Thursday, July 30, 2015

Playing games with the truth.

Another week in which I feel like an alien in my own culture.

We play games instead of talking . . .

I love lions.  I don't think people should hunt them unless they are hunting us.  When a rogue lion kills people it is time to call a safari and bring the beast down.  Lions and sharks.  They are killing machines - let them kill in their domain but once they make sport of humans we should make sport of them.  Unless they are a threat, hunting a lion seems pointless.  It is a ridiculous accomplishment to say you followed a lion from a football-field-sized distance and shot it with a gun.  Yay for you.

Of course I am referring to Cecil the Lion - a lion that was on a preserve that was shot by a Dentist on vacation.  A lot of people are really angry about this.  I have seen a lot of big-time rage about the lion with all the associated profanity-laced tirades about human-centered arrogance.  I think it is stupid to pay $50,000 to go to Africa and shoot a majestic creature just so you can have a stuffed animal on your wall . . . but I don't know if I am ready to spit nails and rage about it.

Especially since last week we had a similarly senseless act brought to our attention in the haggling over human baby parts.  If you have watched the video, there is no doubt a woman is negotiating over 'specimens' - even musing about the delight of a lowball figure paid for body parts.  While eating lunch.  Gross.

So what was the reaction to that?


Where is the outrage over this?  Maybe I am weird but I think the selling of human body parts trumps whether a lion on a preserve gets shot and killed.  

I wonder if it is because of years and years of this being a decidedly Christian issue that people don't want to wade into the waters on this because it will instantly become political.  Is it possible that people of faith have fused morality and politics so much that those who disagree with the politics but might agree with the morals behind them can't say yes to either?  Maybe people are afraid to weigh in on it and say that it is sad and disgusting because there might be a chorus of people saying, "I told you so."  Or even worse - that there will be a moral tsunami pushing for prayer in school and The Ten Commandments in City Halls and new biology textbooks.  So in this case silence is better than discussion for fear of the larger argument.  

That is sad.  Playing games instead of pursuing the truth together.

In my house when we have a problem we talk about it.

When there is an issue we confront it.  The estrangement from my culture that I feel grows from examples like this in which no one is willing to speak the truth because it would translate into a bad move in the broader game of political chess that we are playing.

This is equally gross.

So how do we move on?  How do we approach the truth?

Well for one, we can stop being so childish.  Stop playing political games in our conversations. We may never win arguments but we can come to the truth through listening.  Listening doesn't mean you have to agree.  Not agreeing doesn't mean you hate.  I have a friend who has very different views about that video than I do.  She is passionate about her support in this area.  I have twice sent her a message saying I would like to hear what she thinks of it all.  I doubt she will reply - mostly because her fear of being checkmated is stronger than her desire to want to dialogue and perhaps form a new truth.  I hope and pray that she one day is open to a discussion.  A discussion where I can learn just as much from her as she can from me.

Because until then we are just playing games. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Something to live for

Like you, I harbor a great many ill-feelings toward the group we call ISIS (known as the Islamic State).

I mean, what's not to detest?  They kill Christians, suspected women adulterers, homosexuals and countless innocent bystanders that don't fall into any particular political or religious group.  Islamic State has plans to continue bringing terror to the West in an effort to enforce a very strict form of Islam on the rest of the world.

But I forget that even ISIS is comprised of human beings - not beyond the reach of God's grace (and our prayers).

So I will continue to abhor ISIS but I will choose to remember that evil in any form is no match for the transformative power of God's love.

Consider the story of an ex-ISIS fighter I like to call Raj.  

Raj was 24 years old, had recently dropped out of college and was raising a child alone.  He had no friends, lived in New York and spent most of his time online.  Raj is the guy I see at the gas station countless times - on the phone with friends overseas - disconnected from anything meaningful.  He is the quiet guy that makes us nervous - never realizing he was just disconnected.

See, Raj saw that ISIS was recruiting and responded to the call. He left New York for Turkey last year and joined ISIS because they promised him a job, a house and a wife.  Through tears he recounts:

"My life was hard and nobody liked me . . . I didn't have many friends. I was on the Internet a lot and playing games."

So he bought a plane ticket and flew to Turkey where he started training with ISIS.

