Friday, March 9, 2012

Odds Are Terrible Gods

"But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites" (Numbers 14:10)

What a verse. Joshua & Caleb stand as two small islands battered by a sea of fearful and furius Israelites who are just inches from pelting them with stones.

Their crime? Faith.

They believed that God would protect and bless them as they battle the fierce armies and fortified cities that lay in their path.

The basis for this faith? The record.

They figured that if their God could conquer Pharaoh's Egypt by miraculous plagues, cut a dry path through the Red Sea, and provide meat and bread for thousands out of thin air, then He could probably help them win a few skirmishes. Plus, this was God's ancient plan in no uncertain terms, the promise that God had reiterated for centuries with the consistancy of a kick drum in a rock band. They remembered God's record of providence, and they remembered His promises. For Joshua and Caleb, that was enough. Case closed, they urged their comrads. Let's move!

What did everyone else base their fear on? What logic did they use to opt out of God's plan and voluntarily head back to bondage in Egypt? A little thing called Odds.

They do what we do every day. They weighed the probabily of success given a defined set of known variables, which specifically were: a band of wandering ex-slaves versus numerous large, well-trained, well-supplied, and well-armed forces fighting on their home courts. They didn't like these odds, so they checked themselves out of the game. So mightily did they cling to the security of their calculated outcome that they were prepared to kill anyone who challenged it with the logic of faith. Unless the odds are in our favor, they shrieked, forget God's record and promises. We're turning around. If you don't agree, keep it to yourself or plan to start collecting stones.

Odds can easily become gods. Life's decisions can be made with total deference paid to minimizing risk and maximizing safety. If it's dangerous, don't do it. If it could put you and yours in a safer, more prosperous position, then have at it. It's that simple.

Many single adults avoid living in smaller cities because they are more likely to meet a mate in a larger one. Many college students stear away from a given path of study because the average income for graduates with another major is significantly higher. Some grandparents scold their adult children for considering mission trips to nations less safe than America.

And we all do it. We look fondly at job opportunities or travel options that involve liesure, stable environments, and plenty of ammenities. We make pro and con lists to weigh the benefits of big decisions. We hope to get our kids into the best schools so they have better odds of better grades and access to a better college, which gives them better odds of a well-paying career so that they can afford a better house in a better neighborhood next to good schools so that their kids can...

Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with good neighborhoods, good grades, good schools, and good jobs. They are blessings from God. There's also nothing wrong with making good, common-sense decisions using logic and statistical information. God knows that we would have less chemicle abuse, cohabitation, crime, car accidents, single-parent households, and all sorts of social problems if people avoided activities that would likely result in deleterious outcomes. There's nothing wrong with "good" things, and there's nothing wrong with paying attention to the odds regarding risky behavior.

But it's wrong to turn from God's plan for my life because He may not call me to a "nice" nation or neighborhood, or because he may not provide an easy road with a high probability of success. Odds can calculate God right out of the picture. Living by the book of probabilities means that I may be opposed to God's plans whenever they involve a sort of countercultural risk (and they often do), and that I am not open to stepping out in faith to rely on His power and providence. Instead, like Israel I look with disdain or outright hostility at those who can muster the faith to do risky things for faith's sake.

Odds are simply terrible gods. Great inventors, explorers, businesspeople, athletes, and leaders throughout history have consistantly defied the odds. Each would have had a comfortable and forgettable life had they only pursued goals that came with a high probability of success. And pretty much every Biblical hero seems to have been chosen by God precicely because the odds were against them. The biblical God usually laughs at poor odds.

Joshua and Caleb experience two opposing power centers in Numbers 14:10, the same forces we face daily. First, they encounter the ferocious hostility of odds-worshippers who would do anything to silence their audacious faith in God's record and promises. And second, they encounter the glory of God as a reminder that they'd made the right call.

That these opposing forces are sandwiched together in one verse is no accident. They belong together. When we trust God against the odds, we recognize His coming glory as our joy and reward, and we live in ways that would otherwise be undesirable if not impossible. When we refuse to do so, His coming glory is an undesirable and judgmental threat.

