Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Celebrating the Imagination of Ray Bradbury

Somewhere in the Rome of 200 AD, a child sat in a public square filled with citizens and slaves, among the venders selling food and idols, and he dreamed. He had just heard the words of Paul's epistle to Philemon, and he dreamed of a day when slavery would have died out because all men would have realized that they were made in God's image and belonged to God first, and you should never abuse any of God's treasures. He imagined Caesar's cold armies transformed by love to build up rather than destroy, to liberate rather than crush.

During the Depression, when dreams were hard to come by, a child imagined a better world, and as he grew, he wrote stories that stirred the imagination of others. This week, we lost that child when Ray Bradbury died. In short stories, novels, and screenplays, he explored the human spirit. He was good at seeing the enemies of our personal humanity and confronted them as he best knew how. He was not a believer, but he was created in the image of God and was true to his art, and that is enough sometimes to discern truth.

Dreams are important to the human spirit. Crush someone's dreams and pessimism and depression take over. Kill dreams and tradition and the status quo become king. Tyrants hate dreams... and, sadly, so do some Christians.

We like what we can control, but we can't control dreams. We can encourage and inform the dreamer or we can try to kill the imagination. But be warned, if you attempt the latter, you will find yourself an enemy of God. I fear we are losing a generation because of the fear, pessimism, and deadly cynicism of their elders. Elders without vision, without dreams, rob those around them of life. There are already too many dead bodies in our wake.

Bradbury wrote of Martians that he knew did not exist so he could create a mirror for human greed, ambition, and uncertainty. He did it not to depress us, but to wake us up and protect us. He wrote of the perverse fascination that exists in any crowd witnessing a tragedy in the hopes that we would examine our hearts. In everything, he reminded us of childhood wonders and the innocence that accompanies us. From his stories we can better understand Jesus' command to come to him as a child. Bradbury wasn't a believer, but a knowledge of the gospel still bounced around a lot of his fiction.

I have heard young couple agonize over the decision to bring a child into this fallen time instead of dreaming about the impact their child could make in a needy world. Don't fear for the next generation. Invest in them, prepare them, and then unleash them. Let them dream of what God could do with their lives.

Too many Christians have let the nightly news, false prophets of doom, and scared preachers kick the living heaven out of them. If you have stopped dreaming, become convicted that the darkness is too strong, can't imagine a way forward, then you are no longer hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit. You have given way to the voice of this age. It's time to jump start your imagination. You might as well start with a passionate, observant dreamer such as Ray Bradbury. I don't agree with all he has to say, but he will wake you up to the human spirit (created by God) and help you dream again. Then take that attitude back to Scripture and watch God's dreams explode from the page.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Should You Celebrate Mothers' Day?

This week global Heath advocate, Christy Turlington Burns, is asking us to forego our usual celebration of Mothers' Day and fix our attention, and spend your money, elsewhere. This seems pretty brazen. I have learned over time that you don't mess with Mother's Day. The goal here is not to disrespect mothers, but to assist all those would be mothers around the world that are still dying in childbirth. A noble cause, but do we have to choose? I believe we can both honor mothers and help save the lives of women during childbirth. In addition, I think we always lose when we neglect the person next to us and focus exclusively on the person far away.

Social justice has taken an unhealthy turn in America, and Christians have participated in it to a degree. We tend to emphasis the importance of those far away while living a protected, insulated life at home. Jesus called us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Those we come into contact with. Those within eyesight or earshot. The people around us who need the kind of assistance that would inconvenience our lives.

Justice loses a great deal of its meaning if it's not personal. Acts of justice shape our own lives by forcing us to invest time, sacrifice by creating new priorities, and demonstrating that people are valuable enough for us to miss American Idol or reschedule activities. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes three religious and distinguished people who ignore someone in desperate need because they won't change their schedule, risk involvement, or sacrifice their time. They are important people with important things to do. Other people were not their priority.

We don't need to choose between the needs of those who are close and those who are far away. We should be involved in both. You can't do everything, but you can focus and do something. We may not feel like it at times, but we are rich. Most of us don't work the twelve hour days our ancestors did. We have time and energy that can be spent on a few around us. The personal touch, the attention and time we spend (and it does cost) humanize the world and help to expand the power and the influence of the kingdom of God.

