Sunday, April 30, 2017

Test the Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

This is an important passage in my life. It is a reminder that we walk a dangerous path when we try to communicate God’s truth to the world in a way that it can be heard. All the attempts to be cross-cultural, contextual, relevant, or any other trendy way of talking about communication are in danger of becoming “lost in translation.” Ultimately, we bring a message that stands on its own. The Bible message is clear. It says what it says, and attempts to find clever or “new” messages in its pages is a recipe for error. It is clear but understood in faith, so trying to make it “more” understandable carries a risk of dropping the message altogether in favor of something simply more “acceptable.”

That is not to say that we shouldn’t try to find connection points between the conversations going on in culture and the truth of scripture. We have an excellent example of this in Scripture when Paul communicates the Gospel to the Athenians. And, after all, our context in Western Culture is much more Athenian than God-fearing. So, we need to find those connection points to get to the Gospel. Where we tend to lose our way is when we fail to get to the Gospel.

Too often we find the “unknown god” in cultures and then call people to embrace that god. We make it into as close a version of our idea of Jesus as we can and call it culturally appropriate. Instead, we need to use the hints of truth in culture as jumping off point to get to the Gospel. After all the Gospel is outside of all cultures. It transforms cultures; it is never transformed by culture.

All of this is, again, a warning against worldliness. Whenever you find that your understanding of the Gospel has become acceptable to your culture, you need to see that as a warning sign. The Gospel at its core is offensive to the world. We do not like to be reminded that we are in rebellion against divine authority; that we are pathetic, helpless, broken people; that God had to allow His Son to die in our place; that we must surrender our will to His.

We communicate with human culture because God loves all people and wants to restore our relationship with Him, but the only means for these relationships to be restored is through an ultimately uncomfortable, harsh, truth that cannot be watered down and still work.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Temples of Love

When do idols become idols? What constitutes idolatry? In the Bible, we see that idolatry is a huge part of humanity’s sin problem. You could even make an argument that it is our only problem, that all sin boils down to idolatry. We also see that Israel thought they were maintaining an appropriate allegiance to God while participating in idolatry. It is as if they considered idolatry as merely a cultural activity apart from their relationship with God. Or, at times, as if it were an appropriate means of worshiping God.

That worries me.

Some of the things we do as believers—even aspects of our worship and expressions of our religious lives—spill over into idolatry. After all, plenty of things done by God’s people to worship Him in the Old Testament were condemned by God as idolatry! The Golden Calf in Exodus was designed to aid people to worship YHWH. The sin of Jeroboam that ultimately led to the downfall of the Northern Kingdom was a means of worshiping YHWH. The high places in Judah were dedicated to worshiping God, not gods. It seems intentions are not all that matter.

That is because, as sinful humanity, our idols live in our hearts.

Most concerning at times in my mind, are all the cultural things we like, love, and do that might be more blatantly idolatry. Is our obsession with pop-cultural stories any different than Greek and Roman religion? Is our fandom of our local sports and other expressions of civic pride any different than regional, tribal, animism? Does our patriotism at times cross the line into emperor worship?

And when you visit world-renowned museums of landmarks and admire the paintings, statues, and architecture… at what point does that become worship?

This preoccupied my thoughts even more last week when we visited Versailles. A monument to opulence, greed, and oppression, I became more obsessed with the people around me than the “finery.” What was going through their minds? What drew them to this place? Were we all drawn to the luxury out of desire or envy? Were we wishing we could live like this, or were we seeing parallels between Louis XIV and Trump, between Marie Antoinette and Ivanka?

Things really came to a head out in the gardens. There was a particular landmark called “The Temple of Love.” It was pavilion in the style of ancient Greek temples, with a decorative statue (idol?) of Cupid placed in the middle. No one thinks for a minute that Marie Antoinette was a religious devotee of Cupid in the literal sense. She had a Catholic Chapel attached to her house, after all. (Which opens a whole other level of idolatry in the name of worshiping God.) But there was no getting away from the fact that this decoration verged on idolatry.

So, my question is, where are the temples in my garden? What are the idols in my heart?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fine Art?

It is the real impact that school textbooks had on me: the pictures. Or, at least some of the good ones. I remember one of my history books had Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in it for example. Only it must not have been labelled because I didn’t know that was what it was called. I assumed the woman in it must have been Joan of Arc. It never made sense to me why she had to have her breasts hanging out to head into battle. Now that I know it is Liberty personified I guess it might symbolize a throwing off of constraints, but that really doesn’t make much more sense. From what I’ve come to learn since, fine art seems to demand a lot of toplessness.

