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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Korea - Behind the News 11-30-2010

A few years ago my wife and I boarded a plane at DFW and landed sixteen hours later in Seoul, South Korea. We found a prosperous modern city in a growing economy. We rode efficient subways in complete safety. It is the fourth largest economy in Asia and is referred to s the "Mirale on the Han" because of its remarkable economic progress. North Korea, by contrast is poverty stricken under a strict Stalinist regime that uses nuclear intimidation to secure world aid in order to prop up its tottering economy.

North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong last week once again catapulted the Korean peninsula to center stage and sent ripples around the world. The political, economic and religious contrasts between North and South Korea are obvious. The personal stories beneath the surface are not.

I first met Ben in the 1980s when we were starting Korean churches in Texas. I later learned his story. As a teenager he watched North Koreans kill his father because he would not renounce his faith in Christ. For years he harbored anger and resentment. Then he was able to make a mission trip to North Korea. The people to whom he ministered asked why he had come to help them. He responded, "Because Jesus told us to love our enemies." Unable to re-enter Noth Korea, he continues to help plant churches in China.

I met Robert a few years ago. As a child he survived on the streets of Seoul with his mother during the Korean conflict. After the cease fire, he was one of the children rescued by Pearl S. Buck. Her efforts brought him to the United States and provided an education. He became a sucessful businessman well on his way to personal wealth, but his marriage was failing and his life was empty until he found Christ. He quit his profession, went to seminary and became pastor of a Korean church. He later went to Cuba and helped start dozens of churches. Regarding his work in Cuba, he said he felt that working in a Communist country would help him prepare for the day when he would be able to minister in North Korea. He now works among North Korean refugees in China waiting and praying for the opportunity to share the gospel in North Korea.

When we visited Seoul, my wife and I attended a 6 a.m prayer meeting in one of the churches. Every morning members gather at 4, 5, 6 and 7 a.m. to pray. More than a thousand people were present. They prayed quietly in small groups with family and friends as they do every day. Some read their Bibles. Some knelt. Some prayed quietly whispering reverent prayers. We were inspired and humbled. Today, South Korean churches send out more than 12,000 missionaries to 160 countries. They are intentionally going to the hardest to evangelize corners of the earth, seeking to witness "in a low voice and with wisdom." The Sarang Community Church in Seoul has grown to more than 45,000 members. They are training people as "lay professional missionaries" to take secular jobs in other nations so they can share Christ with their co-workers and neighbors.

During these tense days on the Korean peninsula, I hope all of us will join our Korean brothers and sisters in Christ, praying for peace and for freedom so that multitudes who have never heard will hear the message of hope in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 22, 2010

William and Kate 11-22-2010

The prince has chosen a bride. A commoner will become a princess. The future king of England has chosen his future queen. Movie stars, athletes, musicians and would-be-celebrities shrink into the shadows compared to the blinding light focused on William and Kate.

All the world takes notice, including the descendents of the rebellious Colonials and the offspring of prisoners consigned to the Outback. We are dazzled by royalty and the age-old Cinderella story lived out in true life. (Well, maybe it isn’t exactly Cinderella. After all, her parents are self-made millionaires.)

Prince William and Kate Middleton were on a holiday with friends in Kenya when he proposed. Choosing “somewhere nice” according to William, a “very romantic” place according to Kate. William slipped the engagement ring on her finger, the same ring worn by his mother, Princess Diana, a large sapphire surrounded by diamonds. On Tuesday they announced the wedding would take place at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011.

The media is giddy with the story. So is my wife. She loves Cinderella stories of any kind, especially true ones. She has carted me off to “Princess Diaries,” “Runaway Bride,” “The Proposal,” “Pride and Prejudice” and others. I take her to these shows because she loves them and I love her. I have spent hours sitting in darkened theaters, the only male in a room full of women. I usually wear my cap and keep it low over my eyes so I won’t be recognized. I excuse myself in the middle of the movie to find refills of popcorn and Coke. I remain seated till all the rest of the moviegoers file out so I won’t be recognized then walk by the entrance to movies like “The Dark Knight” to hide my trail.

Why are we attracted to this English melodrama? Maybe it is the holdover from the age of Victorian Romance. Maybe it is in our blood somewhere, this obsession with royalty, the stuff that made Shakespeare famous. I suspect it has something to do with our own dreams to be lifted out of anonymous obscurity, to have our life suddenly elevated to international and historic importance, like Kate Middleton.

Of course, the Bible indicates that none of us is obscure or anonymous. We are all known. In fact, God has made a proposal to us, to elevate us to royalty and significance. The King of Heaven has offered to place His ring upon our finger if we will accept it. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16). Peter described followers of Jesus in this way: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9.) In some way, every one of us lives a “Cinderella” story.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Preparing for Thanksgiving 11-15-2010

The trees are turning. Invigorating cool air has spilled across Texas. Families are making plans for Thanksgiving. Some prepare for children to come home. Others make plans to travel. Thoughts turn to turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, pumpkin and pecan pie. Football is in the air and the Cowboys have finally won again. I like Thanksgiving and the American traditions that go along with it.

Thanksgiving is unique to the American experience. No other nation has a holiday quite like it. From the time we are children, we are taught to remember the Pilgrims who feasted in 1621 with their Indian friends giving thanks for their survival in the new world. Children in elementary schools still walk out on stages wearing flat brimmed pilgrim hats and painted faces to re-enact the first Thanksgiving in front of adoring parents.

