saying, "Tonight... on a very special episode of Punky Brewster" or "Full House" or whatever show you're watching, you know that in this episode someone is either going to a) die, b) be tempted to smoke, drink, take drugs or have sex or c) run away from home. Well, tonight nobody here is dying. There is no alcohol and there will be none of the other recreational activities here at Attention Span. That leaves us with (c).

I'm not going to talk about kids running away from home. My focus is on Christians who run away from the church. And also those who never were in the church to begin with. I'd like to know why.

I can see many, many faults and problems with the church, and I'm wondering what can be done to correct them. I'm preparing a series of posts called, "What's Wrong With Church?" and I'd like your input. Whether you love the local church or you just can't stand the church, I would like to have your answers to this question:

What are the top three problems of the local church today?

I have my own ideas, but I'd love your perspective. So please leave a comment. If you can't figure out how to comment, use my email contact link. And look for "What's Wrong With Church? - The Series" next week.

Firefox Friendly Phase Duh

Alright, this time it should work for everyone. I downloaded Firefox and found the problem with the old template just as Lauren and Carol reported. The odd thing is that I had the exact same template at my test site and had no problems with it there in IE or in Firefox. After doing a line-by-line code comparison, I decided to reload the template and try again. This time I changed it to tan/brown just for a change of pace. I think all the bells, whistles and links are proper once again. If you have any problems, either email me or drop me a comment here. Thanks.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Filth Within

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It's a classic gag. The ol' fly in the ice cube trick. Your victim thinks she is enjoying a cold, refreshing glass of lemonade, but when she is half-finished with her drink.... AHHHH! One of the ice cubes contains a housefly, frozen inside! Oh, the humanity! Her lips must have brushed up against the ice which entombed this small insect! The horror!

After the laughing subsides, you then pull out the "ice cube" to show her that it was all a practical joke. It's not a real ice cube at all. It's simply a plastic novelty item, approximately on par with the whoopie cushion and the fake doggie doo.

Of course, the terrorlies in the fact that there are all kinds of disgusting things out there. We don't want to eat flies or have our lips brush against one. But at least with the "ice cube" you can see the filth before you try to eat the filth. We can identify the housefly as repulsive and avoid it. But what about the filth we can't see?

A tip of the ol' ballcap to Mark of runalong with pastor mark fame for directing my attention to this science fair project in South Florida, where a twelve year old girl, who was annoyed at the way her friends would chew the ice from their fountain soft drinks, decided to check to see what was in that ice. She collected ice from self-serve fountains inside fast food restaurants and compared them to... (you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Really. Well, OK, but don't say I didn't warn you.) ...she compared the ice in the restaurant to water she collected from the toilets in these restaurants! The story doesn't tell us if she collected the water from the tank or from the bowl, but I doubt we really want that much information now, do we? And the results? You guessed it. Seventy percent of the time, ice from fast food restaurants was dirtier than toilet water. In several cases, the ice tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which comes from human waste and is much sneakier than the ol' fly in the ice cube.

Even if you can't see it, oftentimes filth is there. It doesn't have to be huge and obvious "frozen housefly" filth. The microscopic filth is bad enough. Worse maybe.

Yet we all have filth within. That's what human depravity really means. This side of heaven, we aren't going to be E. coli free, to coin a phrase. Not you. Not me. And I'm fascinated that some people really don't get that. I'm not proud of the fact that I sin, but I do. And it happens every single day. And (gasp!) I'm a pastor. But we pastors are depraved as well.

Chad from Eternal Revolution posted on this same subject as I was preparing this post. He pointed me to this story about a pastor in North Carolina who dares to admit to his congregation that he struggles with tithing the way the people in the pews do. That pastor said this about being a pastor:
You are held to a higher standard... People want their pastors (always) to be kind, peaceful and in touch with God... I see myself ordained to certain tasks of ministry. But I really do try to say all the time that I am just a human being. I am just as sinful as anyone else.
Chad also pointed out another blog where the same article is referenced, but the discussion there is that it is terrible that pastors will admit to sinning. The majority of commenters seemed to be appalled by the notion of a pastor talking about his own battles with sin. Like this poster:
If the pastor/elder is teaching the Word of God faithfully, then it is Jesus preaching. Romans 8:29 says that those whom the Father "foreknew", are predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. That would be Jesus,...no? Setting Jesus apart as an unattainabble standard is the essence of post-modern theology.
What kind of warped theology is this? Perfection is not going to happen in our lifetime. Perfection happens at glorification -- when we go to heaven. No living man, woman, preacher, blog commenter or anyone else has hit complete holiness. Yes, Jesus is the unattainable standard while we are in this sphere. And to pretend otherwise contradicts Scripture. A pastor does not become Jesus when he preaches. I am guided by the Holy Spirit when I am behind the pulpit, but that doesn't mean I cannot or have not made a mistake. As pastors, we are not 100% holy. We are not 100% faithful in teaching. We are not 100% filth free. That's why we Christians are called to check out what the preacher is saying, as the Bereans did with Paul.

The admissions can go too far. I certainly don't need to hear an accounting of the various struggles a pastor has with improper sexual fantasies. I don't want a play-by-play recap of his battle with homosexuality. I don't even want a pastor's details about why he can't stand his neighbor. But by the same token, to pretend that there is no human depravity taking its toll every single day is living a lie. This pastor's open admission and acknowledgement of a battle with selfishness is not an assault on a perfect pastorate. There has never been a perfect pastor. There has always been filth within, despite the struggles to overcome.

We do not like the fact that in any of us, there is filth. Yet selfishness, greed, lust, sloth and all their cousins are semi-permanent residents within us. Today there are saints and sinners everywhere, but even when we are saints, still we are sinners. Even when the sins are not "frozen housefly" size, they are just as deadly. But to pretend they are not there is deadlier.

So praise God for the atoning blood of Christ. That filth isn't coming out of there any other way.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

For All You Firefox Lovers

This should be better. Many people were having problems getting the blog to load correctly while using Firefox with the old template. Then lately some of the rest of us were having problems getting the page to load... period. So, I've gone back to the blue template from last summer for the time being. I always liked this one anyway.

For those of you disturbed people who were asking me to put my picture back up (for use in repelling insects and killing small rodents), here you go.

I'm sure I'll change it again in a month or two, but I'll do a little more testing before I subject the rest of you to my bizarre experimentation. I promise.

Fair warning: a new post is coming this weekend, but you might not want to have a soft drink from a fast food place beside you when you read it...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

OT Ignorance

Aweek or two ago, I was discussing something at another blog when I brought up the fact that I hadn't read the book of Nahum for a long time. Truth be told, I've probably only read Nahum twice in my life, both times while I read through the Bible systematically. I knew the basics about the book -- it was an oracle against Nineveh and the Assyrians some time after that city-state had repented after heeding the warning from Fish Food Jonah. This time there was no repentance and soon there would be no Nineveh either. However I hadn't actually read the words for years. Two bloggers challenged me to read it. Actually they challenged me to preach a sermon for each of the 47 verses of the book, but that's just insanity! But since I'm in the midst of a through-the-Bible reading program (follow my progress here), I skipped ahead to read Nahum again.

I'd love to be able to write that Nahum changed my life. But I can't. It was an interesting read. The vividness of the prophecy is almost chilling. But was I instantly conformed to the image of Christ after reading it? No. I was enriched, but not overwhelmed.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a poster who asked why pastors never seemed to preach at length from the Old Testament. The Christmas Narratives, the Passion, Romans, the Sermon on the Mount... all these are "old favorites" for pulpit-dwellers. But Judges? Ezekiel? Nahum? Aside from a rare cameo verse, those books are hardly ever preached. The blogger wondered why that was? With all the richness of the Old Testament texts, why do pastors return to the Prodigal Son and the Romans Road time and again?

My response was pretty simple. Pastors don't preach the Old Testament because far too many don't know the Old Testament. We preachers enjoy working through the parables or mapping out Paul's missionary journies, but Isaiah is tough stuff to understand, let alone teach! Like everyone else, we get caught up in the idea that studying the New Testament is good use of our time and studying the Old Testament is something that is... well, time consuming and not too applicable to everyday life. And generally speaking, we're just plain wrong about that.

Jesus sure had a healthy respect for what we know today as the Old Testament. These 37 books give us the background which bring the Master's teachings new light. Not each will keep us riveted, perched on the edge of our seats, awaiting the next essential truth to fall from its pages. However being ignorant of these writings make it tough to really get the message of the New Testament.

