Thursday, March 26, 2009

Great benefits package

The last two verses of Psalm 5:

v.11 "But let all who take refuge in You be glad, Let them ever sing for joy; And may You shelter them, That those who love Your name may exult in You."

v.12 "For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD, You surround him with favor as with a shield."


After talking about the enemy for 3 verses, David returns to a more positive note. Those who are not God’s enemy are those who take refuge in Him, and they get not only protection, but joy. The word joy appears twice, as the word “exult” literally means to jump for joy.

The benefits to being with God, as listed in these two verses, include refuge, joy, shelter, more joy, blessing, righteousness, favor, and protection. Wow! Where do I sign up?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A memory I am not proud of

Have you ever had a memory pop up from long ago, something you had completely forgotten? It happens to me occasionally, and earlier today, I had a one of my worst-ever memories come to mind. I was actually shaking and almost choked up just thinking about it.

It was 1986, and I was in the Army. We had just gotten into formation. For those not familiar, I mean it was the beginning of the day. I had showered, eaten, and dressed, and we all lined up in a formation; that is, lined up according to platoons and squads. Our company captain (C.O.) spoke to the entire company. He announced that Rock Hudson, who had recently announced that he had AIDS, had died overnight. What happened next, in hindsight, is mind-bogglingly shocking. There was applause. Every soldier in the company, upon hearing of Hudson's death, burst into applause, and cheered loudly. I honestly don't remember if I joined in, but I probably did. Still, I remember that I was very bothered by the outburst.

Thinking about this reminds me of other things I had said and thought in regards to the onset of AIDS in the 80's. I had no sympathy towards anyone with the disease. They engaged in immorality, so they got what is coming to them, I said to myself and others. Not my problem. I sure wasn't concerned about ever getting it myself, being straight and Christian and all. Plus, I couldn't even get a date, so opportunities for sexual immorality weren't exactly beating down my door.

My behavior and words, in hindsight, mortify me, as does the eruption of applause that we all engaged in that morning. When I remembered it today, I was appalled at myself and my fellow soldiers. We were applauding the fact that a man led a miserable life, believed in some lies, had a sham marriage to cover up his lifestyle which was born out of those lies, led a secret life, and then spent his last years dying a slow, agonizing death. As far as we knew, he never knew Jesus, never had the opportunity to embrace the healing and life and liberty that Jesus offers, and now he's dead and will be separated from Jesus forever. And for this, we cheered.

I don't know how one goes about ranking his worst memories, but this one is in my Top Five.

1 John 4:7-11 "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Transparency

When greeting someone at church on a Sunday morning, it's inevitable that I will be asked "How are you, James?". I try to avoid saying "Fine. How are you?" (let's refer to that phrase as IFHAY for short).

Why do I avoid IFHAY? Some who know me will accuse me of bringing my non-conformism into these situations, and I must admit, there's something to that. But that's not the primary purpose for not using that tired phrase. My problem with IFHAY is that it's a little too safe. Someone can have this mini-conversation several times on a Sunday morning, and never get any closer to anyone by day's end. By relying on IFHAY, you convince yourself that you have checked in on people and let them check in on you, but you get to keep your shield up, and you have managed to avoid challenging others to let theirs down, as well. Ultimately, you have done nothing worthwhile in any of these conversations.

The genuine Christian life includes transparency. Calling yourself a Christian while refusing to ask others to open up (or opening up yourself), is like a Toyota calling itself a car after its wheels have been removed. It's true by the strictest definition, but renders the car ineffective for both its owner and for anyone else.

When I was a home group leader, we ended each meeting with a prayer request time. One thing I learned was that transparency doesn't come easy, and I could gain insights into our closeness as a group by the types of requests that were brought up. It turns out there are 3 levels of transparency in that environment: (1) Requests to pray for someone else I know; (2) Pray for me for non-spiritual issues; (3) Pray for me for deeper issues.

When we first started meeting, the members, not knowing each other well, would offer up prayer requests for their aunt, their neighbor, or some story they read about in the news. When we knew each other better, some got a little braver and asked for prayer for their own situations: job, finances, kids' illness. At this point, there's still a shield up. Nobody dares to ask someone to pray for their marriage, any sin they are struggling with, their lack of prayer life, etc. I knew our group was where we should be when people started bringing these types of requests before the group. This doesn't happen unless there's a real connectedness. It goes beyond comfort. It's a complete trust that your friends will feel the things you feel about the thing you are requesting prayer for. It's knowing that they won't just throw unsolicited advice at you (again, that's a way of making yourself believe you have contributed to a fellow believer's well-being while still remaining in a "safe" place). It's knowing that they rejoice when you rejoice, and weep when you weep.

