What Others Say

I am a Catholic christian and sometimes I run across such cynical people who only see the bad things going on in the world. I like to think of myself as an optimist and I was so happy to read your column today. I am inspired by your positive input and I will pass it on to whomever will be open to it.
-Lisa W. Simi Valley, CA

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stories That Save US

I love stories. The best are those told outside on summer evenings while fireflies flicker in the gathering dusk.  Children listen to adults who reminisce with laughter and tears. When my wife and her sister get together, they stay up through most of the night retelling stories of their youth. Sometimes we find them there in the morning, asleep where they left off.

When our children were growing up, we read to them.  All children, it seems, love books. Of course they love video games, iPhones and iPads, but there is something about turning pages and touching pictures in a book. How else can you “pat the bunny?”  Our children memorized many of the stories long before they could read: Goodnight Moon, Little Engine That Could, Snowy Day, Corduroy, Bible Stories for Little Eyes. If I went “off story” and made up my own lines, they knew it and corrected me.

We inherited storytelling from our ancestors. Settlers gathered around camp fires. Old men sat in rocking chairs whittling shapeless sticks. And whole families gathered in the summer shade to shell peas. They were storytelling moments that shaped life.

For many, Hollywood has become the primary source for stories. While there are some wonderful movies that portray courage, hope and faith, the ones that often prove to be blockbusters are based on comic book heroes. They portray super powers in a world of violence, vengeance and retaliation. The stories and their special effects often have little to do with the real world. Sometimes they twist history.

A few years ago we visited Philadelphia and encountered a group of high school students overlooking Independence Hall.  One of them pointed to the clock tower and exclaimed to another, “Look!  That’s where they hid the map!” 

A young college student, who did not grow up attending church, once asked to meet with me for lunch.  He was pursuing a degree in English literature and now, he lamented, he had discovered that the great English classics were filled with references to the Bible, stories he had never learned.  

How will the next generation learn the stories that inform human behavior, faith and character? Most children do not attend church and parents themselves often lack knowledge of the Bible. They neither read the stories nor do they tell them to their children.  Public schools are not allowed to teach them.

Who will tell the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, Ruth and Boaz, David, Elijah, Jonah, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?

Much of the uncertainty about our nation and the world may be due to the fact that we are losing the stories of our heritage that give direction for the future. 

The Bible says, “I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. ... so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands” (Psalm 78:2-7).

Monday, July 18, 2016

Faith and Hope in a Hurting World

A significant event of faith and hope was little noticed last weekend.  While we grieved over the horrific event in France, the attempted coup in Turkey, the ambush of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, thousands of people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, gathered Saturday in Washington D.C.  They did not gather to protest anything or to promote a political candidate.  They gathered to pray.

Braving sweltering heat, young adults came from all over the nation to pray for reconciliation, healing and redemption in the name of Jesus Christ.  Both those who attended and those who led the program were Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and White, male and female. Pope Francis welcomed the crowd via video. They represented Christian young people who are seeking to proclaim God’s forgiveness and compassion across all racial and cultural barriers.

Every generation must choose their faith. Some are choosing radical Islam. But many youth and young adults are choosing Christ.  The question is whether they can stem the tide of violence, hatred and suspicion with a message of repentance, love, forgiveness and faith.

When I was mid-fifties, I wrote down my goal for the remainder of my life: to encourage the younger generation to do greater things than I ever dreamed or imagined.

Three years ago we began hosting a Bible study in our home for international grad students. We welcomed students from China, Indonesia, Zambia, South Africa, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, and Ghana. The students led the study.  Some were already passionate followers of Christ. Some came to faith. A few are still seeking. Most will soon complete their degrees and return home.

One has already returned to Zambia to start a church and a school.  Another has returned to Indonesia and is teaching in a Christian College.  Another Indonesian student hopes to serve Christ in orphanages in West Africa. A 25-year-old will complete her PhD in Statistics and plans to return to South Africa where she will serve Christ and help find solutions to deadly diseases.  A student from China married an American and they are expecting their first child. Her husband is learning Chinese. When he completes his PhD in Computer Science, they will move to China to continue her work strengthening and multiplying house churches.

Five years ago I started coaching young church planters.  One started a Biker church made up of Biker enthusiasts.  Another started a Cowboy church and another, who is African American, is starting a multi-ethnic church.  Our oldest son and daughter-in-law started a Bible study for high school students in Sundance, WY.  Sixty percent of the local high school students attend.  Our daughter and son-in-law are helping start a new church in Fort Collins, CO.

These are but a few and their stories are anecdotal.  But there are thousands of young believers who are committed to following Christ and changing the world with the gospel.

We will continue to hear reports of terrorist attacks and global unrest. But there is a world-wide movement among young adults to live devoted lives to Jesus Christ and proclaim God’s good news of compassion and grace. They are the “yeast” of the Kingdom that Jesus talked about in Matthew 13:33.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Protests and Prejudice

This past week we have been shaken by the sniper killing of five uniformed officers at the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas.  The killings were apparently the work of a lone gunman who was not affiliated with Black Lives Matter.  The tragedy followed national outrage after police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castille in Minneapolis.

