Monday, January 29, 2007

How Much Does It Cost To Smile?

I am in Austin for a couple of days at the annual Texas Association of School Administrators Midwinter Conference. Austin suffers from severe traffic congestion, and now with the legislature in session, plus a thousand school superintendents and about twice that many more other administrators the problem is magnified. This afternoon it took more than twenty minutes to drive the mile from the convention center to my hotel. People were typically impatient and seemed to all be in a hurry to get where they were going.

As I pulled up to the light at my exit, there was a lady walking from car to car with a sign asking for money. As she came near, I made eye contact with her and smiled. I have taken a cue from Larry James, and for the last several months I always try to acknowledge people that I encounter. In the past, I would have just averted my eyes and hope she would pass on by.

She started to pass by, then backed up and motioned for me to roll down my window. She said, "I have been standing on this corner for over two hours, and you are the first person I have seen smile. I just wanted to thank you for smiling and tell you to have a blessed day." What must it be like to go through life and not see a smile? To encounter people who try to avoid acknowledging your existance?

As you have done to the least of these....

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Third Temptation

The third temptation facing leaders parallels Jesus' third temptation - the temptation of power. When Eve was tempted, it was fundamentally about power - the power of knowledge. Almost every division in the history of the church has been about power - who had the power to decide or control. Even among well-intentioned, God-fearing elderships issues are often settled by the most powerful persuader or the one who is able to align the majority.

Nouwen responds to the question of why the temptation of power is so difficult to resist with the following:

Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for love. It is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks 'Do you love me?' We ask 'Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your kingdom?'...The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led."

Leaders must constantly be aware of and guard against falling to the same temptations that Jesus faced in the desert - the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be popular, and the temptation to be powerful.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Kingdom is Near

Having spent a significant amount of time dwelling in Luke 10 over the past few months, I have thought quite a bit about what it means that the kingdom is near. I am convinced that the kingdom has significant implications for our interaction with the world today. As I read this recent post on Out of Ur, it struck me that if the kingdom is present in this world, then so is the opposite of the kingdom...

But have you ever noticed that Jesus didn’t spend much time on hell.

In fact there are really only a couple of times he speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of hell and God’s judgment. And both of them have to do with the walls we create between ourselves and our suffering neighbors. One is Matthew 25 where the sheep and the goats are separated, and the goats who did not care for the poor, hungry, homeless, and imprisoned are sent off to endure an agony akin to that experienced by the ones that they neglected on this earth. And then there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable Jesus tells about a rich man who neglected the poor beggar outside his gate.

In the parable we hear of a wealthy man who builds a gate between himself and the poor man, and that chasm becomes an unbridgeable gap not only with Lazarus but with God. He is no doubt a religious man (he calls out “Father” Abraham and knows the prophets), and undoubtedly he had made a name for himself on earth, but is now a nameless rich man begging the beggar for a drop of water. And Lazarus who lived a nameless life in the shadows of misery is seated next to God, and given a name. Lazarus is the only person named in Jesus’ parables, and his name means “the one God rescues.” God is in the business of rescuing people from the hells they experience on earth. And God is asking us to love people out of those hells.

Nowadays many of us spend a lot of time pondering and theologizing about heaven on earth and God’s Kingdom coming here (and rightly so!), but it seems we would also do well to do a little work with the reality of hell. Hell is not just something that comes after death, but something many are living in this very moment… 1.2 billion people that are groaning for a drop of water each day, over 30,000 kids starving to death each day, 38 million folks dying of AIDS. It seems ludicrous to think of preaching to them about hell. I see Jesus spending far more energy loving the “hell” out of people, and lifting people out of the hells in which they are trapped, than trying to scare them into heaven.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Blogosphere Library

I frequently post about something I have read, and occasionally reprint an excerpt or copy. I often benefit from others who do the same. Sometimes the blogosphere is like a big library full of works I would be unaware of if others did not share.....This evening I read this from John Stackhouse's Humble Apologetics in Wade Hodges' blog .

