A LIZARD NAMED MELINDA and other thoughts on neighborliness

A LIZARD NAMED MELINDA and other thoughts on neighborliness

If you are heartsick at all the hatred and strife going on in our country right now, I have an encouraging story for you.

My wife and I recently returned from a beach vacation. It will come as no surprise to those who understand ministry life that I do my best not to look pastoral on these trips. I wear shorts, sandals, and sunglasses everywhere, along with a big hat. I don’t shave. I keep to myself and do things that recharge my emotional batteries. And except for sending a few photos to my immediate family, I also disconnect from email, news, and social media.

Even so, it was hard to miss the headlines about police brutality, racial strife, and riots. Tybee Island, Georgia, where we stayed, is just outside Savannah. We couldn’t help but wonder how that old southern town would be affected. Would there be sullen looks and incivility between the races?  But when we stopped at a visitor center staffed entirely by African Americans, we were greeted with smiles and great courtesy.

The same was true on the beach, where the racial mix is relatively even. Every African American individual or family we encountered, in fact, everyone black or white, seemed to make it a point to make eye contact, smile, and engage in polite conversation.

Then one morning, I got up at 5:30 and walked out to the beach to enjoy the sunrise and take some pictures. I found my spot and just stood there facing east, letting my inner thoughts bob like a kite in a capful of wind.

Several people were out by then, jogging, strolling, and some just standing like me, waiting to meet the sun. Then along came a smallish barefoot man maybe thirty-five years old, round John Lennon glasses, long black hair in a double segmented ponytail down his back, scruffy beard, grey shorts, loose-fitting beige short-sleeve shirt. He walked with a quick, nervous gait, a slender stick like a cane in his right hand, and made a beeline toward me up the sand berm. As I kept my eye on his cane, I thought, six o’clock in the morning, and I’m about to be hit up by a homeless guy.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but are you a pastor?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “What did you say?”

“Are you a pastor?”

Only two beings could have told him that. I wonder which one it was, I thought. 

“Yes.”

“Well, so am I. Latter-Day Saints, you know, but it’s all the same. Are you the pastor of…” He named some church nearby that I missed.

“No.”

It was about that time that I noticed the ten-inch lizard—perched would be the wrong word, more like molded—onto his left shoulder. I guess I hadn’t seen it before because it was facing backward and blended perfectly with his shirt, tail hanging down another eight inches or so across his chest, utterly still.

“What’s your name?” I asked, thinking, this guy is right out of Lewis’s The Great Divorce. I wonder if it talks to him?

“Louis.”

“And who’s your friend?”

“That’s Melinda.”

“Oh.” I considered taking his picture but felt it would be impolite.

“Well,” he said, “don’t let the (garbled in the wind) get to you. It’s the new millennium, you know!” And off he went into the morning gloom, Melinda staring over his shoulder, never having moved a muscle.

I’ve been reflecting on that encounter ever since. It occurred to me that everyone we met on that trip, black, white, Asian, Latino, and even a guy with a lizard on his shoulder who I thought was going to ask me for money, acted with an extra measure of courtesy and civility toward one another. It was refreshing.

So, when the world is full of hatred and strife, and you feel helpless about it, remember, we cannot solve the world’s problems. But we can love the neighbor that is right in front of us—even the ones with pet lizards on their shoulders.

PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

Thunk! “YES!” I fist pumped. Thunk! “Just one more!” I said to my partner, did my wind up, and tossed. Thunk! “We won! We won!” I shouted, threw my hands up and did a victory dance. It was a classic come from behind victory. I could hear Jim Nance intoning, “It was a cornhole tournament unlike any other.”

Everybody at the church picnic turned and looked at their nutty pastor and smiled.

Hey, don’t laugh. At my age, sporting victories are few and far between. I celebrate them whenever I get the chance. In fact, I celebrate—a word with roots deep in worship of God—any time I can think of an excuse to do so, and so should you.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Joy is what heaven is about. It is the driving energy of life. Without it we wither. Partying with God is essential to a happy life.

Have you considered how much joy there is in the Bible? The New Testament begins with it and is filled with it. Do a concordance search on “joy” or “rejoicing” and you’ll be amazed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Children do joy automatically.

G. K. Chesterton explained, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[1]

God has an immense capacity for simple joy that we have lost and need to regain. The ability to party with God, the spiritual discipline of celebration, is a crucial step in reclaiming our joy. It is crucial because joyless Christians help no one.

Put yourself in the position of someone looking for answers in life. You’re looking around at the people you know, the people you see in the hair salon, the other moms at the baseball field. You’re watching them because you know they go to a church that says there is more to this life. Yet you don’t see any joy. You see crabbiness. You see selfishness. You see someone who can find the fly in every ice cream cone of life. Are you going to be interested in her spirituality?

