Friday, April 29, 2011


I came across the following on a website:

God saves people; we don’t.
God changes people; we don’t.
God loves people; we do too.
God honors people; we do too.
God understands people; we try to.

I think it’s good to understand the difference between what God can do and what we can do.  We need to know the things we need to leave up to God, and the things in which we can emulate him.  God saves people; we don’t.  That’s good to remember.  God changes people; we don’t.  That’s good to know also.
Except it isn’t true.  We change people all the time.  I know, I know, this goes against everything that we’ve been told, that the only person you can change is yourself, you can’t change others.  Wives, you can’t change your husband, you can only change yourself and how you respond to your husband.  Husbands, same thing with your wives.  You can’t change your boss, you can’t change your children, you can’t change your best friend, and you can’t change those people who believe that President Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery.
OK, that last one is true.  But the rest, I don’t know.  I mean, I’ve been one of the ones who have said that you can’t change others, you can only change yourself.  It’s accepted wisdom, but as I read those statements above, I got to thinking, is that really true?  That only God changes people, and we don’t?
First, God doesn’t go changing people willy-nilly, forcing changes on them that they don’t want, even if it’s for their own good.  If that’s the way he operates, he’s quite frankly not doing a very good job of it, because there are a lot of people out there who need changing for their own good.  You know, like your husband, your wife, your kids, your boss, etc.  So why doesn’t he get with it?  But that’s not his way; he doesn’t impose himself on any of us, even if that means that he has to watch while we do and say some really stupid, hurtful, even self-destructive things.
And second, all those really stupid, hurtful, self-destructive things that we do to ourselves and to others certainly has an effect on others.  They change them, even against their will.  We have seen how a neglectful father or mother, for instance, shapes the lives of their children, changing them in ways that are difficult to later undo.  Overbearing or overindulgent parents also produce changes in their children.  You can see how a woman who was once full of life changes after living with an husband who constantly criticizes her every move, or how a drug-abusing teenager affects the rest of the family.
Yes, we change others all the time.  And it isn’t even accurate to say that you can’t force another person to change, because that’s not true either, as the above examples show.  What is true, however, is that you can’t force positive change on a person.  You can’t force a person to become more loving, for instance, or more trusting.  You can’t make a person become less self-centered, more grateful, more grace-giving.  And when you try, the law of unintended consequences tends to come into effect—that even if you get the behavior you want—and that’s iffy—there’s an underlying attitude of resentment or fear that tends to grow as well so that what you end up with is someone who, for instance, acts more grateful but is also more fearful, and what good is that?
It is true that God changes people, but his means are not coercive but persuasive.  His greatest, most powerful tool is unconditional love, but it’s not the only arrow in his quiver.  God also honors people, respecting their personhood, their made-in-his-image-ness, their own capacity for love and goodness.  And he understands us, understands how much of what we do is driven by fear, insecurity, and the need to be loved and accepted.
And these things—among others at his disposal—are effective in bringing about positive change in people.  And you know what?  What works for God also works for us.  It’s amazing what happens to a child who lives in an atmosphere of unconditional love and understanding that honors their uniqueness as a child of God.  It’s amazing what happens to a wife when her husband loves her unconditionally, honors her as his one and only, and understands her fears and insecurities while loving her all the more.
By doing the last three things on that list:
God loves people; we do too.
God honors people; we do too.
God understands people; we try to.
—we initiate change in a person.  You might say that in actuality they change themselves in response to our actions, and OK, I can go along with that, but that’s the very essence of persuasive love—it acts, and invites a response.  Love initiates, but is never coercive.

But it is very, very powerful.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Last night I was walking through Barnes and Nobles Bookstore when the following title caught my eye:

"Depression for Dummies."

I don't know, that just doesn't seem helpful at all.

Nice Young Man

Yesterday I was just past the halfway point of a 5 mile run when all of a sudden some young dude in his twenties blows by me on my right shoulder.  I didn't even know he was back there, and he passed me like I was walking.  So I said with a grin, "Hey, way to make me look bad!"

