Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Amazing Grace" Found William Wilberforce

The recently released film, “Amazing Grace” is definitely worth seeing. The movie tells of William Wilberforce’s efforts in 19th century England to abolish slavery. You’ll be inspired by the pursuit of justice and a life of passion and perseverance.

Remarkably, Wilberforce became a member of the British Parliament at age 21. At age 26 he became a Christ follower and began to be mentored by John Newton, an Anglican priest who is best known for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace” and thus the movie’s title. In prior years Newton had been a slave trader. He had a conversion to Christianity and after some time became convicted of the sinfulness of slavery. His influence and that of a few others propelled Wilberforce into the political battle to end slavery that took 18 years before the Slave Trade Act received the royal assent in 1807.

The movie has many memorable scenes worth reflection. Soon after Wilberforce became a Christ follower he is sitting upon the wet grass in his yard admiring the intricacies of creation and worshiping God. His butler discovers him sitting on the wet grass with an otherworldly countenance about him. The butler comments, “You’ve found God, sir?” Wilberforce replies, “No, rather God has found me.”

That’s the message of the hymn "Amazing Grace" when it declares, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

The Bible makes it clear that none of us really seeks after God. Instead, God seeks after us. If we come to love Him, it is because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Do you have any desire to discover God and to get to know God? If so, that stirring within you is God pursuing you. We don’t deserve God’s interest, pursuit or love. God just simply and profoundly loves us/you more than anything. That’s why millions of Christ followers through the centuries have joined with Newton and Wilberforce in affirming, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Starbucks & Worshiping God

On Saturday morning I went into my kitchen, picked up a bag of Gold Coast beans, ground them up in my Starbucks grinder and made a pot of coffee in my Starbucks coffeemaker. I like Starbucks coffee. Most of my extended family lives in the Mid-South and they sometimes make fun of me because of my preference for Starbucks. I used to send them Starbucks coffee for Christmas gifts but learned that they didn’t enjoy receiving it as much as I did sending it. Oh well.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz circulated a memo throughout the Starbucks family February 14 warning top executives that the “Starbucks experience” has been watered down. He lamented that some decisions have resulted in “stores that no longer have the soul of the past. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee.”

If you care anything about the “Starbucks experience” you can read more about it in the Seattle Times article.

More than anything I care about the “God experience” and what seems to me to be a watered down encounter with God at many churches. I’m not pining for a nostalgic experience in the church from the good ole days. Nor do I want to extol the virtues or complain about the empty practices of the contemporary church.

I just want a legitimate, life to life encounter with the living God. And honestly I experience that almost every time I go to worship with a church, whether it is the church where I have my membership or some other church. Yet, I would dare say the majority of people don’t experience God. Why?

The gathering of believers for worship on Sunday is not “THE” place of worship. It is “A” place of worship. Worship (showing the worth of God) is something that happens in my private devotions, my daily work at the office, my encounters with other people, and my family time with my wife and children. In other words, Christ followers seek to experience and worship God in every single thing that they do.

Therefore, the Sunday gathering becomes something of an exponentially greater experience of God as I get to be with God as I’m with other devoted and worshiping believers. And therein lies the problem. Most churchgoers are not daily worshipers of God.

Most of us treat life like a pie. We give a slice to work, a slice to family, a slice to recreation, a slice to God, etc. Instead, God wants the whole pie! He wants to be thoroughly involved with you in your work, family, etc. When we compartmentalize God He becomes one more thing that we add on to our life. God will not be an “add on”. He deserves and expects to be the “center” of your life.

Consequently many treat the Sunday gathering of worship like going to a movie theater. We pay our admission (offerings) and we sit back for the singing and speaking show. When it is over we respond like we do walking out of a theater, “That was good today.” “That was not as good as last week.” “I didn’t like the last song.” “I thought the message went on too long.”

Starbucks is concerned about becoming sterile, cookie cutter and passionless about coffee. What adjectives describe your experience with God?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

In a Pit, With a Lion, On a Snowy Day

“In a Pit, With a Lion, On a Snowy Day” is the title of a new book by Mark Batterson. I was intrigued with the title and went to Amazon to check it out.

The back cover of the book questions: “What if the life you really want, and the future God wants for you, is hiding right now in your biggest problem, your worst failure…your greatest fear?”

Great question. Reflect on that for a while.

