today i resolve – part three – to be cheerful

Today I resolve to be cheerful.

I will not be discouraged by things that are petty.
I will not be distracted by things that don’t matter.
I will not worry about things I cannot change.

I will not allow tomorrow’s worries to destroy today’s cheer.
I will not allow the unexpected to alter my attitude.

I will try to greet each person with a smile,
and say no negative word.
I will try to take the best view of every situation,
and refrain from being cynical.

Today I will do my best,
whatever happens,
not only to be cheerful,
but to spread cheer,
hopefully making the world a better place to be.

today i resolve – part two – to value others

Today I resolve to value others.

I will treat each person as if they are the most important person in the world.
I will listen to people’s hopes and dreams and treasure them.
I will listen to people’s fears and worries and respect them.

I will not use people.

Instead of trying to get something from others, I will do my best to give something to them.
Instead of trying to use others to elevate my own position, I will always attempt to elevate their position.
Instead of trying to make other’s think I’m special, I will find something special in every person.

Today I resolve to treat every person I encounter
as if they are God’s treasured creation,
as if they will teach me something essential,
as if there is no one I would rather have in my life.

today i resolve – part one (?) – a more trusting person

Today I resolve to be a more trusting person.

Instead of thinking the worst of people, I will think the best.
Instead of acting like everything will go wrong, I will trust in a God who can make things right.
Instead of trying to do everything myself, I will place important tasks in the hands of others.

I will believe that all people are worthy of second, third, or fourth chances, no matter what they’ve done in the past.
I will believe that what people show on the outside isn’t necessarily who they on the inside.

In all of my actions and interactions,
I will strive to give people the benefit of the doubt,
I will desire to treat people with less suspicion and more conviction,
and I will,
to the best of my ability,
continue to be a more trusting person,
even when it leaves me open to being hurt and vulnerable.

not taking what we want, even though we can.

As I sit here writing this, I’m hungry.

It’s not that I haven’t eaten. Earlier today I discovered my tortilla supply to be contaminated with mold and my bread supply to be 2 months old, and as a result of not wanting to walk across the local grocery store parking lot in the rain, I made the decision to drive through a local fast food restaurant for dinner. No problem, right?

It’s not that I don’t have anything to eat. Those of you who know me realize that I am the owner of more snacks than could possibly be consumed by a human being, in spite of the fact I rarely consume snacks. As a result of several semesters of Aggie Mom’s and parents’ visits, I have no shortage of snacks and food that could instantly be marshaled in order to assuage my hunger.

So why haven’t I done anything about it?

Even now, as I glance down beside me to a bag of Chex-Mix (my all time favorite snack food, and indeed a danger to my health, if I’m not careful), I am reminded of the thousands of people who didn’t get the first meal I had tonight, people who don’t have the ability to run into the kitchen and grab a Star Crunch or heat up a piece of pizza.

I’m a person who doesn’t deny myself very often. If I want something, I generally buy it. If I need something, I get it. If I’m thirsty I get a drink, and if I’m hungry I get something to eat. It’s very rare for something I truly need (or in many cases even want on a basic level) to be out of my reach.

I think there is tremendous value in self-denial about small things, if for no other reason than it helps us practice self denial in bigger things, and reminds us that many others aren’t as fortunate as we are.

As we go about our days, my prayer is that we, and specifically I, would remember to not rush instantly to satisfy every desire, but rather would act with moderation in all we do.

…commanded in the Bible…

I was reading an article in a Christian magazine recently, and in the middle of the article, the author attempted to support his point with a bulleted list of reasons why he was right. I cringed a bit when I read the first reason: “It’s commanded in the Bible.”

Now I’m not here to suggest that Biblical commands aren’t justification enough for doing something for Christians. What I am here to suggest is that they are no justification at all for doing something if you don’t believe the Bible. Furthermore, in an increasingly post-modern age where the Bible is looked at less as a set of commands and more as a narrative, it is likely to become more and more difficult to extract command out of the narrative as opposed to example and principle.

What does it say about our subculture that ultimately the best reason we can give for doing something is that we feel (legitimately or not) that it is commanded in the Bible? As I listen to arguments about women’s roles and instrumental music and baptism, again and again the top sheet reason given by the opposition in each of these cases is that “It’s commanded in the Bible.” As my good friend Jeremy Hegi recently said, “When someone stands up and stridently says, ‘The Bible clearly teaches …’, that’s when red flags should start to go up.'”