What does it say about our values when we send relief aid to the other side of the world, but our elderly go unvisited and forgotten in nursing homes. We argue over health care reform, but it is a heartless debate if we don't respond to Jesus' call to lay down our lives for each other.

Please send money to help save new mothers from death during childbirth. It really doesn't take much to save a life. What a great way to celebrate Mothers' Day, but keep it human and touch the life of a mother close to you. We don't spread honor by ignoring those close at hand for the sake of those far away. We can honor both. Keep justice personal.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Occupy Wall Street, A Missed Opportunity?

There is a basic difference between an evangelist (a fisher of men) and a defender of the faithful. The first looks for every positive situation that could be used to help someone encounter God while the second is always looking for ways to distance themselves from others. The first is looking for entry points while the second guards the door to make sure the wrong people don't get in. The way you respond to the Occupy Wall Street Movement has a lot to say about the role you have chosen for yourself.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is diverse, and I would say confused. It lacks direction and a central theme, but it doesn't lack heart or vision. It represents a group of people who think there is something wrong with the world and believe they can make a difference, and that is where I connect with them. Whenever a lively discussion is taking place, our first question should be, "Does Jesus have something to say about this?"

Jesus has taught us that something is wrong with the world. In a nutshell, I am what is wrong with the world and so are you. Our sin and rebellion has led to all the problems in the world. As a Christian, I am not the solution. I am still part of the problem (God is changing me, but the work is not yet finished). On the other hand, Jesus is a very real solution. His life, sacrifice, and resurrection ushered in this new age of the Spirit. A solution has been offered.

Any time there is a group of people who realize there is something wrong with the world, especially youth, we should be there to bring Jesus into the conversation. But we won't do much good unless it's Jesus we bring to the table. If we are there to defend tradition or a narrow political or fiscal agenda, then our impact will not go far. The starting place for ills we suffer is not our human institutions. It's Jesus himself.

Too often we fill in the details that Jesus chose to leave vague. He begins with our heart and let's everything flow from there. In that way, Jesus inspires vision or creativity. There are many ideas out there that have merit, but, whether the ideas are conservative or liberal, they haven't worked. They are partial answers, but it is human arrogance to believe that our institutions and theories come close to representing the perfection of the kingdom of God. It would be a tragedy to make people dependent on our wisdom when they need to depend on Christ.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is not a mainstream youth movement. It's plans, half-formed as they are, don't represent the views of the majority, but they do represent the desire of this generation to improve a broken world. Most of the church ignored or fought the youth movements of the sixties and the seventies, but Jesus didn't. He sent people like Francis A. Schaeffer to meet them in the streets and on college campuses to talk with them. Schaeffer seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. He looked like he had emerged from an exotic corner of Middle Earth and loved words with more than six syllables, and yet, he made an impact and sparked the imagination. People such as Josh McDowell and bands like Petra focused their time and energy on a generation that the church often kept at arms length. Many of these faithful were criticized for their efforts.

Out of that ministry came the Charismatic Revival of the late seventies and early eighties. Many of you reading this are the fruit of the movement. It would be a tragic denial of our spiritual heritage if we repeated the mistakes of a previous generation. If we do, Jesus will still be about his work. He will just rise up a new generation to do that work, and let the rest of us huddle in our poorly lit corner. I pray we do not make that our destiny.

"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity."
Colossians 4:2-5

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Counting Days and Making Days Count

What difference can a day make? Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Jesus' ministry was that he changed the world in just over a thousand days. His influence over the last two thousand years has been enormous and, yet, his public ministry only lasted three years. Yes, he was the Son of God, and he initiated the coming of the Holy Spirit, but three years?

"Show me, O Lord, my life's end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life."
Psalm 39:4

We often forget how short our lives are and the limited time we have to achieve our goals and make a difference, but I think we also forget what a difference we can make in so short a time. Jesus' touch was an encouragement to the hopeless, an invitation to the aimless, healing to the broken. One moment could spark a change that shaped a lifetime.

