Flaky, But Faithful

For the past couple of weeks, snow has covered our yards so you will not be surprised if I talk about “snowflakes.”  How about the story of a man who named the snowflake?

Wilson Alwyn Bentley lived in Vermont and was fascinated by snow.  He found a way to put snowflakes on black velvet and photograph them, testing the hypothesis that no two are exactly the same.  He photographed and published more than 5,000 individual snowflakes, and was given a nickname — “Snowflake.”

Bentley, who lived from 1865 to 1931, examined snowflakes under a microscope and discovered they were all miracles of beauty.  “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no one design was ever repeated,” he wrote. 

He is not the only person who should be given the nickname “Snowflake.”  We all should.  Each of us is a miracle of beauty, a masterpiece of design, and no one design is ever repeated. 

Are we irregular?  Of course!  All kindsof irregularities — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, you name it.  We are irregular human beings but still miracles of beauty, shaped in uniqueness by a loving and creative Creator. 

Psalm 27 begins with the words, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  If we are, in fact, God’s snowflakes — precious, unique and transient — then we need a Lord to sustain us.  Otherwise, we are going to melt, disappear and be lost forever. 

Bible scholar J. Clinton McCann points out how these words challenge us to make a choice between faith and fear.  Either we make the faith choice, seeing God as “my light and my salvation,” or we make the fear choice, looking for the answer to the question, “whom shall I fear?”

We do not have to go far to find something to fear.  We know we are vulnerable to physical illnesses, emotional distresses, relational breakdowns, economic stresses and spiritual crises.  Sometimes we feel as delicate and transient as snowflakes.  But if we make the faith choice, our future looks different.  We are not so vulnerable if we put our trust in God to sustain us.

In 1988, two identical snowflakes were discovered and photographed, disproving the hypothesis that no two are exactly the same.  Poor “Snowflake” Bentley would have been disappointed. 

But human beings can still be miracles and masterpieces while having important things in common — particularly our shared need for God’s presence and power.  We can hold onto our individual identities and distinctive characteristics while working together to choose faith over fear.  And there is nothing flaky about that!


Knowing Is Simply Not Enough

January is the month of hopes and dreams.  It comes from “Janus” who was an ancient Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, and usually represented by one head with two bearded faces back to back, looking in opposite directions.

For faith people with new beginnings, it is always important we know in what direction we are going.  For a church, that means correctly understanding availability and appropriation. 

In his book, Overhearing the Gospel, Fred Craddock points out, “Knowledge about ethical concepts does not make one ethical.  Burghardt DuBois, the great black educator, sociologist, and historian, upon completion of studies at Fisk, Harvard and University of Berlin, was convinced that change in the condition of the American black could be effected by careful scientific investigations into the truth about the black in America.

“So he proceeded.  His research was flawless and his graphs and charts impeccable.  After waiting several years and hearing not the slightest stir of reform, Dr. DuBois had to accept the truth about the Truth:  Its being available does not mean it will be appropriated.”

Good words for a new year.  It is not enough that we know Christ died for us and, through His resurrection, provided a way for eternal life.  It is not enough that we know about the abundant life that is possible through a daily walk with Christ.  No, knowing all of that is simply not enough.  That is called availability and what must follow is appropriation.

Appropriation is when we do something with that knowledge. Appropriation is when we make that information available to family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances that intersect our lives.  Appropriation is what happens when we realize that the Gospel always has two faces—the face of God as He searches for us and the face of God as He is revealed through us to others.  It was always meant to be that way.

So, may 2013 be the year that WE more clearly and dearly appropriate all that God through Christ has done and is doing for us.  Thanks be to God!

Evil, Tragedy and God


It’s back again.  The “it” I am talking about is the tragedy and suffering question—why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?  The tragedy of December 14, 2012 will live in all of us for quite a while because it questioned both God’s love and His power.

So, from my daily devotional writer, Jim Denison, I want to use his thoughts and my experience to help all of us with this issue of the “evil, tragedy and God.”  Let’s break it down into “bite-size” pieces. 

Foundational to all that we will say, please realize that the “why” question is not one the Bible shies away from as we see in the life of Habakkuk.  He complained to God about the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians:  “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”  (Habbakuk 1: 3)  Jesus even cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27: 46).        

We who follow Christ are especially susceptible to this issue because we believe three seemingly contradictory facts to be equally true:

·      God is all-loving.

·      God is all-powerful.

·      Evil exists.

And for people who deny God, the easiest way to do this is to minimize one of these three conditions.        

First, regarding the love of God, many today view life as random coincidence and that if there is a “God” he has little interest in us.  He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.        