Dear Lord, I thank you for the nice suburb, home, and school in which my family has been blessed. But please save us from worshipping the odds. Save us from savoring security above your glory. And make us willing to go anywhere and do anything if we recognize that it's your hand leading us. God, remind us of your record of providence, and give us faith in your promises. Dear Father, don't let odds be our gods. In the name of our unlikely Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

"But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites" (Numbers 14:10)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Just Dust

Today, you may see someone walking around town with a smudge of ashes on their forhead. You may ask them why they appear as if they've been in a charcoal fight. And they may tell you that they'd been to church that day, where someone rubbed ashes on their heads while muttering the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The words of this ancient ritual come from Genesis 3:19, where God proclaimes curses to humans after they turn away from Him. In Genesis, and on Ash Wednesday, the words aim to remind us that sooner or later, we will die. Think of that. In a world that seems to endlessly move along, God wants you to remember that you will die. You.. will... die. Of course I'm not God, so I can't say exactly why. But apparently, there must be something about this reminder that we all desparately need. As many old men have told me, time goes too fast. And knowing that my time on earth is fleeting, that my days are over in a handbreath, may be just as important as having enough food to eat and air to breath. It's part of being human. So, failing to take seriously my own mortality is an act of denial which defies my humanness and ignores the rigid boundaries of my existance. Most importantly, failure to acknowledge death delludes me on the most tragic level, preventing me from seeing and savoring God's shocking response to that great, grim bucket that all of us shall one day kick (John 11:25).

Cue Romans 3. Paul describes God as one who seeks to be just, faithful in providing the promised consequenses of human sin and rebellion. But this God also wants to be a justifier of the guilty humans that He so loves. His heart longs to be both "just and the one who justifies" at the same time.

How can he possibly do this? How can a just judge condemn and aquit the guilty at the same time? Verse 25 spills the beans: "God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in His blood... to demonstrate his justice." Who does the pronound refer to here? None other than God Himself. Jesus is God wearing flesh, presented as as a sacrifice for the purpose of providing and recieving the just punishment of sin. Thus, in the same, self-sacrificial act, God condemns and justifyies the guilty who have faith in Jesus Christ.

So what does this have to do with dust? Psalm 103:8-13 laments human sinfulness but praises God's willingness to have mercy. Verse 14 tells us why: "for He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust."

Get that? God remembers that we are dust. And he refuses to leave us that way: "But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD'S love is with those who fear him..." (v. 17). So we're dust because we're human and God is just. But since God is more than just (he's also a justifier of the guilty!), we're more than dust. We'll wear his love like a crown forever.

In other words, since God is a just justifier, we're far more than just dust.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Paying Bills & Covenant-Keeping

Once upon a time, I loved to pay the bills. As an eighteen year-old in my first apartment, I was delighted to watch money siphoned from my checking account, because it meant that I was independent, important, and mature. I felt like Steve Martin in the movie, The Jerk, where he was ecstatic after finding his name in the phone book for the first time. Finally, the feeling goes, I'm somebody. I have my name in the phone book... I'm paying bills.

What on earth was I thinking?

Now, I hate paying bills. Almost as much as getting a shot. I put it off until the last, possible moment. If there were a way out of it, believe you me, I'd have found it by now. Now, bills remind me of the responsibilities and burdens that hold us down. I find no joy in them whatsoever.

But when the fulfillment of our legal and civil obligations is merely burdensome, something is missing. I'm determined to reclaim the joy of paying bills. OK, that's probably too much to ask, but I'm hoping to at least find some silver lining around the proverbial hole in the bottom of our financial bucket.

And I think I've found a starting point. We live in a world that is short on trust, where many young people grow up without ever seeing an example of promises kept, having never tasted the fulfilling fruit of covenant-keeping. For the next generation, broken promises and unmet obligations are the norm.

So, what if we saw obligations to our landlord, the government, or the gas company as opportunities to keep our own promises, to hold up our end of the bargain, and to do what we said we would do... in order to train ourselves in the lost art of covenant-keeping, one paid bill at a time? Would it change the way we look at our commitments and obligations to our jobs? Our kids? Our spouses? Would it change the way we see the mundane, ongoing tasks of life, from washing dishes and changing oil to taking out the trash and making photocopies?