Somebody out there in the spiritual world wants you to find all the faults in others and all the sadness you can swallow, but it isn’t Jesus Christ. Francis de Sales wrote, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence he desires that everyone should be like himself.”[2] Misery loves company.

Joy is an absolute necessity for healthy spiritual life. Without it we shrivel and become vulnerable, more vulnerable to temptation than ever. Fulfillment, contentment, and dare I say it, pleasure, are essential elements for a strong soul. When we fail to find these good things God wants us to have, and then celebrate the goodness, sin seems better than what He has to offer. Temptation’s power is multiplied in an unhappy soul.

So, I urge you, learn the spiritual discipline of celebration. Learn to take each good thing out of each good day, even the corn-hole victories of life, and revel in the goodness of God.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, quoted by John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 61

[2] Francis de Sales. Quoted by Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted. P. 64.

 

FRANCIS COLLINS FINDS THE LIGHT

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

(John 1:4 NIV)

We call Christmas the season of light in no small part because of the meaning of this verse. But what are we to make of this mysterious word? How was Jesus the light of men?

Famed geneticist Francis Collins’s journey to faith is a good example.

Collins’s credentials and accomplishments are legendary in the scientific community. He headed up the Human Genome Project before serving as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. In 2007 he wrote a New York Times best-seller, The Language of God, which weaves together the story of his work as a world-renowned scientist and his journey from atheism to faith in Christ.

As a young doctor and atheist at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, Collins cared for many desperately sick people who, in spite of their illnesses, had profound faith. He wondered, “why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that (their families) stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent super power?” After all, most of them were dying from illnesses they had done nothing to deserve.

That’s when an older patient, suffering from untreatable angina, asked a question for which he was not prepared, “What do you believe?”

“I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words,” he wrote, “I’m not really sure.”

Collins was in the dark and knew it. He began to question his integrity as a scientist and realized that, rather than consider all the evidence and come to a rational conclusion on life’s greatest question, he had engaged in, “willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance … Suddenly, all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.”[1]

After a long period of searching, which included a review of the world’s great religions, grilling a pastor with questions, and reading C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity, the light dawned:

“On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”[2]

Perhaps you can identify with Collins. You know something is out there, something true, and good, and powerful enough to give dying people hope and peace, but you have been avoiding it. That something is really Someone, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

Maybe you are ready to begin your journey into the light today, or you know someone who is. If so let me recommend C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the book that helped Collins so much. Then there’s Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, a modern classic. And finally, if you are of a scientific bent, The Language of God is a great place to start.

[1] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 20.

[2] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 225

GOD’S LOVE AND HELL

A book by a well known evangelical casts doubt on some things Jesus said about hell and judgment. The basic question is: If God is love, why does he send people to hell?

But there is a twofold problem with the question. It assumes that we understand human nature and God’s love as they are presented in the Bible.

We do not.

We have childish, unbiblical notions of human nature. We believe that we are better than we are–that sin somehow does not corrupt us. We also have confused ideas about responsibility. We tend to blame God for our choices. We misunderstand his nature, imagining his love as grandfatherly sentiment, his holiness irrelevant, and therefore, his wrath is considered impossible.

When we do think of God’s wrath, we equate it with human rage. But Tim Keller has a good definition of God’s wrath: “It is not an out-of-control temper. Wrath is the settled opposition and hatred of that which is destroying what we love.” Imagine your reaction to cancer in a dear friend. That’s wrath. God hates the things that destroy us, including the things that come from inside us.

We are capable of much evil, much selfishness, much that is perverse and opposed to that which God holds dear. We destroy the bodies he gave us with toxins, neglect, and inadequate care. We destroy the souls he gave us with greed, gossip, lying, self-righteousness, self-pity, and lust. And we destroy others with cutting words, economic oppression, relentless criticism, and betrayal.

We also assume that Jesus was too kind to mention hell. But he said more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. He warned us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

He also taught that hell is self-chosen saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19 NIV).

C. S. Lewis said it like this: Unless someone wants God and God alone he would be utterly miserable in heaven. It would be a crime to send him there for heaven is all about God.

Finally, the good news that Jesus came to proclaim is that God wishes to save us from hell. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). That’s God’s love at work, absorbing the wrath that we deserve, and making it possible for us to know him now and join him in eternity.

How do we do that? By receiving him into our lives as Lord, as Jesus also explained, “He who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20 ESV). And, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 13:25 NIV).

So the question is not, “Why does God send people to hell?” But rather, “What do I really want? Do I want Jesus Christ and God the Father who sent him? Or do I want my own life, my own way?”

Either way, the choice is ours.