Second, regarding the power of God, it is popular to see God and Satan, good and evil locked in a battle for supremacy.  Very popular a few years ago, the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.        

Third, regarding the existence of evil, the worldviews are all over the map.  Hindu tradition views evil as an illusion.  Ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world to be escaped through ascetic discipline or philosophical reflection.  The Buddhist treats evil as the product of wrong desires.  Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices.        

But as you might expect, none of these satisfy the deepest part of us.  Christians, sensing more, have wrestled throughout the history of our faith and have developed five basic approaches to the question of suffering and evil:

The spiritual warfare model … identifies that Satan is real and much of the pain and suffering in our world is attributable to his malignant work.  However, not all suffering is a direct result of Satan’s plan.  Our ability to make choices and counter what Satan is doing will in fact bring some level of pain and suffering.

The free-will model … is usually based on the following assumptions:  God created everything and he created it good.  Before the fall, evil was present but not yet reality, at least from our ability to choose it for ourselves.  God then created humans with freedom of will and we have used this freedom to bring evil into existence, which absolves God of the blame.

The soul-building model … believes that God can redeem any suffering and pain for God’s glory and our good.  The weakness of this view revolves around the existence of Hell, since it is not a soul-building or redemptive reality. 

The eschatological (big word meaning “future”) model … asserts that evil will be resolved in the future, making present suffering endurable and worthwhile.  This view does not solve how the promise of future hope makes present courage possible.

The existential model . . . is more practical than theoretical.  It says that God suffers as we suffer and gives us strength to withstand and even redeem our pain.  But it offers no real explanation for the origin or existence of suffering.

So, how can we “apply” all this information to our world of suffering? 

First, utilize the “free-will” approach to examine the origin of suffering.  Is there sin involved?  Is this pain due to the result of misused freedom?  Do a spiritual inventory but do not assume that suffering is always your fault.

Second, use the “soul-building” approach to ask—what can I learn from this situation?  Strive to be open to every source of spiritual source.  Stay close enough to Jesus so that you can hear his voice and feel his touch.

Third, use the “future hope” approach to ask—how can God redeem this present suffering for future good?  We may not be able to see the future, but we can believe that is real and that God is IN it working for our good.

Finally, utilize the “existential” approach to trust God’s help in the midst of our pain.  Nothing can take you from his hand (John 10:28).      

So, look at our world with a tear in your eye, knowing that God is still God and then go and live like you believe it.  Someone will notice!

A Christmas Watch: “The Way”

imageChristmas, besides being one of the “holiest” times of the year, is also a time for food, family and fun.  Movies are planned to premier at this time of year recognizing the relaxed schedule.  If you go to a movie, you must see “Lincoln.”  I will write about it in another article, but outside of some language, you will be thrilled and inspired by Steven Spielberg’s view of our 16th president. 

However, if you want to stay home and avoid the crowds, here is my suggestion.  Rent the film, The Way.  As preparation, allow me to offer a historical overview.

The Camino De Santiago is a 500-mile footpath that begins in France and ends near Spain’s northwestern corner.  Since the 9th century, when pilgrims first began walking it on their way to view the relics of the Apostle James, it has become one of the world’s great spiritual destinations.  By the 14th century, as many as 25% of all Europeans had walked the Camino.  Even today, over 200,000 hikers complete the pilgrimage every year.

The 2011 film, The Way, takes place along this famous footpath.  It is the story of Tom, an American doctor (Martin Sheen), who makes the journey after his adult son Daniel dies while attempting it.  The two of them had parted on bad terms; Tom felt his son was wasting his time, and his life, undertaking the pilgrimage.  After the death, he feels compelled to bring Daniel’s ashes with him to Spain, and honor his son’s memory by completing his journey.

Along the way, he is acquainted with three misfits, each with his or her own story.  Like all human stories, they are a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

The movie is not so much about the place as it is the journey.  And so it is with life … as is so carefully portrayed in the Christmas journey.  Pursue as we will the events of Bethlehem, ultimately and intimately, it is not about the place but the journey it reveals. 

 Christ makes the journey to earth to show us the journey to heaven and only then do we realize, heaven is not simply a place we are striving to go, but a journey we are privileged to live.  Remember, the Christ child became the Christ man and said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14: 6).  Thanks be to God!

Difficult Questions About One of My Heroes

I do my best to stay out of politics, but in my journey to be an “astute” observer of life and religion, politics often whack me “up-side-the-head.”  Such was the case when I saw a full-page ad in the Sunday newspaper from one of my heroes, Billy Graham.  Then I read an article by Adelle Banks, an award-winning writer for the Religion News Service.  Her article raises some questions I want you to think and pray about as you try, like me, to vote with my head, my heart and my values.

