Responding to the World

We may disagree on what exactly is wrong with the world, but all of us can see that things aren’t right. The daily newspaper testifies to the widespread nature of our problems. Crime, corruption, poverty, addiction, disease, oppression and death lead the headlines. It often makes me sad, or angry, or both. But the world doesn’t need more angry people, so I’m working on avoiding outrage and maintaining my equanimity. My ability in this regard fluctuates, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Once again, “progress not perfection” is the helpful daily dictum.

In any event, this has also got me thinking in a general way about how people choose to respond to the disordered nature of reality. Perhaps because of the current social and political climate the first two things that occurred to me were “fighting” and “hopeless.” Many people are fighting to reshape society toward their preferred ends, while others have no hope of ever seeing their vision of culture and community accomplished. But of course not everybody is fighting; I’m not. And not everybody is hopeless; “not me” again.

Thinking along these two dimensions (and admittedly in a gross oversimplification of complex issues) I came up with the following 2×2 grid.

2015-12-10 14-33 page #0 (1)Here’s how I’m seeing the four quadrants

Fighting + Hope – This is the home of movements of all sorts. Movements aggregate like-minded individuals who agree on problems and solutions, and believe in their ability, working together, to change it. Their hope is in collective action. Think ISIS, or Greenpeace, or the various federal “wars” on poverty and cancer.

Fighting + Hopelessness – A bad combination and a recipe for isolated violence. Think Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.

Accepting + Hopelessness – Another bad combination: “The world’s a mess, it’s going to get worse and there’s nothing anyone, especially me, can do about it.” Think Eeyore.

Accepting + Hope – This, I think, should be the home of the Christian. We know the world isn’t right, and we know it cannot be set right by human hands. Evil exists. No, human nature is not “good.” There is no getting better, or remaking the world to be better, on our own.

Yet we have hope, because we are not on our own. We trust in God, in and through whom all things are possible, and we live according to the Spirit. Thus we are (or should be) motivated to action, as individuals and communities. We can and should address the world’s brokenness and suffering, all the while understanding that “fighting” isn’t indicated as it is not we who can produce the outcomes we so earnestly desire.

What do you think?

_________________________________________________

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Romans 8:18-22 NLT

PS – Why not take another minute or two and read all of Romans Chapter 8 here? It was a blessing to me as I was preparing this post; perhaps it will be for you as well. – Pete

Capitalism, the Free Market, and Other Things that are not God

dollar_signIt’s our human nature to make idols; some common ones are power, money, sex, and status. As we do, we begin to see the world, and its various economic and political systems, through our own particular lenses. Ideologies, political parties, people, processes and systems that serve our personal idols start to look good and the ones that don’t appear bad. The more we’re given over to our idols, the more we glorify these worldly matters by imputing them with divine status. Even then, we are often hypocritical, maintaining whatever internal inconsistencies best suit getting our own needs met.

In the healthcare field, providers of all types (including hospitals, physicians and drug/device manufacturers) claim the “Free Market” right to charge whatever they want, while at the same time using all available means, including the levers government, to limit competition. The politicians who insist that the government can solve everything choose to opt out of their own “solutions.” Patients are similarly conflicted, as we saw with the campaign to “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” a few years ago. We are all “the problem” in healthcare today, and there is no one divinely ordained solution for our dysfunctional system.

Of course, healthcare is just one example that I think about a lot because of my profession. This same tendency of ours to glorify what serves us personally operates across all of human society. I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own industry, company, town, family or even church. Humanity is thoroughly corrupted by sin. It’s a fact. People (me included) tend to worship capitalism, the free market or other false gods. But we Christians should remind ourselves – Capitalism is not God. The Free Market is not God.

