Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Look Back Yet with Hope

Today marks the end of a year filled with turbulence. It has been like flying in a plane at a high altitude and hitting a pocket of rough air. You remember being pitched around. Your stomach begins to quiver. You grip the arm rests of your seat a little tighter. And you pray a quick prayer...take that back, you pray a long prayer that you might survive. That pretty much describes 2008...only the turbulence just kept coming. There was no let up at all.

The housing market continued its downward slide with foreclosure rates reaching epidemic proportions. Those, fortunate enough to keep their homes, saw values plunge to record lows. And there seems to be no turn-around in sight. Wall Street, a bastion of supposed security and strength, was next to suffer a collapse. Institutions that had survived the Great Depression now closed their doors forever. In order to stay a total economic meltdown, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department infused billions of taxpayer dollars into banks and other lending institutions, and even bailed out an auto industry that was on life-supports. (Don't ask me how it will all be paid for...I won't live that long!)

And now the world teeters on the brink of war. Of course the focus is the Middle East. Even as I write this final blog for 2008, Israeli warplanes continue their aerial assault on Hamas rocket launching sites within the Gaza Strip. Most of the Arab world has remained uniquely silent, secretly hoping, at least in my opinion, that Hamas will be defeated. That would knock down Iran, the largest supporter of Hamas. Of course, the Saudis and the Egyptians and even the Jordanians cannot come out and say that they hope Israel will cause the Palestinian people to overthrow Hamas. And, in Ramallah, President Abbas is also hoping for the demise of Hamas so that he and the Palestinian Authority might reclaim that which was taken from them in 2006.

In just a few days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Whether you voted for him or not, he is certainly going to need our prayers. His is an unenviable task. I can only hope that he and his family have enjoyed the past few days of vacation in Hawaii because it might be his last vacation for several years.

Looking back, 2008 was certainly a year for weather extremes. I just read that 2008 was one of the most deadly years, weather wise, ever recorded. Over 125,000 people died when a cyclone hit Bangladesh. Hurricane Ike certainly caused its share of grief and hardship along the Texas coast. Tornadoes occurred in record numbers. The Midwest suffered through floods of unprecedented proportions. And now record snowfall and cold have invaded much of the northern half of the United States.

I think, as most of us will look back upon 2008 in the years that lie ahead, most of our thoughts will have a negative bent. Yet, through it all I have still seen God at work. He is still directing this play according to the script which He wrote before He ever created this world. And, I believe the climax of this play is about to come. We are in the last act and, perhaps, even nearing the final scene. So there is still hope for us to cling to. Our confidence is not built upon an Obama Administration nor upon a Wall Street bailout. Our hope is not built upon an economic stimulus package nor upon a ceasefire in the Middle East. No, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. "On Christ the solid Rock I stand...and I hope you do as well...for all other ground...political, military, sinking sand."

May God bless your New Year with His presence and His power.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Birthday of the Servant-King

This morning I was reading a series of scripture passages focusing upon the First Advent of Christ. I do this every year as a reminder of the real reason for the season. I have to admit that I never grow tired of reading the Christmas story in all its many settings, from Matthew and Luke, which record the actual events surrounding the birth of Christ, to John and Paul who declare the significance of who this little baby really was.

In reading the accounts in Matthew 2 and in Philippians 2, I noticed two very interesting statements that almost seemed contradictory. In Philippians 2:7, the Apostle Paul states that he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. While in Matthew 2:2 we read of the question the magi asked of Herod, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.

Now there is a marked difference between "a servant" and "a king." To be a king implies having something or someone to rule over. To be a king means to have authority over another. To be a king creates the environment where people submit themselves to that authority. The magi came to Jerusalem seeking a baby who had the authority of a king and who would specifically rule over the Jewish people. To be a king was to be exalted.

On the other hand, to be a servant implies having only an authority that someone else gives to you. A servant had no authority of his own. To be a servant means that one's life was given to enable someone else to rise to a higher standard than they were at that moment. To be a servant was to be humbled.

Were the magi confused as to who Jesus was? Was the Apostle Paul confused? Neither was confused. Both the magi and the Apostle were correct. But the time perspectives were different. Before He could become King, Jesus had to take upon Himself the role of a servant. While talking with His disciples, Jesus told them that He did not come to be served, as a king would be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. All four gospel writers record incident after incident where Jesus served others: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And, His ultimate act of service came when He became obedient to death, even death on a cross. The First Advent is a celebration of His coming as a servant.

