Saturday, October 30, 2010

Paying Attention

Just received an update from Kevin and Helen, missionary friends from New Zealand.  They oversee a number of projects for Bright Hope World in Asia and Africa.  You can follow their exploits at

I’m always struck by their observations of people and the lands they travel.  Having spent a week with them in the bush of Uganda I know of their commitment to the poorest of the poor.  They live out the gospel in incredible ways looking for ways to encourage local Christians and to seed worthwhile projects that will help provide a healthy economic framework for familes and entire neighborhoods/villages.  They have a very wholistic way of looking at Scriptrue.

I’m struck, at times, with how stuck we are in our approach to God’s word.  We read it, at times, in such a pietistic way that we miss out on the social dimensions of God’s intent. Others, of course, do quite the opposite, missing out on ‘being’ in that personal relationship with a God who loves them like crazy.

Tomorrow I start teaching a class at our church called “Justice and the Everyday Christian”.  My original title was “Glenn Beck is Wrong” but was considered a bit too inflammatory. Although with just three people currently registered I think the first title might have packed the room.

What does doing justice really mean in an ordinary life?  That’s the question isn’t it.  Certainly it means being ‘just’ in the way we live, where we currently are.  Surely we are intended to bloom where we’re planted.  But leading a life of justice also requires asking tougher questions.  Perhaps we’re planted in the wrong place and our gifts and talents can be used elsewhere.  Self-satisfaction can keep us from having our heart break over the same things that break the heart of God.

We’re getting better at seeing the world I think.  We make modest attempts to ‘fair trade’ our purchases and to give more generously.  Some trek like I did to Africa  to see first hand what God is doing in those place.  Others regularly invest in inner city neighborhoods partnering with ministries who work with people on the edges of the American dream. More than a few are using power and influence to help dismantle or at least challenge ongoing systemic injustices. This is all good. I think I’m part of this crowd. I’m aware, active, and growing in my understanding. And unfortunately I want to pat myself on the back for that.

There’s another part of me, however, that is almost afraid to ask God ‘what more is required of me’. I like making modest attempts at things.  Could God be asking me or you for greater sacrifice and/or investment?  That’s a huge question isn’t it?  It’s not for the faint hearted.

Throughout Scripture God asks people to do difficult things.  He asks for bold devotion and almost heroic contribution.  He demands heart commitment and extra mile compassion. God asks for more than a sinners prayer.  He asks for a life well lived.  When we live well we pay attention.

Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the ongoing habit  for anyone who wants to live wholistically  in today’s world as a follower of Christ is to keep on paying attention.  And to pay attention not just to what’s convenient and self-serving but also to those things that are inconvenient, requiring selflessness.  Maybe that’s at the heart of being a Christ follower.

My friends Helen and Kevin pay attention.  God sends them on adventures, often heart breaking ones in some of the ugliest places in the world to meet some of God’s most precious people. .  I know people who are extraordinarily kind.  Because they pay attention God blesses them by putting people in their path who need tender kindnesses lavished on them. 

And I know people who don’t pay attention and they try to find meaning in the clothes racks at Nordstroms or in caffeine rush of Starbucks.  That’s not where the heart of God resides no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves of that. 

Tomorrow I will teach on ‘justice and the everyday Christian’.  I’m thankful for the people who will show up.  I’m betting they are listening to the stirring of God in their heart.  Why else would they want to explore such a topic?  And I will tell them that the #1 rule for people who want to live justly is that they must ‘pay attention’.  And when they do they must listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They can’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit asks ‘even more of them’. And then they must step into the adventure of faith in a bold new way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Tuesday is coming.  Election day.  Are you going to vote? My guess is that a whole lot of people will ride this mid-term election out. Too bad. Kind of un-American really.

I’m voting this time  because it’s my obligation as a citizen to do so.  That’s not very compelling, I know, but it’s as real as I can get.  I’m trying to figure out who to vote for.  In all honesty, I’m not inspired by my choices.  In some races it’s a little bit like voting for the political version of the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber’. I could vote for ‘none of the above’ those instances but that little noise of resistance won’t even be heard.  In this election I have to make the most educated choice I can because my heart isn’t beating hard for anyone. But vote I must.  People have died for the right to vote.  Many around the world still don’t have an opportunity to vote in a fair and free election. By showing up and casting a ballot I’m saying that democracy still means something to me.  Not voting isn’t an option for me.  It shouldn’t be for you.