Here are some other things, which are also not God:

Equality, Fairness, and Tolerance are not God
America is not God.
Liberty and Freedom are not God.
The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are not God.
Freedom of Speech is not God. Freedom of Religion is not God.
Social Justice is not God.
Science is not God.
Football is not God.
I am not God. You are not God. Oprah, Dr. Oz, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Joel Osteen are not God. Your Church Pastor is not God.
Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Warren Buffet, Lloyd Blankfein and the CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies are not God.
Socialism, Communism, Communalism, Egalitarianism, Collectivism, Humanism, Empiricism, and Liberalism are not God. No “ism” is God

I could keep going, but we have better things to do. Identifying idols can be important, but it’s more important to keep our focus on God himself. When we do that, we can put all worldly matters, including the “isms” into their proper place – potentially useful, but subject to God’s will for us, personally and collectively.

Yes, we should be addressing our problems. We are called to work in this world, and we are called to make it better. I will go to work on Monday trying to make my little part of the American healthcare system better. You will be doing something similar in another industry or field. Let’s keep our perspective. Let’s remember that Jesus is the divinely appointed solution to our human problem of sin and that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a guide in this life. Under God’s grace, let’s acknowledge the false idols, the hypocrisy, and the desire to protect our own interests. If we start with God, and let him work through us, we will do better.

Playing God

michelangelo-creazioneThis week the phrase “playing God” caught my eye in connection with news reports on disparate topics, including regulation of the internet, medical practice, and the recent apparently intentional plane crash. It got me thinking about just how powerful we are and our proper roles as human beings in God’s creation. None of us wants to be accused of “playing God,” of imperially deciding things for others or ruling over matters that are not our proper concern. On the other hand, we do have responsibilities and, in this life, we must constantly make choices, for good or for ill. That’s the way God set it up.

As you know, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it… (Genesis 1:27-28). Made in his image, we are social beings with self-awareness, intellect, volition, and the power to create and destroy here on earth. It’s our job to be God’s agents, building society and civilization as we live, learn and grow together. In that sense we are supposed to “play God,” a big job indeed.

But playing God is also a small job. Our choices and actions have life and death consequences. We are used to thinking about airline pilots and surgeons holding “lives in their hands” in flight or on the operating table. But don’t you hold the lives of your passengers (perhaps your children) in your hands when driving here and there? Others on the road are also depending on your driving ability for their safety. How about the mechanic that repaired your brakes when the car was last in the shop? Doesn’t he also hold your life, the life of your passengers, and the lives of other drivers in his hands? I think so.

In the healthcare industry, where I work, we administrators also make life and death decisions. Every new service, procedure or process comes with trade-offs. Introducing a new treatment may help more people overall, but some people will be harmed – perhaps people who might not have been hurt before. Trying to make things better, we aspire to continuous improvement but resources are not unlimited. When we choose to improve patient safety “here,” but not “there,” we necessarily place some lives above others. There is no perfect in healthcare.

Even our more ordinary day in, day out conduct matters. What we teach our children, what foods we serve them, how we treat our neighbors, what entertainment we watch (or produce), how we spend our money – it all matters. Who has not been greatly affected by a seemingly small act of kindness (or nastiness) by someone else? I know I have. Examine your own experience and I am sure you will see how some “small things” on the part of others or “minor events” (to the rest of us) have made a big difference to you. It’s hard to see how events are interconnected while they are occurring, but surely they are.

A famous, centuries-old proverb expresses the concept this way:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

How do you thing the guy who didn’t put that nail in right feels? Does he even know the tragic consequences of his work? Probably not. Same here.

The bottom line is, what we do matters. Everything. All of our conduct is serving to create our human society and culture. Building others up, or tearing them down. Building civilization or destroying it. Helping or harming.  It’s what we do.  We may not see the results in an instant or ever, but surely we are all “playing God” every day. The question is, how are we doing? Not too well of course.

So how can we be better creators and stewards here on earth? How can we take better care of each other, and of our culture and civilization? First, we can take our personal choices and behavior more seriously, understanding the significance of seemingly insignificant things. Second, we can continue to follow Jesus and encourage the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us. With the Holy Spirit in charge, we can let God play God. He’s much better at it than we are.