"They told us, 'When you capture someone, you will behead them,'" he said. "But as for me, I have never even beheaded a chicken … It is not easy … I can't do that."

Three days after he started fighting for ISIS he surrendered.  It was another group that he didn't fit in with.

So now Raj is stuck.  Currently he is in a Syrian prison for fighting with ISIS.  If he goes back to Turkey he will go to prison.  If he comes to the States he will be put in prison.  His stint with ISIS just made a bad situation worse.

It reminds me of something a pastor-friend used to tell me.  
"Sin keeps you longer than you want to stay and makes you pay more than you want to pay."  
Sin seems like a party but it becomes a prison in the end.

Now of course not all ISIS individuals are like this.  Obviously there are those that are just bent on evil and can't wait to come to your hometown and hunt you down and pop your head off.  They think they will be doing God's work the whole time.  We can't lose sight that as a group these people are very interested in stopping our way of life.  I am glad there are people whose full time job is devoted to stopping that from happening.

But we can't forget the people like Raj that are caught up in the lie.  I imagine a good portion of ISIS is made up of these kinds of lost souls.  Friendless, drifting and unsure of their place in this world.  Perhaps we need to be praying for them - because no one is lost to God.

Better yet, since Raj was an example of someone who came from America, maybe we should budget more time at the gas station or wherever lost souls are.  Perhaps we need to talk to the Raj's out there who feel like they have no connection to anyone else.  People find something worth living for when we don't give them something to live for through something as simple as small talk.

Click here for a link to the interview 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Open minds lead to open hearts

So this is a story of Zoe . . . and connecting.

I was in a soccer game on the beach and subbed out for a few minutes.  About the same time, a young lady named Zoe was walking up the beach.  She had come to know a few of the students I was working with so I chit-chatted with her for a couple of minutes before we started to talk about her faith journey.  She was very forthcoming with the fact that she was a Wiccan.

Incidentally, I love talking about Witchcraft . . . very few people know what it is really about - even some supposed witches.   That is embarrassing . . . when you have to correct a witch about what Wicca is.  But Zoe knew her stuff.  So we had a little conversation about her faith journey.  We got to the point where she said she didn't believe in God.  She believes that God doesn't exist - the universe is all there ever was or all there ever will be.  

I let her words digest for a second and then asked, "Do you mind if I challenge you on that a little bit?" 

She looked at me strange and said, "sure."  I'm not sure if anyone ever really asked her permission to challenge her theology.

I wiped the sand in front of me making a smooth surface to draw in the sand.  "If the universe is all there ever was and has existed for eternity (Drawing out a line), then how do we ever get to the point of now?"  (I put a dot on the line).

Basically I was asking if the universe has existed for eternity - and eternity never ends - then how did eternity lead to now?  In other words an eternity would have to have passed before we could experience this moment - but it hasn't.  The universe had to have had a starting point if we are here now.

She thought about it for a second and half-smiled.  She nodded her head - "makes sense."  So I continued . . . "Okay, so we agree.  The universe had a starting point.  Now everything we know that has a start was started by something beyond it.  It can't start itself.  Kittens don't pop out of the air - they come from cats.  Everything that has a beginning comes from something else."

Same reaction from Zoe:  thinking . . . and then half-smile . . . "yeah, that makes sense."

"Seems a Wiccan like you and a Christ-follower like me have a few things in common," I said.  She smiled thoughtfully.  I left it there because it really is a lot to think through.  I was grateful for her at least thinking and not getting upset at a challenging thought.  She has since connected with a few of the other students and may come to one of the campuses at our church in the next week or so.  Whether she does or not it was just a gift to be able to share and listen.

This gets lost too easily in our sound byte world.  Donald Trump can be fun to listen to, but real understanding comes from opening your mind.  That happens with humility and love.

Wherever you are, whoever you are - whether you are a believer or not - you too have something to share or learn from people if you take a moment.  Everyone has something you can learn from - even if you don't agree with them.  The minute we learn that we can go on to become wise - learning from everyone we meet and every situation in which we find ourselves.  It all starts with a little humility, some love and a conversation.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Trump: The Power of the Tongue.

