Tuesday, May 21, 2013

gospel response in great tragedy

At 3:20 yesterday afternoon, a monstrous tornado swept across Oklahoma and devastated the community of Moore. I watched throughout the evening as images and reports of this merciless tragedy trickled in non-stop through news channels. This morning, I talked with KCBI radio about how Christians might answer those who wonder what to think about God after the storm has passed.

The unbeliever (and some believers) ask one of three questions: Is God aware? Is God good? Is God powerful? Sometimes, when bombs detonate or buildings collapse, we try to make sense of things by affirming two truths but sacrificing the third:

> God is all-knowing and all-good, but isn't all-powerful. He watches and wishes, but He doesn't have the ability to control everything. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

> God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but isn't all-good. He is a mean-spirited deity who doesn't care about the world. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

> God is all-good and all-powerful, but isn't all-knowing. He is unaware of tragedy, perhaps distracted or caught off-guard by events on the other side of the world. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

Each of these options may tidy up our explanation for evil, but amputates an attribute of God in the process. We arrive at "an answer," but not the truth. So, what thoughtful response can a Christian give that recognizes the tension, and points people to God, not away from Him? Let me offer a few suggestions:

First, resist the urge to "rescue God." For 37 chapters, Job's friends tried to make sense as to why their friend might have been suffering. Each thoroughly-reasoned argument explained human causality, as if God wasn't even in the room when Job lost his family, his business and his health. But, chapter 1 puts God squarely on His throne. He was sovereign during Job's loss and in his recovery. People take cover in tornadoes, but God never retreats underground. When I sanitize the tragedies of life to make sure no trace of God is found, I unwittingly compromise who God is. I would rather have God fully in control of all things (and not understand this when bad things happen), than for God to only be in control of some things.

Second, reject pat answers. Every truth isn't equally helpful when people are at their lowest. Proverbs 18:21 teaches us that "the tongue has the power of life and death." Our response can be life-giving or death-dealing. Glib answers suggest that the solutions to life's problems are simple and self-evident. But, they're not. In highly-emotional times like these, consolation is better than information. While Romans 8:28 is an anchor of Christian hope, it's not a particularly sensitive verse to recite when a mother has lost her child. So, reject pat answers.

Third, reply with what you do know, instead of what you don't. One of the most authentic answers we can give those with questions is "I don't know." It's quite alright to concede what the great writers of Scripture even wrestled with. But as you do, turn the conversation to what you are sure of. God is good. Every moment, He is orchestrating life to accomplish extraordinary things. God is powerful. He sent His Son to defeat sin and death on the cross. God is knowing. He sees all the ravages of sin in the world and is directing everything to His eternal purposes. And, while I don't know what happens behind the curtain of the cosmos, I am sure that God so loved the world, that He sent His Son to die for the world, to rescue the world, to offer the world hope beyond this world.

Finally, respond with compassion. The word means to "feel with" people. In your gut. Perhaps the greatest gospel response Christians can have today is to weep deeply. To be genuinely sad at a planet undone by sin. As the world wonders about God, they can see the heart of God expressed through His people who grieve and then give generously to help those who hurt. This is what Jesus did in coming into the world. To be like us and to give His life.

Then the world will see. And then the world will know.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

people matter

Today, I read the gripping story of Reshma, the young woman trapped for 17 days under tons of rubble in the Bangladesh factory collapse. Unable to know night from day, she courageously crawled about in cramped tunnels and survived on four crackers and a few sips of water. However, what captured my heart was not only her resolve, but her rescue. When workers heard her small voice calling out from the ruins, a volunteer force sprung into action to save a woman who barely made $60 a month and was abused by her husband because her family didn't pay a large enough dowry. Reshma was rescued.

Because people matter.

Reshma's story gave me a glimmer of hope in a world where the message is that people don't matter or only some do. Take the story of Abercrombie and Fitch, the fashion retailer that made $237 million in 2012 through the exploitation of our kids. A 2006 interview has recently resurfaced where CEO Michael Jeffries candidly commented,

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes), and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

The message is, of course, only some people matter. 

In a bizarre marketing ploy, Hooters, the restaurant chain known for selling dinner on the devaluation of women, offered a free meal to mothers on Mother's Day. Yes, you read this correctly. It was their attempt to "improve their image." Earlier, I tweeted that this was like a thief trying to improve his image by donating proceeds from his loot to charity. It hadn't occurred to Hooters that you cannot honor moms while making their waitresses a fantasy to their husbands.