There are so many ways we are made to feel helpless. The nightly news brings the whole world's tragedies to your living room every night. So many problems that you can't touch. So many problems that you weren't meant to solve. Too much makes you feel helpless and insignificant. It can make you believe that evil will always triumph. Most tragically, the landslide of problems that God did not intend you to solve can make you blind to the needs around you that you can minister to.

The world is not changed one nation at a time. It's changed one person at a time. Jesus wasted time with children, the poor, the outcast, with tax men, prostitutes, and political zealots because he knew how the world really worked. Love is the greatest power ever known, but only if it is shared with the loveless. An act of love can rock someone's world like the strongest earthquake, destroying the foundations of fear and hatred, but, unlike an earthquake, love leaves potential, promise, and new life.

Love needs to be personal. I fear too many Christians have exchanged the power of the Holy Spirit for the secular power of politics. We have accepted a pessimistic view of powerlessness and have put our faith in political parties and their leaders. We have lost our hope in changed lives and now settle for better management. But Jesus promises so much more. He takes hearts of stone and gives them new life. Change people and the nation will follow, but I see no examples of a nation's spiritual life improving because of it's ruler. God warned Israel that they would be sorely disappointed if they put their hope in a king. God was proven right.

So ask God to help you to understand the days you are given. They are short, but they are significant. Don't complain about the state of things. That is a poor use of the little time you have. If you are a believer, then you are filled with the Spirit of God and this is the age of the Spirit. The God that set the cosmos into motion is within you. I may be poor and helpless, but the Spirit who wants to touch lives is not. My days are short, and so were Jesus' days on this earth. Three short years have changed so many lives. It's not length of the day. It's the significance God brings to the day. But nothing happens if I waste the day, if I don't invest. I am tempted to say there is always tomorrow to make a difference, but why lose out on another day. Lord, please help me to count my days and make my days count.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Spiritual Fast Food

WWJD. A few years ago these letters appeared on bracelets and were repeated at youth conferences. "What would Jesus do?" It's a great question, but it's application was often superficial and lacked content. Without theological instruction (helping students dive head first into Scripture rather than wading in the shallow end) and thoughtful application (prayer, worship, and obedience) all this movement did was drive students toward cultural obedience and make them more sensitive to peer pressure. Sure, that norm and peer pressure came from the Christian community, but without the depth of theology and personal experience with God, that influence is easily usurped by the world. Social conformity and peer pressure are not the same thing as the liberating, life-changing work of the Holy Spirit.

Gordon Fee writes, "Contemporary Christians have a right to be concerned. In an increasingly secular, individualistic, and relativistic world–dubbed "post-Christian" in the 1960s and now called "postmodern"–the church is regularly viewed as irrelevant at best and Neanderthal at worst. Frankly, much of the fault lies within the church, especially those of us in the church who pride ourselves in being orthodox with regard to the historic faith. For all too often our orthodoxy has been either diluted by an unholy alliance with a given political agenda, or diminished by legalistic or relativistic ethics quite unrelated to the character of God, or rendered ineffective by a pervasive rationalism in an increasingly nonrationalistic world." (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, by Gordon D. Fee)

We tend to point our fingers at outside forces to explain the current state of things, but Scripture won't let us do that. Yes, the world is screwed up. It has been since the fall, continues on a suicidal course now, and will continue down that road till Jesus returns. That is a Biblical given. But we are to be salt and light. If we are less effective in that role today, then we have to point the finger back toward ourselves and ask, "Why?" Politics, legalistic responses to the soul-crushing immorality around us, and a rationalism divorced from experience have sucked away the vitality of the gospel. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by the sin of the world. Our reaction to sin has too often been to look at the effectiveness of the world's methods - the fads, hype, and instant gratification - and adopt its superficial methods of coercion. The result has been spiritual fast food.

Where does Fee find a cure? In the Holy Spirit. This might sound like a pat answer, but such a belief reveals a spiritual cynicism and the diminished role we have given God in our understanding of the Christian faith.