In my observation, when members are willing to take that brave step out of their comfort zone and go head-first into the deepest level, it's because one of the following events has occurred: (1) transparency has been modeled for them by someone else in the group; (2) desperation; (3) enough time has passed and the group has reached a comfort level with each other.

Going backward, the third on the list is the least desirable option. Why wait for years for closeness to occur to the point that members can share deep personal prayer needs? How much damage can the enemy do in the meantime?

The 2nd item is also something that you don't want to have to resort to. I know of one marriage that nobody knew was in trouble until great damage had been done by one of the spouses. We got together and prayed with both of them, but the breakup had essentially been set in motion already, and a heartbreaking divorce was the result. If only we had known about the factors which started the smaller cracks in the relationship! But prior to the exposure of the problems, all we heard was: "I'm fine. How are you?" Nobody saw through IFHAY. There was no transparency.

The first one is best: a Christian is going to feel they can be open when someone has gone before them. This is where the group leader can do his/her greatest work, by being the first to be truly transparent. The group I'm in now (not led by me) is headed by just such a leader. When you think about it, that's what a leader does: leads. Goes first.

I implore any Christian reading this to do two things: Be willing to open up with some other believer you can trust will pray for you. And when on the other side of that conversation, refuse to accept IFHAY. Don't be afraid to press in, and don't worry if you offend the person. The times we are living in demand it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The first 3 verses of Psalms

Psalm 1:1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
--This not saying to never interact with non-believers. Jesus did that, and instructed His followers to do so in a particular way. It says don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. Don’t take on their mindset and attitudes. Keep thinking godly thoughts.

How can we do that? The next verse yields a strong clue:

Psalm 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.

--getting into God’s written word will change how we walk, and how we think. But notice it doesn’t say “he who reads the law (word)”; it says he who delights in the law. The word “delight” means just that: happiness. When we get to the point where the Word makes us happy, where it’s the central thing in our lives, we are on the right track. Note that this does not mean to become a scholar. You might or might not become one, but that’s not the goal here. Knowledge of the word without delight makes one a Pharisee.

The key is to see the Word as the source of happiness. The more we get into it, the more we need. It’s easy to see how drugs, video games, nicotine, porn, and many other substitutes gain their power in a person’s life. They emulate the very characteristics, only in a twisted, reverse way, of the Word of God. The more we indulge in the Word, the more we want. It becomes our delight.

Once we get “addicted”, we want to meditate on it day and night. The Hebrew word translated “meditate” in that verse is the same used to describe a cow’s digestive method. You will recall from biology class that a cow has 4 stomachs. The cow eats some food, and it goes into the first stomach, then returns to the cow’s mouth, where she chews it some more, then it goes into stomach #2, then returns to the mouth, so she can enjoy the taste again. This happens 4 times. Yum! The Psalmist’s choice of the word “meditate” is a very clever one.

Let us look at the progression so far: (1) We avoid taking on the thoughts of those who don't know the Lord; (2) we choose to indulge in the written Word. (3) it makes us happy; (4) we cannot get enough; we think about the word day and night.
Once a man has entrenched himself in the path described above, look at the result:

Psalm 1:3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is U2 a Christian band?

Ephesians 2:10 "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them"

U2's new CD comes out this week, and it brings up that old discussion among Christians about whether u2 is a Christian band or not. Scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to the glory of God. Mainstream Christians have no problem acknowledging that mountains, flowers, and waterfalls glorify God without actually speaking His name. But we are mistaken if we forget that humans can do the same, simply by walking in their calling. If a country singer, for example, is truly walking in his calling, he can continue to sing about the pain caused by adultery, for example, and it glorifies God every bit as much as biblical tale of David and Bathsheba, which carries the same message about adultery.

If God has created you to be a story-teller (and singers are story-tellers), then be a story-teller, and you will glorify the one who created you. Let others fret about whether your lyrics fit their description of "Christian" or not. You only have to please God, not other people. By the only measure that matters, U2 is a Christian band.

I'm convinced that God has called U2 to speak His truth to an audience that otherwise isn't going to hear it. An analysis of their tunes will consistently lead to a discovery that most of them are about God or about godly truths.

What's sad to me is how many Christians will dismiss their work simply because it sounds secular. Nobody complains about a Christian computer programmer or plumber or fast-food cashier whose work seems, on the surface, to fail to include any Christian elements. But write a song, and it better mention Jesus, or else.