I haven’t read the book but totally enjoyed the free chapter available on Amazon. The premise is based upon an obscure passage from the Bible—

“Benaiah son of Jehoiada, from Kabzeel, was another famous soldier; he did many brave deeds, including killing two great Moabite warriors. He once went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. He also killed an Egyptian, a huge man who was armed with a spear. Benaiah attacked him with his club, snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand, and killed him with it.” 2 Samuel 23:20-21, ESV

So, you’re reading along and come upon a little known person in the Bible and you note that it lists a few of his accomplishments and then you do a double-take on the phrase, “He once went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.”

As Batterson points out, what’s Benaiah doing? You run away from lions. You don’t chase lions. You don’t go down into a pit with lions, especially in slippery snowy conditions. And yet, that very experience is what God used to launch Benaiah into the next chapter of his life where he became captain of the bodyguard for King David.

What’s the problem, the failure, the fear (aka lion) that is staring at you and intimidating you today? Could it be that God is inviting you into danger and risk that will make your life rather than break your life; define your life rather than destroy your life?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Observing Ash Wednesday & Lent

February 21 is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent (a season of serious reflection and repentance), which leads up to the celebration of Easter (the resurrection of Jesus Christ).

Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and many Lutherans primarily observe the practices of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Some Methodists and Presbyterians have also adopted it. Though I’m not a member of any of the above-mentioned Christian groups, an Episcopalian friend introduced me to the practice about five years ago. Now it is a meaningful part of my experience of God.

Many will choose to fast on Ash Wednesday, pray, worship and receive a mark of ashes on their forehead as a sign of their repentance. The believer will wear the mark of ashes until sunset.

I’m not a very liturgical person but I find the fasting, worshiping and receiving the mark of ashes important. I spend a good bit of my life sharing with others the good news about Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sin, redemption and the promise of heaven are very good news. However, unless you know what the bad news is, good news will not be comprehended.

The bad news is that every one of us has fallen short of God’s standards for how life should be lived. To miss God’s mark is so serious it results in a consequence of one being judged by God, condemned forever by God and separated from God. That separation from God is commonly called Hell. The Bible says that Hell is everyone’s destiny unless he or she receives God’s free gift of redemption.

God’s free gift of redemption was very expensive as it cost Jesus Christ His life. I receive the gift of redemption by accepting the sacrifice of Christ by faith and committing to follow Jesus Christ as His disciple all the days of my life.

As it stands, I’ve never lived life better than I do today. I love better, serve, give, forgive and care for others better than ever. Ash Wednesday and Lent don’t allow me to feel pride about that because I’m reminded that with all of my growth and progress, I still haven’t come far enough to meet God’s standard. I’m still a sinner in need of a savior and Jesus Christ is my Savior.

Ash Wednesday I’ll fast from food and seek to fill my heart freshly with the presence of Christ. During the 40 days of Lent I’ll look for ways that God wants my life to further grow and mature into Christlikeness. I’ll seek to give up anything that stands in the way of Christ being formed in me.

When Easter arrives on April 8, the season of preparation will have my heart soaring with praise and gratitude for how good the good news is that Jesus is risen!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mitt Romney & Religious Issues

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney officially threw his hat into the presidential ring today declaring his candidacy. Jill Lawrence wrote in USA Today that Romney’s faith (he’s Mormon) would be an issue. According to their poll, 72% of Americans said that they would vote for a qualified candidate who is Mormon. That compares with 94% who said they would vote for a qualified black candidate and 88% who would vote for a qualified female candidate.

Lawrence went on to point out that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), the official name of the Mormon Church, has an unusual theology and a past scarred by racism and polygamy.

The New York Times reported that Romney’s advisers “acknowledged that popular misconceptions about Mormonism—as well as questions about whether Mormons are beholden to their churches leaders on public policy—could give his opponents ammunition in the wide-open fight among Republicans to become the consensus candidate of social conservatives.”

To hear the media tell it, Romney’s problems are (1) the once-upon-a-time polygamy factor, and (2) the ignorant folks who have “misconceptions” about Mormon theology.

Let’s be clear. The problem is not that some people have “misconceptions” about Mormon theology. Some people have deep convictions that clash with Mormon theology. Some people don’t have “misconceptions” but correct perceptions about their differences with Mormon beliefs such as, “as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.” Most Christians also reject the notion that God (and Mrs. God) have physical bodies and that God literally had sex with Mary to create Jesus.

Now, let me hasten to say that I’m NOT making a case about why you should or should not support Romney for president.