Her article is entitled “Why Is Billy Graham So Involved In the 2012 Election?”  She identifies a recent meeting with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney followed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association scrubbing language from their website describing Mormonism as a “cult.”  Two days later, the ministry announced a “vote biblical values” campaign, with Graham’s photo and signature accompanying a statement opposing abortion and supporting traditional marriage. 

Her question is a valid one:  why is the famed evangelist, who has said he learned hard lessons about being too political, getting involved in 2012 elections?  Some suspect it is due to Franklin Graham, his son and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  “If not a new turn, he’s further down the road, with expressing a preference for a candidate,” said William Martin, author of A Prophet With Honor, a 1992 biography of Billy Graham.  “I’m reasonably certain that he’s not done this before.”

Martin goes on to say that while Graham has met with every president since Harry Truman, he is coy about those relationships.  Graham’s grandson, Reverend Tullian Tchividjian, remembers his grandfather feeling the fallout of his close friendship and support for President Richard Nixon, which led to a divine warning that he was primarily a preacher and not a politician.

So, my questions are as follows:

How do you feel about religious icon, Billy Graham, weighing in on the election?  Before you answer that, recognize that law mandate “preachers” NOT to endorse political candidates or our churches/organizations could lose their tax-exempt status.  Also, is your answer to this question based less on your agreement with Billy Graham than your agreement with your particular political candidate, in other words, since his statements favor your political candidate, you will agree with him or since his statements don’t favor your political candidate will you disagree with him?

Is it more important to vote for someone who is not a “Christian” (by definition, Mormonism is a cult) but supports your view about marriage or abortion or is it more important to vote for someone who is a “Christian” (our president says he is a Christian) but does not support your view of marriage or abortion, however, they do support Christ’s mandate to feed the poor?

Is your head exploding yet?  Mine often is when I try to process my head, my heart and my values.  Please think and pray about these and all of the other issues facing our nation at this time of the year and speak kindly and honestly to all those who disagree with you.

Something the Candidates Can Finally Agree On?

What do the two candidates running for president have in common?  Really.  If you watch the candidates from a “fair, non-snarky” point of view they are both a bit “aloof” and from someone who has been accused of the same, I do not necessarily think that is a bad thing.  Add to that, I found someone who agrees with me.  Evan Thomas, in an article from Time magazine, “The Upside of Mystery” makes an excellent observation.

Having written a book on former President Eisenhower, he concludes that Ike would have disliked just about every aspect of the 2012 presidential election:  “He would not have understood why candidates’ wives should give speeches to humanize their husbands or why presidential aspirants should disclose much of anything about their faith or private lives.” 

Yet, the more he analyzes the two candidates, the conclusion is clear:  “Romney can come off as plastic, Obama as aloof; they are both deeply private men who would have been more comfortable as politicians in an earlier, more buttoned-up time.” 

Fact is, both men are more naturally inward and it is worth noting that the most important decisions a President makes are lonely ones.  

Honestly, isn’t that the case for all of us who believe deeply in spiritual relationships?  Isn’t that the case for those of us who recognize life is lived from the inside out?  Isn’t that the case for those of us who think and listen and pray before we speak? 

Wherever you are today, I hope you will be reminded, as I was this week, faith in God is about listening.  Worship is about being present to your surroundings so you can create the space necessary to ease the world out and soak the Lord in. 

James 1:19 says it best:  “Let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”  No, inward isn’t all bad, especially when you are listening to God!

A Tale of Lost Limbs and Found Lives

This is a tale of a marine and an orphan, born over 5000 miles from each other, who find each other because of what they have lost. 

Oksana Alexandrovna Boudarchuk is born in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine on June 19, 1989 with 6 toes, 5 webbed fingers on each hand, and no thumbs, a condition called tibial hemimelia.”  Her leftleg is 6 inches shorter than the other and both legs are missing weight-bearing bones.  Her parents go “missing in action” and she begins a lonely and catastrophic journey through revolving orphanages where she is beaten and raped with regularity.

Rob Jones grows up on a 200-acre farm in Lovettsville, Virginia where his small stature brings alarm to his parents.  After his doctor’s clearance to play sports, he does so until the 10th grade when he decides to escape into the world of computer games and entertains the possibility of becoming a video-game developer.

A single woman and speech pathology professor, Gay Master from Buffalo, New York, begins her search for a newborn baby to adopt, until someone shows her a picture of Oksana and she declares, “That’s my child.”  Only after persevering the 2-year ban on Ukrainian adoptions does her dream come true.  A late night in January of 1997, Gay finds Oksana wrapped in a sweater in a freezing building.  When she wakes up she says in Ukrainian, “I know who you are.  You’re my mother.  I have a picture.” 