 We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth.  And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong.  In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.
But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.  And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. 
- James 3:3-6

In the ancient world, many cultures considered words as beings.  You could literally speak peace into a room by saying "peace be with you."  Words were alive - able to bring life or death.  Curses are an example of how words were taken very seriously - uttering something had the power to change a person's destiny.

In some ways I wish we still had that respect for words.

As you probably know, last week presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about Senator John McCain in a speech.  He conveyed that he didn't see John McCain as a war hero because he was a prisoner of war.  "I like people that weren't captured," he said - setting off a firestorm of reaction in the media.

Donald Trump did what we all do in our minds from time to time but then check it with other people to see if it is stupid.  It was stupid - but who does Donald Trump have in his life telling him his thoughts are stupid?  So he just said a stupid thing.  McCain wasn't a war hero because he was a POW - he is a war hero because he refused to blab while being tortured . . . for years.  That is remarkable and heroic.  

The political dimension of it is not as important as the spiritual one.  People are drawn to Trump because he speaks his mind - it is his calling card, at least for now.  Some people love that he is not a politician and just says what he says.  But no matter how brave you are with your words, unless you are wise with them as well you will get burned.  

Regardless of how much money you have, a stupid thought is still a stupid thought.  If you have the courage to speak a stupid thought, that just might make you stupid.  That is why the Bible tells us to be careful with what we say - not because we are scared of how people might take it, but because words have impact on people's lives.

Now forget the scandal between McCain and Trump.  You have enough to sort through in your own relationships.  Think through your latest email to your son.  Examine the last voicemail you left for your wife.  The text to your mom.  The argument you had with your boyfriend.  Tame your tongue now.

Your words have the power of life and death . . .

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Running with the devil

 “bad company corrupts good character.”
- 1 Cor 15:33

Each year I take a group of students to the shore for a week of serving kids in the VBS programs in the morning and talking to people at night on the boardwalk about faith.  We don't hand out tracts or Bible-thump, we simply look for conversations with people that can be pointed in the direction of belief and the life Jesus talked about.

So last night I sent off the 40-something students to look for meaningful conversations.  After taking care of a couple details for the group I found myself drawn to a bench where three guys were obnoxiously getting girls' attention.  Their names were Taitian (the loud one with a noise-maker), Berto (with a bandanna on his head) and Javier (the quiet one).  I was surprised they talked with me.

We started off laughing mostly about how they were trying to get girls' cell phone numbers.  The conversation was punctuated some pretty foul language, calling out to random girls and another friend coming up and throwing punches.  At first I thought it was a fight but quickly discovered this was normal for them.  It was clear the guys were out to hook up with girls and find a place to score some drugs or a party.  I was most fascinated with Javier, the quiet one who sat next to me.  He just graduated high school and I was asking him what his plans were.  He said that he was going to take a year to think about what he wants to do.

The truth is that he will probably hang around with people like Taitian and get in trouble.

So I sowed a seed that I hope found some soil in his mind.  I said that there are places all around the world that need people like him to help.  Poor communities in Haiti and Honduras that could really use someone with time on their hands to help them become self-sustaining.  To be honest, there were places right around the corner in Atlantic City or Camden that could use his help - the kind of help that changes lives.  When you focus on helping others for a period of time it makes hanging out on the boardwalk scamming on people feel like an empty life.  Once you realize you have a purpose, you want to live that purpose - not drift without a purpose.

So I told him this and I was surprised that he was really listening.  

I told him that if you spent 6 months or a year in a place like that it changes who you are and you figure out what you want to do with your life very quickly.  He asked me where he could get involved in something like that.  I mentioned the church in town that does mission trips. He said he had been there once.  I told him to go back and start talking about how he can look to give and not take.  This was a guy who only needed a small push in the right direction.

But then two girls walked up introducing themselves and distracting the guys.  They were probably 14 and looking for a quick route to a good time.  Easy targets.  Another example of looking for something in the wrong place.  I kept thinking of how I could talk to Javier some more about his life and how God has a purpose far beyond any of this.  While I was thinking, the guys had to go.  Saying goodbye, I spent a moment with Javier, hoping our short time together might get reinforced by friends and family in the weeks and months to come.  His life is so much bigger than what he was running with.

But the chances are that he will wind up in trouble.  Pray that he beats the odds.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Keeping the main thing the main thing.