We all tend to look at the Old Testament differently than we do the New. God seems so harsh at times. Everything is built around a nation of people which is foreign to us. So many of the pages are clogged with genealogies, strange laws and obscure prophecy. But it is here that we are given our initial glimpses of our Creator. It is here that the plan of salvation is foreshadowed. It is here that we see the ups and downs of real people trying to follow God. And it is here where we find the Law which we can never hope to keep perfectly. As Paul wrote, that Law was to drive us to Christ. But that's New Testament stuff. You probably knew that already.

I was amused last week to read the comments of Ralph that Genesis is the most read book of the Bible. The truth is that most of us feel really strange rifling through the Old Testament because we don't ever read it. We can find Psalms. After all it's in the middle of the book, right? But which comes first 1 & 2 Kings or 1 & 2 Chronicles? Is Nehemiah before Daniel or after? Is Obadiah before or after Nahum? And what about the book of Hezekiah?

So pick up your Old Testament. Deal with names like Jephthah and Nimrod. Work with places named Timnath Serah and Bezer. And revel in the faith of Abraham, the rise and fall of Solomon, the hardships of Isaiah and Hosea, the triumphs of Moses and Elijah, and the life of a man after God's own heart. Don't be ignorant of what God made sure was preserved for our benefit.

And if you're still looking for the book of Hezekiah, you can stop now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

How To Get Here Again

I never figured this would become a weekly feature, but the weird search strings keep rolling in. People actually searched for these:

Goofy Biblical Admonitions - Ah, from the Gospel According to Disney.

example of a distorted sense of self - Hey! You're gettin' a little personal, aren't ya'?

stomach virus fort wayne indiana message boards - I can only imagine what the topics of discussion are on those boards! "Where to buy Pepto-Bismal on the east side," and "Best places in town to vomit."

how to fix ghost span segment bad - I'm confused. Fix it bad? What's a ghost span? Why is it in segments? Who broke it? Why is it bad? And what does this mean??!!

motocross rider's average salary - I'm not sure, but I'm betting it speeds by my weekly paycheck.

in the sport of curling, what's the meaning of the term "hammer" - Hammer? Hammer? You're lucky I know what curling is! All I can tell you is, "U Can't Touch This."

And there is the direct method... click the link on my post at Christian Carnival CX which is posted now over at Jordan's View.

Call Me Irresponsible

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It sure is easy to point fingers. For all the bad and nasty stuff I can complain about, I am seemingly blind to my part in it all. Even my attitude toward the people around me can make a difference in how they act. Lack of communication is a two-way problem. Bad behavior in others may be reduced if I give proper encouragement. Sure, sometimes it really is somebody else's fault. But I need to ask myself, "What can I do to help change the situation?" Time for me to take some responsibility... even if I don't think I need to.

(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Mark of runalong with pastor mark for the illustration.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Faith of Abednego

I am truly grateful that God was able to use my post When God Doesn't Heal to touch some hearts last week. That post was a tough one to write, partly because I can get quite angry with people who discount and denegrate the faith of someone who has cancer or is stuck in a wheelchair. But it was also difficult to express because there is a line which I do not want to cross. I do not want to give the impression that God doesn't still heal people divinely. I know it still happens. I've seen the results. And I don't in any way want people believing that God cannot do miracles. Nothing is impossible with God.

Over at Cerulean Sanctum, Dan, who is my brother in Christ Jesus, has commented that we must believe that God can do the miraculous, and I wholeheartedly agree. Dan and I simply differ on how much faith we have and how much faith we need. I maintain that Jesus told us we need just the amount as small as a mustard seed, which was the smallest seed known at that time. In other words, a little is powerful stuff.

A little bit of faith got Simon Peter out on the water for a little stroll. When he noticed the waves and it kicked into his head that he was doing the impossible, the doubts flooded in. Jesus allowed Peter to drop into the water and taught him a valuable lesson that God can do the impossible and that we should trust Him. He did not say that when our doubts creep in that he will no longer be our source of physical strength. In fact it should be noted that when Doubting Peter fell into the water, he cried for help to Jesus and it was Jesus who reached down and pulled him out again. Peter's faith had been weakened, but it was not gone.

I've already written at length about the people whom God chose not to heal. The Apostle Paul is the most glaring example because we even have Paul's account of God telling him "No". But let's remember that in no way and at no time did Paul ever not have faith that God could heal him. He could have. He didn't. And that is the most important distinction we can draw. I have much faith that God can do the impossible. I have faith that if I pray and it is God's will, that He will do the impossible. However I also know that sometimes God chooses not to do the impossible.

To the best of my knowledge, He has never answered a prayer to move a mountain into the sea in spite of the fact Jesus told us we could do that with the tiniest amount of faith. So why isn't Kilimanjaro in the middle of the Atlantic? It is not God's will. No matter how much faith we have, if God doesn't want it done, it will not be done. There are some extremists (and I am not including my friend Dan) who say that we must have faith that God can do the impossible, that God will do the impossible, and that if we ask it, that God must do the impossible. Nonsense. God doesn't take His marching orders from us. If we are not careful in our thinking that God will always heal, we can move into the mindset that we are entitled to that healing because of our faith. That simply isn't true. Ask Paul.

These extremists are the people who belittle the faith of the disabled and chide the cancer-ridden for a lack of belief. Those are the people who get my dander up. (Whatever that means.) I've already shown that healing is not guaranteed by Psalm 53:5. I've written about the need to be asking in Jesus' authority, that is in agreement with His will, when we pray. But what I want to make clear is that we must have faith that God can heal, even in the most desperate situation, but we must accept that God will not heal if He has something better for us in mind. That means "better" from His perspective, not our perspective. And I'll have faith in Him that He knows what is best.

What we are called to have is the faith of Abednego. And Shadrach. And Meshach. The text says they all spoke the words, but I doubt they said them in unison, so I'm making Abednego the spokesman for the group. What words? In Daniel 3:16-18. You remember the situation. Daniel's three friends are about to be thrown into the incinerator for not bowing down to worship the golden image as they were commanded. Nebuchadnezzar gives them one final chance to worship the idol or be burned alive. That's when Abednego and company pronounced their words of faith:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
See that distinction? Our God is able to -- He can -- save us. He will rescue, but even if he does not... Wait! Is that a lack of faith? Of course not! Abednego and friends simply knew that sometimes God makes His point in other ways. We have no information that God disclosed any revelatory information to the three. They knew that God was able to save. They knew that if it was His will, he would save. But they also knew that God might have other plans, and they warned the king that even if God would let them burn to death, their faith in Him would not be diminished.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew the difference between faith that God can heal, faith that He will heal, and faith that He must heal. The lesson we must learn is that our faith should not suffer simply because God chooses not to answer our prayers for healing just as we ask. Believe that God can. Believe that if it is His will that He will. But never for a moment believe that He must. Only God is God.

Almighty God, give us the faith of Abednego.

Monday, February 20, 2006

It's Just a Game... or is it?

First -- it is a parody, so don't get wound up too tightly.

Second -- Yikes! It's surprisingly accurate!

Third -- Some mighty good points if you think about it.

(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Quotidian Grace.)

Arguing with a Fool

I spend time at a forum for race fans. Mostly the talk is about the Indianapolis 500 and open wheel racing, but we have a separate forum set up to discuss and argue current events. Much of the talk ends up as political rhetoric, and I don't get too involved unless somebody posts something really outlandish. But every once in a while a religious topic gets started. We had one of these late last week with people expressing strong opinions about Christianity promoting a "dumbed-down" version of science. It was a ridiculous complaint, but in itself the original debate was no big deal. However, as happens in many discussions, the topic began to scatter in a few different directions.

Many of the new directions were begun because of a poster I'll call "Ralph" who is very antagonistic toward Christianity. It was also quite apparent that Ralph didn't have much of a grasp of the basics of Christianity. His posts read like he had just heard something from a friend of his, or had found some extremist website to quote.

The folks at the racing forum know that I'm a pastor. A few people can't stand religion, Christ, God or any words which remind them of any deity. That really doesn't bother me. In real life, I probably would just ignore folks like Ralph -- well, not ignore him, but I wouldn't bother to try to "straighten him out" or anything similar. But an internet forum comes complete with an audience. There are posters and surfers alike who could read one of Ralph's ridiculous assertions and actually believe it. So I make it a point to at least give the other side of the story.

