Even Greater Than This

This past weekend was a big one in Maryland for two reasons.

First was the Chris Tomlin concert.  His “Burning Lights” tour came to the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore on Friday.  You would think  all of my neighbors, co-workers, and friends were in attendance.  Every time I turned my head someone would be talking about it or posting a picture/status update on Facebook and Twitter.  The local radio station had this to say about the event:

951 ShineFM

Second was the University of Maryland Terps basketball game against Clemson University.  A win set their record at a 2-1 ratio and makes MD a formidable foe in March Madness brackets.  But speaking of UMD, check out the flash mob that the crowd enacted just a few days before:

What do a Christian music artist’s concert and a major university’s basketball game have in common?  For starters, they both generated a lot of attention.  That is to be expected with any large crowd, but mass media was also very influential in the manufacturing of these two events.

Concerts cannot sell tickets, flash mobs cannot be arranged without the aid of mass media.  Whether it be a pillow fight, a food court musical, or a no-pants prank on the New York subway system, they are easily facilitated through texting, mass emails, and social networking sites.  Subconsciously, these events then appeal to raw emotion.  Concerts, flash mobs, any social networking tools allow people to feel important because they can be a participant in something greater than themselves.  (It is a great irony, as I see it, because the individual is actually lost in a crowd, but I digress…)

We all want to have meaning or feel significant.  I suppose participating in a rock concert, a flash mob, or any large scale event is one way to achieve that.  Still, I am reminded that Jesus had a larger vision for us – an EPIC vision – and he presented it to humanity about 2000 years before the first cell phone, computer, or website was accessible to him.  The prophet announced to his disciples: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these… (John 14:12)”

Really?  Is that possible?  Can I do anything that will draw more attention than a flash mob or even the miracles Jesus performed?  Is this attainable by myself, insignificant little me?  I can always organize or attract more people to an event, but is Jesus saying that our lives or our activities can have a large-scale impact, even without the crowd?

Certainly, because if we follow Christ he promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have access to the inner life of God.  And if we act in obedience to Him, it is by this authority that we can share life-giving news to the world.  That power, that purpose is far greater than any concert or flash mob I can envision.

What are you going to do with your one and only life?  Will it be caught up in entertainment and self-glorification?  Or will it be an eternal investment?  Allow God’s spirit to work in you and make your life EPIC!

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The Manifestation

It has been a long time since I’ve posted a poem, so here is one that is particularly meaningful for me written by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963).  As I learn and read more from him, I come to appreciate these sentiments more and more.

Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.

What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.

Peter’s Imperatives

I’m reading 1 Peter right now, the first published letter and eventual New Testament book of the Bible written by the apostle Peter.  Given that Peter walked with Jesus in his lifetime and was part of the inner circle, he would be a ripe candidate to give insights on the Christian life.  Indeed, he does and I appreciate the counsel he offers to believers throughout the letter.  But what I am struck by the most in this reading is the overwhelming number of imperatives that Peter gives to his audience.  Specific commands or guidelines which will ensure that one is on the path to holiness.

Maybe there are more, but here is the list that I have compiled:

1:13  Prepare your minds for action (a good place to start with a list this long!)
1:13  Be self-controlled
1:13  Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed
1:15  Be holy in all you do
1:17  Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear
2:1   Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind
2:2   Crave pure spiritual milk
2:11  Abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul
2:12  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God
2:13  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men
2:16  Live as free men
2:16  Live as servants of God
2:17  Show proper respect to everyone
2:17  Love the brotherhood of believers
2:17  Fear God
2:17  Honor the king
3:8    Live in harmony with one another
3:8    Be sympathetic
3:8    Love as brothers
3:9    Repay evil with blessing
3:15  In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord
3:15  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have
3:15  Do this with gentleness and respect
3:16  Keep a clear conscience
4:1    Arm yourselves with the same attitude as Christ Jesus
4:7   Be clear minded and self-controlled
4:9   Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling
4:10 Use whatever gift you have received to serve others
4:11  Serve with the strength God provides
4:13  Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ
4:16  Do not be ashamed if you suffer
4:16  Praise God that you bear that name
4:19  Commit yourself to your faithful Creator and continue to do good 
5:12  Stand fast in the grace of God
 

Just to be clear, there are also negative imperatives:

1:14  Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance
2:16  Live as free men…but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil
3:9    Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult
3:14  Do not fear what they fear
3:14  Do not be frightened
 

And directives towards specific types of people:

2:18  Slaves, submit to your masters with all respect
3:1  Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands
3:7  Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives
3:7  (@ Husbands) Treat them with respect 
5:2  (@ Elders) Be shepherds of God’s flock
5:5  (@ Young Men) Be submissive to those who are older
5:5  (@ Young Men) Clothe yourselves with humility
5:6  (@ Young Men) Humble yourselves
5:7  (@ Young Men) Cast all your anxiety on him
5:8  (@ Young Men) Be self-controlled and alert
5:9  (@ Young Men) Resist the devil, standing firm in the faith
 

There is one imperative that is cultural and therefore only appropriate in a particular time/place, though probably not the particular time/place which we had in mind:

5:14  Greet one another with a kiss of love
 

And one imperative that unites all of these commands into one.  It is so important that Peter inserts it twice throughout his letter:

1:22  Love one another deeply, from the heart
4:8  Above all, love each other deeply
 

I did not realize previously that this can be found twice throughout the book.  It only reinforces a core truth:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:36-40)
 
 

True Love

Over the last few days, my wide variety of winter-break reading has included Robert Fulghum’s book True Love.  It is a collection of memories and love stories submitted to the Washington newspaper editor and compiled into a single bound manuscript.

True Love by Robert Fulghum

Fulghum himself admits that choosing a title to fit the diversity of stories contained therein was a challenge.  From my perspective, True Love is a slight misrepresentation.  Not all accounts are marked by selfless attitudes or sincere hearts.  Not all tales are even believable though they make for an interesting and light-hearted read.  This book is, unashamedly, entertaining.  I suspect this is part of the author’s selection process and design.  Some stories are wrought with anguish and drama.  Some are fantastic projections of a once possible but never materialized love affair.  Some are just comical and weird!

If the majority of the book is entertaining, that still leaves a minority of the text that I find inspirational.  So many stories of love lost and found.  Divine reunions, sometimes even decades between encounters.  The common denominator between all of these inspirational stories is longing, desperation, and irrational, unrestrained effort.  I read stories of individuals torn apart, people who lost touch – if they ever spoke in the first place – who thought they would never see their lover again.  People who scoured the pages of their hometown’s phone book calling up anyone of the last name, just hoping they might be a relative who can make the connection with a long lost friend.  I am moved by these desperate efforts because there is a certain mystery behind the search.

True Love was only published 15 years ago and yet the personal stories sound as if they came from another era.  In a way, they were, and a collection of stories such as these may never be published again.  The difference between Fulghum’s publication date and today is the internet.  Social networking in particular.

In the age of computer technology, we might not see someone in years but finding them is almost effortless.  The business of private investigators is extinct.  We might not have spoken with a classmate since high school or college graduation but we can easily know what has transpired in the gap.  Well, sort of.  Actually, we know too much about a person but don’t know enough of them.  The real people who shared their stories with Robert Fulghum came to know their long-lost lover.

Today we have grown so accustomed to social media that we will think these stories to be fairy tales.  Perhaps they will be fairy tales for our children’s generation, the kind of stuff that Walt Disney turns into animated classics.  They will not contain magical elements as in Grimm’s tales, but they will, in themselves, be magical.  Maybe your story may one day be added to that collection!

Incongruent Laughter

Sometimes I laugh at inappropriate times.  I laugh too loudly or in the wrong company.  Sometimes I don’t laugh when others clearly think I should.  Sometimes my sense of humor is a little twisted and I let on to how immature I really can be.  This can be a tricky business, particularly between cultures.  Yet what is most important is now how we laugh, not when we laugh, but precisely that we laugh.  It is essential to the human condition.

What makes us laugh?  Or why do I sometimes laugh at a different time than others around me?  One of my favorite authors, James V. Schall, suggests that “our laughter depends on our seeing the incongruity of things.”  (The Order of Things, p. 17)  The world was created a natural order, with categories, and our minds built to recognize them.  When those categories don’t match up or when our rational mind perceives an apparent irrationality, it does not interpret this as foolishness.  Instead, we find comedy, laughter.  Perhaps like these pictures below:

Art for Arts Sake

Google: “Did you mean battleship?”

Customs Sniffing Dog

Ronald Reagan on a Velociraptor

(Ok, maybe you didn’t find that last one as funny as me.  But if you shook your head rather than smiling, I guess that validates my introductory statement.)  The point is this, we find something humorous when it is not as we would expect; two things dissimilar aren’t meant to go together, but yet they do.

