Thursday, February 27, 2014

Two sides of the blessing

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 
- Jesus in Matthew 5:9

Are you happy? I hope so, because I like for people to be happy. In fact, I want everyone to be happy, all at the same time.

Which is not possible.

There is a term for someone who wants to make everyone happy, especially when he tries too hard. That term is people-pleaser. Well, there may be a more technical term - but that's the one I know.

I was talking to a friend early this week, and we were talking about how important it is for me to let someone know if I was going to be late. I ended my comments with the dismissive statement, "After all, I'm a people-pleaser."

Then my friend encouraged me with this: He said that he doesn't see me as a people-pleaser; he sees me as a peacemaker.

What a compliment, I thought. And then…not so much.

Why? Well, I think he hit on a profound truth about our lives as human beings created in the image of God. We have a flesh, a sin nature, that is consumed with self and pride. It is a distortion of the way were created, brought about by our desire to do things our way instead of God's. The technical term for it is, well, sin.

How does that apply here? I think that in each of the Beatitudes, Jesus was pronouncing a blessing on us that would show up every time we feed the right side of some human characteristic. In this case,
  1. God created us to be at peace.
  2. My flesh has turned that into a desire to keep people happy because I don't like conflict (making it all about me).
  3. Through the cross and the power of the Resurrection, Jesus can redeem that characteristic, making it what it was originally intended to be. A conduit for peace.
And if we can do that, if we can turn our fleshly desires into a  godly characteristic, then we are "blessed."

So yeah, I suppose it was compliment to say I'm a peacemaker. But not really, because it's not about me. It's God who takes my tendencies, redeems them, and turns them into something that can be used for his glory.

And that is the blessing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Making a Difference

We talk all the time about how we can making difference in the lives of children around the world. We sponsor kids through organizations like Compassion International, and some of us go to remote parts of the world to share the love of Jesus, both in word and deed. I can't tell you how many letters I got from my Compassion child, and the looks on the faces of children and teens when they know we have traveled around the world to love them. Not to mention the sponsorship programs that have provided school, food, and medical care to children who previously had none.

This week my heart was broken twice. First, I got a phone call from a Compassion representative telling me that the child I sponsored in Kenya had passed away. She got sick, went to the hospital, and never made it out. I have been sponsoring and writing to this child for 12 years, and I was surprised at how strong my reaction was. Just awful. The only comfort was in the fact that they had word that she had trusted Jesus for her salvation. I will meet her one day, for the first time.

Second, I got word today that a child in the Ethiopian community I visit had passed away. It seems it was similar a similar situation. She got sick, went for medical care, and didn't make it. Even though I didn't sponsor her, I had met her a few times, and it seems kind of unreal to know she's gone.

The friend who shared this news with me pointed out that because we reached out in the name of Jesus, deaths like this are not as common as they were. And it means something that she did not die anonymously, with no one to care.

I ask your prayers for the families of these two children. Children with names, faces, families, lives, and who God loves with an amazing love.

When I hear about how many children die every day in Africa, I can no longer think of it as a statistic. I know better. And I am thankful that God has given me the privilege of being a part of his plan. I don't deserve it - not by a long shot. But I am thankful.

Pray for these children's families. Pray for other children you don't know. And find a way to make a difference. You can't change the whole world. But you can change lives one at a time.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What's the REAL reason?

I recently read an article about motivations for generosity. It was a very interesting discussion of why we give, why we tip, and just overall what are the motivations for people to give. Among the theories discussed were the ideas that we give to protect an image we have of ourselves or because of an expectation that the giving will be reciprocated. It reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of FRIENDS:

Joey's theory of giving is pretty comprehensive. According to him, even the fact that giving makes us feel good makes it selfish. "There are no selfless good deeds," he says.

So why do we give? Why do you give? What's the real reason? And are there selfless good deeds?

This idea is nothing new. Jesus acknowledged it long ago, when he talked about our tendency to love those who will love us back. He was at a dinner being given by a prominent religious leader, and he noticed a lot of self-serving behavior. And he made this comment to the host:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.
- Luke 14:12-14

And thus we see what Jesus brings to the table. His kingdom turns our world system on its ear. Psychology and even common sense says that everything we do has a selfish aspect. Joey on FRIENDS is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he picked up on it.

But Jesus says, no. That's not how his followers are to live. We are to give to those who cannot possibly repay us. We are to be generous when there is no benefit for us. He even says not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3) - a reference to making sure we are not even congratulating ourselves internally. And, "if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?" (Matthew 5:46) He's very clear. The mark of his kingdom is a whole new way of thinking.