After a while, though, the debate gets boring. There is only so long I can stay interested in rebutting the arguments of someone who is not only misinformed, but also is making little sense. When Ralph mentioned people not reading the Bible all the way through from Genesis to Acts (yes, he thought Acts was the last book of the Bible!) I suggested that he really didn't know as much as Christianity as he thought, so perhaps he should check his facts before he makes a post. His defense missed the point entirely.

The argument has subsided now. The outlandish claims about Christians have ceased for the time being. And I realize that I did what I had to do. But the whole process got me thinking. Have I ever been guilty of shooting my mouth off out of ignorance? Have I repeated something I have heard without checking it out first? In short, am I guilty of doing the same thing I found so frustrating and amusing in Ralph?

Of course, I'm guilty. I've trusted people who were actually not that trustworthy. And I've passed along information that I accidentally distorted along the way -- a faulty attention span and bad hearing help. There have been times when people who were debating with me were actually arguing with a fool. That's a shame. I know better. To pass along some information is simply gossip. To not check the facts is simply lazy.

"Lord I pray that You will continually remind me not to be a fool when I'm supposed to be representing You."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Night

Why is it that male ice dancers feel the need to wear a plunging neckline on their little jumpsuits? I'm old enough to remember disco. I don't need the flashbacks, thank you very much.

Can a person go out and buy a bobsled somewhere?

Would someone please go out and get Steve some coffee?!?!

It appears to me that fans of a sport watch for the skill and artistry while interested bystanders watch to see people crash. Funny thing, most of the Daytona 500 highlights are the crashes. Same could be said for figure skating and short track speed skating.

Why is it that John from Locusts and Honey can mention that I deserve a monthly column in Christianity Today and six people come to check out my post, but when he mentions that I wrote about "size matters" I get almost 50 hits?

How nuts do you have to be to cross country ski?

I purposely left my post, "When God Doesn't Heal" at the top of the blog all weekend. It generated only two comments on the site, but the private emails have been enlightening. It's amazing the people who have been told they don't have enough faith. Forgive me for not answering all of you.

I had a guy try to tell me that Genesis was the most read book of the Bible. I wouldn't even put Genesis in the top ten. In fact the only Old Testament book would probably be Psalms. What do you think? Which book of the Bible is the most read?

Friday, February 17, 2006

When God Doesn't Heal

When someone is sick, I pray for healing. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn't. I can deal with that. After all, God is sovereign, and He has a much better perspective on what is best in each individual sitution than I could ever hope for. What I can't deal with are the folks on either extreme who claim that it is always God's will to heal and their counterparts who never really come out and say that God doesn't do healings anymore, but that's the way they pray. Those in the latter category I'll let off easy today. Dan at Cerelean Sanctum has already posted a great piece about the need to believe that Jesus really can still heal. Besides, I think those who really don't think God ever heals are suffering from a bigger problem -- a very superficial relationship with their Creator.

But on the other end of the spectrum, I've encountered some people who have actually claimed that God will always heal, if we have the faith. I've found that attitude rather sad. Allow me to steal this story from Pastor Jon's Blog. A lady called into a radio "ask the pastor" talk show.

The lady, who was obviously crying, said, "Pastor, I was born blind, and I've been blind all my life. I don't mind being blind but I have some well meaning friends who tell me that if I had more faith I could be healed."

The pastor asked her, "Tell me, do you carry one of those white canes?"

"Yes I do," she replied.

"Then the next time someone says that hit them over the head with the cane," He said. "Then tell them, 'If you had more faith that wouldn't hurt!'"

How insulted suffering folks have been from well-meaning, but ill-informed Christians like these. The arguments they give me are interesting but are drawn from an incomplete look at Scripture and the evidence surrounding us.

First, they say the Jesus didn't turn away anyone who needed healing. And to the best of my knowledge that is correct. In all the time Jesus walked the earth, I see no instance of Jesus turning down someone who asked for healing. The exception of course is that Jesus didn't do miracles where people had no faith in Him. Again, that point is granted. But to make a blanket statement from this argument ignores the times when the post-ascension Jesus did not heal. Paul's thorn in the flesh of 2 Corinthians is a prime example. So is Timothy and his stomach problems. And we could also go further and mention that within the time frame of the New Testament, John the Baptist and James, the son of Zebedee were each executed. Why didn't God intervene in any of these situations?

Paul tells us that he was given that thorn to keep him from getting a big head about all the special revelation he had been given. When he prayed (three times) for it to be taken away, he was told that God's grace was sufficient -- healing wasn't necessary. Now if God's grace is enough and thorns are given to teach in Paul's case, why would we think that we need more than God's grace? Do we not need to learn? Is the example of the refiner's fire, burning out impurities, irrelevent to our lives today? Of course not. Our suffering serves a purpose for our good. Our ultimate healing isn't the point. Our changed lives will bring glory to God.

Common sense tells us that we're all going to die. Many of us will die of a sickness or a disease. We are not plucked from the earth like Enoch or driven off in a fiery chariot like Elijah. Sometimes our sicknesses accomplish our exit from this world and entrance into the next. And thank God they do!

I have been told that healing is provided for in the atonement -- that is, that when Jesus died, He bore the punishment for our sins as well as our sickness on the cross. The proof text Isaiah 53:5 is often tossed at me, "By His stripes we are healed." But a closer look at the context shows that the prophet is speaking in parallel lines. The first two lines of verse 5 refer to Jesus' physical sufferings and our physical sins. These next two lines deal with Jesus' physical punishment and our spiritual state.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Unless we somehow believe that our life is all peace, we have to see this as a spiritual peace between perfect Judge God and dirty sinners Us. So the parallelism tells us that we are dealing with a physical punishment to bring about a spiritual peace and a spiritual healing. Nothing about this verse promises us a life free from sickness if we have the faith.

Besides, if we were physically healed by Jesus' wounds, why would we ever get sick in the first place?

What about where James tells us:

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
It sounds pretty straightforward. However, so does this passage:

Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

But if we look carefully at passages like John 14:12-14, we see that we are to be asking things "in my(Jesus') name" for our prayers to be answered as we wish. The phrase "in Jesus' name" is not a magic spell to be uttered for a prayer to work. It means that we pray in the authority of Jesus. So our prayer -- whether for a blessing, a gift or a healing -- must be in accordance with His will if God is going to answer it. The two or three of us on earth must agree with God's will in the situation. God will not grant our prayer if it contradicts His will.

If one takes the position that it is always God's will to heal, one must also fall back on the excuse that anyone not healed lacks sufficient faith. Yet at the same time, Jesus tells us that even faith the size of a mustard seed, which was the smallest seed known by that generation, is enough to move a mountain into the sea. So how small must a believer's faith be if he or she is not healed? It must not exist! Or if it does, it is small enough to be negligible. And realize that nobody is throwing mountains into the sea because it is obviouly not God's will.

Now, let's get back to the obviously-not-faith-decificent apostle Paul. Or maybe Timothy. Is anyone going to seriously float the idea that either of these two didn't have faith the size of a mustard seed? Alright, what about modern folks? Joni Erickson Tada was paralyzed in an accident as a teenager. She prayed in faith many, many times, and has written about those experiences. So why is she still in a wheelchair? Why does Billy Graham have Parkinson's? Why do men and women of God wear glasses or walk with canes? Why do some faith healers wear toupees (and bad ones at that!)? Without enough faith?

A few years ago, my aunt died after a five-year struggle with lymph cancer. During the struggle, this woman with faith larger than a mustard seed was anointed and prayed for by the elders of the church, as called for in James. Cancer still took her. A lady in my church is now fighting the same type of battle. So are another dozen acquaintances. My neighbor was called home on New Year's Eve. He was never healed of his cancer.

Most everyone reading this could start a list like this of people of faith who have not been healed or died of their sickness. Yet instead of learning from Scripture, a few would rather tell these people they are "lacking in faith" -- almost accusing them of not being saved at all. How very sad. It is always easier to see the faults of others than to rightly understand that God doesn't always heal. Hopefully it won't take a whack to the head with a blind lady's white cane for these to see how God is glorified through the healthy and the sick, the blind and the seeing, the deaf and the hearing. God is glorified by healing, sure, and I've seen it happen. But God is also glorified through a life well-lived in spite of debilitating injury or a damaging illness. I know that I am inspired by a Christian whose faith is not destroyed even if their normal "healthy" body is. Praise God that He is thus glorified!