It was the best of times . . . it was the worst of times.

I am referring to this week.  Some people see this week as a major victory for equality and justice.  Some see it as a major blow to marriage and family.  And still others really don’t care one way or another but are scanning social media for what to think.

These are the same people who still can't find their TV remote, but that is a different story.

Regardless of what you think or feel (or whether you are just numb from the countless blogs that are weighing in on it) things are now different.  But times of change are important to revisit your core - your foundation.  In my life, when things change I know that it is time to take stock who I am and what I am made of. 

And I don’t mean politically – I mean spiritually.

See, it is a mirage to think that all of this really matters.  Who you are and what you believe can never be changed by courts or referendums.  Let's face it - the only thing you are responsible for is the state of your soul (not the state of the union).  So here are five things to return you to center – take care of these things and the rest will take care of itself:

·      Keep an eye on your own marriage and sexuality.

Christians seem to have a lot to say about marriage and family that cause arguments.  Here's a question: Who in the world would argue with a zero divorce rate?  That is something that would make me take notice.  Let’s push for that.  Yes, I know that there are good reasons to divorce – abuse, abandonment, unfaithfulness among others – but imagine a world in which Jesus followers repented of this and never went back to it.  That is where the real work is.  If we love marriage and value the family – let’s get off the Internet at night while our wives are in bed.  Let’s not flirt with the guy in accounting because we don’t get the same attention at home.  Stop raging at your children.  Quit lying to your parents.  That is when the world will look to believers as having something to say about marriage and family. 

·      Find the real enemy.
Followers of Jesus will always have enemies.  Get used to it.  The Bible says that we battle enemies seen and unseen.  If you are asking me, however, I would say the biggest enemy right now doesn’t live in this country.  It would seem to be that those guys standing on a beach cutting the heads off of 30 people because they are Christians. On the shores of Libya these guys pointed to Italy and said, “we are coming for you.”  Make no mistake – they weren't talking about pizza.  They see Italy as the seat of the Church. They will slaughter us while we are kicking the shins of appellate courts. 

·      I need to stop living by appearances.

Sometimes I wonder if my faith will ever deepen to a point at which I don’t care what other people think.  So much of my decision making and understanding of Jesus has to do with what my actions look like versus whether they are the right thing to do.  We all have varying degrees of what David Elkind called an “imaginary audience.”  We can be in a constant state of performance.  The flip side of this leads to thinking that we can go somewhere to be anonymous.  It can lead to us think that what we do when no one else is watching is okay.  It is not okay.  It comes down to integrity – what we do when no one else is watching is really what we are doing in the presence of God.  This is at the core of so much of our hypocrisy.  How we talk to our children, what we do on dates . . . that is the biggest battle for the soul of our faith.

·      We still have to figure out what it means to serve others.

Sometimes we think that following Jesus means we have been given a tool belt to work on the world’s problems – we haven’t.  If anything we have been given a servant’s towel.  Jesus was the first one to use this metaphor – He washed the disciples’ feet.  The God of the universe stripped down to a towel and washed people’s feet.  Think about it – there were orgies going on in Rome at the time.  A robust slave trade was happening all across Northern Europe at the time.  Tribes in South America were killing people to serve their gods.  There was a lot to do in the first century but Jesus washed feet.  He wanted to remind us that we are transformed by how we serve others.  The point of serving isn’t renovation of existing structures but self-transformation.  That means when I serve someone it isn’t license to tell them what to do with their life.  Serving changes me and that may lead to their renewal as a person, but when you serve in order to change them you are attempting manipulation.  Keep it simple and let Christ work on you - that is what changes the world.

·      The truth is a person, not an idea.

One of the most important things I can keep my eyes on is that Christ is alive.  And as the truth – I don’t need people to understand God, I want them to have a relationship with God.  So often we look at the truth of God as if it is a list of ideas that people just need to agree with. The truth is a lot more than that.  In fact, Jesus called Himself the truth –which means truth is a person.  To come to the truth is not to agree with me, coming to the truth means that someone encounters God and the slow process of life change takes place.  Don't push the truth, let the truth invade you and Christ will take care of the rest.

We already have a lot to do with just these five things.  Let's get to work.

 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.
                                                - John 13:4-5