Monday, December 11, 2017

Religion and Politics

'Tis the season for...
Yes, those awkward conversations with relatives you rarely see--these conversations are just around the corner. Everyone says that you have to avoid talking about religion and politics. That's probably good advice. Interestingly, these two realms meet in places beyond the dining room table.

For millennia cultures have found that politics and religion just gravitate toward each other. Too often this combination creates tangled webs, especially when power is held as the highest value. Both religion and politics wield power in this world, and the merger of these two sources of power looks like a good way to get things done.

It reminds me of the Ring of Power in Tolkien's famous trilogy. In the story, the wizard Gandalf knows the seducing effects of this ring. He knows that he could be tempted to use the ring for good, but that the ring would work corruption in his soul, eventually leaving him incapable of sound judgment. As the old saying goes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

And so we find good intentioned people being seduced by the siren song of power. If you just get people in office who vote the right way, the world will be a better place. It doesn't matter if these people lack personal character. All that matters is the policies they pursue.

Politicians gain power, and then we are SHOCKED when they abuse it. Wow, that's never happened before.

We can't bear to let the other team get in power, so let's elect our own vile, corrupt leaders. Then we get to defend and explain away all the crimes and abuses.

I'm amazed at the mental and moral gymnastics I see as people try to defend the defenseless.

But there is a kingdom with a perfect Leader. His kingdom is not of this world, but eyes of faith can see glimpses of his powerful reign. He says to put others first, love enemies, and trust the Father. His ideas got him crucified. Then he defeated death itself.

We are soon to celebrate his birthday.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Thoughts on Sexual Harassment

I think we made it through today without another high profile sexual harassment revelation. In recent weeks the dam has burst and the news is flooded with stories of politicians and celebrities who misbehaved.

I'm glad that these stories are coming to light. Clearly this is a bigger problem than naïve people like me had realized.

Throughout history, men have let their hormones think for them way too much. With men working alongside women more now than ever, situations arise in which men have the opportunity to use their power--whether physical, political, or economic--to force themselves sexually on women.

What we need is respect. We need to care about others more than our own desires. We need to treat others as those created in the image of God, not as objects for our own pleasure. We need God's transforming power to change our hearts.

The problem of sexual harassment is compounded when a culture keeps this dirty little secret. It could be Hollywood, a corporate boardroom, or the halls of Congress. When "everyone" knows about a problem and no one speaks out, we have a conspiracy allowing abuse.

So many people, institutions, organizations, and corporations share the blame. Why have we not said something until now? We don't want to lose our jobs. We need the funding or favor or connections of that dirty old man. We know that other people turn a blind eye, so we follow suit. We don't consider it our business, so we remain silent.

In other words, we let them get away with it.

But not anymore. Many powerful men are now sitting up straight, minding their manners, hoping that their own stories never come out. They could be next.

There are also some potential problems with the drive to get men to behave.
  • An accusation is all it takes. An innocent person's reputation can be forever tainted with a public accusation.
  • A hyper-sensitive atmosphere can lead to the misinterpretation of actions. A gesture of kindness can more easily be interpreted as unwanted contact.
  • People looking for offense communicate with much greater difficulty and less trust. Working together will be much harder and less fun.
  • A persistent man asking for a date can look like a stalker.
Even with the possible problems that come with this new sensitivity to harassment, I believe this is a good trend. Society is agreeing that sexual predators should be called to account.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Tricks for Reading the Christmas Story

Here comes the Christmas season! If  you are like me, you struggle to keep the right perspective during this season. There are so many distractions from the "true meaning of Christmas."

So, here's one idea for keeping your focus. Take time every day to dig into the Christmas story, reading and reflecting. You can just read a few verses and let God take over your imagination as you read. You can find the primary stories in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

As you read consider these tricks for deeper understanding.
  • Read the story in an unfamiliar translation. You can find lots of them at
  • Imagine yourself in the context of the first century, as an ordinary person: poor, struggling, powerless.
  • Imagine how the story would feel to different people in the story: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, Herod, Herod's court, Mary's family, Joseph's family, Simeon, Anna, etc.
  • Look for some of the familiar story elements and see if they are really in the stories. When did the shepherds see the star? (They didn't.) How many wise men were there? (We don't know.) What was the innkeeper like? (There is no mention of an innkeeper.)
  • Let different family members read different parts.
  • Read the story by the light of an oil lamp.
Let's keep our focus on Jesus this season!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Radical Thanks

There are different levels of thanks. We say thanks to the clerk runs the register or the family member who passes the salt. We say thank you for gifts, and may even write a note. We thank the boss for a raise. We thank our family for understanding when we need to ask forgiveness.

You may thank your spouse for helping with household chores or filling the car with gas. We thank guests for coming to see us. We may also thank them when they leave.

When my first child was a week old, I thanked my mother for all she did for me. I had no idea, and I was only beginning to learn.

Usually an expression of thanks comes with a smile. Our glad hearts shine through our happy faces.

But sometimes gratitude reaches us much more deeply. Sometimes we can't smile. We are humbled. We understand that someone has sacrificed for us, loved us through our indifference, persisted past our pride. That kind of gratitude hits us at the core.

