2 Perspectives on Christmas

2 Perspectives on Christmas

The result of living in 2 worlds as I do, often has me confused. When I’m in Europe I feel very much like a European, (whatever that is). When I return to the US, I sometimes wonder if I belong here. Things change a lot. Those changes take place in a relatively short period of time. Our American culture is in constant, frenetic change. That’s why I get confused about where I belong.

Dianne and I were in Europe 6 weeks this fall. We returned home Nov 20th, just in time for Thanksgiving. We assumed when we came back home, we would have Thanksgiving as usual, then do our Christmas shopping. To our surprise, Christmas shopping had been in season through most of the fall already. The result being things were picked over, store shelves starting to look bare. Imagine our dismay at this early attack on Christmas. (The turkey was hardly cold.) I’m old enough to have experienced and remember Christmas only after Thanksgiving.

Adding insult to injury, for me, is the ubiquitous Christmas kitsch in the yards of my neighbors. Now I ask you, what do swans, blow up Santas, palm trees, even pigs have to do with Christmas? I confess I have an attitude to deal with.

My perspective? Our consumerism is driving our behavior and setting the norm for our culture. We’re being swept along in the swift current of consumerism.  I find this repugnant, disgusting. I want something better for our culture, my family and I. I don’t expect to live in a Christian bubble, nor to hold those outside my beliefs to feign an artificial faith. You can’t legislate righteousness. I know Jesus said he was hated and we should expect to be hated too.

So, what will I do? I will make a statement to my neighbors, at least, by erecting a biblical scene of Christmas with life size models of the holy family and an angel to proclaim the good news. I like the sound of that already. I can’t wait for the characters I ordered to arrive so I can set it up. By the way, it took a Christian family who owns a national chain of stores to make these figures of the real Christmas available. I certainly could not find anything of the right Christmas sort otherwise. Isn’t it odd that in secular Europe, you can still find plenty of real Christmas scenes?

My second perspective? One of my bible heroes is Joseph; the earthly father of Jesus. I read again the story of the birth of Jesus from Matthew, chapters 1 & 2. A powerful story of a man of honor, integrity, obedience, love, graciousness, trust, ….and I could go on and on. I have always identified with Joseph. He stands in the background of most manger scenes giving silent approval, in quiet submission to all taking place, willing to accept his lot, his role as human enabler, hovering over the family to protect, create security, encourage and point the way. His prominence to be seen, to be acknowledged, is swallowed up in submission to the greater good of everyone else. He is only important as he gives way to others; only as he allows them to be the focus. Their lives and their future makes him subservient to them. Thus his impact on the family is accomplished only as he submits to his unique calling.

The Word Made Flesh, by  Marcia Carole Gladwish, Original Pencil Drawing

The Word Made Flesh, by Marcia Carole Gladwish, Original Pencil Drawing

It would take a strong man of Godly character to do what God laid on him. I noted 3 times in Matthew, Joseph receives an angel in his dreams to divinely direct the plan of our Sovereign God. Joseph wasn’t an extraordinary man. But he was a man tuned in to God’s voice and willing to suffer for the sake of God’s divine plan and on behalf of his family, and for all of mankind. He’s a super hero in my book.

So what will I do? I am resolved to emulate Joseph,… those qualities I have mentioned. I want all those qualities embedded in my life and characteristic of me, from head to foot. As a committee of one, this is my resolve. As Martin Luther said, “here I stand, I can do no other.”

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The Merits of Journaling

I’ve learned over time, I need to pause, (regularly), reflect, and draw conclusions about the direction I’m going in life. My nature drives me to a kind of “helter-skelter” response to life and ministry. I could easily exist just reacting to life in order to do what I do. I could go through life and seldom give it thought or planning. Yes, the recognition of my tendencies has not come easily. In truth, understanding myself has come over time and through painful experiences.