A similar mistake made by many Christians is the idea that if the audience doesn't get the Christian message out of a song whose meaning might be unclear, then the musician has failed. This mindset is based on some erroneous ideas, including (a) singing a song with a message that isn't clearly Christian is evidence that you are ashamed of your faith;, and (b) the unbelievers in the audience need to hear the Gospel from you (the singer), or else the effort is wasted.

The former view is wrong simply because if you are called to write and sing a particular kind of song to a particular audience, then you can do nothing better or more important that living in that calling. Not every one of us has been called to be Billy Graham.

The latter view is more troubling because it is founded in the idea that we must place the Great Commission ahead of the Great Commandment.

There was a movie called "Chariots of Fire" in which the main character, an Olympic athlete, was pressured by his family to be a missionary. Their Pharisaical mindsets wouldn't let them see that this man was created to run, but thankfully, he didn't fail to see it himself. In the film's most moving quote, he tells a family member, "When I run, I feel God's pleasure."

U2 is a Christian band, not because their lyrics are parallel to Sandy Patty's. They are Christians who live out their God-given assignment, and there is little doubt that they feel God's pleasure when doing so. How anyone else categorizes them is irrelevant.

Ephesians 2:10 "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them"

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Picking sides

When U2 performed in the Super Bowl in 2002, the nation was still hurting from the 9/11 attacks. If you take a few minutes to view the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n13CU-NvPMU , you'll note that around the 1:20 mark, Bono says this, twice: "O Lord, open my lips, That my mouth may declare Your praise." This is from Psalm 51:15. The band then launches into "Where the Streets Have No Name."

As the story goes, the song gets its roots in the fact that in Ireland, the tension between Catholics and Protestants is so strong that they segregate themselves by neighborhoods. When you meet a person, you determine if you are going to like them or not when he tells you the name of the street he lives on. Bono, the son of a rare combination of Catholic/Protestant parentage, looks forward to a time and a place where street names -- representative of those things that divide us into opposing groups -- will no longer be important.

Although this message was certainly timely in the aftermath of 9/11, its importance stretches across time and into practically all aspects of life. It is apparently human nature which causes us to take sides, and to demonize those on the other side. In the IT world where I have spent the last several years of my working life, arguments about Linux vs. Windows can get pretty contentious. In the web design world, it's Mac vs. PC. I just read a story today that Bill Gates forbids his family to purchase an iPod or iPhone. It seems we are unable to acknowledge that "the other team" might have something worthwhile to offer. My friends who live in Albuquerque tell me that you are either a green chili person or a red chili person. You must choose.

Donald Miller recently pointed this out on his blog, www.donmilleris.com, using the Mac vs. PC commercials as a strong example of how an entire marketing campaign is based on this "us-vs.-them" mentality. Although I love Don's writing, I have found examples in his speaking and writing where he perpetuates the same divisiveness along political lines. I don't say this to slam Miller, but to point out that all of us are bound by this tendency, regardless of how hard we try to free ourselves from its grip.

Probably the most surprising example of this phenomenon in my life was when I was at a national gathering of Christian men in October of 1997. There were hundreds of thousands of us, praying, crying, sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit in a profound way. We were repenting of our sins, trying to get right with God. We were breaking down walls of race and denomination. But as I found out, not all walls go down as easily as others.

It was lunchtime, and I got in line at a fast-food place. I struck up a conversation with a man in front of me, and once he found out I was from the Dallas area, he informed me that he was from Philadelphia. While he wasn't rude, he did rib me a bit about how much the Philly fan hates the everything Cowboys-related. It was clear that something happened in the conversation once my affiliation became known. While the men gathered there that day did find themselves on the receiving end of protests from some women's groups, I was shocked that the division among the attendees themselves would be manifest, and would be based on sports, of all things. I could understand somewhat if the difference were, say Israel vs. PLO. But the atmosphere in the conversation changed based on the fact that I root for the team that that guy hates.

This thing has no limit. People draw lines based on so many dichotomies that I cannot possibly list them all.

Dogs vs. cats.
Union vs. non-union.
Once-saved-always-saved vs. those who believe otherwise. (I got into an argument with my uncle about this one evening in 1983, and it got intense, because I couldn't accept the fact that he saw this issue differently I did. Tragically, it was the last conversation we had, as he unexpectedly died before I saw him again.)
Calvinist vs. Armenian
Leno vs. Letterman

Why do we do this? Why do Republicans assume the worst about Democrats, and vice Versa? Why do we forgive those on "our side" for actions while blasting those from the other team for the same actions? Is this human nature? Is it something that will never go away until Jesus returns? Lord, I hope not.