He turned back and said, "I'm just going a short distance today."

Sure.  Short distance for him was probably, you know, 5 miles!

But as he rapidly became a speck in the distance, I thought to myself, "What a nice young man, trying to make the old fart feel better."

Then I labored home and iced my knee.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


(Note: I write an article each week that gets published in my church bulletin, and I usually post those articles here, making some changes to make them appropriate to the blog format and the fact that they get posted online before anyone reads them on Sunday.  This one is an Easter post, and so I'm going to post it as written.  To change it to a pre-Easter, non-bulletin post would significantly alter the whole thing.  Either that or I'm just too lazy to do anymore editing.)

I recently bought a book—and by recently, I mean just now, as in a minute ago, while sitting at my desk, and it was delivered wirelessly and I’ve already read the Introduction, because, well, doesn’t everybody read the Introduction to books, but the point is that I shouldn’t be reading the Introduction because I’m supposed to be writing this article so Erin can get the bulletin printed—no, actually the point is that this new electronic book thing is really cool!
Um, what was I talking about?
Oh yeah, I recently bought a book by a guy, John Shore, who after spending 38 years of his life as an atheist became a Christian.  Since he was a writer, the first thing he did was write a book to non-Christians dealing with all the objections he had previously had to Christianity and how he overcame them.  But that’s not the book I bought; it’s his second book that caught my interest.  His second book took the opposite approach  to his first: instead of explaining Christians to non-Christians, his second book sought to explain how non-Christians view Christians, hoping that Christians would learn to be, if not more effective in their evangelism efforts, at least less offensive in their evangelism efforts.
Less offensive would seem to be more effective if we’re trying to convince someone to change their whole life. 
Now, Shore isn’t talking about the kind of offensive we’ve seen recently where a minister publicly burns the Koran or where a church (really, just a family) protests outside the funerals of fallen soldiers.  Any sane person is offended by these actions, and Christians in particular ought to be offended by people who take on the name of the one who commanded us to love our neighbors, including our enemies.
No, Shore is talking about the subtle put-downs and perhaps not-so-subtle attitude of superiority that Christians unknowingly and inadvertently send in our evangelistic messages.  Hence his title: I’m OK—You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Non-Believers, and Why We Should Stop.  Now, I had to stop reading after the Introduction to, you know, write this article—Erin is a cruel and heartless taskmaster—so I can’t speak about what Shore says in the rest of the book, but the title says enough, doesn’t it?  And while we may think or hope that we aren’t really sending that message, we probably ought to take his word for it.  After all, he knows what it’s like to be a non-believer, and he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of evangelistic efforts.  What do I know?  I’ve never been a non-believer, and I gently yet firmly shoo Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses away from my front door, along with those young people who try to get me to buy magazine subscriptions so they can travel Europe.  (Although they are the friendliest, most personable people I’ve ever met—the magazine sellers, not the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.)  And I’m sure that, as a self-proclaimed atheist he received a lot of attention from personal-evangelism types.  Especially the really dedicated (i.e. aggressive) ones, for whom the word “atheist” is code for “fresh meat.”
I bring this up—and by now you are surely wondering if there is a point in all this—because this is Easter.  It’s Resurrection Day, which is three days after Good Friday, a name which is as full of irony as any.  Another name for Good Friday is The-Day-We-All-Were-So-Screwed-Up-That-We-Nailed-God-To-A-Cross-And-Watched-Him-Die Day.  Good Friday is pithier so we go with that, but that’s what it means.
The message of the cross is that, while none of us are completely and irredeemably evil, all of us are pretty screwed up. 
None of us are really OK.
But all of us are worth dying for.
None of us, not even Christians, are really OK.  Being saved doesn’t make us OK, it just means that we look our not-OK-ness in the eye and stop making excuses.  I mean, that’s one of the things we are saved from, the need to make excuses, to try to convince others and ourselves that we’re really not that screwed up.  If you have a lot of excuses, you really don’t need a savior.  When you have a savior, you no longer need excuses.  You are able to face reality, which is always the first step toward true healing.  (Step 1 in AA: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”)  We are saved from the tiring effort of having to constantly create and maintain a separate unreality.
But all of us, including non-Christians, are worth dying for.  And that’s because all of us, including non-Christians, are created in the image and likeness of God.  We’re his children, and he doesn’t love any of his children any more than the others.  Even the really rebellious ones.  There’s a soft spot in his heart for them.  He sweeps the entire floor looking for the one lost coin, he leaves the 99 sheep to go looking for the 1 wanderer, and he casts an anxious if hopeful eye down the end of the lane waiting for the inheritance-squandering son to come home.
If the message of the cross is “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but we’re all worth dying for,” then the message of Easter is “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but it’s OK.  Our Father has taken care of it.  And all that is left is to just come home.  Oh, and stop fighting with your brother.”1 