UPDATE! See also The Faith of Abednego for more thoughts on this subject.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Good Reads - 2/16/06

I know the Carnival is up and there's plenty to read there, but here are some posts I can recommend for your intellectual and not-that-intellectual stimulation:

I'll begin with what is quite simply a must-read, especially if you are fighting or know someone who is fighting cancer. Written by John Piper on the eve of his prostate cancer surgery, bookmark this piece called, Don't Waste Your Cancer.

I briefly alluded to this post at IMonk before, but I'll give it a full-fledged plug (because a half-fledged plug isn't worth the fledging). It's called Three Questions About a "Secret" Rapture.

At Brain Twitch, Tom talks about a possible misunderstanding of Discipleship & The Great Commission.

Are we Christians obligated to tithe? Jeremy at Parableman has a good read on the Tithing argument .

One of the books I've wrestled with in 2006 is George Barna's revolution. Al Mohler gives a good review of the poor solution offered by Barna with A Revolution in the Making?

How 'bout some more Piper? He points out that unlike Muhammad, the essence of Christ's work is Being Mocked. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Stephen at Doggie's Breakfast and to Adrian Warnock.)

It's not "Footprints", but it's close. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Milton at Transforming Sermons.)

Finally, this "touching" post from Ben Witherington, What To Give Mom on Valentine's.

Tagged on the First Date

I just discovered a blog this past week which I recently added to my blogroll. It's called Created for HIS Glory and the lady behind it is kinda crazy, but that works for me. Anyway, Lauren has already tagged me with a meme! (Gasp! The Horror!) Normally I don't do that kind of thing, especially on the first date, but it's an important question and an easy one for me:
What’s one thing you have learned to do differently to make your marriage
better? or one thing you think is important to a good marriage?

I occasionally conduct a wedding ceremony, and this bit of advice is always a part of each one. Two words -- be stubborn. Most brides and grooms have no trouble with this bit of advice, but I don't mean it as a blank check to be so caught up in your own self that you refuse to change. What I am talking about is the commitment made by a man and a woman to become one. Leave aside the physical aspects of two becoming one and realize that each newlywed has committed themselves to a married relationship "till death do us part." It is not a temporary deal, but a lifetime contract. Since that is the case, we must be stubborn enough to keep our word to love, honor and cherish... till death do us part.

Far too many people go into marriage with the vision of sticking with it as long as the spouse makes them happy. That's not what was promised. As a husband and a wife, we must be stubborn enough to work through the problems of gaining weight, screaming kids, overdue bills, and too many hours on the job. And if we can be stubborn when it comes to getting what we want, why can't we be stubborn enough to keep our promise? It was a promise made before assembled friends and family and before God, after all.

I'm not sure if I learned this specifically for marriage or not. I've always been one to stick with relationship commitments -- friends, dogs, cats, etc. But like most people, I'm prone to being the most stubborn when it's about me. I don't know when it happened, but I know that sticking with a marriage is about me.

So there you have it. Be stubborn about your marriage. It's worth saving.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

How To Get Here - Post-Valentine's Edition

No wonder traffic is up here at Attention Span... most every search string in the world seems to direct people here. All roads lead to Attention Span, including these:

drunken bobsled spectacular - A group of people who don't know enough not to Drink and Slide. Doesn't this just scream, "Pay-per-view event!"?

easy see targets - Which are, of course, better for practice than, say, invisible targets.

my wife's - I'm hoping this wasn't googled by a polygamist with grammar issues.

2006 winter olympics jesus - Sounds like one in a series of new action figures. Super Bowl XL Jesus, World Cup Jesus, Indianapolis 500 Jesus... collect the whole set!

does the town pay for my mailbox if the snowplow destroys it - Probably not, unless you can prove that your mailbox didn't just jump into the snowplow's path.

science project on moldy bagels - Not the thing I wanted to read right at breakfast time.

Olympic snow sweeping - Sounds like someone has been drinking while watching the Olympic coverage. Maybe it's the same person looking for the drunken bobsled spectacular.

2006 medals that have been a word - OK, it's time for someone to get this person away from the computer...

hair perm punishment - I'm really starting to get a bit concerned that I get three or four of these searches each week. I suspect there is a cult of brainwashed cosmotologists putting their kids through curly-headed torture.

what is right and wrong - Sometimes I find a string that just makes me wonder what was going on in this person's life that made him or her think that the answers to life's problems could be googled. If it were that easy, God would have written the Law upon our hard drives instead of our hearts and equipped us with WiFi and a real-live laptop instead of a lap.

Last, but not least, you can get to Attention Span from Christian Carnival CIX which is posted now over at Pursuing Holiness.

How Big Is Too Big?

I've always been very open about the size of a church. If a church of 25 people is really worshiping God and serving Him in a meaningful way, then that's great! Similarly, if a church of 2500 is really worshiping God and serving Him in a meaningful way, then that's great too! For obvious reasons, the larger church in this comparison is more likely to be really worshiping and meaningfully serving because there are plenty of people to do ministry and funds to back it all up. But if the little church can pull it off, more power to 'em! Size doesn't matter.

As I was checking in on some of the Big Shots in my blogroll, I found a great post from the Internet Monk about the lack of biblical support for a "secret rapture" and was enjoying it thoroughly. I generally seem to enjoy a post more when I agree with it! Then I started in on what promised to be a long string of comments after the post. I hadn't even reached the tenth comment when I hit a sentence which made me stop dead in my tracks:
I’ve had a similar experience, except that my church is too big for me to actually talk with my pastor.
Stop. Rewind.
...my church is too big for me to actually talk with my pastor.
Now maybe for many of you, that sentence means nothing. But as a pastor, that sentence breaks my heart.

I understand the way larger churches operate -- a series of pastors on staff taking care of different responsibilities with pastoral care, teaching, shepherding, visitation, administration, music, small groups, youth -- but what kind of church is too big for an individual to not be able to talk with his or her pastor. One of the major roles of the pastor is to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. What kind of spiritual leader is not accessible?

Deep breath here. I realize that this was just the perception of one person within the congregation. I'm sure the pastor in question here is probably just dying to talk eschatology with each grandparent, single mom and college student in the church. But the point is that the pastor and or the church is giving the impression that the individual member isn't important enough to take up the senior pastor's valuable time. Look, if I'm part of a church where the pastor stands behind the pulpit or in front of the assembled masses and says that when Jesus returns He'll be passing out Girls Gone Wild videos and saving all Christians, Muslims and Hare Krishnas, there is nothing on this earth that is going to keep me from speaking to the pastor about it! Nor should there be.

We are baptised into one Church, one body. We have different functions, but we are one in Christ Jesus. We are not an insignificant part -- not so insignificant as to not deserve an explanation from the guy doing the preaching. If a church is actually set up so that the pastor can not be contacted with spiritual or doctrinal questions, or if it gives the congregation that impression, the church is too big. Period. I'm not concerned with drawing lines of 1000 people or 2500 people or 5000 people or even 100 people. My concern is that a pastor is just that -- a pastor. He is to be accountable for his teachings and available to the people. He doesn't have to recognize each church-goer when they pass one another in the supermarket aisle, but he does need to shred the insulation around him until it is known that the pastor's door is always open to the first-time visitor as well as to the Administrative Board Chairman. Plus it is his responsibility to be sure that each member of the congregation knows that. A church which is too big for an individual to come talk to the senior pastor about what was taught during the service is too big.

And so, I never thought I'd say it, but I've come to the conclusion that size matters.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New Evidence Supports Conspiracy Theory!

I'm not big into conspiracy theories. I think people naturally try to find a reason why things didn't go the way they think they should. So people look for a second gunman, or a secret controlling organization, or a governmental cover-up to explain why their own theories are right and the available facts are manipulated and false. Just look at the hype over The DaVinci Code and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I watched the game like countless others, disgusted by some of the worst officiating this side of the WWE. Being as I was pulling for the Seahawks, I got a little tired of the calls which usually seemed to benefit Pittsburgh. The next day I heard the many complaints that the referees were favoring the Steelers, including a few verbal jabs from Seattle's head coach. Of course, I just brushed those comments off as the ravings of disappointed fans and deranged lunatics.

That was before I saw a tape of the game and noticed something rather unusual. In view of this new evidence, I think there may be something to the charge of biased officiating in the Super Bowl. Maybe the refs actually were for the Steelers. See what you think:

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There you have it. The conspiracy theory holds up!