In all honesty we have a lot of ‘not so good’ candidates these days.  Politics is not for the faint hearted.  And so many good people who are excellent leaders are refusing to play the political game.  Even if one does step forward can they count on other good people to go to the polls and cast a ballot?  There are good candidates however. There really are. Finding them isn’t always easy but it’s important for us to look and to look beyond our normal patterns and habits. It means that we take the time to inform ourselves.  That’s more work than the grumbling we usually do.  It’s necessary work though.

This should be an interesting election.  The Democrats will lose ground if historical trends continue. The Republicans will gain some. And the rebel factions in this election are making the political scene a bit dicey this time around. 

I've been watching the ‘Tea Party’ with some fascination.  I don’t love all the rhetoric and tactics I’ve seen.  I do enjoy the fact that the political establishment is sitting straighter and taking notice.  The ‘Tea Party’ movement might be the needed corrective for a system that’s gotten too fat and sassy for its own good. Will it have long life as a movement?  Hard to tell.  If it’s successful it runs the risk of becoming what it despises.  In the meantime, it might be the stimulus for needed reform.

 A lot of you who read this are people of faith.  Many of you have a ‘litmus test’ that candidates must pass.  I have my own litmus test.  I’m looking for the candidates who will fight for a more just society regardless of political affiliation.  Are they willing to look at points of view different than their own?  Can they change their mind?  Do they care about the marginalized?  Do they care about the very things that break the heart of God?  Are they a man or woman of integrity? I don’t expect every candidate I vote for to be 100% in lock step agreement with my political and religious point of view.  I’m looking at character.  If someone is willing to listen and isn’t afraid to change their mind then that person has a leg up on someone who’s rigid in thought and practice even if we’re closer to agreement on key issues.

Bottom line.  Vote. That’s what good citizens do. Encourage others to vote.  And continue to pray for the leaders of our country even those you don’t like.  Leadership is tough these days.  The issues are many.  Solutions aren’t necessarily easy to come by.  God’s help is needed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Preacher Remorse Day

I know stuff.  Some of it is useful. Lots of it isn’t.  At times, the stuff I know has been helpful to people.  Other times not so much.  There’s lots of stuff I don’t know.  For instance, I don’t know much about quantum physics.  Actually, I know nothing about it.  Women confuse me.  Anita, however, continues to be a good guide.  I know stuff about God.  Probably more than the average person but if truth be known …there’s a whole lot about God that I know I don’t get.  However, by profession and calling, I have the privilege of telling people what I do know and confessing my ignorance about what I don’t.  That’s always humbling.

At our church we’re preaching through a series called ‘God is…’.  You know the drill.  God is love.  God is sufficient.  God is good.  God is holy.  I played a fun, little ditty by the Michael Gungor band yesterday  about what God isn’t.   According to the band God isn’t easily boxed in.  That’s much to the chagrin I’m sure of people who have the habit of doing such things.  I guess it makes life easier to ‘box’ away.  It’s just hard to remember where you’ve put everything after awhile.  Trying to remember that God loves us all …lesbians, terrorists, conservative, liberals, Protestants,  Catholics, Mormans, Jews, Muslims, and even the guy who didn’t stop at a stop sign and almost hit me yesterday isn’t everyone’s favorite pastime.  We like to play games with winners and losers.  God’s love seems to favor ‘losers’ and it doesn’t make sense.

So, yesterday I stood up and stated that God is love.  I believe it and don’t have to convince myself of it.  But as I stood up yesterday I realized that I didn’t have the words in my heart to adequately express what I know to be true.  So, I danced around it a little bit and far too quickly moved to life application issues.  “How then do we show God’s love to others?” Today, I’m a little ticked at myself for doing that.  I should have stayed with the main course for awhile longer.  And there’s the dilemma for me.  I’m going to be really honest here.  Maybe I don’t know enough about God’s love to speak with any authority about it.  Again, I believe God is love and I’ve certainly experienced it and seen it in action but yesterday I felt like I couldn’t put words to it.  And in all honesty, I worry that the little bit I said yesterday was all I know.  That bothers me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think it was OK stuff but today (preacher remorse day) I’m bothered about not being able to dive deeper, at times, into important subject matter.