In reality, a biblical command argument will only be accepted if the following two conditions are met: 1) you believe the Bible and 2) you agree with the arguments interpretation of what the Bible says. A perfectly good example of this is regarding the women’s roles issue. “Women are commanded in the Bible to be silent,” one group would say, “therefore they should not be allowed to lead prayers during church services.” The response, “Fine. Make them be silent. Don’t let them talk or sing or make any noise for the duration of the service.” “But that’s not what the Bible says!”, comes the protest in reply. “Ah contraire, that is *exactly* what the Bible says.” “But that’s not what the Bible means!” At this point, however, we are no longer in a discussion about what the Bible *says* in 1 Timothy 2, but rather how we interpret what the Bible says – which is really the core issue of citing Biblical command as a compulsion for action, even among Christians.

Consider, for a moment, what alternatives might reach people outside our own way of thinking, and indeed outside the Christian subculture altogether. Consider whether reason is the arena and argument the commodity that will succeed in a landscape less and less often governed by “truth” and “correctness”, and more often governed by community. If we cannot shift our thinking away from reasoning based primarily on our own letters of the law and our own comfortable interpretations of Scripture and toward practical, creative, relevant approaches to a culture already skeptical of dogma, the long term future of our institutional churches is in serious doubt.

what would our lives look like?

What would our lives look like, if they were full and fruitful with the fruit of the Spirit.

What would it look like if we truly loved every person we encountered – not just those from whom we can get something in return? How much would a selfless attitude and concern for those less fortunate than us change the way people perceive us?

What would it look like if we were joyous instead of pessimistic? What would the world think if Christians stopped talking about how bad things were, and started spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ?

What would it look like if we were peacemakers instead of war starters? What if we looked to build bridges between people instead of condemning them, and sought to embrace our enemies instead of destroy them? How would that change the world?

What would it look like if we were patient, not asking every person where they would go if they died tonight, but allowed the process of the Spirit to work in the hearts of men? Would people be less put off by the message of Jesus if they felt like they didn’t have to give an answer right away?

What would it look like if we were kind? What would change in our world if we became people of benevolence instead of greed, sympathy instead of indifference?

What would it look like if we embraced goodness, seeking to always do the right thing no matter how much it cost? How would our actions be affected if we searched every decision beyond its immediate effects and evaluated how it affected our righteousness before God?

What would it look like if we were faithful? Would it change our desire to reason out an explanation for the existence and workings of God? How would our lives be enriched if we truly believed God is who he says without demanding proof?

What would it look like if we were gentle? How differently would we be perceived if we were gracious and understanding instead of inflammatory? How would our lives and testimony change if we less inciting and violent in how we approach those we disagree with?

What would it look like for each of us to be self-controlled in all our actions? What would we be if we were able to tame the demons within and bring our thoughts and actions under control all the time?

I wish badly that my life were governed by these simple principles. I wish I could say my life looked in reality like it does in my mind.

But until then, I continue to strive to be fruitful, hoping to grow someday into something I can only now imagine.

on reconciliation

Within our Christian subculture, forgiveness appears in a wide variety of slogans and mantras so often repeated that we seldom think about its use and meaning. We “hope that God will forgive us” when we do wrong, and pray that he will “forgive us of our many sins,” not really considering what we mean. I think one of the reasons forgiveness pops up in our theological discussion so often is our sometimes extreme emphasis on sin – which is not to say we should place no emphasis at all on sin, but rather to say that we often read the story of the Bible as one primarily about our sin and God’s righteousness, and God somehow having to solve that problem through the redemptive work of Jesus. In doing so, the key plot obstacle becomes God’s forgiveness of his people’s sins, as we can only be “saved” if we are without sin.

Rather than being a story primarily about God’s perfection and our depravity, an alternative reading is that the Bible is a story primarily about God’s desire to have a relationship with his creation, and what he has done since the beginning of time in order to realize that. In a relational mindset, forgiveness isn’t the most important thing – reconciliation is.

Consider these words –

  • John writes: “He himself [Jesus] is the sacrifice that atones for our sins – and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”
  • Paul: “When he [Christ] died, he died once to break the power of sin.”
  • Peter: “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.”
  • The Hebrew writer says: “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. … [W]hen sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.”

