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Monday, March 28, 2016

Why So Lonely?

A couple hundred years ago people lived in remote isolation, farming land on open prairies. Travel and communication were slow and uncertain.  Letters took weeks, if not months, to reach their destination. Responses were long delayed.  A visit to town might take an entire weekend. Camp meetings lasted for a week or more.

Modern technology has changed all of that.  Travel is rapid and relatively cheap. We can travel to the other side of the earth in a day. Communication is immediate and global.  Email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and cell phones connect us with family, friends and strangers.  We can as easily communicate with someone in another corner of the same department store as we can someone on the other side of the earth.  

Strangers stroll down grocery store aisles “talking to the cabbage.”  Young girls jog along the street, their pony tails swinging in rhythm to their stride will they jabber away on their headset. Distracted motorists navigate through traffic, one hand on the wheel, another holding a cell phone to their ear. Text dings are commonplace.

You would think that loneliness would be something of the past in our social media world. 

But a strange thing has happened. In spite of our technological connections, loneliness is epidemic.  According to Social Media Week, “Despite being constantly connected, people are still feeling alone. So what gives? With the ability to keep in touch with all our loved ones, why are people lonelier than ever?”

The article went on to say, “The problem with social media is the fact that people only share the good things about their lives. This constant barrage of good news causes a vicious cycle in which people post the great things that are happening, which causes their friends to only share the good things that happen in order to keep up. This kills any sense of vulnerability, of genuine shared experiences that were so crucial to emotional closeness between friends.

We need community, frequent face-to-face committed relationships with others.  This is why we need church. But we need more than assembling to sing a few songs and listen to a preacher preach.  We need honest and transparent friendships.  We need to “bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).  We need a place to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15).  We need trusted relationships where we can “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we may be healed.” (James 5:16).

This is why many churches are creating “Life Groups” that meet in people’s homes, where they can share a meal, visit over the table and study the Bible. 

God does not desire that any one should be alone. “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy habitation.  God makes a home for the lonely.”  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

SPECIAL: A Faith Response to Terror

When Donald Trump announced he was running for President of the United States, many laughed, others snickered.  Late night talk show hosts could hardly contain their glee.  But few people are laughing now.  Political pundits project a 90% probability that Trump will be the Republican nominee.

Apparently Trump tapped into a deep reservoir of American fear and anger.  In Donald Trump we found a loud and confident voice leaning out the window and shouting “I’m mad as h--- and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Americans are angry.  And, Americans are afraid. 

Fear and anger go together. Fear begets anger and anger fuels our fears. The terror strikes in Brussels have heightened our fears.  Ted Cruz is calling for police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. Donald Trump says he would consider a nuclear strike against ISIS. 

We must fight our way past fear and anger to a higher level of courage, faith and love. When we become divided, fearful, suspicious and angry, the terrorists win.

In the midst of the chaos that immediately followed the explosions in Brussels, an American doctor who was dropping off a friend at the airport immediately began treating casualties.  Many who were injured urged care for others who they felt were in worse condition, putting other’s interest above their own.

The international community has come together in support of Belgium, just as they did in support of France last November and in support of the U.S in 2001. Our flags are flying at half-mast in the United States as symbols of grief and support.
I suspect most Muslims are as bewildered and fearful as the rest of the world.  After all, far more Muslim men, women and children have been killed by terrorists than non-Muslims.  Millions have fled Syria trying to escape ISIS and are trying to survive in makeshift tent cities.  Our support must include prayer, love and understanding for our Muslim neighbors

Efforts to overcome hate with more hatred, violence with more violence, only escalates the problem and leads to greater suffering.  We must refuse voices of division and suspicion and put into practice what we are taught in the Scripture:  “Overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21).

Terror is not new in the world.  In the first century, crucifixion was an instrument of terror. We must remember the example of Jesus who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).   

While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself  bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:22-24).

Monday, March 21, 2016

White Space

Life starts out fairly simple.  When my wife and I married we could, quite literally, pack all our possessions in the back seat of our car.  But along the way, we picked up clutter.  The closets and attic overflow. I rented a storage unit so she could get her car in the garage.   “Stuff” seems to multiply.  It fills every nook and cranny.  It is hard to throw it away.  Worn out baby shoes, broken toys and scribbled scraps of paper represent my life.