11st Commandment: Love God; 2nd Commandment: Love Others.  These summarize the entire message; cf. Matt. 22:37-40.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Not Seeing What You Don't Expect

I think most Christians assume that when Jesus returns as promised that they are going to recognize him, but I wonder. 
I’m sure a lot of that assumption comes from the statement that the return of the Lord will be heralded by the sound of a trumpet, which will alert us that something pretty spectacular is happening.  But his first advent was heralded by signs in the sky, wise men from the east, miraculous healings and feedings, water-walkings, storm-stillings, and the resurrection of a friend, and still people didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, so it makes me wonder what effect a trumpet call is going to have.  I’m guessing that a lot of people are going to say, “Hey, what’s that noise?” and then go about their business.
Palm Sunday marks the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, an event that has come to be called the Triumphal Entry, a term that is not found in the Bible.  It is a term that can only make sense on this side of the Resurrection; on the day it occurred it was a tragic and ironic case of mistaken identity.  The people of Jerusalem were hailing Jesus the way you would a conquering hero, one who had (or would) vanquish a foe by achieving military victories.  This is what they expected, and so this is what they saw, and what they saw was wrong.  Jesus planned to confront the Romans, but he was going to win by allowing himself to be crucified.  It was a strategy no one would have advocated or anticipated.  No one recognized its genius, and therefore no one recognized the genius who crafted the strategy.
This is evident by the crowd’s reaction after Jesus had been arrested and put on trial.  No conquering hero allows himself to be arrested without so much as a fight, ordering his followers to sheath the swords, so the people turned on him.  When Pilate offered to set him free, having found him to be no threat to Rome as he was accused of being, the people shouted that they wanted Barabbas, a known revolutionary who was under arrest for having committed murder in the course of rebelling against Rome.  The people knew exactly who Barabbas was and what he had tried to do, and he was exactly what they wanted—someone who would kill Romans. 
Pilate is an interesting case.  He examined Jesus, questioned him thoroughly, and concluded that Jesus was no threat to Rome, and in that he was exactly wrong.  No one who traveled the countryside talking about the Kingdom of God could have been considered a friend of the Kingdom of Rome.  Pilate’s mistake was two-fold.  First, he didn’t understand that the Kingdom of God was a real kingdom that would replace all earthly kingdoms, including that of Rome.  (Modern Christians do the same thing when they over-spiritualize the Kingdom of God, making it synonymous with heaven or considering it to be an earthly variation limited to a literal thousand-year period followed by a spiritual, heavenly kingdom that would be ongoing and eternal.)  Second, Pilate failed to recognize how dangerous a king without a sword or an army is.  All he cared about was whether Jesus either had an army or was trying to gather one in order to throw the Romans out of Israel.  He assumed that was the only way that Rome could be defeated, and since Jesus specifically disavowed the use of force, Pilate dismissed him as no threat.  But Jesus was very much a threat to Rome and any other kingdom that would use cruelty and violence to oppress and subjugate people.  Pilate assumed that a man who would go silently to his scourging and crucifixion was no threat, yet the cross proved to be Jesus’ most powerful weapon.
Some still have not learned this lesson—even some Christians.
Yes, even followers of Jesus fail to recognize him.  Perhaps the most famous such incident occurred to two of his followers on the day of his resurrection.  They were defeated and distraught over his death, and bewildered by reports that his tomb was empty and some had reported seeing Jesus alive again.  As they were traveling to Emmaus, Jesus came to them and asked what they were talking about, and these two people did not recognize him, even while he walked and spoke with them, interpreting the scriptures to help them see that it was necessary for the messiah to suffer.  Actually, one might call it a reinterpreting, for prior to Jesus no one really read the scriptures that way.  The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah were always taken to refer to the entire nation of Israel, not to the messiah.  It took Jesus to help them reinterpret these passages and see them in a new light.  It was the way they should have been seen all along, but weren’t, and consequently no one recognized the messiah when he finally showed up.
So I guess whether you recognized him depended on what you were expecting to see, and I’m guessing that holds true today.  If we’re expecting Jesus to return wielding a sword in his hand, ready to kill all who oppose him, then we probably won’t recognize him when he comes and the sword he wields is the word of Truth (cf. Revelation 19:15) which conquers nations not by killing their soldiers but by converting their minds and hearts (Romans 12:1-3), much like Saul was “slain” on the Damascus Road when confronted with a new and undeniable reality that contradicted everything he knew to be true.
Ultimately, when you conquer the hearts and minds of nations and their leaders, you conquer their armies.  That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God.  The people of Jerusalem didn’t see it, nor did Pilate, and they failed to recognize the true power that Jesus had.  After the resurrection, his disciples recognized it, and they put away their swords, every one of them.  They too were killed for their faith in Jesus and his Kingdom.  And the more they died, the more converts they won.
The more we recognize this, the more likely we’ll be able to recognize Jesus when we see him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Austin in Japan