We can conclude, then, with some questions that Christians shouldn’t ask, and a question we should always ask instead.
“Is he saved?” I don’t know, and I cannot know until “the roll is called up yonder.” The actual condition of another person’s heart is mysterious, even to the individual. So from the outside I certainly cannot presume to know, and therefore I do not need to try to know. The whole agenda of some Christians to figure out “who is in and who is out” is therefore mistaken.
“What can I do to convert him?” Nothing. God’s Spirit alone can truly convert. Again, God does not call us to do what we cannot do. So we need not, and must not, try to convert anyone, including through what we might pride ourselves on as being impressive apologetics.
“Does he need to hear the gospel?” Of course he does. We all do, again and again, until we see Christ face to face. That’s one of the reasons Christians take the Lord’s Supper regularly: to hear in it the gospel once again, the gospel of everlasting forgiveness and empowerment to overcome evil and enjoy the good. If we therefore have any opportunity to tell the gospel to another, we should tell it. No one outgrows it.
The good question to ask instead is simply this: “How shall I treat him? How shall I treat her? And the answer is just as simple: with love. Until all of our neighbors are fully mature in Christ, there is something left for serious Christians to do, and when we have the opportunity to assist the neighbor somehow, then we should take it. I daresay that will keep us all plenty busy until the Lord Jesus returns.

And then, this from an article in Christianity Today in Mike Cope's blog -

“Can the West be re-evangelized? Only if we unlearn our default ethnocentric assumptions about “real” Christianity (our own) and unlearn our blindness to the ways Western Christianity is infected by cultural idolatry. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is often harder to receive than to give. That reverses the polarity of patron and client and makes us uncomfortably aware that what Jesus said to the Laodicean church might apply to us in the West: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).”

Both of these struck me as particularly on point as we explore being missional.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Second Temptation

Nouwen describes the second temptation that leaders face as the temptation to be popular. This parallels Jesus' temptation to throw himself from the roof of the temple, and is not necessarily a desire for popularity that he is talking about, but the desire to impress, to portray ourselves in the best light, to do the spectacular, to earn applause.

This often translates into an indiviualistic or egocentric mindset where decisions and actions are viewed through a lense colored by how this will impact me or perceptions of me. This self-focus is a barrier to community, and very often results in a leadership style that is based on power rather than servanthood.

Overcoming this temptation requires openness, vulnerability; a brokenness that we are willing to expose to others rather than hide. Nouwen says that the keys to developing these traits are confession and forgiveness. We develop a culture where confession is rewarded with forgiveness, gentleness, and grace rather than rebuke and punishment. We confess our own brokenness and begin to experience the healing, reconciling presence of Jesus.

As we lead from our weakness rather than our own strength we make it safe for the ones we are charged to lead to be vulnerable as well. Vulnerability, confession, and forgiveness lead to the kind of community where we can truly serve and build one another up - the kind of community that announces that the kingdom is among us.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Reflections on Christian Leadership

As Jeremiah reminds us, the responsibility of leadership is sobering. Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus, Reflections on Christian Leadership, draws parallels between the three temptations that Jesus faced in the desert and temptations that face leaders in the church today. The first of these, he calls the temptation to be relevant - to do, solve, prove, create - to demonstrate competence in those things that the modern world uses to measure success.

Nouwen says that when Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread, he was being tempted to be relevant. He had the ability to turn stones into food for all of the hungry people he would meet, but his mission was greater. The bread that he would provide was himself.

According to Nouwen, "the leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there...

It is not enough to be moral people, well trained, eager to help their fellow humans, and able to respond creatively to the burning issues of their time. All of that is very valuable and important, but it is not the heart of Christian leadership. The central question is, Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God's presence, to listen to God's voice, to look at God's beauty...

Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well formed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice, and guidance."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Faithful Leadership

"I will send disaster upon the leaders of my people – the shepherds of my sheep – for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for," says the LORD. This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: "Instead of leading my flock to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them." - Jeremiah 23:1-2

Every so often something will just reach out from the page and grab me. I've been reading through Jeremiah this month, and the other day this passage caught me squarely between the eyes. It is a sobering thing to consider the expectations that God has for those in positions of leadership, and the consequences of not being faithful to those expectations.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Fredericksburg 35, Kerville Tivy 28

Yesterday I drove nearly 600 miles round trip to referee a high school basketball game. It was a district rivalry game between two small Texas towns, nice crowd, plenty of intensity among the coaches and players, not much scoring. I got to work with two competent and experienced co-officials and we had a solid game.

Why would 3 officials drive 283 miles from Dallas to Fredericksburg? When the coaches involved in a district game are unable to agree on the officials assigned by their local officals chapter - in this case the San Antonio chapter - they can appeal to the University Interscholastic League (Texas High School sports governing body) to have officials assigned from another chapter in the state.