Easy? Heck, no. Possible? Joey is probably right - not in our own strength. But when the resurrection power of Jesus lives in you, the impossible becomes possible.

We love, not to make him love us, but because he loved us. And that's a radical thing.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Is the universe a simulation?"


The question is the title of an article that appeared in the New York Times last Friday:
Link: Is the Universe a Simulation?
It was fascinating to me as a math geek. But also as one who thinks about the meaning of life and what it all means. To get the full meaning you'll want to read it for yourself. But here's the gist:

Philosophers and mathematicians have considered for years whether mathematical concepts exist independently - just sort of "out there" whether we discover them or not. Most mathematicians believe at their core that this is the case. Math is true, objective, and timeless, just waiting to be discovered.

If this is true, the article asks the question, Is it possible that our universe is just a computer simulation created by a person in the future? Could it be that math is so fixed, so unchangeable, because it is actually computer code of that simulation, just waiting to be discovered? The article then presents the idea that it might be possible to test this theory by looking for anomalies - inconsistencies - in the computer program. That is, in our universe.

This sounds familiar in a way, right? It reminds me of the plot of The Matrix, and the author is proposing that there is a "red pill" for us to learn the truth.

To me, it's not so far-fetched. Not because I believe that there is some random person who wrote a program and we are living out his simulation. No, I don't think so. But I do believe that there is a Person who designed the universe. He wrote the code, and all the immutable laws of math and science are His "computer code." When man discovered the Pythagorean Theorem, he was discovering something that already existed - programmed, not by a random person, but by the creator God.

So yeah, I read this, and I saw another piece of the puzzle. No matter what you believe about how it was done and how long it took, there are clues all over the place that we are here by design. There is a purpose and there is a plan. And I am awestruck by the fact that I'm a part of it.

What a creation. What a Creator!

Do you think the laws of mathematics exist on their own? Or are they creations of the human mind, like art? If they do exist on their own, what does that mean?

Monday, February 17, 2014

What's next?

A little over two weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I got the word that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died at age 46. He was a brilliant actor who enabled the telling of many stories. From all accounts, he was not only talented but also a devoted father - one who successfully fought off the demons of addiction for much of his life, but succumbed at the end. He will be missed.

But in this post I want to touch on a statement that was made at the end of People Magazine's article on his death. Not because it says anything about Mr. Hoffman, but because it says a heck of a lot about the way we look at death.

At the end of the article, his friend and former director Matthew Warchus made this statement: "All I can think is that he's sitting up there and giving one of his dark, big chuckles."

Sitting up there.

All through human history, man has believed that there is something after death. For most, this belief involves some esoteric spiritual existence that is totally unrelated to our physical life on earth. And most believe that it is going to be a good thing. According to a book by Sam Storms, more than 80% of Americans believe in an afterlife, with another 9% saying they aren't sure. 76% believe heaven exists and almost that many, 71%, believe there is a hell. But here is the amazing part: Despite that, less than 1% believe that they are going to end up in hell. Almost all believe that they will somehow be "sitting up there."

This would lead you believe that most of our opinions about the afterlife are wishful thinking - as agnostics and atheists would affirm.

Former Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell seems to agree with this sentiment. It is affirmed in almost every discussion of someone who has passed on, just as with Mr. Hoffman. The 1974 Righteous Brothers hit Rock and Roll Heaven memorialized music greats Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin with the lyrics…
If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand.
If there's a rock and roll heaven, well, you know they've got a h--- of a band.
(Yes, it is a clever twist of words on the two destinations.)

Yep, we fashion heaven to fit our own world view. Wishful thinking, right?

So it is into this world of uncertainty and wishful thinking about an afterlife that Jesus of Nazareth bursts onto the scene. During his three-year ministry, he proclaimed that he would do something radical. He did not proclaim that when he died his spirit would mysteriously go to a better place. Not even close.

The message of Jesus was that after dying a sacrificial death he would physically rise from the dead and live forever. Furthermore, he would be the first fruits of his followers. The hope of the Christian faith is that because Jesus physically rose from the dead, we will do the same.  Heaven and earth will meet and God will dwell among his people forever.

And then he did it!

The hope of the Christian faith is not that our spirits will live on after we die. Most of the world, Christian or not, believes that. No! Our hope is that, while we will be in God's presence when we die, that is just the beginning. Because he lives, we will live too. We will participate in his resurrection.

How different this is from a vague belief in an afterlife. It is a specific faith in a specific future based on a specific historical event.