I found this picture and couldn't stop laughing. I just had to share. A tip of the ol' ball cap to Brad of Happy Mills.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bearing His Name

Flipping through the radio pre-sets today, I happened across Rush Limbaugh. Now I'll tell you up front that I don't enjoy listening to Limbaugh. Mostly it's because of his gargantuan ego, or at least the egotisical attitude he presents on his program. It also has something to do with the constant political bickering of which I've become so incredibly sick, that is part and parcel of his remarks. Even when I agree with him, I don't like doing it. Ever have that problem?

Anyway, I hit Rush's show just as he was taking a call -- a man complaining about something Limbaugh had said at the outset of the program. The caller's purpose was to chew out Limbaugh for bringing up an event from 35 years previous. But what caught my attention was the mode of attack. He told Rush something to the effect of, "You call yourself a Christian, but you're not acting like one." Then he asked point blank: "Are you a Christian?"

After a long pause, Limbaugh mumbled around and turned the question back on the caller. "What about you? Are you a Christian?"

Now I was a little surprised that Limbaugh simply ducked the question. I expected him to give some sort of lip service to his faith, but he avoided taking the name, "Christian." But I waited to hear what the indignant caller was going to say.

"Well, I was raised Catholic, and I try to follow the teachings of Jesus. I don't agree with all..."

"Well we all try to follow the teachings of Jesus, or Allah, or whoever," Limbaugh interrupted. From there the conversation degenerated into the same old political tripe, so I switched the station.

As I thought back over that brief snippet of the program, I realized that I had heard two people claiming to be moral and upright who couldn't bring themselves to call themselves "Christian". Each wanted to express his own claim on religion and spirituality, but neither had the intestinal fortitude to bear His name. They had no problem with Jesus as a general moral principle, but didn't want all the perceived negatives of Jesus' teachings tied to them.

I understand why it can be intimidating to bear the name of Christ. He was perfect. We are not. Many people can't move beyond that. If we represent the Perfect One, shouldn't we also be perfect? It would be nice, wouldn't it? But it's not happening. The sanctification process won't be complete this side of heaven. So there is a logical perception problem for many people. Christians are labelled as hypocrites because we can't live up to what we desire.

But beyond that issue, the name "Christian" seems to have taken on so much baggage that being a nominal Christian isn't as appealing as it used to be. Being a Christian now means being intolerant, hateful, homophobic, stuck-in-the-past, ignorant, AND hypocritical. At least that's the way many see us. It's become bad enough that some can try to follow what Jesus taught -- at least the parts they can agree with -- but never want to be associated with being a Christian.

Do we even want to change that perception? Having fewer Christians-in-name-only dragging Christ's name through the mud by their actions might ease some of the false charges made against those who bear His name. But how are we representing our Lord?

The Gospel is certainly an offense. Jesus' teachings aren't meant to make us feel good or important. He doesn't promise us the respect of the world. Being a Christian doesn't make one's problems go away. It's so much more self-gratifying to take what we want from the Bible or from the Church and toss the rest away. Why not use the name of Christ at our convenience and don't worry about Him the rest of the time? Pray only when you have a problem. Pull out the Bible and dust it off if you want to impress someone with your spirituality. Express your respect for Jesus, but claim that the Church has so corrupted His teachings that we are better off interpreting His words for ourselves. And above all, refuse to call ourselves Christians if we are asked directly.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." - 1 Corinthians 1:16-17.

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. - Luke 9:26.

So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God... - 2 Timothy 1:8.

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. - 1 Peter 4:16.

"Lord, don't ever let me be half-hearted about bearing Your precious Name."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Just Doing My Duty

Imagine yourself on a sunny Tuesday morning. It's September, but the picture around you still looks like summer -- only without the unbearable heat and humidity. You are on the job. Working your shift to earn your pay. Just doing your duty.

As someone who responds to emergencies, when a call comes in, you respond. Simple as that. So when the call comes in on that beautiful September day, you get in the vehicle and head into what could certainly be trouble. But that isn't the point. No matter what awaits, you have a job to do; a duty to perform.

That was the situation which many firefighters and police officers found themselves in back on a sunny Tuesday morning in September of 2001. People were in trouble and it was the job of the emergency personnel to help them out. In return for "just doing their duty" many lost their lives, more still live with the nightmarish memory of what happened on September 11th in New York City. We've called these people heroes because they gave of themselves. And while I'll agree that people who work as firefighters and police officers and ambulance drivers and emergency medical personnel are doing the work of heroes, to those in those positions they are simply doing their job. I doubt that any of the men and women who rushed up the stairs of the World Trade Center buildings that morning was thinking about being called a hero. They were just doing their duty.

Jesus posed an interesting question concerning the way someone is treated who is just doing their duty. He couched it in terms which were easily understood in His day, but hard to grasp in ours. Jesus said:

Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, "Come along now and sit down to eat"? Would he not rather say, "Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink"? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?
The Master is pointing out something very basic, but often overlooked. A person doesn't deserve a reward for doing what he is supposed to be doing all along. If he gets one, fine, but he shouldn't expect a bonus for fulfilling his obligation. That's what duty is, after all. An obligation. If I am being paid to plow a field, then why would I expect to finish and have my employer rush out to me, thank me profusely and then offer to take me out for a steak dinner? I just did what I was supposed to do... what I was paid to do... what I agreed to do when I took the job.

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I remember when Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr. broke the record for consecutive games played, formerly held by Yankee great, Lou Gerhig. A lot of pomp and circumstance surrounded Ripken's every game, waiting until the streak hit 2131 games. When it did, the stadium exploded in an ovation which lasted for 22 minutes. Ripken himself though, always felt funny about being hailed in such a way. After all, he was just showing up for work every day.

At my kids' school, there is an incentive program to promote good behavior in school. If a kid can manage not to get into trouble more than three times in nine weeks, they are given a reward -- usually a field trip or a pizza party or the like. Let me rephrase this: if they do what they are supposed to do -- behave while in school -- they get rewarded! This is not for going beyond the call. This is for doing what they are supposed to be doing in the first place! They have it backwards. The reward for being good is not getting into trouble, just like the reward for doing your job is not getting fired. But today we seem to feel that we should be recognized for doing our duty. We love those rewards. They owe us! I know my kids' school is tame as far as the whole reward good behavior movement is concerned. I heard someone on the radio this week talking about a school in California where all the kids with perfect attendance for the year were given the chance to win a new Mustang convertable! How could anyone ever expect to deserve that kind of prize just for showing up in class every day?

We can complain about all we want but if we are honest, we know from experience that even a fine upstanding Christian person usually looks for a reward for doing our Christian duty. C'mon. You know. That feeling of expectation deep inside wondering why no one has publically thanked you for teaching the Junior High Sunday School class for the past three years. That disappointment you feel when nobody mentions it when you go out of your way to distribute church bulletins to everyone, but the one person you miss complains long and loud to everyone. We love our acclaim, our public thanks, the compliments on a job well done just as much as the Pharisees loved to get the good seats and receive the respect of the people. And we remember what Jesus had to say about them.

Church fund raising experts say that if a church wants to increase giving from the congregation, it needs to effusively thank each giver and personally recognize them for every last gift he or she has given to the church. It may be effective, but it's nonsense. As a Christian it's my duty to support God's work through the local church, and I'm to do that without looking for a thank you card, a public show of appreciation or a tax deduction. You see, I owe God much more than what I can give. I shouldn't be giving or serving just so I can feel appreciated.

I've taken far too long to explain what took Jesus only four verses to say. Namely that we are called to obedience as Christians. We are to serve Christ -- not for the acclaim or the reputation or the restaurant gift certificate given as a thank you -- we serve because that is our duty. If we feel sleighted because we are never rewarded, get over yourself. You don't deserve a reward. You're not special. You're just doing your duty.

As Christians, we were bought at a price. That price was the blood of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian means we are not owed, we are owned. Our service is simply our duty to our Master. Our duty is obedience to Him who owns us.

I Must Have Really Messed Up on THIS Quiz...

You Should Get a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts)

You're a blooming artistic talent, even if you aren't quite convinced.
You'd make an incredible artist, photographer, or film maker.
I'm not even close to convinced. Arts, perhaps... fine arts, nope. Dining, yes... fine dining, no. Fine wine, no. Fine hair, no. OK, how 'bout... hair, no.
(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Kim.)