When the UIL gets involved with the assigning of officials for regular season games, it becomes somewhat of a high profile assignment, and is therefore considered something of a privilege to get such an assignment. After being on the road for more than 10 hours, I'm not sure how much of a privilege...I did enjoy talking basketball and getting to know my partners better, it was fun working the game, and I'm glad to have had the experience, but I think I would be willing for someone else to enjoy the next 'privilege'.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How Will You Race Against Horses?

LORD, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you. Now let me bring you this complaint: Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy? You have planted them, and they have taken root and prospered. Your name is on their lips, but in their hearts they give you no credit at all... Then the LORD replied to me, "If racing against mere men makes you tired, how will you race against horses? If you stumble and fall on open ground, what will you do in the thickets near the Jordan?"

These questions from Jeremiah are not different from questions that have been asked throughout history and are often heard today. Why do wicked people prosper? Why do good people suffer? How can a loving and benevolent god permit children to suffer from AIDS, hunger, abuse, etc? They are the same questions Job asked, that were asked in the Psalms.

God's reply here is a little bit different from the reply he gave to Job. To Job, he responded 'Who are you to be questioning me? Were you there when I created...' But to Jeremiah, he responds 'If you think this is bad, you ain't seen nothing yet.' I think I would rather have gotten the response that he gave Job.

While I do often find myself asking these kinds of questions, I try (not always successfully) to not demand answers so much as to adopt the attitude of the Psalmist - 'Still I will praise you, Lord.'

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One More Quote from Martin Luther King

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ ” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bonhoffer and Dr. King

Staying in because of the threatened winter storms Saturday gave us the opportunity to watch Bonhoffer - the documentary about the life of German theologan Deitrich Bonhoffer. Bonhoffer was executed by the Nazis for his efforts to stand against Hitler. As I watched the movie, I was struck by the similarities and parallels in his life to that of Martin Luther King.

  • Both men were trained in the classic theology of their time, personally struggled with the practical application of the intellectual studies they engaged in, and came to an understanding that application of theology to life involved actively living and speaking in a way that opposed oppression and injustice.
  • Both men actively challenged the status quo and were advocates on behalf of the oppressed in their society.
  • Both men heroically abandoned safety and comfort to fulfill what they saw as their duty.
  • Both men were imprisoned and eventually killed because of their efforts.
  • The lives of both men created a legacy that surpassed what they were able to accomplish in life.
Although they lived a few decades apart and in two distinct social contexts, the way that they lived according to their beliefs was similar. Both men did understand the cost of discipleship. Below are some quotations from each - I will put in a separate post the author of each.

  1. "One of the great weaknesses of liberal theology is that it becomes so involved in higher criticism, in many instances that it fails to answer certain questions. ... The weakness lies in its failure to connect the masses. Liberal theology seems to be lost in a vocabulary. Moreover, it seems too divorced from life."
  2. “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
  3. "On the one hand, I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other, I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slums and economic insecurity."
  4. “The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it."
  5. “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
  6. "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."


By the way, Larry James has published in his blog today Dr. King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I would encourage you to take the time to read it. It is powerfully eloquent.

Quotes from Bonhoffer and Dr. King

  1. "One of the great weaknesses of liberal theology is that it becomes so involved in higher criticism, in many instances that it fails to answer certain questions. ... The weakness lies in its failure to connect the masses. Liberal theology seems to be lost in a vocabulary. Moreover, it seems too divorced from life." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  2. “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” - Dietrich Bonhoffer
  3. "On the one hand, I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other, I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slums and economic insecurity." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  4. “The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it." - Dietrich Bonhoffer
  5. “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” - Dietrich Bonhoffer
  6. "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Weathermen Cried Wolf...

The local weathercasters have been talking for at least a week about the severe winter storms that they were predicting would beset us this weekend. Beginning Friday evening and throughout the day, they interupted regular broadcasting with special alerts and maps forecasting the imminant freezing rain that would cover the area with ice. Many churches, including Skillman, canceled Sunday services out of concern for the safety of members.

There was quite a bit of rain during the night and this morning, but the long threatened ice failed to form. By the time roads actually started to freeze around the area this evening, people were immune to the forecasts and apparently caught off guard by slick driving conditions. One wonders whether weather wonders working themselves into such a frenzy all week didn't have the same numbing effect on the public as the boy who cried wolf...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Neighbors Next Door...

With the threatened winter weather conditions it was a good weekend to stay in, watch football games and rented movies, and catch up on some reading. The following excerpt is from the January selection of the Urban Engagement Book Club, The Latino Wave by Jorge Ramos.

