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Monday, February 29, 2016

Public Image and First Impressions

Abraham Lincoln was called an “ape.” His voice had a Midwestern twang. He only had one year of formal education. Edwin Stanton, who would later serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, first met him in Cincinnati in 1855.  Lincoln had been invited to assist Stanton 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. 

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 the speech stating, "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

Abraham Lincoln is now regarded as perhaps our greatest president. Every year millions visit his Memorial that overlooks the mall in Washington, D.C. 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 and promises to make Germany great again mesmerized an entire generation. He was proclaimed the savior of Germany. At his peak, more than a million gathered in Nuremberg each year to praise and adore him.

 But beneath those appearances lurked a sinister ego-maniac who 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 800 years before He was born, the prophet 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).

The public image and first impressions are often deceiving. What truly matters is that which resides within. 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).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Beyond Religion

A young friend wrote on his facebook page, “Religion is still the opiate of the masses.”  He got some interesting responses.  One person agreed with him.  Another wrote, “It can’t be.  If it was, I would take it for recreational purposes.” Of course the statement originated with Karl Marx when he was developing the Communist Manifesto, the philosophical foundation that would eradicate religion in Russia for 75 years. When I visited Moscow and Lenin’s tomb 17 years ago, the hopeless despair left in atheism’s wake was palpable.

My first inclination, like many, is to jump to the defense of religion. But that might not be the most thoughtful response.  After all, religion killed Jesus.  The Roman government reluctantly carried out the crucifixion only after Pilate had repeatedly tried to release Jesus concluding, “I find no fault in him.”  It was the religious leaders of Jerusalem who incited the crowds and demanded Jesus be crucified.

Mankind is incurably religious.  Every culture on every continent has spawned religion.  And, more often than not, the results have not been good. 9-11 and the Twin Towers serve as a monuments to the deadly effects of Islamic Jihad.  ISIS has terrorized the world. The Hindu caste system of India consigns millions to poverty without hope.

The Christian religion can also become corrupt, self-serving and self-absorbed.  Perhaps Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, found credibility with so many because they suspect that religion can become vicious if its survival is threatened.  The mentally unstable often use religion to justify atrocities against the innocent.  We cannot forget the 909 people, including women and children, who voluntarily drank cyanide out of religious devotion to Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.

Sometimes religion is not just an opiate, it is a poison. 

Jesus, on the other hand, makes people less selfish, more generous, fills them with hope and leads them to sacrificial efforts to help others.  Jesus transformed a little Albanian girl named Agnes into Mother Teresa who spent her life living among the poor of Calcutta and caring for them.  Faith in Jesus made William Wilberforce the leader of reform in England to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Faith in Jesus Christ changed a backwoods playboy from North Carolina into Billy Graham who preached grace and forgiveness to millions.  Faith in Jesus Christ catapulted Martin Luther King Jr from the backstreets of Atlanta into the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. 

The list goes on.  Jesus Christ goes beyond religion.  He transforms us into better people and the world into a better place.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Creation, The Big Bang and Eternity

Scientists are ecstatic over the discovery of gravitational waves in the universe.  Last week, on February 11, scientists documented their existence for the first time.  According to the reports, scientists may be able to “look into” or “listen to” the history of the universe as far back as one second after the “Big Bang," approximately 14 billion years ago.  

But what happened before that split second in time?

One of the foundational elements of theology is the idea that God is eternal.  He has no beginning and no end.  If that is the case, we have to ask, “What was before the ‘Big Bang’?”  After all, if God is eternal, 14 billion years are less than a blip on His screen. The Bible says, “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8).

We don’t know what happened before the "Big Bang" or Creation. Nor do we know what happens after the universe comes to an end, another fact science recently confirmed. In August of last year scientists discovered that the universe is winding down and will cease to exist. The universe definitely has a beginning and an end.

What we do know is that the universe exists now.  We know that a fragile planet, delicately rotating on its axis around an insignificant star in a remote corner of a minor galaxy somehow spawned the mystery of life as we know it. How can this possibly be?