He is risen. And so we will rise as well if we place our trust in him.

It can't come too soon.

What do you believe about death? Is it comforting to have so many different opinions? Or does it cause you to question the concept? How is Jesus' message different from the common belief?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rejoicing and mourning…at the same time?

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
A simple instruction, one that even makes sense. We probably would know it was a good thing even it it weren't in the Bible. In context, Paul is describing what it's like to have you mind renewed. To think like God thinks.

And so we see that God does this. When you're happy, God is happy with you. He is having a party in heaven about your promotion...your son's wedding…that awesome date you had last night. When you're sad, God is right there with you. He feels the pain when you lose a loved one…when you get chewed out by your boss…when that girl breaks your heart.

At any given moment, millions of people are rejoicing and millions others are mourning. And God feels it all. At the same time.

How can that be? How can he be happy and sad at the same time?

This is just one of the things about God that we can't fathom. He is infinite and incomprehensible. The only way we can know anything about him is that he has chosen to reveal himself. But that doesn't mean we can understand it all.
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29
You know, if we can't even understand how God can be happy for you and sad for me at the same time, is it any wonder that we can't understand creation? Or how the infinite God can be clothed in human form? Or how the death and resurrection of Jesus can atone for our sins and bring us into a right relationship with him?

No, we can't understand it all. Not even close. But we can look at Jesus and see what God is like. He has chosen to reveal himself and I am grateful.

 Have you experienced the joy of God coming along side you in your joy? Have you experienced his presence in your grief? 

Do you feel like you have to understand everything you believe? How can that be, if your mind is finite?

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Yesterday, I saw where a friend shared this picture on Facebook:

It's a good thought for sure. It certainly is true that that finding yourself is a fools' errand. It seems that back when I was a teen, there was a lot of talk about that. "I'm not in a hurry to be an adult, with adult responsibilities. I need to find myself first."

If your goal is to find yourself, guess where your focus will be. Yep, that's right - inward. On yourself. And one of the quickest paths to misery is to focus on yourself.

So is it about creating yourself? Well, that's definitely better than finding yourself. At least you're not out there looking for some elusive qualities that you believe are already there. But…it's still about me.

Jesus said something different. It was almost like this sign, in that he agrees that finding yourself is not the goal.


But different:
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
- Jesus, in Matthew 10:39

So how do you find life? By intentionally losing it. By giving up rights to it. By deciding that finding it is not worth the effort.

Devote yourself to loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And yo loving your neighbor as yourself. Losing yourself in the service of others. That's how we find life. In a way, that's how we "create ourselves." So I would modify the sign like this:
Life isn't about finding yourself.
Life is about losing yourself.
Almost the same. Almost.

Monday, February 3, 2014

What's beautiful about America

Super Bowl commercials. We love to watch them, talk about them, and even complain about them. There was one from Coca Cola last night that became all the buzz on Twitter. This one:

As soon as it aired, Twitter exploded with comments. Most of the comments were about how America the Beautiful should be sung in English because it's an American song. If you live here, you should speak our language. That's what a country is.

Somehow, it seems many were seeing the ad as a concession to illegal immigration. By acknowledging the variety of cultures here and showcasing that by singing in multiple languages, we were opening our borders to all comers.

Well, I would bring this into the conversation: If we could completely close our borders and kick every illegal immigrant out, leaving nothing but citizens and legal immigrants working toward citizenship, our country would still be just as diverse. It would be full of people from all backgrounds and countries all over the world. Many, many of us have great grandparents who came over the sea without speaking a lick of English. We're English, Irish, Italian, French, Chinese, etc., etc., etc. Because they came, we are here. What makes our country great is freedom, and that freedom is something that people from all over the world have been flocking to for the last 250 years.

And it is true, whether depicted in an advertisement or not.

So what does it mean that our country is full of such diversity? As a follower of Jesus, I have been called to take the  gospel into all the world. The kingdom of God is greater than any other kingdom, and all the others, including ours, will pass away. How awesome it is to live in a place where you can share the good news of Jesus with so many cultures without even having to get a passport! Go into all the world? Heck, just go to the other side of town. Because while the early believers in Jerusalem had to go to the world, the world has come to us.

And that is just one of the things that makes America beautiful.

Which reminds me of another Coke ad, from my childhood:

All sorts of people, from all backgrounds. In perfect harmony. That's what Jesus can bring.

What a beautiful country.

What did you think of the commercial? How does it compare with the one from 1970? Have the issues changed that much?

Where did your family come from generations ago? What issues do you think they faced?