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Monday, January 28, 2013

Image and First Impressions

In his day, he was called an “ape.” He was considered ugly by most and his voice had a Midwestern nasal twang. He only had one year of formal education. Edwin Stanton first met Abraham Lincoln in Cincinnati, where Lincoln had been invited to assist in an important civil case. Stanton described him as a “tall, rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles, holding in his hands a blue cotton umbrella with a ball on the end.” After Lincoln introduced himself and suggested, “Let’s go up in a gang,” Stanton decided to have nothing to do with him. He even refused to invite Lincoln to dine at his table. Stanton would later serve in Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of War.

Lincoln was elected president in 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote. When he delivered the Gettysburg Address few listened. The Chicago Times panned it stating, "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

He is now regarded as perhaps our greatest president. Every year millions visit his Memorial that overlooks the mall in Washington DC. And the speech that the Chicago Times called "silly and flat” is memorized by most students of American history.

By contrast, in an open and free election on March 29, 1936, Adolf Hitler received 98.8% of the German popular vote. His spellbinding oratory inspired and mesmerized an entire generation. He was proclaimed the German messiah and savior of Germany. But beneath those appearances lurked a sinister hatred that would exterminate approximately 20 million people including Jews, the mentally ill, the infirm and the elderly. Today, Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil. References to him have been virtually erased in Germany, except for the Document Center in Nuremberg, preserved as a reminder of the nation’s darkest days.

Describing Christ eight hundred years before He was born, Isaiah wrote, “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:2-4).

Image and first impressions are often deceiving. What truly matters is that which resides within the heart. The Bible says, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Whether in the media or on the street, we must learn to look beyond the manipulated image and the first impression to discern the hearts of others. At the same time, we must cultivate what is within our own soul. Jesus made this point plain: “You clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. … first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” (Matthew 23:25-26).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Replenishing the Earth

For the past two weeks, the smog alert in Beijing, China has been off the charts. Visibility dropped as pollution blocked out the sun. Tops of buildings disappeared in the murky haze that settled over the city. The air smelled of coal dust and car fumes. Most stayed indoors and ran air purifiers to escape the toxic conditions. Those who ventured out greeted one another behind white masks.

Pollution is measured in PM2.5 particles. These particles, when breathed, penetrate deep inside the lungs causing respiratory problems and increased susceptibility to illness. Safe levels should not exceed 25 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter. At 100 micrograms, children and the elderly are urged to remain indoors. The index in Beijing, according to some reports, exceeded 800 micrograms per cubic meter.

Twenty years ago we took our children on one of those vacations-of-a-lifetime to Disneyland in Los Angeles. We bought a van for the summer and coaxed it across the desert to the west coast. When we took the kids to the beach we were unable to see the surf on the horizon because of the greenish-yellow haze trapped against the coast.

At some point TV weather forecasters in Dallas added reports on the day’s pollution index to the routine reports on temperature, rain and humidity. For years I often commuted to work listening to reporters who issued orange and red alerts for air quality.

The first photos of earth sent back by the Apollo crews in the 1970s dramatically impressed us that our tiny blue planet rotating in space is precious and fragile. The thin layer of air that surrounds us not only contains the oxygen essential to life, but protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and regulates earth’s temperature. Three-fourths of the atmosphere lies within 6.5 miles of the earth’s surface. Outer space is considered to exist 62 miles up. We are dependent on an amazingly thin film of atmospheric gases to sustain life on our planet.

I guess I should not be surprised. The Bible clearly predicts that the earth will “wax old like a garment.” Our finite earth will wear out. Of course, I also know that one day I will wear out. We are all mortal. None of us lives forever. But my own mortality doesn’t mean I should start smoking, drinking, indulging in high fat foods and refusing to exercise. Instead, I am motivated to discipline my body so that I can experience greater health and longevity. In the same way, we must learn to discipline ourselves regarding the creation that God has entrusted to our care. In the very first chapter of the Bible, with His very first words to mankind, God instructs us to “be fruitful and multiple and replenish the earth.” (Genesis 1:22).

I doubt that pollution will become intolerable in my life time, though it seems to already be so in Beijing (at least until the wind kicks up and blows it our way).  But I wonder about the world we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren.  Will they continue to enjoy a pristine world with all its life-giving beauty and majesty?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Post Christendom Jesus Followers

Anne Rice, the popular author of the Vampire Chronicles that sold some 100 million copies, shocked the secular world when, in 2002, she announced she was done with vampires. After thirty-eight years as a professed atheist, she said she had found faith in Christ and returned to the Catholic Church. Eight years later, she rocked the Christian world by proclaiming she was renouncing Christianity. She stated, "For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” She went on to say, “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me." Her novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” is scheduled to be released as a movie this year (2013).

Of course, I think Anne Rice is selling “Christianity” short. While churches are often quarrelsome, sometimes even hostile, I would hate to live in a world without churches. I visited Russia at the end of the Soviet Union and saw what that looked like. Churches do far more good and create much more charity than otherwise. But, she does have a point.

Interestingly, Anne Rice is not alone. George Barna, the leading researcher on faith in America reported in 2008 that “a majority of adults now believe that there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church.” It appears that there is a growing number of people who claim faith in Jesus but want little or nothing to do with the institutional church.

For some, this may sound alarming or confusing. The fact of the matter is, we are living in a post-Christendom world. Christendom was defined by the dominance of the institutional church, both Catholic and Protestant, that shaped and influenced the western world. At its height, Christendom dominated governments and communities. This is no longer the case.

For those of us who are serious followers of Jesus, we can take heart by reminding ourselves that the most fruitful period of faith occured in pre-Christendom, the first three centuries following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Here is the paradox. Worldwide, we are witnessing the largest growth in the number of Jesus followers in history. In China more than 30,000 new believers are baptized every day. The number of believers in Africa grew from 9 million to 360 million in the last century, most in the last decade. More Muslims have come to faith in Christ in the last two decades than at any other time in history. Interestingly, the rapidly reproducing churches in these nations look little like our western Christianity. They resemble the churches of the first century that met in homes as close-knit communities that produce transformed people who act like Jesus.

At their core, churches are communities of believers who exhort and encourage one another to become like Christ. Churches are the wine-skins provided to contain the new wine of faith in Christ. Over time, each generation’s “wine skins” grow brittle, inflexible and institutional so that succeeding generations must discover new “wine skins” that serve their new found faith in Christ.