A grateful woman came to Jesus, as he reclined for dinner at someone's house. She came up and stood behind him, crying so profusely that her tears dripped on Jesus's unshod feet. She bent down to wipe his feet with her hair. She opened her expensive bottle of perfume and poured it over Jesus's feet. In her gratitude, she was broken. From the root of her soul, she expressed her thanks to Jesus. She was broken emotionally for the One who had made her whole. She was beginning to understand the depth of Jesus's love for her. And her heart overflowed with loving thanks.

Have you ever been moved to tears with gratitude? Such is the heart that truly understands thanks.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Surprise! It's the Kingdom!

Some things should never surprise us. You get behind a slow poke when you are running late. The children can't agree on a restaurant for dinner. The printer is "off line" when you want to print right now. Murphy's Law is real.

Other things really surprise us.

In Acts 3, Peter and John go to the Temple worship. This is right after Jesus's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The Holy Spirit has come upon the church at Pentecost. So on their way through the Temple courtyard, Peter and John meet and heal a paralyzed man. The healed man is so excited, he runs, jumps, and praises God all around the Temple.

This great miracle shows the Lord's power now flowing through the disciples. The crowds at the Temple notice, and they ask Peter and John what has happened.

Peter's response is striking. "Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you?" Well, Peter, I can think of lots of reasons this is surprising. The healed man has never walked a day in his life. He's over 40 (gasp!). And we call them miracles for a reason. Things like this don't normally happen.  That's why they were surprised.

But in Peter's brain, this was no surprise at all. He knew something, and it completely changed what he expected from life. He had witnessed his friend and teacher die. Then he saw that man alive again. It was Jesus, but he was...different. Now Jesus had a resurrection body. Jesus still ate and drank, but he seemed less limited by time and space. He could suddenly appear in a room. Sometimes people recognized him and sometimes they did not. Mostly, he was alive. His grave was empty.

Seeing this miracle changed Peter's perspective. Jesus was bringing the kingdom, beginning with his own resurrection. If he is bringing the kingdom, then he will bring wholeness, forgiveness, hope. This world will never be the same. Peter expected to see God at work. 

Of course this man was healed. Jesus is alive, and is living in us! The world will never be the same. Why are you surprised?

May we experience God's kingdom so powerfully in our own lives that we expect him bring healing, hope, and leaping celebrations!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Church Shootings

I was shocked with the news yesterday of the horrific church shooting in Sutherland, Texas. This one hit close to home. If the First Baptist Church in that small town can get shot up, then I wonder who is safe.

Pastors across the country have to consider how to prevent or prepare for such a situation. Will churches now have armed guards or bouncers at their doors? Will they create tactical strategies and make sure that certain members are armed at church services?

Churches will always be soft targets. Attendees gather to worship, to fellowship. They don't expect violence. Preparing to respond to violence would tend to distract from connecting with the Lord. I make sure that I bring my Bible. I don't even think about my .357.

So, it seems that churches can choose how to prepare. At one extreme, they can arm themselves, ready to take out a threat. At the other extreme, they can change nothing, realizing that they are soft targets.

I think I know which course Jesus would choose. He himself was a soft target. He let himself be killed. He trusted his Father, even knowing that he was headed into danger. The Father used his sacrifice to change history.

And this is the Man we are to follow.

Monday, October 30, 2017

95 Theses for Today

As you know, tomorrow marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation's public beginning. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door. His theses describe his beliefs about God, the Church, and religious authority which differed from the positions of the Roman Catholic Church. You can see them here. In posting his theses, Luther announced his numerous points of disagreement. He was saying, "Hey, I don't think this stuff is right! I think we should do something about this!"

I, like many others, believe that the Church is ready for another reformation. I have been pondering some areas where the Church today, at least the Church in America, could use some reforming. Here are some theses for the Church to consider today. It's only a start. Maybe I can come up with 85 more to go with these.

1. Jesus calls us to make disciples. Everything the Church does should revolve around making disciples. This should include justice, evangelism, and education.
2. Only a small minority of people in churches today believe that they have truly been discipled.
3. Churches do well to emphasize right belief, but they often prioritize the intellectual framework of faith above the practical living of faith.
4. The books of the Bible were written to people who were the outcasts of society. American Christians are rarely the outcasts of our society, and so the scriptures don't reach us at the heart level so easily. That means we often miss the point of the scriptures.
5. Christians value comfort and safety above applying the gospel to life and sharing the Good News with abandon.
6. Those who need a relationship with Jesus Christ often observe those who claim to be Christians and find their way of life to be shallow, selfish, and boring.
7. Christians consider justice to be a secondary issue, but to Jesus it was primary.
8. Church has been so institutionalized that too much energy goes to propping up church structures and programs.
9. Clergy fail to point out the problems with institutional Christianity, because their livelihoods depend on the institution.
10. The American Dream has proven to be a deception. Many Christians have pursued that dream, equating the dream to the Christian life. They have been tricked by the "deceitfulness of wealth" (Mark 4:19) and are frustrated in their unfruitfulness.