When my son was killed in September, 1992, my life was hit by a tsunami! It was a tidal wave of overwhelming emotions. Dealing with my pain and the beginnings of a lifetime of grief work, I began to journal…every day. (My wife is a lifetime “journaler.” Dianne had encouraged me for years to do this kind of reflection. I tried several times but found it “unnatural” and never worked at it consistently.)

But, I began to journal, pouring out my heart to God, reaching deep inside myself to grab hold of every emotion and every thought, in order to make sense out of life. I pondered, prayed, I wept, I wrestled with truth, I sought understanding of sin and violence…and much, much more. I found from my earliest days of journaling, liberation in the process of reflection and evaluation of my life. I found an open door to freedom for myself and freedom from myself. This was great personal reward.

Now 20 years later, and nearly 40 books completed, I still journal. (I use journals made in to books, but you can use anything you wish.) Few are the days I do not begin in the morning by reading my bible and journaling…with a cup of coffee on the table beside me. I have a special place at my house where I sit and special pens I use, …(all fountain pens. I really like and collect them. I imagine myself a little like CS Lewis with a fountain pen in my hand. My imagination is the closest I will ever be.)

I now include sermon ideas, responses to scripture, and ponderings of various kinds. Sometimes I write poems, I draw pictures, charts and diagrams. Anything I want to process is included. I started to color code things according to subject so that I can find them easily. I still comb through years of journals to remind myself of things I’ve experienced, or ideas I’ve considered. All these ideas and more are possible.

Journaling is an excellent way to monitor your own life. It’s keeping an accurate record of God at work. When you can’t see the immediate picture you can look back over your own recorded observations and trace his hand in ways you would not remember without it. Jeremiah says to us in Lamentations 3:21-23, “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.” (By the way, without biblical writers who journaled we would not have some portions of scripture. Think of David and the Psalms, for instance.) This grand narrative, (of my life), becomes a way to minister to my progeny and future generations. I want to influence future generations from my grave, a written record of my life is the only way to do so.

Embedded here in my testimony, are the reasons I believe journaling is imperative for a person to mature in Christ, grow as persons, become all God’s wants them to be. My choice of where, when and how I do this is not the only way. Some people use their computer to record all they want to say. The point is, take seriously this “journaling discipline”. I challenge/ encourage you to join me. First, decide how you will do it, then…do it! I guarantee, you will not be disappointed nor find it a waste of time.

PS
Let me know how it goes for you.

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Hearing but not always Listening

Hearing but not always Listening

I know from experience it’s possible to hear someone speak to you but not listen to what’s being said. Many times in my life I have been guilty of hearing but not listening. In casual conversation this could be just an innocuous ignoring what someone says. But not listening can become a major issue when a person chooses to not tune in to the conversation of others. This is especially true when advice, opinions and counsel are being given but the one asking is not listening.

Not listening can be a habit. But, not listening can also be a choice, the choice to ignore what’s being said. To ignore advice and counsel from others who hold a different perspective or who hold a dissenting view can have devastating results. Consider this example from the OT.

King Solomon died. (Now here’s irony for you). The wisest man who ever lived – the richest man of his days – left a legacy of exacting harsh taxation on the people he ruled. When his son Rehoboam ascended the throne, he was approached by a delegation of the people to request leniency of taxation with a promise to serve him all their days. Rehoboam’s response was to ask them for time to consider what they requested, to return to him in 3 days for his answer. In the meantime, Rehoboam inquired of the elders who had served his father, but he chose to follow the counsel of his own peers…”the young men he had grown up with.” (I Kings 12) He took their advice and, “the King didn’t listen to the people.” When they returned to hear from Rehoboam, he stunned them with his intractable refusal to lighten the load choosing instead to increase it even more.
Civil war broke out. The kingdom was divided with 10 tribes in the north, following Jeroboam and 2 tribes in the south, following Rehoboam. Israel in the north never had a Godly king after that. Judah in the south, intermittently, had only a handful of Godly kings. The results of this decision have affected Israel to this day.