Good Reads - 2/11/06

Here are a few links to things which touched my heart this week, and I think they just might touch yours:

Imagine being pregnant at 14. martha, martha tells of the girl whom no words could help.

Ever been in a time of spiritual darkness? Some thoughts at My Life in Christ.

And if you're in the mood for some controversy, try this post at World Magazine about Evolution Sunday tomorrow. If you're really brave, try the comments section where atheists and believers and those in between spar in written form. As I type this, there are 117 comments, the last of which says in part,

"You and others seem convinced that atheists will go to this place you call hell. Like I said before I think you're an idiot."

Venture forth, if you dare... (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Dunker Journal.)

Spiraling Toward Geekdom

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By no means am I ready to don a Federation uniform or pick up a phaser, but I fear I am spiraling slowly into Geekdom. There are many levels of geekdom. All of us qualify for geekhood in one category or another. There are the geeks who wait in line outside of movie theaters for days and days to be among the first to see the new science fiction flick. There are tech geeks who simply must have the newest, fastest and slickest hardware and the coolest software as soon as it becomes available. There are the geeks who sit with glasses taped together, comparing theorem proofs and physics experiments. There are geeks who could care less about the game, but live for the statistics. And of course there are geeks like Bill Gates who could buy and sell all of us in revenge for getting too many wedgies in high school.

My geekship came to light as I received a catalog called, "The Great Courses" which consists of recorded lectures in a classroom format. It's like going to grad school without the bills or the college credit. And I have to admit, it's appealing. The courses come delivered on DVD, VHS, CD or audio cassette. Anywhere from a handful to nearly 100 30-minute lectures are packaged and sent out for your learning pleasure. All for a bargain price.

I really enjoy learning. If it weren't for the cost, I'd start on my doctorate tomorrow. But it's not the degree which is alluring. I even skipped the ceremony when I recieved my Master's -- the attention didn't mean anything to me. It was the knowledge which I craved. I guess I still do.

Thumbing through the catalog, my attention turned first to the courses on religion. These are usually a disappointment unless the school is evangelical in nature. Otherwise you have to put up with liberal or secular scholars who can teach you about the opposing views, but little about your own. I noted that the courses on the New Testament, the Historical Jesus, the Canon and Early Christian History are taught by Bart D. Ehrman, who is certainly learned, but not exactly an adherant to the inerrancy of Scripture. Old Testament is presented by Amy-Jill Levine, who is a bit closer to my own view, but not quite on the money. A course on Jesus and the Gospels is taught by Luke Timothy Johnson, and that sounds very appealing. Also a course on the five major world religions could be interesting as well, but it's down a bit on my list. I also noted a course on The Great Ideas of Philosophy.

I've always had an interest in history, and that section features a U. S. History course which looks fascinating. Individual studies on the Supreme Court, Augstine,Hitler, and Books That Have Made History also look interesting. There is even a course on C. S. Lewis for only $19.95 on CD which may end up as a necessity for me. If I was really smart, I'd set up an exchange program with some fellow geeks and overload on information.

Why does the desire for knowledge categorize one as a geek? Does it go back to school days when the "cool" people barely passed and the geeks studied and learned? Or is it a self-reliance illusion? Many don't learn because they claim they can get along fine without that knowledge. In some cases, they are right. I know I haven't needed my experience with quadratic equations anytime since my freshman year of college, but the vocabulary development class I took that same year is used most every week.

I think there are also some other reasons which go into the "ignorance is bliss" mindset. Some don't want to push themselves to learn for fear of discovering just how much they don't know. Why bring up new questions if you are perfectly content ignoring the old questions? Also there is a fear of revealing our ignorance to others. This is the condition which prevented us from raising our hands to answer a question in school. We don't want to look stupid -- we want to look like that knowledge isn't important. That means we are not unintelligent. We are simply efficient, understand what we need to do and what is a waste of our time.

I'm sure this same mindset has crept over into the lives of many Christians. The "don't learn any more than I have to" philosophy keeps believers from experiencing a fuller, more satisfying walk with Jesus Christ. It just breaks my heart to see a person with over sixty years of church-going experience who cannot find 1 Samuel in their Bible without using the Table of Contents. I cringe when supposedly mature saints cannot articulate basic doctrine -- or worse yet, articulate doctrine which is downright heretical, thinking this is how all Christians believe.

Well, here's a tip of the ol' ballcap to geeks everywhere who seek out more knowledge. And here's a word of encouragement to all believers to become a geek and seek after their Savior. If you seek Him, you will find Him, if you seek with all your heart. What are you waiting for? Geekdom awaits!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Life Ain't Fair" - R-E-V-I-S-I-T-E-D

I was given a link to this story from a Reno, Nevada newspaper. It's a typical tale from our legitious society, I 'm afraid. In short, eighth-grader, Sara Beckman, was involved in the county spelling bee when she was given the word "discernible". She spelled it correctly, but since it was misspelled on the judges' sheets, Sara was disqualified. The error was not brought to the moderator's attention immediately, and the bee continued. Now Sara and her parents have a lawyer who says he will file suit if the final round isn't replayed. The bee officials say that the rules were distributed and read, and since the rules for a protest weren't followed Sara was eliminated from the competition.

I'm an old spelling bee veteran. I never got as far as Sara though. I did reach the county competition twice, and just missed a third time. My youngest son is the alternate for the county spelling bee tonight. I've been through this before. And let me tell you, there is nothing fair about a spelling bee. Oh sure, it's as fair as can be practically accomplished. But the kid after you always gets an easy word -- especially after you'd just had to spell "mononucleosis" or "longitudinally". Plus some kids are terrified of standing up in front of strangers, while others are comfortable showing off in front of others. It's never going to be completely fair.

Back in November, I blogged about the unfairness of life. But such an obvious concept eludes us periodically. We think contests should always be on a level playing field, but it's never that way. Just wait until the Olympic figure skating starts and the announcers have to explain away the marks from the Russian judge. Or check out the recent whining about the lousy officiating in the Super Bowl last weekend. Even instant replay can't make everything fair. Why would anyone think a lawsuit could solve problems in a spelling bee?

When there's a prize or a title on the line we try to be even more cautious about not playing favorites. Coming up Monday and Tuesday is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Being dog-lovers, my family and I don't miss a year of this show. If you've never watched a dog show, the canines are judged on different criteria. Each dog is judged according to how closely it resembles the breed standard. Some breeds standards are a little easier to measure up to than others. Yet the show is in it's 130th year. But it's not fair.

I doubt that we could really call beauty pageants fair either. Everyone's standard of beauty is different. I know that I can never pick the winner of a beauty pageant in the opening parade.

The problem with our obsession with fairness is we tend to focus on the here and now. We value our treasures on earth far more than we ought. We act as if we believe that all good gifts are given to those who work, sweat and study to earn them and that the trophies, plaques and medals will never dull or tarnish. I'm not advocating laziness, but we cannot afford to base our hopes, dreams and identities on earthly honors.

For Sara the speller, I'm sorry that the officials messed up your big chance to go to the state finals. But at the same time there are going to be bigger injustices in your life. However I pray that you and your family come to the realization that it really doesn't matter. The spelling trophies are impressive to show off for a couple of years, but eventually they get dull and they end up in the way. Your obvious intelligence will serve you well -- with or without a trip to the state spelling bee. And the guy taking advantage of the situation is that lawyer friend of yours.

Life ain't fair. But our eternity will be determined by the only fair judge. He has no distorted agendas nor any false information. He reads hearts, and He reads them perfectly and fairly. And if yours belongs to Him, you won't be disqualified.

Surprising Beauty

My wife looks surprisingly beautiful tonight. Please don't take that wrong. She is beautiful almost every minute of the day. But there are some days when I'm reminded just how beautiful she really is. It's just an ordinary day. She's still wearing her work clothes -- black dress slacks and a purple top. Her hair isn't done much differently than normal. But there's just something about 'her today which sets her apart. It's surprising when something just leaps right out at you, and maybe that's why I say she looks surprisingly beautiful.