Part of the problem for me is that I know myself pretty well. As a result of upbringing, personal experience, failure, and sin ‘love’ is something I know exists but have a hard time accepting.  Like many, I don’t think I’m very loveable.  My wife tries to convince me otherwise and I have many friends but there is something inside me that resists ‘love’.  Intellectually, I get it. Emotionally, I put up walls.  That keeps love from getting in and being released.  And at times I wonder how a good God could love me. 

Despite my bewilderment I know God does love me.  I believe the truth of the biblical text.  I have experienced his love on numerous occasions.  In my marriage I feel secure in Anita’s love.  But those darn walls.  Sometimes I think they are everywhere.  Most certainly, at times, they get between my head and my heart. 

I’m reminded of a story about Karl Barth I believe. Someone asked this brilliant man what he knew about God.  He thought for a moment and then began to sing:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so.

That’s what I cling to oftentimes when everything else is a bit murky. Jesus invited me into His heart a long time ago.  I said ‘yes’.  Sometimes all I can muster is the objective truth of the written word.

I felt compelled to write this morning.  To work this all out.  Like a written confessional.  It’s good for my soul.  A sign of God’s love I think.  A bit of angst goes with being an introvert.  My hidden ‘extrovert’ needs to think out loud.

By the way, I think the sermon went just fine. At least it is lingering with me.  That’s always  a good thing.  Sometimes the message I think is intended for others is really meant for myself.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Election Day Coming

Watching the TV ads I’ve learned that one candidate is damned because he’s earned money in his lifetime (how dare he), another is a liar, a third is unprincipled, another didn’t anticipate the economic collapse, another is incapable because he’s a friend of Obama, and another because he supported Bush.

Like little children in a playground shouting match grown-up people are saying just about anything that comes into their head these days.  It doesn’t have to be thoughtful or principled but it has to be well executed and hard hitting.

The problem is that whatever they’re slinging is starting to pile up and the smell throughout America is nauseating. 

I’d love to see an ad that has a candidate looking into the camera saying something like this.

 “I’m running for ______________________.  I have an opponent.  He/she is a good person.  The truth is that he/she will probably do a good job if elected.  The reality is that we’re basically on the same page on a whole lot of issues but not all.  We have different perspectives specifically on education, health care, and immigration. Most everything else we’re on the same page.  On some of the big issues neither of us has the one right answer. We have opinions and convictions but both our positions probably need to be adjusted. There’s a lot we don’t understand.  Adjustments come by listening.  That’s what I promise to do.  If you vote for me I’ll listen.  I’ll listen to you and I’ll listen to others in the legislative body. I’ll listen to the experts in the field and to those who will be impacted by our policies.  As I listen I might change my mind on some things.  When I do I’ll tell you about it.  I want you to know that I’ll value each and every vote I cast.  Without sacrificing my family or my health I’ll work hard.  Wherever I can I’ll try to build a bridge to the other party and give credit where credit is due.  I’ll be cautious about spending your tax money but I will have to vote to spend it. That’s one promise I can make.   Some of you won’t like my votes.  Tell me why.  And I’ll tell you why I felt compelled to vote the way I did.  Even if you don’t like my reasoning you'll know exactly where I stand.

So, I want your vote.  Look carefully at my position papers and those of my opponent.  If you think he/she is the best candidate vote that way.  But don’t just vote for me and against him/her because of your habit of always voting for either a Democrat or Republican.  That doesn’t work very well anymore.  Vote for the person you have the deepest conviction about.  As I said, my opponent is a good person.  I’m proud to be in the political arena with someone of his/her character. 

See you on election day."

Would love to see something like that.  Honesty and authenticity instead of half-truth and innuendo.   OK, I know, I know …I’m an idealist.  In a perfect world principled people with good ideas and great character run campaigns that inspire and inform.  The trouble is that we live in an imperfect world and our political arenas are not always populated by smart people guided by heartfelt principles. And so mud slinging and truth twisting because an accepted norm.  And that troubles me.  For when it becomes an acceptable campaign tactic it sends a message to one and all that we’re settling and giving a thumbs up to sleaze.  Ugh.