But, the Second Advent will be a celebration of His coming as a King. In that same Philippians 2 passage, in verses 9-11, the Apostle Paul declares that God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. This the celebration accorded a king. And He will be King over everyone, not just the Jewish people. What a great day that will be!

So it is correct to say that Christmas is the birthday of Servant-King.

I wish a most blessed Christmas to each of you. May you experience His presence and be awed by His peace these days. Merry Christmas, and, as Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us, everyone!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Mess in Illinois Confirms an Old Truth

In 1887, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton - better known as Lord Acton - wrote these words: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

That thought came to my mind as I have been reading accounts of the arrest of the Governor of Illinois on charges of political corruption. Governor Blagojevich has been, I take that back...he has been known to have said that the vacant Senate seat in Illinois would go to the highest bidder. Furthermore, he said that if no one met the price, then he would appoint himself to that seat. Now corruption is nothing new in Illinois politics. I remember living in Chicago back in the early 1980's and the expression "vote early and vote often" was a rule of thumb. The church I served witnessed first hand political corruption. And now, Governor Blagojevich, if convicted, would join three previous Illinois governors who bear the title of "felon." Yes, Lincoln would roll over in his grave.

Now the question will be asked: What did President-elect Obama know about this corrupt practice? Investigations will be forth-coming, and well they should be. And I trust the media will do a more careful investigation than they did during the months prior to the election. Our nation certainly does not need another "Watergate" early in a new administration.

Why is Lord Acton correct in his statement? Unfortunately we have witnessed the reality of this truth over and over again. Politicians, business leaders, and even pastors have fallen in disgrace. Power does corrupt. But does it have to? I believe the answer is no. Just look at Jesus.

He was the incarnate Son of God. He was God in the flesh. All authority under heaven and upon earth was invested in Him. Now that is a lot of power. But how did Jesus use that power? Did He use it to advance Himself? Did He use it to intimidate people to bow to His authority? Absolutely not! Jesus Christ came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. There is the key: Jesus came to serve others. Jesus used His powers to minister to the needs of others. The focus of Jesus was upon others. So He ministered to tax collectors and prostitutes. He touched lepers and those who were unclean. He ate meals with sinners. Jesus wept unashamedly at the tomb of Lazarus; but also spoke strong words against the demonic spirit that possessed a young boy. Jesus came to serve.

Friends, there is the difference between Governor Blagojevich and Jesus. Governor Blagojevich used his power and position to further his own quest for more power. Jesus served others. How sad that our leaders, not only in politics and business, but also in our churches, have forgotten how to serve others.

Lord, give us the heart of a servant. Help us to use the power and positions You have given to us to minister to others. Help us not to seek the applause of men, nor to seek to add to our estimation of who we are. But help us to do it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai - Why?

This past weekend terrorists struck once again destroying innocent lives. The location was Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Mumbai is the "New York" of the Indian subcontinent. It is a city teeming with millions of people, many of whom literally sleep along roadsides or on folding tables in front of their very small store fronts. I remember taking a cab from the Mumbai airport to a small hotel late one evening (actually it was very early in the morning). I was shocked to see the masses of people living in such squalid conditions.

But, it was not these impoverished, destitute dalits that were the target of the hatred of the terrorists. No, the target was foreign business people, tourists, and Jews. The attack upon the Hotel Taj Mahal and the Jewish Chahad Center was well planned and executed. The slaughter was both indiscriminate and yet targeted. All who perished never met their attackers. All who perished never knew the reasons why they had become the objects of someone else's anger. All who died were innocent. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and were of the wrong religious beliefs.

And why were those ten young men from Pakistan so angry that they actually planned such mayhem and murder? Being Pakistanis they had a profound hatred of Indians. That is just a fact of history. Since Pakistan separated itself from India, those two ethnic groups have barely tolerated the others existence. Pakistan and India always seem poised on the brink of destroying each other. But of greater concern than the ethnic animosity is the religious animosity. These Pakistanis were radical Islamic extremists. They had a violent hatred toward Westerners and Jews - in their minds, "the Great Satan" and "the little Satan."

This was another in a long series of religious attacks we have witnessed since 9/11. Instead of trying to understand a different religious viewpoint through dialogue, the objective is the destruction of anyone who does not hold to my particular belief. The Romans attempted to destroy the new way called Christianity by mass crucifixions and coliseum spectacles. The Christians, later during the time of the Crusades, tried to destroy the infidel Muslims. Later even some of the Reformers persecuted Anabaptists who did not hold to a particular belief system. In each of the above attempts at destroying a belief-system, the attempt failed. Christianity survived the Roman persecutions. Islam survived the mayhem of the Crusades. And Anabaptism survived the intimidating threats of Calvin and Zwingli. And, I am convinced, the terroristic threats of radical Islam will fail as well.