There are often unintended consequences for a person who ignores counsel from those who hold a dissenting opinion. When we seek counsel from those we know agree with us, the end result is often disastrous. It seems to me, seeking counsel from people we know will tell us what we want to hear, is to run headlong in to foolishness. Rehoboam, case in point. His refusal to listen engendered revolution. His people were plunged in to chaos.

 Speaking of irony. It was this same wise man, Solomon, who said “A wise man will hear and increase in learning. and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel…”        Proverbs 1:5. To bad he either didn’t teach this to his son Rehoboam, or Rehoboam refused to learn it. With an attitude like his, I suspect Solomon tried to teach him, but the son heard and never listened.

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What Slogans Tell Us, (About Ourselves)

 

What Slogans Tell Us, (About Ourselves)

 

 

I love a good phrase. A well-constructed thought, carefully but succinctly stated, is a beautiful thing. I try to do it a lot, but seldom ever come up with one of those pithy statements myself, …the kind others quote. Yet my predisposition to find them causes me to notice them.

Traveling in Europe, moving in and out of 10 countries on my spring ministry trip, I found quite a few fascinating and intriguing phrases. Advertising phrases are to be found on bill- boards, signs, posters, even t-shirts. On a t-shirt in the airport last night I saw this slogan, “In the darkness I find myself.” That caused me to ponder. A poster said, “You have no past, only a future.” Wow. Think about those statements. I only know who I am in secret, in the dark? I have no past thus am not responsible for anything I have done? I don’t think so!

Poignancy is one thing, but humanistic philosophies are another. Pondering why someone would wear such items on their clothing I assume they either don’t know what they are wearing, (never giving it any thought), or they are truly espousing that philosophy. Either way I’m troubled as I contemplate this person and why they are wearing such things.

I remember when I lived in Europe, an auto company marketed their cars in Germany with this slogan, “Der Weg ist Das Ziel.” Translated, that means “the way is the destination.” In other words, where you are going is of little interest as long as you are going in our auto, because our auto is so much fun, gives you so much pleasure, it doesn’t really matter where you’re going. Just do it and you’ll be glad you did. This hedonistic perspective highlights much of our western way of thinking, Americans and Europeans alike. It’s an emphasis on the temporary, self- rewarding, be good to yourself attitude we espouse.

Hard for me to imagine Jesus having the disciples pass out t-shirts after he taught them in the Sermon on the Mount.  Can you see this, Jesus, the disciples and the crowd sitting on the hillside in Galilee, when the disciples pass through the crowd dispensing free t-shirts saying things like, “Come to Jesus and be filled.” Or, “Come to Jesus and get fed, new life and great bread.” And many such sayings.

It seems to me Jesus cut to the quick of this attitude as he taught us in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matt 6:33. “ But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

 

The difference between the idea of temporary satisfaction and eternal values is significant. What we pursue in life should be commensurate with what we say we believe.

With tongue in cheek I say, if you have to wear a t-shirt, wear it inside out.  🙂

 

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The Church Under (Re-)Construction

I sense the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in the world in his church. Not unlike the first century church in Acts where Luke demonstrates the acts of the Holy Spirit to stir his church to go to the world with the gospel. We are still living in “Acts 29” days.

Because the world is changing there must of necessity be a new iteration of the church. Global mass communication, ease of travel, and interdependent economic systems coincide to make this new iteration possible, even imperative. The convergence of these world conditions, the hunger in the heart left in the wake of the modern’s approach to church with its heavy emphasis on personal fulfillment, creates the driving force for the church worldwide to experience God in a new way.