There are two main things I read across these passages that seem to conflict with the nature of forgiveness I’ve grown up with. First, the forgiveness of God seems to be, as the writers note, once, for all time. The notion of sin and forgiveness I think many of us grew up with says that if we haven’t asked forgiveness for every specific sin we’ve committed, we’re probably on shaky ground. I think as a result most of us spend our lives either living underneath the sword of Damocles or in suspended apathy, either way hoping that when the time comes, we don’t have too many black marks on our record. Instead, Christ died once, for all sin. The sins in our past and future have all been forgiven by the blood of Christ, shed once, for all sin, two thousand years ago.

Second, I think John’s passage indicates that not only was Christ’s sacrifice once for all time, it was once for all people as well. Christ didn’t just die for our sins, he died for the sins of the whole world. Paul also speaks to this – “Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves.” In Paul’s words, it isn’t simply the sacrifice of Christ for a person that makes them “right before God” – rather a reception of a new life, no longer lived for ourselves. I don’t think Paul would say that forgiveness is what really matters, but rather reconciliation.

“[A]ll of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ”, Paul writes. “And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.” When viewed in a relational context, there is a definite difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a one sided thing, but reconciliation involves both parties. One of the pictures Jesus paints of the Kingdom of God is that of a father whose son leaves with the inheritance. The father’s love and forgiveness extends to the son even when he is a long way off, but their relationship is only restored when the son returns to the father. In the same way, I think God’s forgiveness extends to all people, but God’s forgiveness is not what we need. Paul speaks of reconciliation, not forgiveness, when talking about God “not counting men’s sins against them”.

The hope, then, is that as Paul says, “we could be made right with God” – that each of us could be brought into the story and the work God; not simply because we are forgiven, but because we have entered into a reconciled relationship with the perfect and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

as a friend…

Friendship is an interesting thing. I still have no idea why there are some relationships that demand an incredible amount of energy to maintain, and others that seem to survive with little or no contact for long stretches of time. Maybe it depends on the people involved, and maybe it is a reflection on the quality of those relationships. Either way, all I know is that some relationships just click, and others take a lot of work.

I think in large part I’m fairly bad at keeping up with people. I think of the many people I’ve hung out with over the years, and most of them I talk to seldom if at all. There’s no sinister intent on my behalf, and I really would like to keep up with each of them and know exactly where they are and what they’re doing. It just seems like the day to day business of making reports and going to class and doing the stuff we all have to do sometimes clouds out those things that are more important, and makes us forget to take care of them.

When I think of the part of my relationship with God that is a friendship, I wonder what kind of friend I am to God. I wonder if I am the kind of friend that is needy and constantly uncertain, or if I’m the kind of friend that goes away for a long time and then comes back in to catch up, then heads out again on some new adventure, not to be heard from again for weeks, months, or years at a time. I think of the call back lists and the to-reply queues that dominate my life and wonder how similar they are to my relationship with God.

My hope is they’re not very similar.

My fear is that they’re much more similar than I would like to think.

Kingdom Economics

I was in a Tanzanian schoolyard when I learned that poverty has a face, and a name. It always does, really. In this case, it was Sulemani – a young boy of maybe two or three who looked to be sick, malnourished, and who smelled like he’d never taken a bath in his life. There he sat, alone and forgotten among the bustle of a city with no hope, no future.

Often we are drawn to cases of economic poverty, accompanied by moving pictures and tragic stories with a captivating soundtrack while we sit oblivious to a much deeper and more urgent poverty that affects our families, friends, neighbors, and even ourselves – what Mother Teresa called “the deep poverty of the soul.” Often this poverty exists because we try to pattern our Kingdom economics on our earthly economics, which essentially is to say that the people God loves the most and cares the most about are the ones who are the most successful, the most gifted, look the best, volunteer the most hours, give the most money, are a part of the most church activities – in short the people who seem to have everything put together. Other times we translate the scarcity of our worldly economies into the Kingdom of God, attempting to evaluate our decisions on a “value added” approach, seeing where we can get the most impact per dollar or hour spent. Unfortunately, when we apply these worldly principles to God, we end up with skewed theology and broken souls –poor huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Into a world of scarcity and class divide, Christ brings a message of Good News for all people, rich and poor – a Kingdom economics unlike anything that exists on earth, but one governed by a completely different set of rules. As we consider our economic abundance, we should also reflect on our spiritual poverty, and on the rules that govern the economics of God’s Kingdom.