I am alarmed that there has been no loud outcry from any Islamic leader condemning the attacks in Mumbai. In fact, there has been no cry at all. If the tables had been reversed and a group of Muslims had been attacked and slaughtered by a radical Hindu sect, then the entire Islamic world would be involved in a firestorm. Remember the outrage over some cartoons published in a Danish paper. Until the Islamic world stands up and condemns these fanatics as being outside of Islamic belief, these assaults will continue unabated because these fanatics will believe that the whole of the Islamic world is in agreement with them. And, perhaps they are correct in their thinking.

What happened in Mumbai is not an isolated incident. Could it happen here in the United States? Absolutely. Have you stayed at a luxury hotel lately? Security is lax. Lobbies are open and inviting targets for terrorists. As 9/11 caused a great change in the way that we travel by security lines prior to 9/11, I believe the events in Mumbai could change the way we stay in hotels. Perhaps we will have to go through screening to even get into the lobby.

This world is changing. It is becoming increasingly more violent just as the Scriptures indicate will happen. We can either cower with fear or we can explode with hope. I trust we will manifest the later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanksgiving...For What?

"I am thankful for _______." Well, I will let you fill in the blank. You can fill in the blank, can't you? I mean, there is at least one thing for which you can be thankful, isn't there? Yes, I know 2008 has not been exactly one of those stellar years. I have watched my retirement portfolio decline by nearly 40% this year. I have had to pay $4 for a gallon of gas and $3 for a gallon of milk. Marlys and I have watched as the price of our home has depreciated several thousands of dollars this past year.

And then there has been the world scene. It certainly does not give one cause for a lot of thanksgiving and gratitude. Iran and North Korea toy with our psyches as they experiment with nuclear capabilities. Roguish pirates patrol the waters off East Africa, capturing ships and threatening an environmental nightmare. Civil wars continue almost unabated in the heart of Africa with violence that is beyond the comprehension of a civilized society. And what can be said of famines and diseases like AIDS that leave a trail of desperation worldwide.

"I am thankful for ______." If I am dependent upon the things I can hold in my hand, then I might find it difficult expressing thanksgiving this year. BUT, if I am dependent upon the things I hold in my heart, then I should be filled with ceaseless praise. God has been good. And God continues to be good.

Two of my favorite Scripture texts during the Thanksgiving Season are: Psalm 103 and Ephesians 1:3-14. David cries out, "O my soul, please don't forget all of God's benefits!" What are some of those incredible benefits that both David and Paul bring to our remembrance?
1. That you and I have been chosen by get this, even before the foundations of the world were laid! Do you understand that? I can't entirely! Just think...before God created the world, He had already chosen you. "I am thankful for being chosen by God."
2. That you and I have been adopted by God. Adoption means that I once stood outside, but now I am on the inside. I was invited to be part of God's family...forever. "I am thankful for God's loving adoption of me."
3. That you and I have been forgiven by God. David says that "as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." Praise God He has cleansed us of our sins and removed them so far away that they can never be found. "I am thankful for the awesomeness of God's forgiveness."
4. That you and I have been redeemed from the pit. That means that our souls have been rescued from the eternal damnation that awaited us. We have been born again. We have been saved. Whatever term you want to use, it is pretty special. "I am thankful for an amazing grace of God that saved my soul."

And we should never forget to give thanks for those special relationships God has brought into our lives: family and friends and with Him.

"I am thankful for ______." Okay, now I think you can find at least one reason for which to praise God. So, let's get started praising the Lord!

P.S. Shouldn't every day be a day of "thanksgiving?"

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thoughts from a Roller Coaster

Roller coasters never thrilled me. I was very content to just sit on the bench and watch everyone else scream and get their brains rattled. Give me the "lazy river" where I can sit in an inner-tube raft and drift down the stream with my eyes closed and my mind enjoying the quiet. Ah, that was excitement for me. On the other hand, my wonderful wife always enjoyed the heart-pounding, teeth-rattling, bone-jarring rides on the coasters. She preferred risks over serenity.