It better. Otherwise, our lives will be full of meaningless tasks and obligations that simply detract from the quality of one's existence. Without a connection to a greater purpose and a broader meaning, we feel more like hamsters running in a cage than creatures of a loving, caring Creator who has a plan for our lives.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:12

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Do You Believe in Miracles?

During the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, the young Al Michaels had the honor of calling the most memorable moment in the history of ice hockey--possibly Olympic history itself--as the American squad triumphed over the Russians in their semi-final matchup. Herb Brooks, the now legendary coach of the US team, had somehow compiled a group of amateurs (America had not yet allowed professional hockey players to compete in the games), who found a way defeat a Russian team that was considered invincible.

If you haven't seen the ending, it's worth the price of admission: click to watch

As I prepare for an upcoming message over the miracles of Jesus, it strikes me how broadly that the term can be applied. Anything, from newborn babies and sunrises to healings and hockey games, can be defined as a miracle. Most commonly, I suppose, a miracle is seen as an interruption or departure from the natural laws that govern the cosmos in order to bring about an otherwise unlikely conclusion.

But I'm not sure that we want to relegate miracles to the paranormal sphere.

The more we learn about the Universe, including the vast complexity of outer space and the intricacies within each cell and atom, we come face to face with innumerable miracles that undergird our everyday reality. For us to define miracles as exceptions to the norm would be to assume that the norm is not miraculous in and of itself. That would be a mistake.

On the other hand, Jesus performs a fair share of miracles that are defined in scripture as 'signs,' or acts which point to a greater reality. While Jesus would surely remind us of the majesty woven into every fiber of creation, He also saw a need to point to the future through the use of these 'signs,' to a coming age in which everything will be precisely as the Creator intends.

In this light, Jesus' miracles function not as magic tricks or interruptions to natural laws, but as previews that point to a time when the nature of the specific miracle becomes reality on the grandest of scales. The healing of a blind man points to the day in which all believers will finally see Him face to face. The casting out of a demon forecasts the time when all sin and evil are jettisoned from God's world. And the raising of a little girl from the dead shines a radiant shaft of light toward the glorious moment when God commands His dead saints to rise triumphant. And of course, every miracle of Jesus was meant to point to Him as the means through which this future reality is coming about. His cross is the fulcrum, the funnel through which the Old Order fades and the New gains momentum like a gathering storm.

Al was right to ask if we believe in miracles, and I hope that your answer is yes. And I hope you see miracles wherever they exist--in your heartbeat and brainwaves, your family, your body, the incredible universe, and on top of all that, in the signs that Jesus both did and does in order to lift our eyes toward His advancing Kingdom.

Do you believe in miracles? I'm with Al and Jesus on this one.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Good News is both Good and News: Discuss

In the Golden Age of Saturday Night Live, they had a skit called "Coffee Talk," where Mike Myers played a flamboyant talk show host who regularly posed paradoxical phrases for discussion. Example are "Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island. Discuss!" Or "The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut. Discuss."

You get the idea.

What about the "Gospel" or "Good News" that we celebrate on Good Friday and Easter Sunday? The phrase comes from the Old English god (good) and spell (tidings, story, or message). But it has even deeper roots in the New Testament Greek word euangelion (eu = good; angelion = tidings). In ancient times, messengers would carry important news over great distances, like the outcome of a battle. Kings would anxiously wait for the 'evangelist' to arrive, hoping to hear good news.

If Mike Myers were in costume during Holy Week, I don't think he could resist this phrase, because in many places, the Good News is neither presented as Good nor as News. It's often narrowly treated as a warning, a threat, or a bomb waiting to go off. It's constantly characterized as an ancient relic that does nothing but collect dust on the shelf of history.

So crab a cup of java and find a quiet place to think. What makes the Good News both Good and News? How can something that happened 2000 years ago mean transformation, joy and hope for me today?

