Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thoughts for the New Year - 3 things we should do better in 2014

A new year is upon us, and so it should begin with taking stock of where we have been in the old and where we want to go in the new.   

Over the  years, I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions, as I found I too easily break them, and usually not to long after the 1st. Usually it’s because I wasn’t really committed to my weight loss resolution, my exercise resolution or whatever other resolution I had made. Something tells I’m not alone in this. 

Some of these things, in particular weight loss and exercise, changed for me in 2013. It wasn’t out of resolution but necessity to live healthier after another bout with cancer. Sometimes God has to get our attention the hard way. But I end 2013 in the best shape I’ve been in for years and about to head to the gym for a year-end workout. 

Why do we usually fail in our resolutions? I suggest it’s because my focus was on “me,” and your resolution was on you. “Self” tends to be our worst enemy, right? We can take solace in the fact that even the Apostle Paul struggled with “self” but we should not wallow there. Instead, if we can look to God’s Word as our guide for rightful living, when we read it with how we are relate to others. 

Much of what God does have to tell is not about how we can personally have the “best life now,” personally prosper – spiritually, emotionally, financially – or achieve great things for God. Rather, God’s Word instructs us more so in how to live for Him by living for other. When we do we actually find the most blessed life now. 

With that in mind, as we start 2014, I want to offer just three things we should do or start doing better in the New Year, especially as Christ followers. This isn’t a complete list, of course, but just three major points I’m considering for 2014 and I welcome your additions and thoughts.

1. Be humble and consider others first. 

How necessary is this today in our American culture? The church needs to start to do humility much better and put others before ourselves. We live in a society that is rife with vitriol and hatred for other people’s ideas, as if our positions are really most important. In Christ, we really have nothing we can lose so we don’t need to push our way to front of our culture.  That’s not my idea, put Paul’s and therefore God’s, so it’s good advice for everyone.  The Message puts it like this: 

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Philippians 2:1-4 

2. Think before you post so as to build others up

In our social media reality of the early 21st Century, compounded by our sound-bite culture, multiplied by our lack of humility, we need to do much better in what we post on Facebook, Tweet, and how we respond on blogs. I know I’ve been guilty of some rash comments in the past. It’s easy to get angry and tear people down, even with logical and well reasoned arguments. Just visit any religious or political blog on any given day to witness some of the vilest of behavior, on both sides of the political isle and even among Christians of differing theological perspectives.  Paul puts it like this however: 

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29

What people need more than anything is Jesus but they can't see him if we know him aren't seeking to build them up, regardless of how they are acting or what they believe.

3. Honor others above ourselves 

When you consider what Americans think of as important, it’s a safe bet based on antidotal evidence alone that we think of ourselves above others, often including other Christians. It's something innate about the American way, which is foreign to many other cultures. Today, we have a prevailing lack of respect for others in our culture, be they of political, religious, ideological or some other difference. This respect deficit has now morphed into a sick “game” called “knockout,” where young people, showing no respect all all for humanity, assault innocent people as they pass-by, for no other reason then "sport." Americans needed a campaign like “I am second” to raise awareness to life’s proper priorities - God first, we’re second was the idea. But even that, as wonderful a campaign as it is, didn’t go far enough for as Paul put it simply: 

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10 (emphasis mine)

Of course, we should want to love God better and should want to love others better. But in fact, we can’t love God without loving others (1 John 2:9, 4:20) and we can’t love others without humility, wholesome talk and honoring them. It's not sufficient to simply talk about these three things but we need to live them.

Sure, I could probably make a top 10 list for things we could do better in the New Year but I'd probably just end up with another resolution list I didn't follow. If we as Christ-follower, however, do these three things better in 2014, I believer we would do well and it would make a big difference in our nation, in our lives and the knowledge of God's glory in Christ. Therefore, I resolve to do better. 

That's my New Year's resolution. What's your?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas and Phil – Thoughts on the Duck Flap


I have been thinking about the meaning of Christmas. I don’t think it is by chance that just this past week there was this “Duck flap” around comments made by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the popular “Duck Dynasty.” Prior to this week I had only seen one episode of  this show but I watched a few this week just to get a feel for who these people are and why they are so widely popular.  I found them down to earth, humorous and faithful to what they believe - which I find refreshing.