Praying – Longer & Shorter

praying-hands-PencilMy prayers are getting longer lately. As time goes by, and the Holy Spirit does his work in me, I just have a lot more to pray about. I am more aware of God’s blessings in my life and have more to thank him for. Simply expressing gratitude can take a while. My health, happiness, wife, kids, family, job, church, friends, home, yard, possessions, etc. – it seems to me that most everything is a blessing. My afflictions are minimal.

At the same time, I am also much more aware of my own shortcomings, or sinfulness. Pride or self-centeredness is probably the biggest one. Maybe throw in envy and a little greed too. Some, but not so much, of the other “deadly sins” as compared with those three. Less of all of them than I used to have of course, but still way more than I’d like to have. So “repenting time” is lengthening my prayers too.

Then there’s national and world events. Reading the newspaper or surfing the web brings a flood of disturbing news. Terrorism, crime, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, corruption, venality, self-serving political and business leaders – all seem on the rise. Also, I think the Holy Spirit is increasing my general sensitivity to sin and to outright evil. It’s pretty easy now for me to see how pervasive they are in society. Naturally, I’m moved to pray for the world and for relief of our human problems.

Of course, I pray for myself too. There are things that I’d like to accomplish and personal and familial situations I’d like to see change. Often, I pray about small matters because I know that God is in command of the details as well as the big picture. Like most of us, there are many “small matters” going on for me at any particular moment.

You can probably see how this would make for some long prayers, but it gets more complicated in action. As I pray, new issues of concern often occur to me and I add them in. Then I get thinking about what I might be leaving out. Don’t want to miss anything. And, while praying for my “wants,” I can get suspicious of my own motives and return to repenting – trying to sort “wants” from “needs” and submit to God’s will. Not always that easy to do, especially in real time.

Eventually I get to a point where I’m done with my long prayer. Sometimes I’ve had trouble finishing, perhaps frustrating myself with too much thinking, and found myself ending abruptly with the short prayer, God, you know. Amen. This has led to a whole new line of thinking about prayer, Hmm… God does know. He knows my problems, my wants, my motives, my needs, and the world’s problems – and he knows his will and his plans, which I know are good. Let’s just go with that. His will be done.

I now find myself praying just, God, you know. Amen. from time to time. I consider it a kind of shorthand between me and God. I still say long prayers, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to, because God knows. Amen to that!

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27 NIV

Enjoy the Gift of Grace

I had lunch with two of my pastors and a church elder last week to seek guidance with this Health Discipleship project. It’s still not clear to me exactly how I should be responding to the call I feel to help people to physical, emotional and spiritual health in Christ. I’m sure God will reveal more to me along the way, but it seemed appropriate to meet with them, share what I’m feeling and doing and get their reactions.

The food was good and the conversation stimulating. Nothing was decided, but one of the main areas of discussion was of grace and faith as opposed to works and legalism. Our church leadership, appropriately, stresses the saving nature of God’s grace in and of itself. Nothing we can do is necessary or sufficient for salvation. We can add nothing to the finished work of Jesus. I agree with that.

Paraphrasing, their question for me was, “Can you connect health, wellness and lifestyle change to Jesus without being legalistic or judgmental?” Hmm… Good question. The right answer is by myself, “Probably not.” But, under the influence of the Holy Spirit and subjecting myself to feedback and criticism from the church, “Yes.” So here’s how I see this grace/works issue and my particular health calling.

Jesus calls us not to just intellectually assent to his Lordship, but to become his disciples. Exercising our faith as disciples, we should find our character being transformed by the Holy Spirit, and it’s this new character that guides us in our new actions or “works.” That is, the works flow from the grace of God applied to our inner nature.   They are a sign of God working in us rather than something we do to find favor with God. See this passage from James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.   James 2:14-26 NIV

However, discipleship is not easy and we can certainly go wrong in many ways. One is to misunderstand this whole concept and throw ourselves into works with either a sense of obligation (God requires this of me) or a sense of self-righteousness (This makes me better than everyone else). Also we may get comfortable and ignore the Holy Spirit’s prompting to go further with our discipleship, or we may compartmentalize our lives so that Jesus is Lord of some aspects but not everything. I think it’s these latter issues that often prevent us from living healthier lifestyles.