Alpha Company of CBIRF (Chemical Biological Incident Response Force)--Austin's unit and company--has been in Japan since April 3rd to be available should they be needed to help with the nuclear incident over there.  Here's a video of their arrival, and though it's dark and grainy, if you know what he looks like and know his gait you might be able to pick him out. (I think he's the third person getting on the bus in the first bus-loading scene.)

This is from an Air Force news release:

"4/8/2011 - Pacific Air Forces -- A C-5 Galaxy transported Marines and their equipment from the Initial Response Force to Yokota Air Base on April 3. The Chemical Biological Incident Response Force is a 155-person team comprised of Marines from Naval Support Facility, Indian Head, Md. As a smaller element of the chemical, biological, and incident response force, the CBIRF is specifically trained in the areas of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosion operations. The IRF will support Operation Tomodachi by providing a rapid response capability, and if requested, can assist and advise Japanese authorities."

Here's a YouTube video of them demonstrating their capabilities to the Japanese.  Austin is the one in the dark gray suit and gas mask:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pulling Punches

This is the time of year when the radical nature of our faith should come to the forefront.  Holy Week begins next week, the time when Christians commemorate the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.  It begins with the ironically named  “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and progresses through his confrontation with the Temple officials when he drove away the money changers and animals from the Courtyard of the Gentiles.  During the Passover meal with the disciples Jesus departs from the very structured script that had been scrupulously (religiously?) observed for hundreds of years and speaks of his body being broken and blood offered, leaving his disciples bewildered.  There’s the betrayal and the arrest, the denial, and the trial.  There’s Jesus’ obstinacy with Pilate, and the crowd’s preference for a zealot’s revolt in their choice of Barabbas over Jesus’ teaching of non-violent resistance.  Finally, there’s the scourging of Jesus followed by his death on a cross.
Jesus was radical throughout his ministry, and this was exciting to the disciples, but with this particular series of events he took his radicalism too far, farther than anyone else was willing to follow.  Though he died between two revolutionaries, he literally died alone.  No one was willing to follow him all the way to the cross; that’s just too radical.
Seems to me that “radical” is a word that doesn’t really allow for qualifiers.  Can a person really be “pretty radical”?  Is there an acceptable level of radical beyond which a person is just plain nuts?  I guess so, but it doesn’t seem right.
I recently picked up a book that other pastors told me I needed to read because it is really radical.  In fact, it says so right on the cover.  The book cover says that it is a call to the Church and to Christians to radically follow a radical Christ.  It’s written by a successful pastor down south who leads a large, successful church in the heart of the Bible Belt.
So I bought the book and started reading it, and was at once heartened and disappointed.  On the one hand, he really was getting to the heart of the agenda of Christ, and had personal stories of encounters in third-world countries where he has gone on numerous mission trips.  And he routinely would take the Church—and his own church—to task for emphasizing comfort in this life and security in the next at the expense of the Bible’s strong and consistent call to address matters of justice worldwide through committed self-sacrifice.