In Dallas, Shetamia Taylor, a black woman, participated in the peaceful protest with her four boys. When the gunshots rang out she saw an officer hit near her. The office warned her to run for safety. She did.  But she was immediately hit in the leg. She fell to the ground. When the officers saw she was hit, they gathered around her to protect her. “”I saw another officer get shot ... Right there in front of me.” She said.  The police loaded Taylor into their bullet riddled police car and took her to Baylor Hospital where she is expected to make a full recovery.  The officer that was hit died. Taylor wept as she thanked the police department, “They were really heroes for us.”

The tragic deaths in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas reminded us that prejudice and racial tension always lie just below the surface.  Like lava beneath the earth, racism and cultural prejudice seep through cracks in the seemingly peaceful landscapes and, on occasion, erupt with devastating violence.

We witnessed a similar eruption 24 years ago when smoke curled above Los Angeles for 60 days following the acquittal of white police officers in the video-taped beating of Rodney King.  Rioting black mobs dragged white and Hispanic truck drivers from their cabs and began beating them in retaliation.  The police abandoned the scene. Four civilians ran to rescue Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was pulled from his cab and beaten with a brick. Minutes later, at the same intersection, the angry mob dragged Fidel Lopez from his truck, smashed his forehead and attempted to slice off his ear. A black minister nearby ran to the scene, threw himself over Lopez' bleeding body and screamed, “If you kill him you will have to kill me too!”

Reginald Denny’s four rescuers and the black minister who saved Fidel Lopez and the officers who protected Shetamia Taylor remind us of Jesus’ story regarding race and prejudice.  If we would “love our neighbor as we love ourselves,” we must love those who are different than we are. Like the Samaritan who stopped to render aid to a dying victim beside the road, we must realize that every stranger is our neighbor, every man is our brother, every woman our sister.

Racial prejudice is a global problem. It exists in every generation, on every continent, in every nation. It exists between white, red, black, brown and yellow.  It exists between generations and cultures.  We are prone to fear and suspect those who look different, talk different and act differently than we do. Only faith that lifts us beyond our provincial prejudices can save us. The Apostle Paul, who grew up as an ambitious Pharisee and outgrew his prejudices through faith in Christ, wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Blind Spots

All of us have have blind spots. Our brain fills in the picture so we don’t realize it. But the blind spots in our field of vision are very real. In medical terms, “it is the place in the visual field that corresponds to the lack of light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina where the optic nerve passes through the optic disc.”

Here is a simple way to “see” your blind spot.  Put your thumbs together, the tips touching, with your index fingers pointed upward. This will separate your index fingers by approximately six inches. Extend your arms with your hands directly in front of you. Close your left eye. Focus with your right eye on your left finger and move your hands closer or further away.  The right finger will disappear in your blind spot. You can do the same for your left eye. If this doesn’t work, go to google or youtube and you will find plenty of help to find your blind spot.

Several years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma in my left eye, something very similar to the blind spot, but bigger. About ¼ of the vision in my left eye is missing, and I didn’t know it.  With both eyes open, my right eye compensates for it.  With just my left eye open, my brain tries to fill in the gaps. But when I move my finger into the blind spot, it disappears.

We also have a blind spot when we are driving.  It is the place just behind us on the left side, just off the left rear bumper. We can check our rear view mirror and our side view mirror, and it appears no one is around us, but when we try to change lanes horns blare and people swerve. We can easily miss our blind spot.

Jesus spoke about our spiritual blind spot.  We think that we can see all things clearly.  We believe that we have a full field of vision, but the truth is that we are unable to see some of the most important elements of life and reality. We are blinded by our prejudice and presumptions.

Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus often told simple stories so that we might see our spiritual blind spot and understand the important lessons of life.  Jesus said, “This is why I speak in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”  (Matthew 13:13).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “ I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.” (Ephesians 1:18).

Monday, June 27, 2016

Faith and Freedom

Every American school-child knows the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In his book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, (one of Bill Gates’ five favorite books for the summer) Yuval Noah Harari argues that the Declaration of Independence would look starkly different if it were re-written to reflect secular science. According to Harari, if we stripped the foundations of the Christian faith from its wording, and replaced them with evolutionary science, it would read like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among them are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”

Without God, we cannot be “created.” Instead we are reduced to the random result of evolution.  Neither can we be “endowed by our Creator,” since there is no Creator to endow us with self-worth. We are left with an accidental existence unrelated to value.  Therefore, no human being has any more inherent worth than the spider or the ape.

And regarding liberty, “There is no such thing in biology,” Herari contends, “liberty is something that people invented and exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free.”  Since science has not been able to define happiness, we will have to settle with the “pursuit of pleasure.” 

There appears to be a headlong rush to de-Christianize our society.  Faith is being pushed from the streets of intellectual commerce and dismissed in the dark alleys of superstition. We may be well on the way to re-writing the Declaration of Independence into the secular terms Harari has proposed.