The first reality of God’s Kingdom is that love isn’t conditioned on our merit – God doesn’t love us because we’re rich or beautiful or successful or put together – he loves us because we are his creation. Paul writes in Titus that God saved us “not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” As an engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to design and build several things, some of which ended up being destroyed. Even on the projects that were the most frustrating, I still felt a sense of sadness when they were finally destroyed, not because they were pretty or worked well or had been a lot of fun to work on, but rather because they were mine. In a world where we’re constantly being told that we aren’t enough, the message of Jesus comes in and says that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are loved enough. God’s love doesn’t start at the top and trickle down, but starts at the bottom, and offers full and complete acceptance for the lost and the last and the worst and the least.

Second, God isn’t constrained by my ideas about who is worthy of his love and acceptance. Often, I feel entitled to blessings because of the work I’ve done for God, and I have a tendency to become upset because someone else is receiving more than I am. In one story, Jesus compares the Kingdom to a man who went out to hire workers. He went out early in the morning, then again at lunchtime, and at three o’clock, and finally with just an hour left to work. At the close of the day, the man paid each of the workers the same amount, whether they’d worked all day or just an hour. When some of the workers grumbled, the employer’s response is humbling – “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” Jesus reminds us that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and causes the sun to rise both on the evil and the good. God’s blessings are his to do with as he pleases, and his choices aren’t always based on fairness, but on kindness.

Finally, the message of God’s kingdom is one of abundance, not scarcity. I remember serving food at a homeless shelter, and watching as the doors opened to reveal a surging tide of humanity rushing toward the start of the line. There was plenty of food, but for many of the people it would be the only guaranteed meal they had all week long. After living daily in a world of scarcity, the competition to get to the front of the line was ruthless, as if the first ten people might take everything, and those behind would be left with nothing. Too often we view the Kingdom as a competition, where it’s important to stay ahead and make sure you’re doing better than everyone else, or at least not running in last place, lest you get left behind. About a year ago, my father and sister ran in the Los Angeles Marathon. Neither of them are serious competitors, and their only real goal was to finish. At about mile ten, my sister began to experience severe leg pain, which was later revealed to be a hairline fracture in her leg. Offered a chance to quit but committed to finishing, she leaned on my father and hobbled through sixteen miles of agony to cross the line at the end, where she received the exact same medal as the first place runner who’d finished several hours before. My father certainly could have finished sooner if he hadn’t helped, or if he’d dropped her off and waited for my mother to pick her up, but he realized that it wasn’t a competition – the only thing that mattered was crossing the finish line together.

As Christ’s followers, we are called not only to reflect on these principles, but to apply them in our lives. I believe much of the recent spiritual poverty in our world develops directly from us treating the economy of God’s kingdom like that of a capitalist nation. Instead, God offers us something radically different, and asks us to transform our lives and our ministry to operate according to his rules instead of our own.

do they terrify you?

“Are you afraid of these idols?
Do they terrify you?
Is that why you have lied to me
and forgotten me and my words?
Is it because of my long silence
that you no longer fear me?
Now I will expose your so-called good deeds.
None of them will help you.
Let’s see if your idols can save you
when you cry to them for help.
Why, a puff of wind can knock them down!
If you just breathe on them, they fall over!
But whoever trusts in me will inherit the land
and possess my holy mountain.”

I’m not sure what terrifies me.

Most of us worry about all sorts of things, I think. We look to the future with uncertainty, never really knowing what it holds, and often trying to hedge our bets as much as we can. One side of God we don’t often like to talk about is his terrifying nature – the God who Isaiah and so many others saw with fear and trembling. In our society, God is either a harmless looking man from a painting or flannel board, or a nasty little inconvenience to doing what we want. I think that in many ways, there are very few of us who take God really seriously.

Our idols, on the other hand, are extremely important to us. We don’t really see them as idols, of course. Even when we mention them as such, it’s often just a passing comment – something we do because we need to draw some connection between idolatry and modern life. As I think about life and reflect on this passage, God’s question comes back – Do they terrify you?

When I think of the things I worry the about, the things I lose sleep over the most, the things that occupy my thoughts… are they not my idols, all comfortably in place to give my life value and worth and, dare I say it, save me? My money, my success, my friends, my family, my good deeds, my reputation – am I afraid of losing them? A puff of wind can knock them down.

Why do these things have such a hold on our lives? Why do we allow it?

May we trust in you, God.
May we trust in you.