So you can guess how I am feeling now as we traverse the slow upswings and the precipitous drops in the economy. I want to get off. I want my quiet "lazy river" ride. But the coaster ride seems to just continue unabated. To get off now, as one friend told me recently, would be to commit financial suicide. I knew there was something else I didn't like about roller coasters...they can be life-threatening. And so, along with many others, I recheck my seatbelt and grip more firmly the crash-bar (I find that a very interesting name, by the way) and try to not scream as another drop appears on the horizon.

Hey, I thought this bailout of Wall Street investment firms and major banking centers was suppose to at least slow down the roller coaster. Maybe I am off base (I never purported to be an expert on the economy...I was glad for high school economics being a pass-fail class) but it seems to me that since the bailout the roller coaster has gotten faster and the drops occur more often and are steeper. Am I the only one who feels this way? We...that is you and I, the taxpayers...gave huge sums of money to both AIG and to GM. I cannot even comprehend what a billion dollars is like. Now both AIG and GM want even more. Let's see, who else is waiting in line for my tax dollar and for yours? There are local and state government. Then there are retail giants whose sales have slumped greatly. Then there are small business owners who are closing stores and shops by scores every day. Oh, and don't forget about schools and colleges and universities. Yesterday, one of my Board members said that he wrote a Christmas letter this year and sent a copy to Santa Claus and to Barack Obama. He hoped one of them would respond to his Christmas wish.

Perhaps I am getting a bit cynical. Please forgive me. But things seem to be getting out of control, at least from my perspective. But not from God's. In fact, this is all part of His plan. It is part of the preparation for the entrance of the King of kings and the Lord of lords onto the world's stage. Perhaps, through this severe economic time, God is inviting Christians to ask themselves: "Have you put more importance upon your 401(k)s and your retirement plans than you have upon Me? Do you have a greater passion for your things than you have for Me?" I recently reread from Matthew 6. There Jesus issues this challenge: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (that is to earnestly endeavor to put God first and to have a relationship with Him), and all these things - clothes, food, drink, shelter, etc. - will be added unto you." These are sobering questions as I ride the coaster.

I have been assured by many that the roller coaster ride will slow down and even stop some day. That is good news for those of us who prefer something more serene. But, the great news is that God wants to teach us something while we are riding the ups and downs. And I want a teachable heart, a discerning mind, and an obedient spirit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Election Post-Mortem

It seems that everyone has a comment today about the results of yesterday's election. The outcome was not totally unexpected. John McCain had faced an uphill battle since his first primary victory in the late winter months. He was not an eloquent speaker as was his opponent. He did not have the youthful energy that his opponent had. And the main stream media certainly never bought into his ideas of what change looked like. But he fought bravely on.

I am not certain that in the history of this great nation that we have ever elected a president with less executive experience than Barack Obama. We have elected military generals, but they all had experience leading men on the battlefield. We have elected governors who have ruled over the affairs of their states. We have elected men who have served in the United States Senate, but who served longer than the three years Obama has served. I think we can safely say that Barack Obama will have to learn executive leadership skills as part of the "on the job training" while in the Oval Office. Hopefully he will be a quick learner.

Now the question will be asked: Who are those individuals who will be asked to fill his cabinet and staff positions? As we know Obama has not always been careful about the people he has associated with. Perhaps those people might be accepted as part of one's personal life. But now he has to think of the greater good of the country. A William Ayers or a Jeremiah Wright certainly would not be acceptable by the majority of Americans. I believe that, if Obama truly wants to initiate real change, then he ought to reach across the aisle to claim men and women from both Republican and Democratic parties who are experts in fields of service and who are representative of all the people. If all he does is surround himself with those like the Harry Reids and the Nancy Pelosi's, then we will be in for four long years, I am afraid.

Obama has two important speeches in the coming months. First will be his inaugural address, followed quickly by this State of the Union address to the Congress. All ears will be listening for words that welcome ideas from both sides of the aisle. I will be listening for words of humility rather than political arrogance. I believe those two speeches will set the tone for those first weeks and months of an Obama presidency.

And, finally, because of my strong interest in the Middle East, particularly in the nation of Israel, I will want to know his plans for that region of the world. I read this morning that Israelis gave a cautious applause to Obama's election, while the Palestinians gave it a hearty endorsement, with one Hamas leader saying that "Now the Palestinians have a friend in the White House who will force the Israelis to make more concessions to us." Hopefully Obama will understand the historical significance of standing with Israel.