I’m realizing more and more that somehow, someway those of us who care have to speak up and ask for ‘better’ from politicians.  The free swinging anger of the ‘new’ right wing and the patronizing, sardonic attitude of the left are all part of the same problem.  We don’t know how to ‘say what we mean’ in ways that are both clear and civilized. And that scares me.  We know how to mock, shout, grimace, tell lies, manipulate facts, and create a firestorm of public opinion.  I’m thinking that civilized folks can do better than that. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Me and Mandela

I just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  It called ‘Long Walk to Freedom”.  I’m late to the table on this read.  It was published in 1995.  It was profoundly thought provoking.

Mandela was on a mission.  He once said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  To be willing to die for that which you live is a riveting testament to a life well lived.

Mandela spent ten thousand days in prison. He was a political prisoner. ‘Free Mandela’ became a rallying cry as Black South Africans struggled to overthrow the oppressiveness of apartheid.  Awarded the Nobel Peace Price Mandela eventually became the leader of South Africa and a spokesperson for the marginalized and oppressed world wide.

Ten thousand days in prison.  That’s a fair amount of years, closing in on three decades.  With a compromise here, an accommodation there, a wink and a nod at the right times Mandela could have become a free man at just about any time during his incarceration.  Yet he chose not to nod, wink, accommodate or compromise.  The price of doing so was too great.

Mandela was fighting a ‘system’ that was unjust.  Until that system changed and was in fact eradicated there could be no accommodation in his eyes.  The only option was to stay the course and allow his imprisonment and the imprisonment of other like minded men and women to speak loudly about the tyranny of the ‘white’ South African regime.

Imprisonment became a source of power and influence.  It reminds me of the upside down kingdom strategies of Jesus.

We live today in world where there are unjust systems.  How many times have I adjusted to and accommodated those unjust systems?  How many times have I chosen to remain silent instead of using my position of influence to speak against injustice? How many times have I chosen to remain blind to the marginalization of people within a short driving distance of my home?

John F. Kennedy once wrote a book called ‘Portraits of Courage’.  I didn’t make it in.  And the truth of the matter is that my accommodations and indifference are not the acts of a courageous person.  They are the acts of someone who is indifferent.

I want to be courageous.  Not indifferent.  But all too often I cower in my corner of the universe failing to challenge ideas and systems.  And yet I’m not comfortable with my indifference.  It smacks of the ‘apathy’ I truly appall but have adapted to.  I want to be a difference maker.

To be a Christian means that I can’t wink and nod at those things that are wrong in today’s world.  Yet, some would persuade me that hiding in a little religious corner and doing exactly that is the ‘way of God’.  Maybe.  But what God.  Certainly not the ‘God in the flesh’ I’m committed to following.

A self serving  faith gives me permission to sit still, stay complacent, and find some Kumbaya friends to make nice with.  I have a hunch that complacency, sitting still, and holy huddles weren’t what Jesus was talking about.  How many of us have settled for a faith that has very little to do with what Jesus was all about?

Tonight, I’m asking myself “Am I fighting for those things that are worth dying for?”  And if I’m fighting for something noble can I win the battle if I’m willing to wink and nod my way to make easy, thoughtless accommodations?  Something worth pondering.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Good God?

Last week my favorite college football team (The Johnnies from St. John’s in Collegeville, MN) lost to their arch rival St. Thomas in overtime. It was in front of a record crowd for Division III football (16,421). The loss probably knocked them out of the playoffs.

Sometime during the game I remember asking God for a victory. And when they didn’t get it ….I wondered about the goodness of God. Why would he give victory to the Tommies when we all know my alma mater probably is filled with more righteous people than our big city opponents?

OK. Maybe I didn’t wonder about the goodness of God when victory was snatched away from us. I was disappointed. And I bet there were some rabid fans who looked to the heavens, shook their fist, and wondered ‘why’.

I know that happened. Because that’s what we do. We wonder much about the wisdom, the integrity, and the goodness of God.