Enter Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was convicted of murdering at least three children in his clinic. I cannot even comprehend any human being holding a beautiful, dependent child in his hands and choosing death. It is a picture of world gone horribly wrong.

None of this should surprise us. In a world corrupted by sin, our values will always be inverted. What is cheap (like Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies or Hooters chicken wings) will be raised to significance while what is immensely valuable will be tossed in the dumpster. Fortunately, Jesus reappraised the true value of human beings. He feasted with those who weren't wearing the latest fashion. He defended women rather than used them. He came to give life, not to take it. Because people matter.

Los Angeles writer, Greg Karber, launched his own campaign against A&F by shopping at thrift stores for A&F apparel and distributing shirts, jackets and pants to the homeless--marginalized people the retailer would surely classify as "not cool" (see Karber's video here). Followers of Jesus can launch their own personal campaigns by simply dignifying people in every sphere of influence. Take bottled water to your trash collectors. Allow the customer with one item to check out in front of you. Be patient with the new cashier behind the lunch counter. Appreciate that the mother with the unruly kid might be at her own wit's end. Look for injustice and step in. Serve. Give. Honor. Wait. Defend. Fight to rescue beauty hidden beneath the rubble.

Because people matter.

Monday, March 25, 2013

with my hands lifted high?

There's a worship song that features the line "with my hands lifted high" and, every time the congregation sings it, hands raise on cue. Pavlov would be proud. There's a part of me that feels rebellious not lifting my hands while my lips sing out. And, in this wrestling, I'm learning to worship.

Two lessons come to mind:

First, there is value in hand-raising. Actually, there's a value in any body-movement in worship. One Jewish writer reflected that the "body should pray as well as the mind." For this reason, Jewish worshippers often rock back and forth, rhythmically engaging more of themselves in the act of seeking God. Likewise, when the Christian raises his hands, or claps, or stomps her feet or dances or kneels, they make an intentional effort to engage all of themselves in worship.

Hand-raising was a common expression of worship in the Bible:

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.--Psalm 28:2

So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.--Psalm 63:4

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!--Psalm 141:2

Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and plea to the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven.--1 Kings 8:54

“Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.”--Lamentations 2:19

In each instance, the person lifting their hands into the air communicates one or more of several spiritual virtues: humility [raised hands are a sign of surrender]; trust [willing and eager to receive from the Lord]; openness [vulnerability before God]; and affection [expressing a "reaching" or longing for God]. Each of these virtues gives me a good reason to raise my hands, whether or not the songs says I should or not.

The second lesson I'm learning is that my heart/will takes a while to catch up with my mind. Sometimes, the best act of worship is to do what I know is good, though my will is not sure it wants to go the distance. To say it differently, if I wait for my heart to catch up to what I know is true, I may miss out. But, if I "just do it"--knowing the value, though not fully embracing it yet--my heart will often follow suit. This is true, not only of worship, but of many things in the spiritual life.

This is how church works.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

how church works: loving those who leave

[NOTE: A year ago, I took blog break. I quietly stopped typing in order to turn my attention to other things. Today, I woke up from my long winter's nap.]

For the last several weeks, I have been preaching a series on "How Church Works." It's a handful of sermons that gets back to the fundamentals of why and how the church gathers. How do we listen to a sermon, take a communion , give, worship and connect with one another? Surprisingly, many Christians do church, but have never been taught how.

Last Sunday, I taught on how to leave. There is an increasing migration in and out of church--people who leave for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are "healthy" [career transitions, corruption in the church or God's ministry calling to a specific place]. Other reasons are less so [unresolved conflict, change, or conviction, to name a few]. While we talked about the "if" and the "how" of church transitions, the most important principle is unity.

In Ephesians 4, Paul commands the church to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received" [v. 1]. That is, to live a God-centered, gospel-saturated life that proves itself in the humble, gentle, patient, loving character of Jesus toward one another [v. 2]. These virtues protect our unity [v. 3]--a oneness based on the commonality we have under the love of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son and the transformation of the Holy Spirit [v. 4].

While these principles are important to prevent people from leaving churches so easily, they are also important after the fact. We--the church--have a responsibility to maintain unity with those who didn't hold the same value. We "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" by speaking well of them, praying for them, honoring their memory and being ready to reconcile should their hearts turn home. Unity isn't something we experience only when we're together; It's the kind of heart disposition toward each other when we're not together that would make it possible for us to be together again.

This is how church works.