The majority of Hispanics in the United States don't wear sombreros, have beards, or sing like famous Mexican crooners Pedro Infante or Luis Miguel. We don't joke around like comedians Cantinflas or Alvarez Guedes, we don't dance when we walk, we don't cook pork and lamb on our patios, or have a carpentry or paint shop at home. We don't wear guayaberas to the opera, we're not all undocumented immigrants, and we don't all quit school before finishing the twelfth grade.

You won't usually find workshops set up on our patios, or exotic flora and fauna in our bathrooms, and it's even less likely that you'll find us digging pits in our backyards to cook meat in. We are just as likely to be astronauts or investors as farmers or restauranteurs. We keep our money in banks, not under our matresses. We invest in securities and have 401K plans so we can retire in our sixties....We support our troops, wherever they may be. We may have doubts about the true reasons for starting a war, but once committed, we respect the bravery of the soldier in the battlefield more than the thought given to the decision that got him there.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Missional at the Core

The following description of a missional church is excerpted from Christianity Today's blog Out of Ur...

Missional at the core
In essence, missional churches seek to align their identity, activities, and hopes with God’s redemptive mission on earth. This is a tall order for churches that brim with cultural and programming expectations, resource abundance, iconic labels (like “evangelical” or “mainline” or “Pentecostal”), and visions of grand ambitions. The temptation is always to have a grand scheme to which we incessantly try to woo or invoke God’s presence rather see ourselves fitting into God’s agenda.

In contrast, the missional church is a corrective to or an outright rejection of commodified and cultural Christianity, steeped in institutionalism, individualism, and sentimentality.
Identifying missional churches can be difficult. Such churches are separated by identity and perspective as much as their visible forms. Nonetheless, there are some common commitments.

(1) Missional communities try to align themselves holistically with God’s theme of redemption. They resist the use of Christianity as an anesthetic to the pain of human needs and as an affirmation of the superiority of one culture’s way of life.This is lived out in several common practices.

(2) Programming and finances are directed outward. It’s easy for much of the church’s program and fiscal reflexes to become directed internally. Emphases on church growth or “building the body” are often presented as the mission (“A larger church means more space and opportunity for our community to encounter Christ,” is the overt message, when the real message to staff is, in fact, “Keep the saints happy and coming back.”).

To counter this temptation, missional communities may cut back on programming to leave space for breathing and living. Some ministries are relocated from the safe confines of the church into the community. Financial assets are viewed as both opportunity and burden. Some missional churches have made a pattern of giving away resources without control or strings attached to reduce congregants’ sense of entitlement.

(3) Missional communities are discontent with spiritual formation as primarily cognitive assent (“I believe this to be true”). Instead, formation is presented as a way of life, a rhythm of being, and a rule of values. It emphasizes faithful living during the week rather than gathering for worship at a weekend event. The sharp boundary between the sacred and secular is evaporating as missional fellowships seek to hear God’s voice in culture and creation.

(4) Embracing the ethnic and social diversities of local communities is becoming a moral expectation. (This is one aspect of God’s voice that I believe we have heard strongly from outside the confines of the church.)

(5) Finally, missional communities are not only ardent listeners for the earmarks of God’s redemptive work in our world, these communities are passionate activists when they find the pathways and trajectories of God’s redemptive presence. The work of justice, reconciliation, peace, and spiritual direction are becoming the dominant reflexes of missional communities.
In this spirit of activism, theological debates and historical sunderings are becoming marginalized.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It Costs More to be Poor

Over the past year or so, I have become more and more aware of some of the factors affecting the poor. One of those is that routine, everyday expenses like food, transportation, and shelter often cost the most for those who can afford them least. The following guest column was written by a freshman at Yale, and appeared in the Dallas Morning News on January 1, and illustrates one aspect of the factor that it really does cost more to be poor.