Another painting that stuck with me was Vermeer’s The Astronomer. It was inexplicably in one of my early science textbooks. I have no idea why I remembered it or liked it so much. It must speak to the true quality and beauty of the work. In any case, decades later, when I was going to visit the Louvre with my wife, I somehow learned that it was in their collection and made a note to be sure and see it in person.

We made our way to the museum early in the morning to beat the crowds and set about ticking off our list. We knew there was too much to see in a day, and we had plans to get to the Orsay in the afternoon. We saw the Venus de Milo. We gave the obligatory regard to the Mona Lisa. (A painting I have vivid memories of seeing before at the Smithsonian Institute, even though it was apparently never lent to the Smithsonian.) We saw one of the suicide of Cleopatra where, for some reason, the painter had the cobra biting her right on the nipple! (Was that to induce more squirming, or just more breast obsession?) We even came across Liberty Leading the People.

Then we made our way up to the old Dutch masters. We saw Rembrandts and paintings that looked a lot like Rembrandts and then, we found the spot reserved for The Astronomer. It was a blank wall. In its place was a sign, with a 5 cm x 5 cm black-and-white photocopy of the painting telling us that it was on lone to a museum in Chicago! I think that was the moment that would cement my opinion that the Orsay is a better experience.

I got another chance to see this picture that had inspired me so much last week. Nearly ten years after our last visit to the Louvre, we took the kids. And this time we were assured that The Astronomer would be there. They had a whole special exhibit dedicated to Vermeer with paintings of his from all over the world on loan to the Louvre!

We did the general exhibit first, and we took our time even though we were, again, headed to the Orsay later. We walked past every painting. We lingered at some. We didn’t see them all (I didn’t notice Cleopatra) but most. Then we headed to the Vermeers. And that was when we discovered you had to have a reserved time-slot. The next available one would not be until 1:30!

Everyone knew of my quest to see The Astronomer, so we stuck it out. We waited two hours to get our shot. And it was worth it. I don’t know what makes fine art fine. Why do we all decide that a man’s work, unknown outside of his town during his own life, not discovered until a century after his death, is better than most other works of art? Why does a man, sitting in a room, or a woman pouring milk, or a girl standing in a colorful dress, inspire such universal admiration?

Maybe that is the real take-away for me from school and its textbooks, from fine art and its mysteries. Not answers, but the curiosity to inspire questions and quests.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Scary Part of Trust (Genesis 22)

(The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall 1966)


The Bible has told us that Abraham trusted God. We have even seen him do things that demonstrate his trust. And we have seen Abraham fail to do what God wants in spite of his trust. So far God has asked some hard things of Abraham, but nothing that we can’t imagine doing even if they are somewhat extreme. He left his family, home, and the whole world he knew. He set out into the unknown with little to know evidence that he would be safe or provided for. He even circumcised himself and his sons.

But now we get to a test of trust that—if we are honest and we don’t hedge the way the story is told—is terrifying.

If we are honest, we cheat this story of all its impact.

When God askes Abraham to kill his son, we soften that command right away. When we tell this story to our children or to new believers, we make sure we let them know that this is just a test. God is not going to make Abraham go through with the sacrifice. We usually even make sure to highlight the fact that God will later condemn other religions specifically because they require child sacrifice.

But Abraham didn’t have the benefit of the full story, nor the extensive revelation that God has since given us about His character or the outcome of this story. Abraham was told to kill his son. Abraham had to trust God without understanding.

And that is what can be so terrifying about trust and faith. We don’t like to talk about it, but God requires from us not understanding, but trust. In fact, a large percentage of Christianity outright changes that fact. We prefer a God that wants us to understand His truth. It is much harder to trust a God that we don’t fully understand. But the problems are (a) we can never hope to understand God or what His plans are completely and (b) He usually wants us to trust Him before He will give us the portions of truth that we can handle.

The good news is that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son first. Abraham was allowed to grow in faith and fall down from time to time before he got to the point where this was the test he was given. And thanks to Abraham, we now know more about God’s character and faithfulness making it easier to trust Him.

But don’t for a minute think that that will make your relationship with God more about understanding than trust; nor that trust will feel any less terrifying or feel in any way completely safe!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doppelgänger

I got a friend request from myself
or at least he looked like me
but his photos,
his trips,
all he ate and all he did
were who I always wished I could be

Then I noticed
all his friends
were the people I’d known
before I just appeared as though I were he

Now it seems that I am just
a made-up account
replaced by a
nascent-narcissistic-sociopath-lived-to-be-managed-for-public-consumption
version of the meme-
the fetch that the world is meant to see

(Poetry Scales 59)  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Obedience as God's Children (1 John 3:11-24)

John continues to describe the qualities of the Children of God as he had described walking in the light. The children of God don’t just avoid sin, they obey God’s commands.