We have much to laugh about in this life, even when the world seems dark around us.  That is not by accident.  The Creator of this world, who transcends time and space, stepped down from his post and limited himself by taking on human flesh (John 1:14, Philippians 2:6-8).   The savior and king who was sent to deliver this hurting world arrived in a manger, surrounded by filthy animals, travelers and misfits (Matthew 2:9-11, Luke 2:7-11).  And one day the lion will lay down with the lamb without hesitation or fear (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25).

The Lion and the Lamb

What peculiar images!  Maybe these don’t inspire us to laugh out loud, but they are indeed reasons to give us joy.  This Christmas season, amidst parties and family gatherings, I hope you have found much cause to laugh.  More richly, I hope the incongruency of this season brings joy to your soul that laughter can only begin to describe.

What I’m Thankful For This Year

This year at Thanksgiving I am changing my tune, thanking God not for what He has done for me but for what he hasn’t done.  I can recount a number of occasions in the last 11 months when I made a prayerful request and He answered… in the form of denial.  Or there were occasions when I have taken an action and He restrained me, not allowing me to go any further.  These realities have been painful in the moment but, in retrospect, beneficial to my personal and spiritual growth.  Whenever God says “no,” I have been forced to realize (and to accept) that it was for my good.  His plan for my life is far more complex and grandiose than I can see in the present.  To say “yes” would be to cheat me; He has something better in mind.

I am thankful for what God has done for me.  Under those circumstances I experience His blessing.

I am also thankful for what God hasn’t done for me.  Under those circumstances I experience His grace.

How to Turn Oppressive Government to Praise

I am currently listening to an audiobook by Tony Evans entitled, “How Should Christians Vote?”  (If you’re curious, it is free to download this month from ChristianAudio.com)  Figured it is a timely book for this election season, possibly giving me justification for my candidate of choice or perhaps challenging me to think more about my rights as a participant in this American democracy.  Even if I don’t learn anything new or don’t gain any new perspectives, it might help me to reorganize my thoughts as a civics teacher.

Today a quote stuck out to me and, for a rare moment, I will say that the context is not as important as the immediate words themselves.  Tony Evans is quoted saying, “An overextended government, an overtaxed citizenry limits the freedoms of individuals to pursue their callings under God…”  Indeed, there is more meaning to his words (in context) than I am about to share, but the personal application of that quote led me to many thoughts.

This is a fair assessment, in my opinion, of the United States’s government in 2012.  Politicians have overstepped their boundaries as established by the Constitution and the government has assumed far more responsibilities than the divine institution of civil government is designed for.  The political body has well intentions, but instead of liberating the citizen base and empowering them with self-sufficiency it binds them with dependency upon the state.  Excessive taxes stifle economic growth and cause more anxiety than necessary for the average American.

I fall into that category as a college educated individual, working long hours but making a low income.  I don’t blame the government for such struggles because my situation is a personal choice; I sacrifice pay for something I love and feel like I am making a difference in students’ lives.  But I do feel the economic pressures as a typical consumer.  Prices are rising while salaries are stagnant.  Politicians are calling for an increase in taxes to account for the climbing national debt and record numbers of welfare recipients.  The list could go on, but I am no economist.

I don’t understand all of the ins and outs of our economic woes but, like many others, I do feel the strain on my wallet.  Tony Evans’s quote made me ask myself, why do I allow monetary issues to limit my effectiveness as a teacher?  A friend?  A lover?  A warrior?  When I carry angst over the physical or the material, I am submitting to the government system as if it owns me when in reality I have been called apart from the world and pledge loyalty first and foremost to my God.  There is no problem or limitation of money that is too great for God to address.  Even if I don’t see how something will work, I can be assured that God will carry out His work.  He only asks that I trust Him and obey.

It is easy to criticize the government and lament about oppressive rule.  Putting faith in things that are unseen is far more difficult.  But if the government were more liberating, if the economy were stronger, then when I do accomplish the work I am called to do, who gets the praise?  The state.  Temporal powers and earthly rulers.  Instead, God can do mighty works in spite of a bad economy and in spite of  crooked government.  Under those circumstances, the God who can make something out of nothing deserves and will receive the praise.

School Trials

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything…. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial…   (James 1:2-4, 12)

What rich words from the letter of James!  So many people embrace James as their favorite book of the Bible and, from my experiences, it is the most requested book for a Bible study.  Christians in all stations of life appreciate the simplicity behind the text.  And so these opening words are familiar to many.  Too familiar to others.