There are some, such as Christian Schwarz in Germany, who interpret church history as having 2 Reformations with yet a new one in our times. The first is recognized under the great men of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. The Pietistic movement followed to give more attention to the personal spiritual dimension intended by the first but not fully realized. There is today a 3rd Reformation, one of a reforming of church structures.  We are being pulled back to a time that embraces the early church fathers and recasts the outcome of what church looks like, how it functions, especially in its form of worship. The modern form of church, even of church buildings and physical structures is undergoing change. The arts also, are being re-embraced after centuries of estrangement and exile after the first reformers unwittingly enacted what we might call a form of ecclesiastical pogroms. The unintended consequences of the actions of the earlier Reformers resulted in an anorexic church almost devoid of artistic expressions of worship. Happily today, artists and their artistic expressions as aids to worship are slowly gaining welcome in the church. There is a hunger and cry from the spirit of man for freedom of expression. Freedom to be who God created them to be and allowed to express themselves to God in the way he formed them.

This re-structuring is taking place worldwide. I’ve seen new forms of life emerging, much like a caterpillar soon to be the butterfly. It’s a painful process to give birth. It’s also painful to go thru a change of DNA. Both are evidenced in today’s worldwide church. New forms now are emerging of house churches, free and unrelated formal structures, coffee houses, club meetings, etc. Many of the countries of the world have partly forced this redevelopment by prohibiting formal church structures to exist in their country. By church structures I mean both physical structures as well as church polity and governing structures. Nefarious visa laws and various protectionistic acts of countries around the world have redefined the terms of living among them and thus caused missionaries to redefine what they do and how they do it. In much of the world ex pats are restricted from entering or staying long term in these countries. This forces missionaries in to a more appropriate role of partnering with the national church, facilitating the nationals in the discharge of their role of participation in the Great Commission.

The church has become universal in that it exists in most of the inhabited world. The need to do pioneer church planting is less an imperative than prior to the 21st century. It would be incorrect, however, to say there is no need to do pioneer church planting. But the main focus now is to help the church mature and strengthen itself. There is a need to expand the influence and the reach of the church in those countries where the church is still out of reach for many of its citizens.

What I see happening is that God is preparing his people to enter this new church. What the new form will look like is still in formation. God is simultaneously using the political issues of the day to his advantage as he prepares his people to participate. Artists are being summoned to his clarion call in ways few of them understand or even perceive. They engage in their art, often oblivious to the macro picture, that of the new reformation in which they exist, to which they are called to minister. Theirs is the opportunity to bring a strong influence to help shape the new church that emerges from this current reformation. We need people who can read the times and respond with courage. We need men like Ezra who stood against the tide of conventionality and became instrumental in the redirection of the people of faith of this time. We need artists who are willing to give of themselves without reserve, without thought of personal hardship or inconvenience. We need artists who are willing to pay the price of what it means to be like Ezra, who are willing to be used of God to change the course of church history.

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Why Europe?

Why Europe?

(written for CBSI Europe newsletter)

 The question often comes up, “Why is Europe a mission field?”  After all, they have many churches and beautiful cathedrals. Pondering the question causes me to entertain several thoughts. Mission strategists have for the last twenty-five years helped us to focus attention on the 10/40 Window, or that part of the globe that is largely dominated by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The motivation for giving attention to that part of the world was to challenge us to address the need for evangelism and church planting among “unreached people groups”. That’s a good thing. However, Europe is mostly out of that window. While the 10/40 Window is important, so is Europe. The truth is Europe today is far from being Christian. Actually, Europe is the least evangelized continent in the world.

I suggest a different definition for “unreached people groups”. It seems to me the better definition is one that asks, “Who is furthest from the gospel?” The peoples of Europe today are ones who know little about Jesus Christ, little about his Word – if anything at all. An interesting fact is that some of the largest churches in Europe today are ones that are immigrants from Africa and Asia.

Likely, you’ve heard it said that Europe today is post Christian. By that people usually mean there has been a move away from the faith of their parents and lack of interest in spiritual things. My experience in Europe after living there for fourteen plus years and working among them for more than twenty years, is that Europe is “pre Christian.” By saying it that way I am emphasizing that Europeans and the peoples of Europe (there are myriads of immigrants in Europe too), no longer have a Christian framework, a Christian value system and don’t know of Jesus Christ or His intention to have a personal relationship with them.