I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone that they need to change their habits, but with so many suffering from illness and debility related to their lifestyles, it seems like someone should invite them to consider the matter (and consider what God would have them do). To be clear – fit or couch potato, thin or fat, healthy or sick – God loves you the same. Christians are not obligated to be fit or to eat a certain diet, but that’s not the same as saying that God doesn’t want you to be well.

[If you’re new to this blog these four posts may be helpful background in how I am seeing lifestyle and health connected with discipleship: 1, 2, 3, 4. Hover for titles.]

Judgementalism is also a problem. None of us should be judging the others. We will all have the same judge in due time, and we’re all in different places in our lives and in our walks with Jesus. Only you and God can know just what lifestyle is best for you right now, but truly, many Christians are living in a manner that produces illness – diabetes, obesity and the like. Unfortunately, we often feel judged when confronted with uncomfortable truths, even when no judgment is being made. It’s my job to avoid being judgmental. It’s everyone else’s job to avoid feeling judged by what I say or write

Furthermore, I know that I am frequently wrong, and that when one claims to speak theological truth, one is held to a higher standard. The very next verse from the one above in James is:  Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways.  (James 3:1-2 NIV)  That’s a little disconcerting, and reinforces my commitment to subject these writings to those with greater training, which many of my readers possess. Please comment if you think I’ve got something wrong.

Given all of that, here are some questions I offer up for your consideration:

– Are you following Jesus? Do you want to?
– Have you allowed Jesus to be Lord of all aspects of your life, including your health-related behaviors? Do you want to?
– Have you been under the burden of “lifestyle legalism” feeling guilty about bad choices but unable to change?
– Have you felt the grace that says God loves you as you are? How has this grace changed you and your lifestyle?
– Are you physically, emotionally and spiritually well? Why or why not? What holds you back?
– Do you want to change your lifestyle to be healthier in mind, body or spirit? Do you want help with that?
– What is God calling you to do regarding your health?

Hopefully these questions can help you gain clarity about your own situation. If you’d like help, I am at your service through this blog. If I can be of help to you some other way, please let me know.

In closing, Christmas is just two days away. It’s a time that many feel guilty over their unhealthy habits and lifestyles – too many Christmas cookies at the party, too many beers watching the Bowl Championship Series, and way too little physical exertion.  Perhaps you are one.   Fueled by that guilt and sense of obligation, in two weeks many will make New Year’s resolutions only to feel guiltier still when their plans later fail.

Jesus, God’s Christmas present of himself to mankind, didn’t come to make you feel guilty or ashamed. Quite the opposite. Grace is the ultimate gift. Enjoy it. So don’t go all legalistic on yourself over the cookies or the beer, but in the New Year let’s all ask ourselves what changes God is calling us to make. If we pray, and make our plans out of grace and the Holy Spirit, he will surely see us through to our goals.

Merry Christmas,

Pete

Finding Meaning In Life, Nowhere or Everywhere?

The week just past has been an interesting one for me. I met many new people, reconnected with old friends, held the first copies of my new book, had the usual work ups and downs, and had some nice family times too. Through it all I’ve been wondering about the meaning of everything. Why is this happening? Why now? Where’s it all going? What does it mean?

I’m not always so focused on meaning, but I started my week reading this depressing article – “I Nearly Died. So What?” – in Sunday morning’s New York Times (online). The author describes how caring for her mother during her mother’s terminal illness, and then coming close to death herself during an acute illness, changed nothing about her. In fact, she seems proud of that. Now, four years later, she is still “not a better person” but the “same person” for the experience, and believes that there is simply no meaning to be found in such events. Arguing that there is no significance to life crises or suffering, she believes that we try to “make sense” out of them “for the sake of soothing our own nerves.”

Feeling sad for the author, I went on to read the comments – expecting many people to object to her argument for meaninglessness, and perhaps, to have a kind word of hope for her. Instead there was mostly agreement with her view and praise for her willingness to advance it in the newspaper. Reading the many similar, but shorter, stories of individuals proud to find no meaning in life’s biggest events made me sadder still. Then I went off to church, pondering why some get it and some don’t.