Fast-forward to Rob’s junior year at Virginia Tech University and you find him making the decision that will change his life forever.  He signs up for the Marines with no real clear reason:  “I realized that there are things out there that are more important than me.”  Despite no strong political or moral reasons, “or even the ‘why’ of his country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he just wanted to live through the what of them.” 

Oksana and Gay move to Louisville, Kentucky in 2001 and it feels like an avalanche of change for the budding teenager.  A surgery to remove the leg above the knee followed by therapy and prosthetic legs stretch the boundaries for this painfully self-aware 12-year old.  At age 13 and before her second amputation, she learns the “privacy” of rowing.  As she attacked the water, “the central theme of her early life was inverted.  She could be as violent as she wanted, while everything around her stayed serene.”

Rob enlists in January of 2008 and goes to Iraq as a lance corporal specializing in IED (improvised explosive device) detection.  His tour of duty ends in August of that same year, but in April of 2010 he is deployed to Afghanistan.  One day in July while clearing the area after a blasting cap explodes, an IED blows his legs off.  In his shock and disorientation, he asks a fellow marine to kill him.  After a morphine injection, he flies to his base and then Germany before finally landing back in the states at Bethesda Naval Hospital 3 days later.  By then, he has changed his mind about ending his life.

I discover what brings this marine and orphan together when I read their amazing story in a Sports Illustrated article by Michael Rosenbergat the end of August.  They are training for the Paralympics in London in the mixed double sculls, where I later discover they win a bronze medal, the first U.S. medal ever in this event. 

What brings them together is their loss … their loss of limbs and heightened awareness of life’s fragile nature.   Both remember moments of life ending and then suddenly beginning again.

What brings them together is their pain … the pain of their past and the ongoing “phantom” pain of their present.  Both speak to the moments when bursts of pain come to the legs they no longer have. 

What now sends them on their way is the belief that they will not waste a single day of their life.  And neither should you!  

God Redeems All He Allows!

I remember these words every time tragedy stikes:  “these tragedies have taken away our ability to find words with enough power or pain to express our experience.”  Well, I am going to try. 

C. S. Lewis’ words have never been truer:  “God whispers in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”  I suspect this says more about us than it does about God.  I think that God is always ready to speak, but we tend not to listen until our pain threshold renders us utterly helpless and hopelessly needy.  Right now, we are both.  

Let me be clear.  I am not one who believes that God had any part in the planning and scheming of the Colorado killer.  I know those who differ in a weird sort of way.  They quote Old Testament passages and they say “God needed to get our attention to turn us back to Him!”  

Let me be even clearer.  While I do believe that God “allowed” (due to the fact that He is God and did have the power to stop it), I do not believe He “caused,” conspired or otherwise was partner to the devastation of lives last week.  Clear and simple, in the early minutes of Friday morning, July 20, 2012, Aurora, Colorado had an encounter with evil. 

So, what do you do when you have an encounter with evil?  Well, Jesus had some experience with that and he said three clear things:  you don’t live by bread alone, you should worship only God, and you should not put God to a test.  (Luke 4: 1-13)  Not a bad thing to remember this week as we make your way through the grief and numbness of evil’s sucker punch.  

Mark it well my friends, evil will not win.  Even with the ongoing concerns with those suffering with injuries, every day is a front-page announcement to the good that can and will come from the sacrifice of people who choose hope over fear, unity over disarray and faith over fate.  Can those of this killer’s bullets be counted among those who took evil’s best shot and lived and loved their way through it.  The apostle Paul explained how this could happen when he said,  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”  (Philippians 4: 13) 

Yes, evil struck again and we do not know why God allowed it, but as my friend, Jim Denison, says regularly, “God redeems all he allows, even the horrific misuse of freedom he gave us so we could love him and each other! (Matthew 22:37-37)”

Finding Sadness and Gladness

I recently read two stories that bring me sadness and gladness:  one about the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention and their attempt to “get the fires” of evangelical fervor burning and then one about the devastating wildfires looming over Colorado Springs. 

Sadly, the first story was more of a “simmering out” of the once proud (maybe that was the problem) Southern Baptist Convention I cut my theological teeth on and is not the real emphasis of this writing today, but it makes me sad. 

The other story is one that provides an odd backdrop to my denominational convention and it makes me glad.  It is the story of 5,000 women In Colorado Springs lifting their voices in praise and worship to God at a Living Proof Live conference featuring Bible teacher Beth Moore. 