Weighing Their Options

There is something to be said for fast food: It is quick, convenient and – especially – cheap. We all know it's bad for us, but when a bacon double-cheeseburger costs less than a head of lettuce, it might be hard to refuse.
Fruits and vegetables are one of the keys to good health. Barbara Rolls invented the sensible Volumetrics diet, which encourages people to eat large quantities of low-energy-dense foods rather than small portions of energy-dense foods. This plan makes sense: You feel full, lose weight and end up eating a lot more fresh produce.
Unfortunately, Volumetrics and similar health-food diets miss an important element: the economic factor. For somebody on a tight budget, it is not feasible to buy lots of expensive vegetables to replace one jar of peanut butter. A British study, "Poor Families 'Priced Out of a Healthy Diet,' " found a 51 percent price gap between shopping carts full of nutritious vs. unhealthful foods. If people can barely afford the least-expensive foods, these more expensive, healthful foods are clearly out of reach.
For the past seven years, I have worked at a food pantry in Baltimore. Many clients are overweight, and many have diabetes. One day, a woman mentioned that she was trying to lose weight because she was afraid of getting diabetes. Her main concern was that she would not be able to afford health care and medicine.
I tried to help this client find low-fat, low-sugar options. As I scanned the shelves, all I saw was food high in salt, fat, preservatives and sugar. Ramen noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese were the pantry's most plentiful items, and because of a lack of refrigeration facilities, we were never able to provide fresh fruits or vegetables. Many other women at the pantry had similar issues with weight management, and they were not nearly as concerned with the aesthetic consequences of obesity as with the economic ones.
The affluent spend billions of dollars annually on diet programs and products; the poor do not have these tools at their disposal. But there are things the government and others can do. If food pantries and shelters were required to provide more nutritious food and given government support to do so, this could help stem the obesity epidemic. The food stamp and Women, Infants and Children programs could be greatly expanded to provide better food to more people. Most important, if the government would stop subsidizing corn and soybeans and start subsidizing fruits and vegetables, we could begin to make real progress.
The reasons to address this problem go beyond altruism. Low-income people rack up more than $200 billion a year in medical expenses that they cannot pay. For every $1 the government spends on preventive measures, the nation saves $10.64 in later medical expenses and lost productivity. The resulting savings could offset the costs of providing higher-quality food and nutrition education to the needy.
Today, many of us will vow to change our dietary ways. Here's a resolution that would do all of us good: Let's establish policies that will give every American a better chance at having a happy, healthy new year.
Hannah Lupien is a freshman at Yale University.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


From the Religion section of today's Dallas Morning News...

"You gotta have two wings to fly." - Rick Warren on why the left wing and the right wing need to learn to get along.

"There's an old evangelical saying, 'If he's not the Lord of all, he's not the Lord at all.'" - N. T. Wright

"While Baptists bicker about booze, or whine about worship style, or cry over Calvinism, or tilt over tongues, Rick Warren is doing what he can to make a difference in his lifetime." - Benjamin Cole

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Missional Conversation

The following is from an email forwarded to me by my friend and "second mother", Carol Thomas. While I don't spend much time in beauty shops, the conversation depicted does represent a world view that is very common today, and it also illustrates the ambivalance we face even when we missionally seek opportunities for conversation...

A lady went to a beauty shop to have her hair cut and her nails painted and trimmed.

As the beautician began to work, they began to have a good conversation. They talked about so many things and various subjects. When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the beautician said : "I don't believe that God exists."

"Why do you say that?" asked Sheryl who has MS. "Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn't exist. Tell me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children? If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can't imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things."

Then Sheryl thought for a moment, but didn't respond because she didn't want to start an argument. The beautician just finished her job and the customer left the shop. Just after she left the beauty shop, she saw a woman in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and not groomed at all. She looked dirty and unkempt. Then Sheryl turned back and entered the beauty shop again and she said to the beautician: "You know what? Beauticians do not exist."

"How can you say that?" asked the surprised beautician. "I am here, and I am a beautician. And I just worked on you!"

"No!" Sheryl exclaimed. "Beauticians don't exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and very unkempt, like that woman outside." "Ah, but beauticians DO exist! What happens is, people do not come to me." "Exactly!"- affirmed Sheryl. "That 's the point! God, too, DOES exist!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Follow Me

I thought this gracemail from Edward Fudge was particularly relevant as we are beginning a new year...

Follow Me

There is a time to analyze, to study, to reflect. There is also a time to respond, to move, to act. Mark's Gospel is intended for the second occasion. It is 65-67 A.D. Nero is Emperor in Rome. He has just beheaded Paul and crucified Peter upside down. Now he is unleashing a wave of lethal persecution against Jesus' followers in the imperial capital. Some he ties to stakes, drenches in oil and burns as human torches. Others he dresses in animal skins and exposes to killer beasts. Others he crucifies. Jesus' followers remember the master's challenge: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:34). They do not sit in a Bible class and theorize "What is my 'cross'"? For them, this is no metaphor. It is cold reality. The choice is clear. Jesus went to a Roman cross in obedience to God. Do I follow him or not?