The Good News is both Good.... and... News. Discuss!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Politics & the Digital Dinner Party

Most of us have been to a dinner party where the discussion abruptly turns from jello mold to politics. No harm, no foul if everyone's on the same ideological page, but if not, you might see an awkward, emotional, and guarded disposition coming over guests who gathered for social reasons but now feel obligated to either share or hide their personal beliefs about civil government.

Whenever the national atmosphere is charged politically, which seems to be increasingly common nowadays, one might see a surge of ideologically-driven assertions online, in places that otherwise feature updates about vacations, weekend plans, or recent car problems. In this digital age, the web has become the primary forum for communicating about everything--the gracious host of our twenty-first century dinner parties, as it were--and it's only natural that sensitive subjects will arise.

But is there a limit?

I know more than a few families and friendships in which folks have literally stopped speaking to one another because of a political posting or email forward which apparently crossed the other's virtual line. Is it worth that? Is publically baring one's political soul worth the cost of alienating relationships or provoking anxiety? Or, do we need to grow more comfortable with weaving politics into our internet activities, to the point where even heated assertions don't bother and divide us?

I've often wondered if there should be some kind of 'digital social contract,' an understanding that some items should be confined to environments where people come for the common purpose of engaging a given subject. With the anonymity of email forwards and the selective, self-disclosure of social networking sites, should we take advantage of the opportunity to vent and/or assert our political musings via digital media, or is one better off retreating to the local watering hole with coworkers or friends to hash things out?

Since many of us have as many opinions as we do Facebook friends, where and when can one pose one's solutions to the world's problems without violating the stated or unstated mores of the digital dinner party? I don't have the answer, and I wish I did, because I'm somewhat prone to 'foot in mouth' disease, both in person and online. People like me pretty much need a manuel.

So, are email, facebook, blogging, tweeting, etc. good venues for promoting one's ideological views? Is any subject off limits? And, should we find other, more agreed upon venues for political discourse?

Oh, and John McCain in 2012!

Just kidding.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Reversal in Paradise: Lessons From a Tsunami

At 4 AM (Hawaii time), I woke up to my cell phone blaring. I stumbled half asleep to the kitchen of our small hotel room, my biggest fear being that my annoying ringtone would wake up the kids. Emerging from the bedroom, I found my wife glued to our laptop computer screen. She’d been hunting for information online after being woken several minutes earlier by a text message that read, “Are you in danger? Tsunami???”

We were vacationing on the northwest side of Maui, and of all the things we expected to experience, this was not on our list.

The phone call was from my sister back in Minnesota, who was worried after hearing that the Hawaiian Islands were under a Tsunami warning (which means that a tsunami is imminent). The next call came in from my mom, who had only one question, “Are you safe?” Still disoriented and completely confused, I could only say, “You tell me.”

We spend the next hour mining for information, packing our bags, and taking inventory of our food supply. In a matter of seconds, we went from leisurely sleeping vacationers to a family in crisis, concerned only about safety. It was a moment of confusion. Should we try to beat the rush to the nearby gas station and grocery store? Should we drive up the mountain to get to higher ground? Should we run up and down the hallway to wake up our sleeping neighbors? How much should we try to hoard for ourselves, and, given that we already have several days of food, should we avoid buying more to save the supply for those who aren’t as prepared? And what will this be like for our kids, especially if we have to evacuate into some crowded shelter?

The evacuation plan for our area was to cram everyone into a nearby airport for the better part of the day, or longer if our homes and hotels were destroyed. Instead, we decided to head to a nearby hotel where some family was staying, because the evacuation plan there was to simply climb the stairwell to a higher story. As we packed up, we looked at our belongings in a whole new way. Fruit, peanuts, protein bars, bread, and bottled water had suddenly become priceless commodities. A lonely bottle of wine sitting on the counter was utterly worthless. The local phone book featured an emergency section, showing maps of the coastline with shaded areas that were unsafe in the event of a tsunami. As we planned out trip, we’d poured over many maps of the Hawaiian coastline, but never one of this kind. It was still pitch black outside, and the dark water was gently rumbling just a few feet below our hotel room balcony. Everything appeared normal, but everything was different.