Christianity is not primarily concerned with politics, sexual abstinence, logical constructs of reality, what music to listen to, liturgy, or a multitude of other concerns. It is about God. But not any God, a God who has expressed himself as a Trinity, one God in three persons. And the person of that Trinity that we interact with on a daily basis is the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit that illuminates Scripture, changing our Bible study into a dynamic encounter with God. It is this Spirit that acts as a counselor and a guide. This Spirit that empowers us and transforms our lives. It is this Spirit that made the early church a force for change in a first century world that in many ways reflects the thoughts and the practices of today.

The cure for spiritual fast food is the real food of the Spirit. Instead of the weak sentimentality of our current understanding of a "personal relationship with Christ," we need to help tomorrow's leaders enter into a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. Instead of limiting the Spirit to a still small voice (an image used only once in Scripture), we need to also see him as the hurricane, the fire, and the dynamite of Father God. Our overly rationalistic apologetics will never move anyone without the Scripture's emphasis on the apologetics of the Spirit. Our vague understanding of a relationship with God needs to be replaced with an unapologetic New Testament theology of a dynamic, ongoing, life-giving experience of the Holy Spirit.

I will not argue that politics, morality, and rational thought are not important. Our culture and practices are important to God. But they all flow out of relationship with the Holy Spirit. We don't react to the world. We are led by the Spirit. If our faith does not begin with the Holy Spirit, if it is not sustained by an active pursuit of the Spirit, if we don't strain toward the goals the Holy Spirit lays before us, and if we are not actively transformed and empowered by the Spirit, then it's all just spiritual fast food. By any other name still junk food.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shades of Gray?

It is often said that healthy morality is never made up of blacks and whites but of shades of gray. Really? Is that our only choice? Gray is still just a mix of black and white. A true choice would be between black and white on the one hand and color on the other. Jesus leads us into a world of color.

Black and white are about safety. On this side of the line your okay. On that side? Not so much. Grays are about insecurity. "I'm not sure I'm safe, right, excusable." Black, white, and gray are about limitation. Color is for dreams. Color moves us beyond ourselves into something healing.

Can you imagine Jesus sitting his disciples down and saying, "That is the way the world should work." Referring to some past decade. "That was the moment in time when everything was going okay. Just keep doing that, maintain this set of rules, don't associate with anyone who disagrees, and everything will be okay."?

If you can, then Jesus has become a black and white cartoon character for you, and one that doesn't represent the Jesus of the New Testament.

Jesus came to bring change. Since humanity's rebellion against God, there hasn't been a single moment that Jesus could point to and say, "This is how life was meant to be." Since the moment of the Fall, God has been pointing forward to something new, to our healing, to a time when we would live together as we were meant to, a time when the broken hearted would be mended, the handicapped would be healed, and the ignorant would understand. A day when God's benevolence would be fully experienced, when the kingdom of God would be revealed.

The morality of black, white, and shades of gray is about protecting the past. It is often motivated by a fear of change and the unknown. The morality of color is about birthing something new. It is impatient with the present. Not in a harsh and judgmental way. The impatience is born out of a glimpse of the future that Jesus provides. It sees the broken, deceived, disillusioned people of the world and is excited about the changes that God's grace can bring.

"But we need to be realistic." Those words have brought down so many dreams. But what is more realistic, believing that we need to accept the world at face value, or believing that the God of the universe, who brought Jesus back from the dead, will finish the work by miraculously changing lives through the power of his Holy Spirit? If you have never tasted that Spirit, then it seems impossible, but if you have met this Jesus, how could you settle for anything less than his vision for the future?

Following Jesus is not about being safe. Yes, there really is right and wrong. We are called to follow Jesus and obey, but to what end? To prove that we were good enough? If that was the case, then Jesus wouldn't have had to die on the cross. To prove we are better than everyone else? That would just be a return to crushing pride. We obey out of love for Jesus, out of love for his vision, and for the sake of all those people he loves. That is a colorful morality. That is a dream worth giving our lives to.

Black and white people become bitter over a lifetime. The rules are not enough. The world never seems to get better (Jesus warned us it wouldn't till he returns, but we forget). People who follow Jesus' vision aren't surprised that the big picture still needs a complete overhaul, but they are encouraged because they aren't just looking at the big picture. They were looking at the individual's that Jesus loves and gave his life for. On that scale, lives are being transformed and healed every day. There is real, tangible progress.