When we compare what John is writing here to what has come earlier in this text, this portion sounds not like a call to obedience, but rather like the test of love again. That is due to two things going on here. First, in this second half that I am calling the “God as Father” section, John also talks a lot about love and the fact that God is Love. You could just as easily talk about 1 John being divided into “God is Light” and God is Love” sections. But also, the five qualities that John listed for walking in the light—avoiding sin, obeying commands, not loving worldliness, the test of love, and keeping the faith—become a little muddled in this second half. They are not five individual qualities, but all aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

However, this section comprising the rest of chapter three is all about obedience. The pure “test of love” will come later, but here the commands of Christ are all summed up in the command to love. Just as Jesus summarized all of the Law and Prophets with “Love God and love your neighbor,” here John tells us that obeying the command to love one another covers every single instruction and demand God gives us.

To love is a command that we obey. This is not something the world or even Christians understand today. It is not a feeling, or a platitude. We are even told that we will have to exercise our obedience to love in the face of hatred; hatred from the world and hatred from those who claim to be followers of Jesus. And we do not get to isolate ourselves into a Christian ghetto and love people where we feel at ease and where we receive love in return. We love the way that we saw Jesus love: sacrificially, unselfishly, and whether it is returned or deserved or not.

Once again, this is an obedience and a quality that is beyond our ability. When we love as the children of God, it is with His power and help, not anything of ourselves.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Eye-Opening Culture Shock

The longer someone lives in one culture, the more difficult it is to deal with the move to a new one. But, ironically, sometimes the people who have an even harder time with such “culture shock” are those who have gone through such a change, and adjusted to a second culture.

The long-term culture shock and adjustment involved in making a long-term or permanent change of cultures is one of the most stressful things someone can do. And sometimes going through such a change does not make a person more apt to seek out such changes, but rather makes them even more change-averse. They become even more entrenched in the adjustments they have made. They hold on tightly to the “tried and true” and are even less likely to grow in cultural adjustment beyond the level that gets them by.

The danger for cross-cultural workers is that, once we have managed to adjust our lives into say, the 10% of the culture that we need to function, we can become even more blind to the other 90%.

As someone who grew up overseas and later moved back overseas, I have experienced three major, long-term culture shock events in my life. It never gets any easier. And yet, I find the experience “eye-opening” every time I taste it. As such, my family has sought out little tastes of feeling out of place every chance we get. Our idea of a good vacation is to go somewhere we do not know the language or culture, rent an apartment where the people there live, and try to taste life in that culture. In eleven years in Europe, we have done just that on at least 6 different occasions.

I think every time it gets harder.

One of the most valuable lessons I relearn every time we do it is that we live with blinders on. “Culturally adjusted” living is mostly about staying on track, following the familiar, and not seeing the outliers. Perhaps that is why, over and over again, God asks His people to leave their comfort zones and home cultures, and set out with Him into an unknown. When we get out of our routine, we see people we normally would never notice. We discover opportunities we normally overlook.

The trick is living that way all of the time.

When we go somewhere new, we notice how different the people are. In our “residence” cultures, we think people are familiar, comfortable, or similar to us. We might think that we have adjusted to be more like the culture where we live. Perhaps, though, we have simply found the people most similar to ourselves and become blind to everyone who is not like us.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Keeping Perspective

“It [terror] never stops.”

I suspect that is something that Trump hopes rather than laments. The two groups who benefit from terrorism are terrorists and populists. The one group seeks to obtain and increase their power by inspiring fear; the other seeks to obtain and increase power by fomenting fear. Terrorists hate and target the status quo; populists hate and target the fringe. The responsible reaction to both is to not live in fear and to not buy into the “us against them” mentality.

Last Thursday, Trump was responding to the killing of a police officer in Paris by a man inspired by terrorist ideals. The whole world heard of this killing and buzzed once again with fear and, frankly, excitement. To those of us in Paris that evening, life went on as it had before. Many unaware of what had happened.

Any death is tragic and this mans was not trivial. But it was immediately politicized as well. France was just hours away from national elections, and—ironically—it seemed the goal of ISIS must have been to aid the populist candidate in that election. Today we will see just how much.

As Trump jumped on the news—literally as it was happening before any details had emerged—he lamented how out of hand things were in France. With the new death, 217 people have now died at the hands of terrorist in France in three years. Yet that number of people are killed by guns in the United States every 56 hours. Why was this one death, half-way around the world, more important than the average of 93 people who die every day in the US? Because it serves the narrative Trump is feeding.

The apartment my family stayed in last week in Paris was in the heart of an immigrant area. We were just one block down the street from what looked like refugee housing. It was right where earlier this year, reports of rioting and “no-go zones” were. Those reports were later proven to be more fake news.