Some observers say that more Christians died as martyrs during the 20th century than during all previous centuries combined. Today, in at least 40 countries around the world, believers in Jesus are actively persecuted for their faith. Most of us who live in the West have never experienced physical or financial hardship for following Jesus. It is too easy for us to forget or to remain ignorant about our sisters and brothers who do (Heb. 13:3). We cannot know what the future holds as the chilling glacier of post-Christian thinking continues to cover Europe, the U.K., North America and Australia/New Zealand. Already the center of Christianity has shifted to Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. Already the Koreans and Nigerians and Ugandans are sending missioners to the United States and England.

Whether we face physical persecution or not, the call of Jesus remains the same and it is unmistakably clear: "Follow me." Jesus does not say, "analyze me" or "explain me" but "follow me." He does not call us to build buildings or plan programs or attract audiences, but to follow him. This best happens with the support and comradeship of communities of faith but it ultimately happens individually, personally, one person at a time. Each morning we awaken we hear his call: "Follow me." Each hour we live we respond to his challenge: "Follow me."

Before Jesus calls his first apprentice, Levi, in Mark's Gospel, he has already been announcing the kingdom of God and calling his hearers to repent. He already has been healing and expelling demons. Already Jesus has been teaching with uncommon authority. He is not an ordinary man but the Son of God of Psalm 2:7, the apocalyptic Son of Man of Daniel 7 who will finally judge the world. His deeds match his words. He is what he says. His words therefore command our attention. His person compels our respect. Every minute we breathe, his call hangs in the air: "Follow me." How will we respond?

Copyright 2007 by Edward Fudge.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today I Choose...

One of my daily devotional resources is Max Lucado's Grace for the Moment. I have a couple of copies - one at work that I generally begin my working day with, and one at home. Yesterday as Barbara was reading my home copy she reminded me of this introduction to the book...

No occasion justifies hatred; no injustice warrants bitterness. I choose love. Today I will love God and what God loves.

I will invite my God to be the God of circumstance. I will refuse the temptation to be cynical...the tool of the lazy thinker. I will refuse to see people as anything less than human beings, created by God. I will refuse to see any problem as anything less than an opportunity to see God.

I will live forgiven. I will forgive that I may live.

I will overlook the inconveniences of the world. Instead of cursing the one who takes my place, I'll invite him to do so. Rather than complain that the wait is too long, I will thank God for a moment to pray. Instead of clenching my fist at new assignments, I will face them with joy and courage.

I will be kind to the poor, for they are alone. Kind to the rich, for they are afraid. And kind to the unkind, for such is how God has treated me.

I will go without a dollar before I take a dishonest one. I will be overlooked before I boast. I will confess before I will accuse. I choose goodness.

Today I will keep my promises. My debtors will not regret their trust. My associates will not question my word. My wife will not question my love. And my children will never fear that their father will not come home.

Nothing is won by force. I choose to be gentle. If I raise my voice may it be only in praise. If I clench my fist, may it be only in prayer. If I make a demand, may it be only of myself.

I am a spiritual being...After this body is dead, my spirit will soar. I refuse to let what will rot, rule the eternal. I choose self-control. I will be drunk only by joy. I will be impassioned only by my faith. I will be influenced only by God. I will be taught only by Christ. I choose self-control.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To these I commit my day. If I succeed, I will give thanks. If I fail, I will seek grace. And then, when this day is done, I will place my head on my pillow and rest.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Poor Will Always Be Among You...

Over the past couple of years, and especially in 2006 a number of events and experiences have helped shape my evolving perspective on poverty. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of those experiences and my thoughts.

One event was a session I attended at ElderLink a couple of months ago, where Larry James defined what he called a theology of the poor. I'll try to summarize without losing too much in the translation...

When Jesus made the statement to his disciples that the poor would always be among them, he was quoting from the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 15 is one of those situations where God first describes his intent for his people - the ideal standard.
There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you carefully obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today.
Next he acknowledges the possibility that his people may fall short but remains hopeful that they will respond appropriately...
But if there are any poor people in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead be generous and lend them whatever they need.
And finally, knowing the nature of his people, he acknowledges his realistic expectation...
There will always be some among you who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share your resources freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.
I had always understood Jesus' statement (when I gave it any thought) to indicate that it was simply part of the natural order of things that there would be poor people in the world. Clearly, that is not what the first part of Deuteronomy 15 would imply. Rather, the presence of poverty in the world would seem to be confirmation of a failure to live according to God's will. And not just on the part of the poor...