We are three weeks into the school year and many are confronting the words of James head on.  In less than a month, my friends and colleagues have already faced “trials of many kinds.”  For example,

  • The church (and subsequently the school) hosted two funerals for fallen police officers in the community.  One of these officers was family of school staff and had strong ties to a number of our members.
  • One teacher’s grandfather died and she needed to drop her responsibilities, get on a plane, and fly to Alabama in the middle of the week.
  • One teacher has been sick all week and doctors now believe it is a festering case of lyme’s disease.
  • One teacher’s newly issued laptop did not work right out of box and has been without it for three weeks as the manufacturer makes repairs.
  • New teachers are feeling all the pressures of the job, trying to figure out the querky schedules and programs at our school while fighting little sleep in order to prepare lessons and grade papers.
  • Phone lines are dying sporadically and teachers are encountering incompatibility issues between the computer and their updated smartboard software.

Many around me are facing trials greater than I can imagine. Though my trials are not as publicly evident, I too am being tested in several ways.  So many are feeling the pressures, not only of the job but of life!  We mourn, but we also persevere.

In times like these, James urges us to “consider it pure joy.”  He says that we are “blessed.”  While it does not always feel that way, God is cultivating a greater maturity in us, both individually and corporately.  And if we persevere He is going to take our character, our families, our school to great heights.  Rarely can we comprehend the reason for suffering and trials, but there is always a greater plan at work behind the scenes.  This gives me reason to rejoice.

Most Valuable Real Estate

If you are reading this right now, you most likely own one of the most valuable pieces of real estate.  Best of all, you don’t have to pay any taxes on this property.  You might even be able to profit from it if you have an entrepreneurial spirit.  But don’t get to thinking that you are so special because, though it may surprise you, millions of other Americans share the same wealth.  And so many that have it aren’t even aware of its value.  Curious yet?  Do you know what it is?

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YOUR CAR’S BUMPER!

This thought occurred to me today as I sat at a traffic light reading two political statements carefully positioned on the car in front of me.

I used to think that bumper stickers are tacky, that they are meant for mindless consumers or people who under-appreciate their vehicle.  I often made the premature judgment that the drivers of such vehicles had a mouth bigger than their brain.  Now my outlook has changed since I recognize the overwhelming influence this space holds and the sheer volume of information that is communicated through one decal.

You are more likely to find a bumper sticker on a student’s door, locker, or laptop computer than you are on an automobile.  This is because bumper stickers are often permanent fixtures whereas vehicles are an indispensable product.  Few vehicle owners are willing to tarnish their pricey investment in order to make a statement.  Therefore, a man of sound mind can never say, as I once did, that bumper stickers are inconsequential.

This affirms my original idea that your car’s bumper is perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate you own.  Anyone, any idea, or any company that is able to make its mark while making you compromise the appearance or value of your car is worth its weight in gold.  Advertisers do not give the same consideration when splashing a display on a billboard or a bus stop as they do if they want that same image imprinted upon your private property.  Whether by great products, great ideas, or great persuasion, they have to convince the driver that their message outweighs his costs in the long run.

Why, then, do people still pay for bumper stickers?  The system is somewhat illogical.  To pay for something that is going to result in honks and glares from other drivers or result in a lower resale value seems ludicrous.  But beyond our opening discussion of market value, there is also a personal value for which it is impossible to put a price tag.  A bumper sticker shares so much about who a person is, what they value, and how they interpret their world.

Consider the all-too-common oval stickers with three letter abbreviations.   These are not popular simply because we live in an age of texting.  They remind the driver of a place called home or of memories made while on vacation.

The trendy family car stickers are appealing not merely because they are customizable, but because they reflect a family – one of God’s divine institutions and, presumably, something that the driver cherishes.

Ribbons are not collected like trading cards for their different colors or patterns.  They are displayed to support a cause with which the driver, undoubtedly, has a personal connection.

                  

Political candidates (who should be the most grateful) get their names affixed to the rear of a car because the driver believes they have some message or policy which will bring greater hope.

              

Religious symbols give a glimpse into the soul, revealing that the driver finds meaning in his existence while crude or crass messages suggest that the driver finds no meaning behind anything in existence.

The list might continue indefinitely, but each of these examples carries a message and a meta-message. Perhaps there is no quicker way to know someone than to read the bumper of their car.  Every day I drive past people whom I have never met yet I feel like I know a bit about their personality, their values, and their history already.  Even if I disagree with their message, I love them all the same.  In fact, I must thank them for sharing their property with me and for providing me with content to strike up a conversation.

Violence All Around Us

Last week’s movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO is undoubtedly fresh in everyone’s minds and, as a result, there has been much discussion surrounding the nature or prevalence of violence in American society.  The media networks are pouncing on this as a hot topic, politicians are using this event to drive gun control debates, and ordinary people are raising ethical questions as they share their thoughts and fears with family or friends.  It is a serious and sobering topic, especially as we draw a connection between violent images and real life tragedy.