Within minutes, the busy roads were buzzing with anxious vacationers who were desperate for gas and supplies. The nearby gas station had a long line of cars in front of it, with blaring horns proving that the drivers were growing impatient. Tires screeched in the distance. I heard shouting. I wondered if the next couple hours would bring complete chaos… or worse.

We relocated to our relatives’ hotel room a couple miles away, their room being ten or fifteen yards above sea level, and we spent the next few hours watching news coverage and listening to emergency updates over the hotel’s PA system. Early reports were promising but cautious, saying that the waves were likely to be moderate but unpredictable. For a time I found comfort in the fact that the hotel was still cleaning its outdoor pool, but soon they removed all outdoor furniture in order to prevent it from becoming tsunami debris.

The tsunami hit the islands about a half hour after it was predicted. It was barely noticeable except in narrow inlets, where a handful of modest surges and withdrawals of water rushed in and out like a river. In front of our hotel, as the waters took turns receding and advancing slowly, it dropped well below normal, exposing rocks and reefs that otherwise remained submerged even in low tides.

The Tsunami warning lifted at 1:45 PM. By 2:30 PM, the outdoor pool area was packed with people, who, just two hours earlier, didn’t know if the hotel would be overtaken by deadly waves.

It was a day of bizarre contradictions, where the value of so many things had been instantly flip-flopped. Luxury items were easily overlooked, while people scrambled to acquire bare necessities. A Hawaiian paradise became a place of vulnerability and peril. One of the best beaches in the world was vacant on a beautifully sunny day. The highly coveted lawn chairs along the pool had gone unclaimed and eventually removed to prevent debris. Tourists who normally strolled around without a care were tiptoeing gingerly, eyeing their watches to ensure that they were well above ground at the predicted time. And most tellingly, I and many others had moved our cars from the lower levels of the parking ramp to the highest, which in the 'real' world would be unthinkable, and dare I say “foolish.”

With these instant reversals in mind, I remembered Paul’s words to the Corinthians about Jesus. Paul had been accused of preaching a foolish gospel about a dying god, a notion holding little value in the eyes of many listeners. Many Greeks labeled the whole idea as foolish, a ridiculous proposal that was easily dismissed by sensible minds. But Paul saw it differently: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Cor 1:18, NIV). For Paul, It’s entirely possible to have a value system that feels perfectly aligned with reality, but in truth is symptomatic of one's impending death. And likewise, it’s possible to embrace the Gospel in a way that subverts the imposing forces of sin and death, both in the world and in our lives. Paul understood the reversal of values. Things like tsunamis and crosses have a way of changing the way you see the world.

Most worldviews crumble under the weight of tragedy, but not the gospel that Paul preached. It was-and is-so big, so vast, and so powerful that it’s even able to acknowledge and account for great suffering and evil, making them subservient to the tides of God’s will for the world. In fact, Jesus tells us in Mark 13 to expect such things as earthquakes, famine, and war, so that we don’t go through life with a shallow and ignorant worldview that eventually buckles under the weight of calamity.

Ironically, Jesus says, embracing the gospel will bring His followers more problems in an already problematic world, including beatings, persecution, imprisonment, and even death. But His is nonetheless a gospel that must be preached to the nations (Mark 13:10).

As followers of a Crucified God, our job between now and the end of all things is fairly clear cut, according to Jesus. 1) Watch and 2) Preach. Be watchful, He says, so that we don’t become lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle waves and serene palm trees of life. Watch, stay awake, be faithful, and be ready for the Master’s return. And second, like Paul, we must also speak of Him, to a world who may very likely decide we are foolish. We must speak His message and take the heat for it… for our own sakes and for theirs.

At one point during the whole ordeal, I said to myself, “I don’t know if I like the way God made the world. I don’t know why He allows great calamities to kill without warning, why all of us die, or why so many innocent people face hardship and injustice.” As I moved our rental car to the top level of the parking ramp to avoid the potential tsunami, my spontaneous prayer of discontent went something like this: “God, I don’t like how this stuff can happen in the world.”

And from somewhere high above yet intimately within the world that He so carefully made and lovingly died for, I felt God push back: “Then what are you going to do about it?”

“Watch and preach,” Jesus says. “Watch and preach.”

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging (Psalm 46:1-3).