Unless we recapture the “faith of our fathers,” our future may look like the forbidding landscape of science fiction movies with human beings consigned to violence and anarchy.  Without faith, we could return to a survival of the fittest.  

Where would we be without the statements of Jesus? “The very hairs of your head are numbered. Love one another as I have loved you.  In that you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”

Hitler followed secular science to its logical conclusion and implemented a policy of eugenics that eliminated the weak and infirm as “life unworthy of life.” Over 400,000 were sterilized against their will. Millions were extermiated.  Marriage was strictly controlled to foster eugenic purity.

Others, like Mother Theresa, Corrie Ten Boom, William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln followed a faith that compelled them to care for the poorest of the poor, to set the captive free, to bind up the nation’s wounds

Jesus introduced Himself saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Only faith can give us the framework for human dignity and worth. Only faith can safeguard our freedom. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rescue the Refugee

We have always thought of ourselves as a nation of courage and hope.  Few statements reflect our identity better than the quote affixed to the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”  There is something sacred about Ellis Island, the entry point for so many who came in response to the beacon of life and liberty.  Most of us are descendants of those who came.

Facing severe persecution in the civil wars that swept across Liberia, thousands fled to the United States in the last decade. A few weeks ago I attended the building dedication for Ebenezer Liberian Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.  More than a thousand people showed up.  They filled the auditorium and spilled over into corridors and classrooms.  I was inspired by their hymns, songs and testimonies to God's goodness and grace.

Four decades ago I visited Vietnamese refugee camps in central Texas.  Most were “boat people” who fled persecution and poverty after the fall of South Vietnam. We picked them up with buses and brought them to our church, even though most spoke little English. A few members in our church resented their presence, but most reached out with the compassion of Christ. Today more than 1.5 million Vietnamese call America home. The largest Christian Vietnamese church has over 4,000 members and the number of Vietnamese Christians is growing.

In Minnesota I met Hmong Christian leaders.  The Hmong were Animists from the hill country of Laos and close allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War.  They fled brutal persecution and sought refuge in America.  More than ¼ million now live in the U.S. Many have embraced Christ. There are now more than 140 Hmong Christian churches in the United States, most in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.  Their children are attending college and moving into professional ranks.

Today the oppression in Syria represents the world’s greatest refugee crisis. 11 million Syrians, more than half of them children, have fled the brutal attacks by ISIS. Most of them are Muslim. But many Christian organizations are reaching out to these refugees providing shelter, blankets, water, food and comfort. Virtually every denomination is represented as well as para-church groups like Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision.

When Jesus introduced himself to the synagogue in his hometown at Nazareth, he infuriated the crowd by stating that God loved the Syrians. He reminded them that Elisha healed a Syrian leper when there were many lepers in Israel. They were so enraged they tried to throw Jesus off a high cliff.  (Luke 4:16-30).

We are always afraid and suspicious of people who are different than we are. But “perfect love casts out fear.”  Isaiah says, “Hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees.  Let the fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer. The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land.”  (Isaiah 16:3-4).

Monday, June 13, 2016

Father's Day

Next Sunday is Father’s Day in the United States, Chile, Canada, Japan, the UK, South Africa, China, India and most of Europe. Nations around the world recognize the important role of fathers in the lives of children.

As a 12-year-old boy, Jesus rewrote everything we ever thought about fathers and everything we think about God.  He had visited Jerusalem with his parents to observe the Passover as was their custom.  Relatives and friends traveled in caravans from Nazareth to Jerusalem once a year to observe this significant historic Jewish celebration.  On their journey home, the group from Nazareth discovered, to their horror, that the 12-year-old Jesus had been left behind on the streets of the capital city. 

Mary and Joseph left the returning caravan and traveled a full day’s journey back to Jerusalem to find him.   After three days of anguish, they found him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the religious leaders.  Hardly able to control her emotions, Mary confronted him, “Son, why have you treated us this way?  Don’t you know your father and I have been anxiously looking for you?”  His response shocked her.  He said. “Did you not know I must be about the things of my Father?”  Mary and Joseph did not understand what he was talking about. (Luke 2: 41-52)

The reason for Mary and Joseph’s confusion is rather simple.  They had not thought of God as Father.  Like all faithful Jews, they considered God too holy for his name to be pronounced. Only the priest could approach God in the holy of holies and that only once a year. 

This became a dominant theme in Jesus’ ministry.  He revolutionized prayer by teaching us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven” and encouraged us to bring all our requests to God saying, “Which one of you if your son asks for an egg will give him a stone, or for a fish will give him a snake?  If you being evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father which is in Heaven give what is good to you.”

"Take no thought saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed?’ For your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things ..." "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." "I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me." With his final breath upon the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  From his first recorded words to his last, Jesus redefined God as our Father.

Faith takes on an entirely different dimension when we discover God as Father.  Our Father in Heaven wants to know us, love us and transform our lives to reflect His goodness and grace in a world torn with hatred and violence.