I, too, have been vocal on the issue of violence in entertainment.  In particular, I am discouraging people from going to see The Dark Knight Rises in theaters or from pumping any more money into the franchise, just as I did four years ago with The Dark Knight.  Not surprisingly, my position is met with a lot of opposition and that is OK so long as my ideological opponents are willing to balance their cravings for entertainment with a critical mind.

With that preface in mind, this seems like a good time to clarify some personal views which I have voiced in conversation and to share some broader biblical truths related to the issue of violence:

#1 – Violence is all around us. This is one piece of evidence that we live in an abnormal world.  In an ideal and normal world, that may not be the case but the fact is that man sinned.  His rejection of God’s perfect order injected violence in the forms of both human aggression (Gen. 4:8) and natural rebellion (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:19-22).

#2 – Violence is inescapable.  Some will argue that God is all powerful and God is loving towards His creation; therefore God will intervene and stop the violence.  As a meta-narrative, their conclusion is accurate.  God will ultimately deliver His children from evil, but that is through the wide lens of a telescope. What we experience in day-to-day living is likened to a view through a microscope.  From that more narrow perspective, the premises are true but the conclusion is not.  Evil is a major problem to the original design for this universe against which violence must happen to eradicate it.  An all powerful and loving God will bring justice to counteract this disruptive evil but judgment is a very ugly, violent thing in itself.

What I mean when I say “violence is inescapable” is that it prevails for both parties in this abnormal world.  Those who are set on doing good will still encounter violence around them.  Those who are bent on doing violence will be met with violent judgment in return.  Biblical examples of this include the very controversial “holy” war carried out by Israel against the surrounding “wholly” corrupt nations and the plagues brought upon Egypt (respectively).

#3 – When violence originates in man, it does not take long to see the horrific effects.  Consider that when Cain slew Abel he invented the act of murder.  Humans, at that time in history were vegetarians – they didn’t even slay animals for food much less another person of their own kind!  And this was only the second generation of humans to walk the face of planet earth or, in other words, the first generation of humans to be born on planet earth.

With minimal effort, one can find many other biblical or historical examples of violence carried out in a hurried manner, above all the illegal and state-sponsored crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

#4 – When violence is carried out as part of God’s divine judgment, it is preceded by grace and thereby delayed.  Take, for instance, the violent flood that drowned nearly all of humanity and reshaped the entire planet.  God made his decision to eliminate the wicked human race (Gen. 6:11) but gave men the opportunity to repent and change their ways – over the course of 120 years! (Gen. 6:3)  He drove His own people, the nation of Israel, into captivity under a violent and oppressive regime as a means of purging their wickedness but only after warning them by dozens of prophets across several hundred years!

God’s judgment is violent because that is the only fair or truly just way of addressing the problem of evil.  It is likened to a calendar where you can rip the pages off and count down the days.  Until that day of judgment arrives, God extends his grace in more ways than we recognize.

#5 – Violence in shooting sprees of recent years is not new.  Some have claimed that we are experiencing a rapid increase in violent behavior and the world is a much more dangerous place than it was decades or generations ago.  I will allow the statistics to determine whether or not violent acts are more frequent.  I simply do not have, nor am I capable of interpreting, those hard numbers.  What I do know is that we have a heightened awareness of violent or large-scale crimes due to mass media as compared to previous, pre-internet eras. Also, in the words of Solomon, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9)  The crime is never original although maybe the artistry associated with the crime shows more creativity and boldness than before.  The Bible as the oldest history textbook in the world is thoroughly violent and graphic; 21st-century Americans didn’t invent this stuff.

#6 – Violence cannot be legislated effectively.  In light of recent events, a few are  awakening to the widespread presentation of violence and calling for its censorship from television, movies, video games, music, and literature.  Contrary to what you might expect from me, I must contest that government or otherwise public censorship is not the solution.  Besides the inherent flaw in this plan (revisit my point #2), this will result in more of our freedoms being taken away and it will only address the problem on a surface level.  The violent behaviors broadcast through news outlets arise fundamentally as a matter of the heart. Therefore, violence can only be monitored and censored effectively in the private sphere. Everyone, convicted felon or not, needs to re-examine their heart and submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  He submitted himself to the horrors of this world and died under violent conditions in order to free us from sin, from fear, and from eternal death.  He rules over this chaotic world and He alone can perform invasive surgery within the depths of our hearts.

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