The cynical is caught in the black and white. If it isn't all better, than it's all bad. Life doesn't work like that. Our lives and attitudes either draw color away from the world, or we become windows through which God's grace can flow. It isn't a matter of whether or not you are moral. Everyone is to some extent even if that morality is confused. What matters is whether your morality invests in the false security of rules and barriers, or whether it is shaped by the life-giving purposes of God. It isn't safe. It got Jesus crucified. But it is able to feed and enrich your life like nothing else can.

Don't tell me about the rules. Tell me about the vision. It's easier to let God shape me to the vision than it is to find any good coming from hiding in the corner and trying to stay safe. The vision is a lot more inspiring. Go with the color.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Turn and Face the Strange

Change is a constant and still we act surprised. Civilization has marched forward, sideways, and backwards, but it never stops. It keeps marching. And still we act as though we are shocked by change. Do we think Jesus didn't anticipate the twenty-first century? Do we really believe Christianity has to be completely redefined because there is opposition from a unredeemed world? Or are we tired?

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Gal 6:9) Compassion fatigue is nothing new. We are a culture that wants to see quick results. We are impatient and lose interest when the fruits of our labor are not quickly experienced, but we are warned against this impatience. God warns us that the harvest will come, but the kingdom of God is not like a vending machine. The danger is that we would lose faith in God's way of doing things and begin to conform to the wisdom of our age in order to see quicker results. We see this occurring quickly in the early church as some tried to reshape the gospel to make it more palatable.

But that doesn't mean that we can ignore the times either. We are trying to reach real people in a real culture at a particular moment in time. Paul "became all things to all people." He matched the people around him as much as possible so his communication would be effective. There were limits. First, he learned the truth and chose truth over error. He knew his purpose was to become like those around him so he could bring the truth of God to them. His goal was to transform the world through the power of the spirit.

The second limit was sin. He did not want to lose what Christ had won for him. By sin, I mean active sin. There is nothing righteous about avoiding people who sin. In fact, that would be sin itself. We are following Jesus who came for the sick, not the healthy. There are many ways I can interact with my neighbors without actively sinning. And if that means I hear some swearing or have to inhale some cigarette smoke, then so be it. I can endure small discomforts for the sake of the gospel. Either that, or I will have to go cower with the self-righteous.

Change will continue to occur and I can work to keep up or I can disconnect and let the march go on while I ineffectively watch from the sidelines. I choose to keep up, but I refuse to become trendy. What's the difference? Where I engage. If I want to know my neighbors, then I need to spend time with them and become involved in the community they live in. No one should need to tell me about the changes going on around me. I should be experiencing them firsthand.

I become trendy when I get my news from the trend makers. Entertainment shows and gossip sheets thrive by creating a fictional "hip" for the uninformed. These are created by marketers trying to sell you the next big thing, and their products are mostly bought by shut-ins who don't yet have a life of their own.

I become trendy when I use Christian books and media as my primary way to get to know my neighbors. Don't get me wrong. I believe Christian literature is an important part of growth, but it is never a substitute for personal experience. By the time a book on contemporary culture is researched, printed, and marketed, it is often more than ten years out of date. The only way you know your neighbors is by spending time with them. There are a large number of outrageous Christian books and hastily produced Christian TV and radio that create fear and distort reality. Their end result is to produce fear and drive a wedge between us and those who need the truth of the gospel. I am careful of what I consume.

By the way, if you didn't get the reference in the title, David Bowie's Changes, then you have a little catching up to do (about four decades). Jesus didn't give us a large set of rituals, patterns for church services, or a detailed formula for sharing our faith. He gave us an active relationship with himself and universal guidance about the life he called us to. He isn't surprised by changes. The entire gospel does not need to be rethought because it's the twenty-first century, but our interaction with the world, our relationship with our neighbor, and our service and communication need to be.

Most of all, a lack of change makes us feel comfortable as we stay to the safety of our old ruts in the road. When we leave the ruts, we are in unfamiliar country. We need to depend on Jesus more. We need to follow the comfort of his voice rather than the comfort of tradition. We grip his hand a bit tighter when we turn and face the strange... changes.