Early Monday morning I had the opposite experience, coming across this happy piece – Sudden Brush with Mortality Shows Why Life Is Sweet – in my local paper. The author, Darryl E. Owens, a regular columnist, developed chest pain from a life-threatening blockage in his cardiac arteries. A cardiac cath, a stent, and a short hospital stay later; he is a better man – more appreciative and more focused on the things that matter. His advice, “Love God, love your family, and love your neighbors, and you’re headed down the right path.” You got that right Darryl.

God provides the meaning in life, and not just for the big events. Too often it takes a crisis or other major problem for us to remember what’s meaningful and to find significance in our lives. But God is Lord of the small as well as the big. Not a sparrow falls without his consent. Everything is under his control, and we know that he is at work in all things for the good of those who love him. That’s what I was thinking this week as a result of this advance reading.

With that perspective, how could it not be an interesting week? A lot happened. What does it all mean? I’m not too sure but I can’t wait to find out, because I know that the author of all meaning will make it good.

I’m going to try to hang on to this perspective that everything matters, that the small events contain meaning as well as the large. I want to keep a sense of wonder about how God is working in my life and the lives of others through the seemingly insignificant events of the day. I want to live like everything is meaningful. Because it is.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.    Romans 8:28 NIV

Learning Theology, and Knowing Where to Stop

Well, I finally finished the book on systematic theology! When I last wrote about it I told you I was about a third of the way through, that it was slow going, but it was made easier by my familiarity with the conclusions. Guess what? The last two-thirds was not so familiar and it turned into very slow going indeed.   Nevertheless, I finished and am glad I persisted.

Like before, I’m asking myself, what have I have learned here, and what am I taking away from the experience? The answer is: I’m taking God, scripture, and theology in general a lot more seriously, and I have a renewed sense of the need to integrate faith into all aspects of my life. But I don’t think I want to be “a theologian.” There was a good bit that I struggled to understand, without always succeeding.  The material was perhaps too advanced for me, or at least too advanced for me right now.

That said, one of the things I liked about the book was the author’s humility. In many areas he was content to suggest that reasonable students could disagree or that there existed a range of acceptable views. On multiple occasions he pointed out that man can never really understand God and our understanding may only advance as God chooses to reveal additional understanding to us. I like that!

Anyway, it got me thinking, how much is too much for me? Where should I draw the line in trying to understand God and heavenly matters? At some point, trying to “figure God out” could become a sinful exercise of hubris. I don’t want that.

Also, understanding God is not nearly as important as knowing God. You and I may differ in our knowledge of God, but still be devoted disciples growing in the Holy Spirit. Given our differing intellectual abilities and interests, it would seem inevitable that all of us might always be on slightly different theological planes.

Here is a graphical representation of how I’m thinking about it:

Theology

 

Basically, studying theology is man attempting to bring his understanding of God in line with God’s understanding of himself. We start at the bottom and move up as we increase in knowledge (blue arrow), progressing in truth through various levels from basic to advanced, or even to exceptional (the Apostle Paul, for example)

But learning is rarely a straight-line process. We can have wrong ideas, or take the wrong direction, along the way. Without periodic course corrections we could progress on the wrong heading and wind up outside of the acceptable understanding into “heresy territory” (red zone).   So it seems to me slow going is reasonable. We need to make sure we have a firm grasp of the lower levels to be directionally correct as we work on the next higher level.

Also, we simply cannot ever get to God’s understanding, and to try would be sinful. Each of us has a limit. Our limit tomorrow may be higher than today, as God grants us understanding, but we will always have a limit. I think this book got me to mine early! Yet theology is important. It is good to learn and understand the doctrines of our faith. So I don’t want to give up; I just don’t want to push it.

What’s my next step? Prayer and Bible study can’t hurt. I also like the teaching of R. C. Sproul at Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Sproul’s new theology book is Everyone’s a Theologian, which is written for laypeople. It should be coming in the mail any day now.   Perhaps I will be a theologian after all.