But I was disappointed because, in the church he leads the pursuit of this radical faith was, well, less than radical.  They made some changes, but nothing sweeping; they added some programs, but overall church life pretty much went on as before.  They called on church members to make some adjustments, but nothing too life-altering—read the Bible through in one year, go on a mission trip, pray for the world, give to a cause, and join a small group.  Haven’t we already heard this before?  I know a lot of people who are already doing some of these things, so doing a couple more would be an adjustment, but not a radical change. 
And that was the feeling I got as I read deeper and deeper into the book.  “I’ve read all this before,” I kept thinking to myself.  There’s nothing new here.
I’m purposefully keeping the identity of the author obscure because I’m sure he means well, and I’ve come to the point in my life where I try not to say anything disparaging about another pastor.  I know how hard this is, and I respect anyone who commits their life to this ministry.  So I don’t want anyone to think that I am speaking ill of this man, because I’m not.  I can tell that his heart is right, and that he really realizes how radical following Jesus is supposed to be.  But I could tell that he was pulling his punches, and that was disappointing.  He has a large ministry that he has to support, and it takes lots of money and lots of volunteers to do it, and the whole thing would crumble if he alienated too many people.  I get it, I really do.  And his publisher is a mainstream Christian publisher whose job, quite frankly, is to sell books, and you can’t sell a lot of books alienating your audience.  (After all, that’s what Jesus did, and look where it got him.)
I also am good friends with someone who was one of the author’s seminary professors, although I didn’t know that when I expressed my disappointment in the book to him.  But he agreed with everything I just said, that the author really does have a good heart but he’s pulling his punches because of the demands of a large church and the needs of the publisher.
And I’m not in any position to be critical of him, for I make no claim to live as radically as Jesus did.  It would be laughable for me to take a position of superiority.  That’s why I couldn’t and wouldn’t have written that book, or rather why I couldn’t and wouldn’t write the book I wish he had written.  Because if you are going to write a book about living a radical life for Jesus, your life better back it up 100%.
There is an author whose name I will mention.  It’s Shane Claiborne, who has written such books as The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals.  These are books that will make you say, “Whoa, I’m not sure I could do that”—which is what a book with the word “radical” ought to make you say, right?  It should challenge you, not to make tweaks in your life (or in the church programs) but confront you with the need to live a transformed life on the inside and a transformed lifestyle on the outside.  And the thing is, Claiborne backs it up—he lives that life.
Not long ago someone mentioned to me that she was going to have dinner with Shane Claiborne.  I was pretty impressed and wondered how she pulled that off.  Seems Claiborne was coming to speak at a friend’s church and he insists on staying at church member’s homes, so he was staying at her friend’s house and she was invited over for dinner.  Why should the church pay for him to stay at nice hotels and eat at nice restaurants when that money can be used for poor people?  Of course, I thought.
Jesus didn’t die to tweak our lives.  He wants something more radical than that.