One of God's faithful missionaries, Allen Gardiner, experienced many physical difficulties and hardships throughout his service to Jesus. Despite his troubles, he said, "While God gives me strength, failure will not daunt me." In 1851, at the age of 57, he died of disease and starvation while serving on Picton Island at the southern tip of South America. When his body was found, his diary lay nearby. It bore the record of hunger, thirst, wounds, and loneliness. The last entry in his little book showed the struggle of his shaking hand as he tried to write legibly. It read, "I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God." (from

“I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.” Whew. That’s a mouthful. Considering his circumstances that’s a big mouthful.

Is God good? We ask the question all the time. I wondered about it when St. John’s missed the extra point. 9/11 got us thinking about it. So did Katrina.

We hear it phrased in this way “If God is good why …”

If God is good ….?

I know a fair amount of people whose faith is weak, easily shaken. Their faith is strong on picnic days when the sun is out and the breeze is gentle. Their faith weakens when their plans are thwarted. when the promise of a good day morphs into heavy rains and high winds. And the praise of a good God becomes a whiny complaint. We wonder aloud and mutter “what good is God? Why is there rain on my parade? “

So Is he? Is God good? And the truth is many people aren’t sure that He is. And so they play the blame game, accusing God of being not good, malicious in intent, a manipulative force in our lives bent on blocking our goals and ruining our fun. Helpless, God seems, in the face of racisim, poverty, illness, despotic political systems, rising taxes, and the plaintive pleas of football fans.

If God is not good then the world we live in becomes a paralyzing, terrifying place filled with dread of unfair treatment and capricious divine judgment. It is a world lacking hope.

I believe in a good God. I see that goodness permeating the Scriptures and I’m reminded of God’s goodness everyday through the lives of good people, living out their faith in both simple and heroic ways.

And today I want to state unequivocably …God is good. He is always good.

When we look through the Scriptures we get a lot of mixed messages, at first blush, about God. The God of the Old Testament appears to have a habit of smiting, drowning, challenging, inconveniencing and attacking people. I’ve had people say that the Old Testament God has ‘ issues’ and that thankfully he took advantage of some ‘anger management’ seminars. Thus, the New Testament is a little easier read.

But the truth of the matter is that throughout the Scripture we see a good God in search of his wayward children. He deals with those children in historical and culturally appropriate ways. He speaks their language. People in a primitive culture understood the power of nature, the uncertainty of day by day living, and the power struggles that resulted in invasions and occupations by enemies. It is, in and through, their cultural understandings that God tends to get His people’s attention.

Francis Chan says that "The whole message of the Bible is not about this God in Heaven who wants to take from you. It's about this God who wants to give to you. And if you miss out on that, you're gonna miss the whole point of your life.”

It doesn’t take long to see the goodness of God in virtually every part of Scripture. He walks alongside, he cajoles, he gives second and third and fourth chances, he sends messengers and signs. He writes his signature on the canvas of creation.

Is God good? Scripture screams of his goodness page after page after page. And that’s why when we come to the end of our rope, when we’ve exhausted our own resources …we seek comfort in the goodness of God as revealed in the word of God.

Is God good?

Look no further than the closest example of the people of God at work. A hundred of my churchmates are running for World Vision in the Chicago Marathon this weekend. They’ve raised in excess of $60,000 to be used in a village in Africa. The goodness of God is flowing through this effort. And these good people are a force for good.

Phil Yancey writes that “if someone in Africa is asked what a Christian is they might say "Well, I'm not sure, but there's this hospital van that comes here once a month and has a cross on it and they treat our wounds."

Another might say, "Well, I'm not sure but these folks came and they dug a well for my village and now we have something to drink.”

My friend Lori in Reno is quitting her job that gives her a stable income to dive into the poorest neighborhood in the city. Why? A good God is nudging her to use her gifts in behalf of the most marginalized.

The people of God, filled with the goodness of God, do good things in every nook and cranny of our world. We are the only ‘text of God’ people often see.

Is God good? Yep. Do things happen that make us scratch our head and wonder why? All the time. But I'm learning that what I don't understand isn't going to kill me. Living with a world view that views God as 'not good' might be hazardous to my health.