As most are aware, fires have devastated nearly 18,000 acres in the Waldo Canyon area of Colorado Springs, burning 100s of homes and forcing the evacuation of 32,000 people.  Auuthor and Bible teacher Moore said, “There was no doubt that this is where we needed to be this very weekend.”

It is important to realize that Living Proof live events are sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention which is the backdrop for both my sadness and gladness.

In a subdued beginning to the conference, Moore set the tone by saying, “Pain, peril and threat put us in a posture to listen [to God] like nothing else.”  She then asked women who had been evacuated or lost their homes entirely to stand and allow others to pray for them.  Moore prayed for the 65 women and led the attendees in a reverent responsive reading.

Moore debated whether she should change her material because of the emotional weight the fires brought to the Colorado Springs community but concluded her message was applicable.

“Sometimes we need a new start, but what we need more often is a good finish,” Moore said, directing attendees to Acts 20:24 as her focal passage.  “You and I live in a culture of a million starts and a handful of finishes. We need the strength and presence of mind to finish well.” 

Colorado Springs resident Danielle McIntire said the local wildfires “are the worst thing we’ve ever had to deal with, and it has been truly frightening. But this event is exactly what we needed. Beth has reminded us to look at this through God’s eyes and give our burdens to Him.”

“So many have lost everything they have and feel like it’s the end,” McIntire said. “So what a perfect topic for us — God’s not done. It’s not the end.”

Worship leader Travis Cottrell announced Friday night that 100 percent of a special offering taken would be directed to relief efforts in Colorado Springs.

Cottrell added — to applause — that Moore’s Living Proof Ministries would match the offering dollar-for-dollar.  “Let’s shake the earth with our giving spirits,” he said.  Attendees gave $85,591, for a total offering of $171,182 contributed to relief efforts in the surrounding communities. 

Wonderful you say.  Yes it is.  But do you not find it sadly interesting that Beth Moore is a woman and a phenomenal Bible teacher that serves in a denomination whose recent statements about women would not allow her to teach a Bible Study class in many of that denomination’s churches let alone be a pastor?  Also note, her Bible teaching, books and conferences make millions of dollars for LifeWay Christian Resources of our convention and I, for one, suspect that is one of the reasons our denomination is in decline.  And please know, I find no gladness in this.

The Spiritual Stuff of Spider-Man

I was not naturally drawn to comic books as a child.  My brother, Buddy, was a different story.  I still see him buried in the pages, one hand behind his head, a single finger twirling his hair in circles. 

Eventually, I came around.  I read anything he read, but it was Spider-Man who settled into my imagination.  While my admiration remained dormant through the years, I am drawn to the debut of yet another rendition of Spider-Man on the big screen.  Perhaps a history lesson will help the uninitiated. 

Peter Parker is a high school student bitten by a radioactive spider resulting in super strength along with the ability to stick to walls and ceilings.  He invents a device enabling him to shoot webs and swing high above the city streets.  He wears a Spider-Man costume and fights criminals, including super-villains Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. 

A compelling and misunderstood character, Peter is persecuted by the community he tries to protect.  Uncertain if Spider-Man is a vigilante or a criminal, the city leaders become suspicious and the local newspaper launch a campaign against the “Spider-Man menace.” 

Part superpower, part awkward teen teased by his peers, we watch Peter grow up from high school student to college student to married teacher to single, freelance photographer.  His story, told in a myriad of ways through the years, will be re-introduced this week in a new movie which takes us back to Peter Parker’s high school days and the “untold story.”  (I saw it on July 4th with my friend Dennis Wainright.) 

You will not be surprised when I make simple reflections of the spiritual similarities between Peter Parker/Spider Man and Jesus.  The first one is all too obvious. 

Like Spider-Man, Jesus is always being attacked for doing good.  His identity with the downtrodden and ritually unclean cast him in a negative light with the status quo.  Misunderstanding will be constant companions of those seeking to feed the poor and heal the sick. 

Like Spider-Man, Jesus reminds us of what we can achieve. We can be insecure, awkward and still accomplish incredible things.  While none of us is God, we can all participate in good and Godly activities.  The Spider-Man story reminds us that we can overcome our human faults, fears, handicaps and uncertainties.  We can be ALL we were created to be and that is always more than we think and believe.

 Like Spider-Man, Jesus reminds us of the power of vocation.  Nearly all superheroes – especially at the beginning of their careers – grapple with how they can best use their unique talents.  In the case of Spider-Man, the proverb, “With great power comes great responsibility” rings with authority.   

Superheroes aside, God has given us the power to live good lives even when attacked for doing so because we incessantly believe we can be someone who has the power to make a difference with what we do.  May we do so!