I am highlighting the reality that most people in the mainstream media don’t get it that there are real and sincere disagreements about the nature of God between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Media elites have concluded that all religions are equal and that if a Christian doesn’t acknowledge that the Jewish belief or Muslim belief is equally true to their own belief, then that Christian is intolerant and a bigot.

Tolerance used to mean that you acknowledged that someone’s faith that was different from your own was important and of value to that person. One was tolerant if one gave the right and freedom for another to hold to their different beliefs. But somewhere along the way the definition of tolerance was changed so that one also had to consider every faith equally true.

Listen; there are tremendous differences between the major religions of this world. They can’t all be right. Someone is wrong. Let’s acknowledge that.

I personally believe that Mormonism is wrong. I think I have good reasons. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect Romney or any other Mormon or that I couldn’t support one for public office.

Let’s stop pretending for the sake of political correctness that differences of faith are inconsequential and that in the end all religions are headed to the same destination. Devout adherents of Judaism, Islam, Mormonism and Christianity know that there are significant differences in their beliefs.

And friend, those real differences demand that you personally search for and find the truth. You don’t want to get to the end of life and find out that one of the faiths was right and you wasted this life and forfeited the life to come.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith: "An American Story"

Thursday the tragic news went out that suddenly and unexpectedly Anna Nicole Smith died. At this writing the exact cause of death is still not known. She was 39 years old and is survived by her 5-month-old daughter. Her 20-year-old son preceded Smith in death.

For those visiting from another planet and wonder why every news network gave significant air time to her passing and why her picture has been prominently placed in all the American print media, Smith was a former Playboy Playmate, reality TV star, model and widow of an eighty-something rich tycoon. Her resume still doesn’t explain why she receives so much attention.

In a Seattle Times article Jocelyn Noveck writes a brief reflection on why many may be fascinated with Smith and near the end of her piece she quotes UCLA film professor, Richard Walter. “She came from humble origins and achieved celebrity and wealth, one way or another,” Walter said. “And that is an American story.”

Wow. “An American story” used to describe the journey from humble origins to significant impact on American history. Abraham Lincoln was an American story. Booker T. Washington was an American story. Even Bill Clinton is an American story.

But in this iconic, post-Marilyn Monroe/Jerry Springer day in which we live, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith are the new American story.

I’m not slamming or putting down any of these women. I believe that they are women about whom God cares deeply and in some way are trying to find or declare their significance by living such public dysfunctional lives for all the voyeurs that will watch.

The “story” that each of them stars in is a tragedy. They reflect the reality of a culture that no longer finds inherit worth because the God of the universe has created them the unique and special women that they are, but rather chase a delusion of significance shrouded in glitz and glamour.

The American fascination with the life and passing of an Anna Nicole Smith is a telling commentary on the dysfunctional freefall that our country is in.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Beer and the Bible

The Journey is a relatively new church in the St. Louis area. As a way of helping The Journey to launch from being a small group of believers into a public church, The Journey was given financial assistance by a group of Baptists in Missouri. The Journey has had a wonderful beginning and there are a lot of formerly “unchurched” people that are now meaningfully connected to God and to a community of faith.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this past October the annual meeting of Baptists in Missouri highlighted the good work that The Journey was doing and congratulated them. In December some Missouri Baptists became aware that one of the ministries that The Journey has successfully reached people with is a monthly discussion of theology at a local brewery.

Quick history: Baptists have for generations advocated abstaining from consuming alcohol. Traditionally most Baptists would be considered teetotalers. So, it is not surprising that the Baptists would find it inconsistent or even troubling that The Journey would accept their money and then use means to reach people that many of them would consider unbiblical.

It does raise the question of when is it appropriate to break with a tradition. Many tee totaling Baptists would concede that there is not a verse in the Bible that commands, “Thou shall not drink alcohol.” But, the tradition of abstinence is strong and there is a lot of medical and sociological data that confirms it can be a very damaging thing for people to drink. A lot of lives and families have been ruined by alcohol.

Senior minister, Darrin Patrick contends that they are compelled to go where people gather and share their faith rather than expect people to come to them for an hour on Sunday. He makes the case that Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and glutton because he attended parties where people who were disconnected from God were hanging out.