The calendar is the same.  Business, or “busy-ness,” claims every minute. Millions start the day with a swig of coffee while they maneuver onto the freeway munching a breakfast burrito.  Memos, phone calls, meetings and long hours on our feet are followed by a weary commute home to pick up kids for practice sessions.  No wonder we are exhausted. 

Christians are especially vulnerable. Richard Foster wrote, “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 need white space!

Look at Google’s homepage.  Google keeps it simple.  We need to learn how to live Google lives, with plenty of white space, space in our lives that gives us freedom.  We need deliverance from crammed calendars and cluttered closets. 

It takes discipline to create white space, room for flexibility and freedom, margins in which to breathe.  Jesus knew how to order life with “white space.”  He took time to listen to children, to help a desperate woman who risked touching his garment, to heal a paralytic passed over by the crowd.  He had time for people, and, when he died, his robe was his only possession.  He never punched a time clock.  He did not wear a watch. He was never rushed or in a hurry. 

It is entirely possible that, with our break neck race to “get somewhere” that we might end up “nowhere.”  Jesus said, “… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” (Luke 10:41-42). 

And again, ““For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. ... And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” (Luke 12:22-30).

When we simplify our lives with fewer “things” and build “white space,” we discover life itself.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Young Messiah

As we approach Easter, Hollywood has again released new movies about the life of Jesus.  This year, The Young Messiah, the story of Jesus as a child wrestling with the dawning discovery of his identity as the Son of God.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. For the most part, the Bible is silent regarding these years.  We do know that Joseph took his family to Egypt following Jesus’ birth in order to protect the child from King Herod’s paranoid wrath.  After their departure from Bethlehem, Herod’s soldiers fell upon the small village slaughtering all the male children under the age of two.

Joseph made a home for the family in Egypt and waited.  When Herod died, they returned to their childhood home of Nazareth.   Matthew points out that this was a fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”  (Matthew 2:15).  The movie focuses on this event, when Jesus was a child returning with his family to Nazareth.

The movie is based on a book written by Anne Rice, Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt. The book and the movie try to imagine what Jesus would have been like as a child, how He and His family would have wrestled with the growing awareness of His identity.  The Bible only tells us that “He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” 

Almost as interesting as the movie’s plot is the journey of the author who wrote the book upon which it is based.  Anne Rice grew to fame writing the Vampire Chronicles while professing to be an atheist. 

She 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.” 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.” 

Anne represents many who continue to believe in Christ but have left organized Christian churches. 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.

Worldwide, we are witnessing the largest growth in the number of Jesus followers in history. In China, some estimate that 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. More Muslims have come to faith in Christ in the last two decades than at any other time in history.  Churches, what they look like and how they function, are changing while the number of Jesus followers is growing. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Power of Persistence

Every year I write at least one column about my dog, Buddy. Some of you will remember that we adopted Buddy seven years ago after he was found starving on the streets of Fort Worth.  I wrote his story for my grandkids, “just the way Buddy told it to me”: how Barney the Blood Hound helped him survive on the streets until they were picked up by the dog police. I named the story, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi because his left ear flopped. 

His ear doesn’t flop anymore.  Maybe he outgrew it. Maybe it flopped because he was puny and sick. Both ears now perk straight up like a respectable corgi. I kind of miss the flop.

I am always learning something from Buddy.  Lately, he is teaching me persistence. “Persistence” isn’t a word we use much.  But we all know what it means: never quitting, never giving up and never becoming discouraged. Buddy doesn’t use words, at least not human words, but he communicates. He communicates most by “persistence.”

If he wants to go outside, he goes over to the door and sits there looking out the glass pane.  He never moves.  He just sits there until I notice and obligingly open the door and let him out.  He does the same thing about coming back inside. If I am eating he locks his eyes on the food and stares, again refusing to move.  I can scold him, tell him he isn’t getting anything from me, act as callous and cold as possible, but it doesn’t faze him. He just sits there staring with those big brown corgi eyes until I finally give in. He wins his arguments with persistence.

I need to learn more of that. We humans are always looking for shortcuts to get what we want.  We learn this at a very early age.  We try tantrums, tears, weeping and wailing and pouting. We get angry and argue.  But it seldom achieves our goals.  We need to learn from Buddy.  Persistence and perseverance are irresistible.

This must have been what Jesus was getting at. Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'" 

"I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.  So I say to you,ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10).  

Be persistent.  Be patient. Don’t get upset. Don’t give up.

(Buddy’s story is FREE  on Amazon this week, March 8-12, as a Kindle e-book.)