There are times when I've expected her to be beautiful. I knew that when she walked down the aisle in her wedding dress that she would be spectacular, and she was. But I wasn't surprised. I remember a day six months afterward when I was first surprised by my wife's beauty. It was a Christmas party for the radio station I was working for at the time. I had turned in my two week notice, and my wife and I were preparing to move back to Indiana. For the first half year of our married life we were living six hours from any family. But we were ready to move back and my wife was thrilled about it. That night she wore a winter white outfit with gold earrings set against her black hair and pink complexion. The smile on her face was that of a happy woman, full of expectation about the future and content in her life. That whole evening I kept looking at us in mirrors, somehow unsure that I could have ever hoped to have married a woman this beautiful.

There have been other days when I have been surprised by this woman's beauty, but there is something special today. I don't know why. But I'm glad I'm here to see it and experience it.

I'm not surprised easily. But there are days when God surprises me with His beauty as well. I sense the unexpected blessing of a friend's words. I feel the love of my son as he asks for my help. I see the majesty of a clear, starry night or of a sunset with zillions of pink and purple hues brushed across the horizon. And I become more fully aware of His direction and instruction while reading words written thousands of years ago to another man who saw His surprising beauty. Sure, He's beautiful all the time, but there are just some days when that beauty surprises me.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How To Get Here - Early Feb. '06 Edition

More real-life search strings which directed visitors to Attention Span:

why I souldn't drink - Perhaps because it affects your spelling?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN YOU ARE ALWAYS DIZZY? - A unreasonable need to capitalize everything?

Ed pills - That's right. My middle name is Levitra.

triple digit snowmobile racing - I wasn't aware of a racing league for people with only three fingers...

i puked up my shoes - Maybe you souldn't drink.

refrigerator gunk - You can tell this ain't no recipe blog, huh?

can i still have a perm if i have psoriasis - Frankly, I just don't know how to answer this one.

Of course you can get to Attention Span from Christian Carnival CVIII which is posted now over at Part-Time Pundit.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

An Odd Parallel

Little did I know that when I picked up the little book revolution by George Barna that I would be handling such a controversial topic. I've been reading some of the many reviews and reactions to Barna's book around the blogosphere, and have recognized the age-old (at least my age) argument of whether a Christian needs to be a part of a local church. Tod Bolsinger is doing an extremely good job of taking on Barna's ideas point by point and I refer you to his blog for individual posts like these linked in this run-on sentence. At Pyromaniacs, James Spurgeon is dealing with the same issue in a current series of posts also. His position is bluntly put in this quote:

I'll say it again. When you quit church, you quit following Christ. I don't say that to be mean or nasty. I say that in love and in hopes of getting some to re-think their actions.

Then I ran into this note from Al Mohler's blog about the passing of feminist leader Betty Friedan over the weekend. Here are a couple of quotes from that post:

Her thesis was that American women were coming to recognize that the arena of the home, with the traditional role of wife and mother, was just not enough. As she famously posed the question, women were supposed to be asking, "Is this all?"

In any event, the death of Betty Friedan reminds us that the modern feminist movement's beginnings can be traced directly to a deep dissatisfaction with the arena of the home -- and to the denial of the roles of wife and mother as truly satisfying, truly important -- and truly worth the devotion of a woman's life.
As I read these quotes, I was immediately drawn back to the controversy of the need for belonging to a local church. The genesis of the feminist movement, as illustrated in the quotes above, was a dissatisfaction in the way things were. Some women didn't feel that home or kids or the life of being an unpaid slave was the way things should be. So they set their sights on having more. Meanwhile, the "revolutionary" held up by Barna is also someone who isn't fulfilled in a local church, so he leaves and sets out looking for more. Like the feminist, the revolutionary isn't searching for rules or expectations. Each is seeking a sense of freedom. Yet in this freedom is a desire for finding a way to please God by pleasing oneself.

As Bolsinger points out, this isn't a new or revolutionary phenomenon. People have been looking for their own breed of religion for centuries. They see the obvious flaws in the organization known as the Church and feel that they can't deal with such imperfect people. The trouble is that each person brings his or her own imperfections. And someone with only a desire for selfish fulfillment misses the point of taking up one's cross to follow Another. Those who reject the institutional church miss out on the opportunites which only a group of like-minded, accountable-to-others believers can provide. Sure there are problems in each church. That's the point. Together we are the body of Christ. Separately we are all thumbs, and far too liable to interpreting our faith through the filter of what pleases us. We become dissatisfied when we forget that the Church is not about pleasing us, but pleasing God.

I don't know why Barna's book reads like a recommendation of abandoning the local church. He is a researcher. I fully accept his read on a current trend happening within the boundaries of what is labelled Christianity. But somewhere along the line Barna goes from reporter to cheerleader, and perhaps that's what has set so many people on edge. But that's a post for another day.

Monday, February 06, 2006

A Hint of the Eternal

When I was a boy, there was a place which always held a bit of mystery. A few miles north of where I grew up was a spring. We called it Flowing Well. Situated near the side of a road was a small gazebo of sorts with what looked to be a large drinking fountain situated underneath. The floor was paved stone with a circular stone platform which looked like a big bowl. Near the middle of the bowl was a slightly elevated pipe where water bubbled out two holes in the top. The inside the hollowed-out area was wet and rusty-brown from the minerals in the water. There was also a spigot on the side of the stone platform where people would bring in old milk jugs to fill up.

As a kid it was a special treat to stop at Flowing Well for a drink. I'm sure that many times my parents would have rather driven by without stopping, but most of the time we would take an extra five minutes to take a drink of spring water. It always seemed to taste better than "normal" water, although for the life of me I can't figure out why. Maybe it was just that the trip was special. Or perhaps it was because there was something mysterious about Flowing Well. It never closed. We stopped early in the morning and late at night, but no matter when it was the water was still running. It didn't stop. That was fascinating.

I drove by Flowing Well about a week ago. It's still there. And do you know what? The water is still running. It hasn't stopped. The little gazebo roof over the stone platform has been rebuilt after a car missed a curve and knocked it down. The owners of the spring now bottle the water. In fact, I can buy it while I'm out traveling in the summertime (and pay $1.25 for it!) It still tastes like water -- nothing spectacular, just refreshing. But at Flowing Well the spring is still bubbling up from the ground.

My memory goes back a good forty years and I remember that water flowing for at least that long. I honestly don't know when that spring first started shooting water from the depths, and I don't know how long it will continue. But it reminds me of the whole concept of eternality. God has always been and will always be. That's really more than my mind can take in. But it's easier for my brain to wrap itself around the idea of a well that hasn't stopped flowing for well over forty years.

God used springs to convey the idea of eternality in the Bible as well. In the Genesis Flood account, the author mentions at the outset of the rain that the springs of the great deep burst forth as well as the floodgates of the heavens which were opened. The idea is of an amount of water that doesn't stop flowing suddenly bursting from the ground. Imagine standing on dry ground in one instant and being swept away by a great wave of water the next. That's the visual picture -- water without end.

In His discussion with the woman at the well, Jesus compares the water of Jacob's Well to the Living Water which He gives. Jesus' water is not something which needs to be continually drunk for thirst to be quenched. He said it "will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Water without end. Eternal life.

So much of God's nature is foreign to us -- immutability, omnipresence, perfection. But in the picture of a roadside spring, I see a slight hint of God's eternal nature. The One who was and is and is to come.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Tailoring To Idolatry

I've noticed that over the past year I've blogged a great deal about what a church is supposed to look like and to be. Maybe this is just the struggle I have with my own congregation, trying to figure out which things exist for comfort and which exist for worship. Comfort can be a wonderful thing, but comfort can also draw us away from our worship. Same thing with tradition. Tradition can be meaningful for some and boring distraction for others. In the meantime, folks like me are left wondering if people are just going through the motions of worship or if something holy is really striking them. And how do I reach the folks whose "worship" is nothing more than vain repetition?

David Wayne at Jollyblogger has written a couple of great posts this week. Post DaVinci Code America is about the challenge of witnessing to today's culture when the Bible is not seen as authoritative. The other is The Myth of the Sinless Sinner, where David talks about the need to recognize and identify sin instead of simply sweeping it under the rug. Here's the quote that set my mind to spinning:

How do I reconcile my desire to tailor a church to the needs and values of a particular community when in fact the essence of idolatry is to have a church which is tailored to meet my needs.

That's the simplest form I have ever seen for that question. It's an important thing to consider. When I turn to Scripture, I see Jesus meeting needs. First of all, He met physical needs. But interestingly when Jesus was meeting physical needs, He pretty much let the petitioner call the shots.

"What do you want me to do for you?"