In my mind this is a great example of legalism. Legalism is when someone takes a practice or conviction that is good (avoid drinking alcohol and all the problems it can bring) and they make it a “law”. By “law” I mean, “You’re a good Christian if you abstain from alcohol. You’re a bad Christian if you consume it.”
The fact of the matter is that there are many solid, consistent, biblical Christians who drink a beer. Knowing that Baptists have a strong tradition of abstaining from alcohol The Journey probably should have skipped receiving the Baptist money if they wanted to be true to their conviction of reaching people in pubs.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Super Bowl XLI, Tony Dungy & Lovie Smith

Another Super Bowl is history. After a rainy battle in Miami the Colts prevailed and most likely the Bears will be back.

Much was made of the fact that this was the first Super Bowl with African-American head coaches. In the awards ceremony when the Lombardi Trophy was presented, Colts Coach Tony Dungy acknowledged that it is a significant time in American history for both Super Bowl coaches to be African-American.

But, Dungy went on to say that he thought it more remarkable that he and Lovie Smith were both committed Christians and that they ran their respective NFL programs with Christian values. Dungy and Smith are both known for deeply caring about their players, motivating through respect and mentoring wealthy professional athletes in how to give back to the community.

I have a friend who plays for a professional baseball team who commented to me a few months ago how pro sports treats athletes like a commodity. “We’re just meat to them,” he said. Many professional coaches motivate by intimidation and are just as lost as their young players when it comes to being responsible citizens who lead solid family lives.

In a day of spoiled, entitled, crime ridden, selfish professional sports, Dungy and Smith stand out not because of their color but because of their character. Sounds a little like a “dream” espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.

In defeat Lovie Smith said, “Of course I wanted the Bears to win the Super Bowl. But if we couldn’t win it there is no one I’d rather win it than a Tony Dungy coached team.” It’s the picture of class, graciousness, professionalism AND Christlikeness.

Hey, I’m a Seattle Seahawk fan but I would welcome another Super Bowl that matched Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coached teams!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Binge Eating Is Most Common Eating Disorder

Thursday was my day off. My wife had been looking forward to my day off because we lost a tree during the wind storm a few weeks ago and she was very ready for me to haul away all of the debris. When I lost my tree my nice neighbor let me borrow his chainsaw so that I could cut my tree up. So, I thought I should return the favor and I offered to haul away his debris with mine.

Rented the U-Haul truck. Loaded it with my tree. Filled it to capacity when I added my neighbor’s debris. I’m ready to drive to the transfer station, dump my load and enjoy the rest of my day off. Then the conspiracy took place. My neighbor suggested that while I have the mighty U-Haul truck that I attach his rope to my remaining tree stump and pull it out. He will help me chop it up so I can haul it away. I didn’t want to. I heard the clock ticking away and my day off disappearing. His wife and my wife in harmony began cheering for me to pull out the tree stump. So…we did.

Yes, that 20-year-old tree had a wonderful root system that was wrapped around my underground waterline. When I successfully pulled up my tree stump a beautiful gushing of water appeared in my yard. Now, I’m dealing with the local water service, rushing to the transfer station to dump my load, driving a U-Haul through rush hour traffic and waiting in line at the gas station so I can return the truck with a full tank.

Guess what comes to my mind? I want a Blizzard from Dairy Queen! Even though it is lousy rush hour traffic, I get rid of the truck and fight my way across town and get a delicious Blizzard. I deserved the treat, right?

You may be like me and through the years have learned to comfort yourself with food. What happens if you need a lot of comfort because you have a lot of pain in your life? An occasional ice cream treat or candy or potato chips is no cause for great alarm. But, for many the “occasional” is now out of control.

According to an AP story binge eating is now more common than anorexia or bulimia according to a national survey. The survey revealed that 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer from binge eating. They might for example eat a full dinner, and then a quart of ice cream, followed by a bag of chips, without being able to stop, says Dr. Harrison Pope of McLean Hospital of Harvard University.

“It's a little bit analogous to something you hear from an alcoholic, when they might say, ‘Well, I wanted to have one drink,’ and they've had 12 drinks and they're passed out on the floor,” he said. “Even though they feel full, even though they feel disgusting and guilty, they can't stop.”

Many alcoholics and other addicts have found help in breaking free from dealing with their pain by consumption of some thing by working 12 Steps. It is basically a program of bringing God into your life in such a way that your relationship with Him brings healing to the deep places in your life that you have been “medicating” with drink, drug, food, sex or whatever.

Today I’m praying for you that are hurting that you might find healing and wholeness in a personal relationship with God.