Enough has been said about the GLAAD reaction to comments made by Phil, and the decision by A & E to place him on “indefinite hiatus.” Could Phil have said things differently? Of course, but it’s always easy to "armchair quarterback" after the fact. I may have responded to the question, “what is sin?” with something more theologically profound but then the GQ interviewer didn’t ask me or you. Phil is who he is and that’s fine. 

Instead, I want to say something about the reaction of some Christian leaders who decried the show of support by “Evangelicals” in response to this whole Phil affair. 
First, isn’t it amazing today that a response can go “viral” so quickly through Social Media. Welcome to the 21st Century! As never before Christians can show a united and very vocal response to such miscarriages of justice as Phil was the target of. And, whether you think this is good or bad, it just is our reality today. What I find amusing though is that those who decried this collective response, using the available tech to sound off in support of Phil, used the same technology to express their objections to it.

Second, the collective “Evangelical” response to Phil has been labeled by some "decriers" as support of a cultural icon, instead of support for Jesus. This misses the point. Phil was the recipient of this show of support, as he was at the center of this particular controversy. The response wasn’t anti-someone, or pro-someone (I read comments from many who had little idea who Phil was) but rather for freedom of conscience to believe what one chooses without fear of punishment or reprisal. Decrying such freedom seems to sadly miss the point.   

Third, while there are many other issues that Christians should collectively respond to, declaring that those things are more important than this matter, is of course a matter of opinion and in fact may well be a “red herring.” The importance of other issues that require the churches attention doesn’t make this “Duck flap” any less important.  I believe God uses these events to get our collective attention, as he works out his will and purposes. Of course, it would be great to see many more Christians living for God’s mission in the world but it’s an and/both, not an either/or, moment. So let’s stop all the decrying when these kinds of things happen and instead look for ways to positively lead for God’s purpose in the moment. 

Finally, I had one friend say we aren't talking about Jesus in talking about and showing support for Phil, that the focus is on “freedom of speech” rather than Christ. This too misses the point. The “Evangelical” response is about the right to talk about our Christian beliefs in the public square, just as Phil did in answering the interviewer’s questions. When the Apostle Paul was persecuted for speaking truth, and jailed so as to attempt to silence him, the Lord appeared and said to him: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” (Acts 18:9). The Phil backlash is a direct response to cultural forces that seek to silence Christians who uphold Biblical values. Therefore, it is really all about Jesus! 

The reality of our world is that many of our Christian brethren are severely persecuted for their faith and do not have the freedom to express their views, or to openly live their faith. That is tragic and we should not over-blow this “Duck flap”, raising it to the level of being persecuted. Freedom however is never free, it is costly, and when threatened on the basis of rightful religious expression, it warrants a good corporate response. Too many today, including many Christians, have bought our cultural lies that there should be no dissension from the prevailing cultural opinion. What Phil did was challenge this falsehood, and those who would control the conversation didn’t take kindly to it. That is indeed something to push-back against with truth. 

We do need to take care in how we respond to our culture and I think Rick Warren captures this best when he recently said: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” Rather we are called to speak the truth in love. 

Not widely discussed in this “flap” is what else Phil did say in the GQ article: 

“You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around.” That is a profound level of compassion and truth, “Duck” style. 

So what does this all have to do with thinking about Christmas? I found it amazing that we were having this national conversation right before Christmas, and it will probably continue through the New Year, hopefully. God’s timing is always so perfect. Instead of just talking office parties, decorating, shopping and eating, with maybe an occasional mention of the “reason for the Season,” we are discussing serious cultural concerns in answer to the question that sparked this whole flap- “what is sin?” 

As part of the Christmas story, I am reminded that Joseph needed to wrestle with cultural concerns of his day as well. Matthew reports the account this way:

         "Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[e] did not want to expose her to 
          public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:19-21)
I am thinking that perhaps Immanuel was trying to get our attention off of what Christmas has become, even for most Christians, with the over-commercialization and seasonal trappings, and on to more serious issues like why Jesus needed to come to “save his people from (our) sins.” Maybe Christmas needs to become less focused on celebration and more of a time of reflecting on the question “what is sin?” in our time and how we are doing, as a people, in answering, with God's Word as our standard. Then maybe more will “call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

And, I am reminded that God spoke through a donkey (Numbers 22:28), so why not a "Duck Commander" too?

May God be with you and yours this Christmas!