I can't think of a time when Jesus was asked in faith for something that Jesus didn't grant that request as asked. At Gethsemene, Malchus didn't even ask and Jesus restored his ear. It seemed to please Jesus to heal, to drive out demons, to raise the dead.

But at the same time, Jesus met spiritual needs. However in this venue, Jesus called the shots. Spiritual healing was non-negotiable. If you wanted to come to Jesus it was on His terms.

So what does this mean to the local church? Perhaps the best lesson we can pull from Jesus' ministry is that we are to meet physical needs and spiritual needs, but Jesus still calls the shots on doctrinal issues. Which sounds nice and everything, but how in the world can we apply this?

In matters of cultural preferences, is it good to cater to a person's comfort? Cushy chairs, theatre seats, contemporary music... things like that? Personally I don't see a problem provided we remember that the spiritual content is not to be watered down. But even the liturgy of a worship service becomes so routine that folks can be seen mentally checking off the items on the order of service.

The church's outreach should be designed to be ready to meet both physical and spiritual needs. Neither should be ignored. As Jesus showed, our physical need outreach should be dictated by the needs of the people around us. Don't open a food pantry for folks in the rich side of town. But meeting spiritual needs must be afraid to confront sin. An outreach to homosexuals should not in any way infer approval of lifestyle, but at the same time should show love. Love sinners. Hmmm... where have I heard that before?

Still, I cannot hope to bring a new family into our local church if we cannot meet that family's spiritual needs. I cannot invent a youth group out of thin air for that one teenager. I cannot start a praise band in a congregation without musicians simply to give that father a chance to play. And that's where things start to get a little confusing. As a pastor trying to meet that family's spiritual needs, I am to direct them to a place where their needs can be met. In short, I'm supposed to send them to another church. That goes against the grain, especially in a church like ours which stuggles for every gifted, mature Christian we can get. And so the temptation is to tailor our ministries to attract people instead of working toward attracting people with the Gospel and a worshiping, loving community of believers.

Perhaps the reason why I blog on this topic so often is that I have so many frustrations, so many beliefs, and so many ideas, but none of them seem to make a dent in the situation. The concepts are there, but the resources -- physical and spiritual -- to make them happen are sometimes next-to-impossible to find.

Friday, February 03, 2006

When To Pull the Plug

I like small churches. At the same time, I am frustrated with small churches. I can admire the faithfulness of a handful of believers coming together to worship Almighty God and proclaim Christ as Savior. I can also name off the top of my head no less than a dozen churches near me which have ceased to be houses of worship so much as they are bastions of creatures of habit. As the pastor of a small church, I see the dangers of losing focus every day of my ministry. It's easy to get so lost in the problems that we miss the whole point.

Dunker Journal pointed me to this story of a small church which shut it's doors a few Sundays ago. I've driven by the Wakarusa Church of the Brethren on occasion. From the road it looks like countless other churches. On the inside it probably was as well. I know many churches who celebrate a long history of existance, but that's about it. The unstated goal seems to be keeping the doors open every Sunday, not outreach or evangelism or missions or even worship. Maybe this is what the folks at Wakarusa had come up against. Or perhaps it was just a huge struggle to pay the bills, let alone think about doing anything more than holding services and the occasional potluck. I don't know, and I'm in no position to rail against that congregation. In fact in many ways I admire their courage. It's not an easy decision. It's hard to realize that it's time to pull the plug.

My congregation usually numbers between 40 and 75 each Sunday. That's small. I'm not talking Texas-small, but small. Yet there are plenty of churches nearby which are smaller still. There are specific problems associated with being a church of this size. We cannot offer the "programs" (I hate that term) that bigger churches do. We do not have a huge staff. I am the staff, and although I continue to expand physically, I cannot do all that many other pastors can do. I am a part-time pastor, which means that my wife or myself (or both) must have other employment. As a result, many people look elsewhere for a church home because we can only give them a fraction of what they want. But realistically, size doesn't matter. It's a matter of heart.

When I first arrived here over eight years ago, much of the focus of the church was on survival. A few disputes had caused some to leave and my predecessor had just left -- another in a long line of pastors. Money was tight, attendance was down and concern drifted away from worshiping God and doing any real ministry. It wasn't easy to change the mindset around the church, but God used people and circumstances to do the improbable.

With this experience in mind, I want every local church to have the opportunity to remember the reason services are held. But at the same time if no one is willing to change out of survivalist mode, there is no reason for the church doors to remain open. The focus of the church is never to be the church itself, but upon Jesus Christ. But if we become so wed to the idea that the survival of one local church is of paramount importance to the Church Universal, we're really not worshiping God anyway.

I'll steal this quote from my Bishop's blog, which he attributes to a pastor at a church not far from Wakarusa, "Whenever memories are greater than your future, you're writing your last chapter." And I'll add my own thoughts to it: "When memories are all you have, you need to willingly close the doors."

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Way Things Should Be

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I received the above book as a Christmas present this year. Well, not exactly that book, but the 2005 edition. (I don't think the 2006 edition will be available for months yet.) This is an annual publication where some guy named Andy Benoit provides an analysis of the previous NFL season and an overview of the season to come. Included in the individual team profiles are predictions of what will happen with each team during the year. I wanted to share a few of these since we're coming up on the Super Bowl this weekend.

The Pittsburgh Steelers - Predicted to finish 3rd of 4 teams in their division. "Ben Roethlisberger [Steelers quarterback] is already one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL, but that will not be enough for this team to match their success from a year ago."

The Seattle Seahawks - Predicted to finish 3rd of 4 teams in their division. "This team will fail to reach the playoffs in '05, prompting the removal of head coach Mike Holmgren."

The Philadelphia Eagles - Predicted to finish 1st of 4 teams in their division. "The Terrell Owens mess will work itself out... because the Eagles are not going to play games with this perverse receiver."

The Minnesota Vikings - Predicted to finish 1st of 4 teams in their division. "With [receiver Randy] Moss gone, the offense will not miss a beat."

You get the idea. The Steelers and Seahawks are set to battle for the championship of the league, the Eagles messing with Owens ruined their season and the Vikings offense was just plain horrible aside from a few games late in the season. To be fair, Benoit made some predictions which did come true, but then again so did I. Let's be honest though... things don't always turn out the way we expect.

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There is a scene in the movie Shrek where the ogre goes to rescue Princess Fiona who is being held captive in a far-off castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Shrek is just trying to get the rescue over with, but Fiona has been dreaming about how this whole rescue is supposed to take place. Her knight is supposed to kiss her -- the first kiss of true love. He is to sweep her off her feet. And he must be a handsome prince. Yet all her expectations fail. She is rescued by an ogre, who not only wants nothing to do with love, he is also put off by the Princess' attitude. Fiona's angry cries of "This isn't the way it's supposed to be!" only echo off the mountains.

I know that I can get in the mindset of thinking that "this isn't the way it's supposed to be," also. "Our church should be growing faster. My hair shouldn't be falling out. That friend should have accepted Christ by now. My buddy should still be alive." The "should" word is stated as if I alone know the only right way. Certainly I, in my somewhat infinite wisdom, know what is best, right?

While reading through Genesis, I couldn't help being struck again by the promise God made to Abram in chapter 12. What must the old man have thought about God telling him he would be the father of countless descendants? A man in his eighties and a wife almost as old with no children? But Abram had faith in God. And he waited. Still no baby. Not even one. I imagine him staring at Sarai, asking, "Well? Anything yet?"

Eventually Abram and Sarai got tired of waiting for things to happen like they should, so they got Hagar involved and began a mess that makes the Terrell Owens situation look like a company picnic. The couple thought they knew how it should be, so they decided to help God along in the situation. Bad idea.

One of the best things about seeing God answer prayer is watching how He does it. Most times it happens in ways that we don't expect. But the problem isn't with God fulfilling His promises incorrectly, it's in our small, limited view of what God is supposed to do. There are many things which God doesn't let us in on. I often find myself suppressing a snicker while shaking my head, listening to some of these self-proclaimed "Last Days Experts" tell us exactly how and (almost) when Jesus will return. I have my doubts if any of the prophecy experts will have a much better accuracy record than Andy Benoit, the football expert. But we know the results. It's the methods which inspire sayings like, "God works in mysterious ways." Then again, who are we to tell God how to answer our prayers?

"Heavenly Father, give me the strength to trust You -- not only to trust that You will keep Your promises, but also to trust in the methods You use. For You alone are God. I submit my will to Yours."