On the first evening, my oldest son and I walked through the neighborhood looking for a grocery store. We saw no white people. We heard almost no French. Just a mixture of African languages and Arabic; homeless people and people selling everything from cigarettes to meat cooked on make-shift grills built in shopping carts to electronics. As we walked and talked, he told me that he was feeling a mixture of two emotions: fear, and guilt for feeling fear from people who were just different.

The fact is that crime and violence are probably higher in that neighborhood than in other parts of Paris. And there are very likely people in that area that sympathize with terrorists. But we also lived there several days and never once had a rational reason to fear for our safety. In even the “scariest” parts of Europe, one feels safe.

Here’s hoping the Brexit, populist, craziness doesn’t carry the day in France. Let's stop giving the fear mongers what they want.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tomorrowland (2015)

Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” is not a terrible film. But to hear people talk about it, it was. That is a classic case of expectations being disappointed. People wanted more from the man who brought us “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.” “Tomorrowland’s” big sin is that it is forgettable.

That is particularly sad because the film had something to say, even if it is a somewhat cliched message. The cliché is something that today’s world needs to remember.

There is a scene early in the film at a school where teacher after teacher spouts doom and gloom. Everything from global warming to imminent nuclear war is addressed. But when a student asks, “OK. What do we do about this?” she is answered with silence. The assumption is that “the end is nigh.” There is nothing to do done other than complain.

Later in the film it is revealed that all of this negativity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humanity is indeed going to destroy itself precisely because it thinks it is going to. The simple, but perhaps too needed message, is stop complaining about how bad things are and do your part to make things better. Don’t feed fear, feed hope.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

God is Always Faithful (Genesis 21)

Chapter 21 can feel rather anticlimactic. God made promises to Abraham and here we see those promises fulfilled. We expected it. Especially if we have an understanding of God based on the Bible. God is faithful. But this is a huge moment in Salvation History. This is the first moment of this sort along the way towards Christ, the cross and the Gospel message. God will continue to promise His people things and He will continue to deliver. We have come to expect it because it always happens. We can bank on God’s promises. But, again, this is a first.

Perhaps more interesting here is the fact that God shows Himself to be faithful in ALL His word. Yes, Isaac is the intended fulfillment of God’s plan and covenant, but God will be faithful to Ishmael as well. God cares about all of the individuals in His creation, even the “fringe” characters in life. He is not just the God of the key figures in His plan.

How often has God been faithful to people throughout history, even those who did not play a major part in Salvation History? Ones we will likely never know about? Always. That too we can bank on. God has so much more going on in His plans for creation than we read about in scripture or experience personally. Namely, He is involved in or offers to be involved in every single person’s life. We know too that He won’t force His way on the unwilling, and that He will allow people’s sin to be thoroughly punished. But He is there for all who turn to Him.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Living as God’s Children by Renouncing Sin (1 John 3:4-10)

Again, John is going to give us a list (the same list) of the qualities that the children of God possess. And the first quality on this list (as it was for those who walk in the light) is that they renounce sin.

In the previous list, John presented three false stances regarding sin: 1. Salvation with unchanged lives, 2. Salvation through merited grace, and 3. Denial of guilt. Here John is more direct in his admonition to renounce sin. First, he defines sin. It is lawlessness—generally speaking, not in the sense of obeying certain laws but rather general rebellion against God. Then, he reminds us that Christ came and lived a life without that sin—without rebellion—and died to remove our sin and guilt. Knowing this, how could we continue to practice sin?

Instead, what we practice as children of God is righteousness.

Not that we are perfectly righteous and never struggle with sin ever again. The key ideas to grasp in this passage are what John means when he talks about “practice” and “inability” to sin.

When John talks about children of God not sinning, saying that they “cannot sin,” we would perhaps use the phrase “such things are not done.” In God’s family, sin is not something we do. It is contrary to our values. That does not mean members don’t make mistakes; but we certainly see mistakes as such. We renounce such behaviors and seek to avoid them. And that is where practice comes into play. Children of God practice righteousness. The seek to improve their behavior with God’s help and discipline. What the certainly do not do is practice sin. The goal is to develop righteous habits and to avoid or overcome sinful ones.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cobalt


In the corner of the parlor
Lives a little blue man
Behind the lamp where no one’s ever went

He collects dust bunnies
And comes out at night
To tickle all us children in our sleep

He used to live in a mine
But moved into our house
As he didn’t like the mine’s Sulphur scent

Technically a goblin who
Would murder and carouse
He’s now just a disturbing, scary, creep

And that is why us children
Aren’t permitted in the parlor
For we’re the sort he most loves to torment

And at night we tuck our covers
In all around us tight
Since he doesn’t make us laugh so much as weep

(Poetry Scales 58
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