CBSI exists to empower the peoples of Europe. We do not seek to send out missionaries, as other mission agencies do. Our mandate is quite different. We want to raise up national leaders who understand and embrace the Great Commission for themselves and thus participate in reaching unreached peoples in Europe. Our unique approach is to establish communities of faith where people can experience and encounter the living Christ through the study of His Word and interaction with others of like faith.

In Acts 17, Luke records the vision of Paul of the man from Macedonia who said, “come over to Macedonia and help us”, concluding, “God had called us to preach the Gospel to them.” With this intervention by the Holy Spirit in the direction of Paul’s life, the Gospel went west, to the Roman world, not east as Paul had planned. Europe was on God’s heart a long time ago. I’m convinced Europe still is on God’s heart and in His time we will see new things. “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days – you would not believe even if you were told.” Hab 1:5

So we invest in Europe as we wait for the harvest. Europe deserves our attention as much as any place in the world. Wherever there are people there is a need for spiritual input. Please consider joining us in prayer and financial support to resource the growing ministry in Europe to the peoples of Europe.

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What’s in a Name

Our name is important to us. When someone uses our name it means a lot to us, gets our attention, communicates to us certain value and worth. (I once was told some native American tribes would name their child for the first thing they saw after the baby was born. Thus Running Horse, or Sitting Bull. I never saw a bull sit, but maybe?) There once was a detective tv show about people where the opening line gave a disclaimer saying “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Using a phony name protected the person whose story was being told. Names communicate a lot.

We put a lot of significance in our name. Our name distinguishes us from the crowd. We think of ourselves as more than being a number. The line in the old Cheers tv show theme song said, …”you wanna go where everybody knows your name”. Why was that? Because, as the song said, “making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got;

taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came…you wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

Cheers was an artificial environment, but one that existed to help people feel secure, affirmed and valued. That desire is in the heart of every individual. All of us see ourselves as more than another penguin in the rookery. (To us homo-sapiens they all look alike; and to them, well, maybe we all look alike?)

Moses had a profound experience with God. There is an insightful exchange for us in this conversation between Moses and God, recorded in Exodus 33. Afflicted with self doubt, (been there, done that), … Moses is looking for affirmation of who he is and assurance of what God has asked him to do… to lead a great nation. He was intimidated to go before Pharaoh and demand he let Israel go, … or else. He pleads and gets that assurance when God says to him … 1. you have found favor with me,  & 2. I know you by name.

“You have found favor”. We can understand  from this that God chooses to respond out of his compassion, even though he is not obligated. Then to say “I know you by name” is reassuring to Moses that he matters. In other words, God is saying, I assure you I am intimate with you and you may know that as evidenced by my calling you by name. Knowing his name is much more than if God were saying, I know your name because I’m omniscient and know all things. Rather it’s a confession of intentional intimacy by God to Moses. God was well aware of what was communicated  when he said I know your name. These are sweet words of affirmation and acceptance. This intimate God is also the one who says in Luke, the very hairs of your head are numbered.

God goes on to say to Moses, “there is a place near me”.  This was a place where he would choose to reveal himself. It was a place “in the cleft of the rock”. It was a place of intimacy. A place where God drew him and covered him with his hand, otherwise Moses would have been consumed in the presence of the almighty God. Revealing himself, covering us, are his provisions for us.

In this brief vignette is a picture of what God does with all of us. He draws us to a place near him where he speaks our name and communicates value, worth, significance; where we are affirmed and nurtured. This was for Moses a place of intimacy where God communicated all this by the use of his name.

So what’s in a name? Everything. Is the use of a name important?…only if you want assurance, security, affirmation, worth, dignity and value.

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