We have one of two conclusions.  Either the mystery and majesty of life on Earth is a random accident, or, it is an extravagant miracle produced by the mind of God.  Einstein, who predicted  gravitational waves one hundred years ago once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I choose the latter.  It makes more sense to me.  Every morning when we wake to the rising sun and behold the beauty of the earth, we behold the miraculous.  Einstein is also credited with the observation, “"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

Perhaps the poet-king David expresses it best, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that you thought of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than God, and you crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:3-9).

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Good Morning!

Guten morgen. buenos dias, bon dia, buongiorno. selamat pagi. dobroe utro. In various languages and cultures all over the world, we greet each other every morning with a simple but profound greeting. It is best spoken with eye contact and a smile. A way of acknowledging our common existence and bestowing upon others our best wishes for their welfare. We share the greeting on the beach, in the park, on busy city streets, in the workplace and the home. I have exchanged this familiar greeting with others in Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Indonesia, Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil.

One morning I strolled along the seawall in Galveston at sunrise and was greeted by others who were walking, jogging or simply watching the sun rise. They were old and young, men and women, white, brown and black. Their simple “good morning” seemed to say, “I recognize your humanity, that you exist and you are here. Although I do not know you and will likely never see you again, we occupy together this passing moment in time when the sun is rising over the sea.”

We shared the sun’s red glow among the gray clouds and the rippled red reflection on the waves that lapped against the sand where sea gulls waddled on spindly stick legs. We filled our lungs with the cool morning air, awake and alive to a new day and greeted one another, “Good morning.”

All creation celebrates the dawning of a new day. The birds, it seems, do it best. I have often watched their mystic ritual at the dawn of day. They seem to be surprised each and every morning, as if they wondered if the sun would ever rise again. When it does, they are delirious with joy. In the forests, a single bird chirps the first signal of the graying dawn, awakening another, and another, until by the time the flaming ball of fire rises in the east they have joined their songs in a chorus of celebration.

It is much the same way with God who greets us at sunrise, a moment when God seems to make eye contact with us and smile, affirming His pleasure in having created us and having given us life. That is why David says, “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Ps 5:3). “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.(Ps. 90:14). And again, “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” (Ps 143:8).

Good Morning!

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Viral Gospel

“Going viral” was once limited to communicable diseases, the kinds that are so easily transmitted that they can rapidly escalate into an epidemic.  But, in our day, it means something quite different.  With the aid of the Internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and You Tube, what was obscure can “go viral” and become suddenly famous.

Facebook went viral when Mark Zuckerberg launched it from his dorm room at Harvard.  Today, more than one billion people use Facebook every day and its market value exceeds $300 billion.  It has become one of the most powerful tools on the Internet to catapult others into the “viral” stratosphere.

When Susan Boyle stepped onto the stage at Britain’s Got Talent April 11, 2009, she was unknown and unemployed, living alone with her cat in a small apartment where her mother raised her. Her frumpy attire drew snickers from the judges and the audience. But when she began to sing I Have A Dream everything changed. The video of her performance “went viral” on the internet. Within nine days it was viewed 100 million times. She is now an established star.

“Going viral” appears to be a twenty-first century phenomenon. But is it? 

History documents that the Gospel went viral following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  There was no media campaign.  There were no reporters, no cameras, no photo ops, no internet, no Facebook.  But somehow, Jesus impacted and changed the world.  Growing up in the obscure and infamous village of Nazareth, Jesus’ public ministry lasted only three years.  He walked wherever he went and never traveled more than one hundred miles from his birth place. When He was crucified, there were no papers to report it, no news teams to film it. But the news spread around the world and is continuing to spread today.  It did so by “going viral.” 

Paul spoke of.”the gospel which has come to you, just as  in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth.”  (Colossians1:6). And again, “For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.” 2 Cor 4:15, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.: (Romans 1:8).

When the Gospel goes viral, it requires more than posting a few sentences or a video clip on the Internet, more than “clicking” and forwarding information.  The Kingdom of God goes viral when lives are transformed by faith in Jesus Christ so that society is saturated with honesty, integrity, justice and generosity.  Changed lives change the lives of those around them.