George Washington signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. But the official annual holiday began in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln set aside the fourth Thursday of November as a day for giving thanks. When he issued his proclamation our nation was embroiled in Civil War. Young men by the thousands lay dead on the battlefields. Families were gripped with grief. But a wounded nation found solace for its soul by seeking a grateful heart.

In times of prosperity and peace, in times of war and want, throughout the Great Depression and our most recent Great Recession, we have paused as a nation on this final Thursday of November to remember and to be thankful. For this one day, at least, we make sure that the homeless and the hungry are fed. On this day we lay down our tools and gather around our tables with those whom we love the most. We are not burdened with the buying and giving of gifts. We simply pause to enjoy one another and the goodness with which God has blessed us.

Nothing is more important than cultivating a grateful and thankful heart. We all experience blessing and loss. God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. The faithful and the unfaithful must weather the same storms. We all experience life and love that we do not deserve. We will all suffer disappointment, injustice and pain. Illness will come. The loss of loved ones will come. The same circumstances sow the seeds of bitterness and resentment, thankfulness and gratitude. The former leads to death. The latter leads to life.

The Bible is clear about the importance of thanksgiving. The Psalms are filled with thanksgiving and praise. Jeremiah envisioned desolate Jerusalem restored with gratitude saying: “the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who say, ”Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting". (Jer. 33:11). Paul wrote, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6).

Monday, November 8, 2010

Miracle of Life 11-8-2010

My daughter was born the year I turned forty. With two sons already thirteen and eight, we were not expecting another child. In fact, the doctors told my wife and I that having more children was an impossibility. But, the impossible happened. The doctor’s first question was, “Do you want to terminate this pregnancy.” We were stunned. Such a consideration never entered our minds. Nine months later we were given a beautiful little girl who has blessed our lives immeasurably. I often thought of the doctor’s question when I rocked her to sleep and felt the weight of her slumbering body slump against my shoulder.

Our daughter is now grown.. Two years ago I walked her down the aisle to give her away then performed the wedding ceremony, one of the highlights of my life. Three months ago, they came home and excitedly told us they were expecting a baby, our fourth grandchild. When they gave us the news of her pregnancy, her baby was no bigger than a small marble. Three months later, we already know that our daughter’s baby is a girl. We have listened to the baby’s heartbeat and watched her dancin in the womb. All her vital organs are developed. She even has tiny fingernails and toenails.

My wife works with pregnant and parenting students in the public schools. She constantly works with girls who are pregnant, helping them have a healthy pregnancy, healthy birth, learn how to become a good parent, stay in school and have a future. With three children and three grandchildren of our own and my wife’s occupation, you would think that the process of pregnancy and birth would have become commonplace. But it hasn’t. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The older I grow and the more I witness the miracle of life by which children are birthed into the world, the more I stand in awe.

David expressed it best in Psalm 139: “For You formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” To the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Every birth, every child and every person is a miracle of God. We are all more than mere flesh and blood, brain, bone and sinew. We are made in His likeness, with the awesome freedom to choose good and evil, to bless others or to curse them. We have infinite possibilities and an immortal soul that will one day depart this mortal body. We are eternal beings living in a miraculous universe that astounds our senses.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Freedom for the Frenzied Life 11-1-2010

We live in a time-crunched world where life is lived on the run. Millions pull out of their drive-ways in the pre-dawn dark and navigate their way onto freeways while munching breakfast burritos and egg-mcmuffins. They listen to traffic reports and the morning news between cell phone calls. It is a frenzied start to a frenzied day. Weary from long hours at the work place, the same drivers re-enter the stream of traffic for a slow return to the suburbs on clogged freeways. They make their way home in the gathering darkness past memorized billboards that measure their movement and neon signs that light the way. Weekends are filled with a hundred errands, second jobs, T-ball, soccer, football, baseball and the race to cram in as much recreation as possible before starting the Monday through Friday routine all over again. Some squeeze church attendance into an already full schedule that has no margins.

Richard Foster analyzed it like this: "We are trapped in a rat race, not just of acquiring money, but also of meeting family and business obligations. We pant through an endless series of appointments and duties. This problem is especially acute for those who want to do what is right. With frantic fidelity we respond to all calls to service, distressingly unable to distinguish the voice of Christ from that of human manipulators." We are increasingly depressed and suicidal. We have turned to alcohol and drugs in a desperate effort to cope. We know deep down that something isn’t working. There must be a better way.

Most people recognize the ten commandments as foundational to human conduct and life. But somewhere along the way we reduced the ten commandments to nine. We eliminated the fourth commandment as irrelevant and archaic: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” A half-century ago, businesses were closed on Sunday and sporting events recognized Sunday as a day for worship. All that has changed. Today our calendars are filled up to a 24/7 frenzy.

When Jesus said that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man, he did not erase the need for the Sabbath in our lives. Instead, he underscored the importance of the Sabbath to all of us for mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.

In his book, Living the Sabbath, Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Norman Wirzba writes, “Put simply, Sabbath discipline introduces us to God’s own ways of joy and delight. … When our work and our play, our exertion and our rest flow seamlessly from this deep desire to give thanks to God, the totality of our living --- cooking, eating, cleaning, preaching, parenting, building, repairing, healing, creating --- becomes one sustained and ever expanding act of worship.”

Sabbath requires time for rest, silence, solitude and worship, but it is more than a day of rest. It is way of life that is filled with wonder, worship, awe and delight. When Jesus declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath, he offered to us a better way. He said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest to your souls.”