One final thought. Now that the election is over, I wonder how the television stations will fill all those advertising slots?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Friends with Some Turkeys

I am developing a friendship with a flock of wild turkeys as I drive into my office. I have seen them almost daily in a small pasture surrounded by a grove of scrub trees. Oh they probably have not seen me. If they have, I am just another in a series of endless cars that create noise in their silent world. But they don't seem to care. They just continue snapping up those last few bugs that dare to defy the frosty October mornings. The other morning, I was treated to "Tom" strutting his stuff before his lady friends. I think he was trying to impress them, but they seemed to pay no attention. I have to say that I miss my turkey-friends on those morning when my pathway takes me another direction, or they stay hidden among the scrub trees.

Now I know what you are thinking: Where is Max going with this bit on turkeys? Okay, it is a fair question. And maybe I am not sure myself where it is going. But I am reminded that it was Benjamin Franklin who strongly suggested that the national bird for the United States be...yes, you guessed it...the wild turkey. We all know the turkey lost out to the bald eagle. And, maybe it was a deserving loss. But the more I read about wild turkeys the more respect I have for them. Did you know that they are among the most intelligent of birds? I know that seems like a contradiction when you look at them. That head...could God have made anything more ugly than the head of a turkey? When many other species of birds were hunted to extinction...the turkey survived. That is a sure sign of intelligence.

I know there is something majestic about an eagle. Seeing one swoop down upon the waters of a lake and grab a large walleye literally can take one's breath away. And I know that they can soar, almost unimpeded, in the high elevations. Turkeys can't catch fish...I am not even sure they enjoy fish. And turkeys can't fly very far. But a wild turkey has a sense of pride about it. It is quick to defend its territory, almost fearlessly.

So I got to thinking...perhaps old Ben was right in his opinion that America should have a turkey as its symbol. There is a sense of pride we have as Americans. And there is a tenacity we exhibit when our territory is threatened. So, the next time someone says that "I am a turkey," perhaps I will respond with a "thank you."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thoughts on a Gloomy Afternoon

This is one of those rainy, dreary fall days. The temperature is only near 50. The trees are quickly shedding their canopy of leaves today as the blustering wind whips the rain upon them. One can close his eyes and almost begin to see the makings of snowflakes in the air. (Hopefully, it will be several weeks before they actually materialize. But, this is Minnesota!)

The gloomy skies seem to reflect the gloomy attitude many Americans are having right now. Third quarter earnings reports are beginning to come in. Unless you truly enjoy those dollar value menu items at McDonalds, the earnings reports leave you with a less than exhilarated feeling. Houses are still not selling, or if they do sell, prices are often below what is still owed on the mortgage. Small businesses are closing doors because of tight credit and impending fears of an Obama presidency where capital gains taxes will be significantly increased. Major industries are laying off people by the thousands, creating one of the highest unemployment figures seen in recent years. And still the winds continue to blow.

In a couple of weeks, Americans will be making some critical decisions that will impact our country for the next decade or even longer. To me, the clarity between the two candidates could not be more well defined. Yet the majority of people are clamoring for change. As if change will stop the winds from blowing. As if change will suddenly make all their lost money return. As if change will cause their jobs to return. Change will come...but, I believe about all it will do is to change the direction from which the wind blows.

So, on this gloomy afternoon in the Twin Cities, I am reminded of the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. He is unchanging. His promises are absolutely certain. His Word is infallible. And His plan is invincible. When we are anchored to Him, we are enabled to stand strong when the winds of change overtake us. Now that thought can part the clouds and bring a note of cheer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whatever Happened to an Old Fashioned Debate?

Tonight marks the last of the three presidential debates. The topics for the dialogue between John McCain and Barack Obama focus upon domestic issues...but you can rest assured that heading the list will be the continued economic uncertainty. We will sit in front of our television screens for ninety minutes listening to "sound byte quality" responses to artificially formatted questions. Then for the next two or three days we will hear political pundits tell us what the two candidates really said. What an insult to my intelligence! I have just heard with my own two ears what has been said...and they are already telling me what I heard? How have they had proper time to really wrestle with the words and with the concepts that were shared? Maybe those people think more quickly than I do. But I certainly don't want their opinions to influence the opinion that I will formulate.

We call what will happen tonight a debate. Actually I am more inclined to call it a scripted dialogue. This past summer I had the privilege of being in Springfield, IL during the first weekend of the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest political dialogues ever in American history...the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Now, my friends, those were true debates. There was no artificial time-element to them. Why, they were just getting started after ninety minutes. Of course people in those days had nothing else to do, so could commit time to listen carefully to the thoughts of each man. And listen they did. From Freeport to Cairo and to places in between, Abraham Lincoln (the challenger) and Stephen Douglas (the incumbent) campaigned for the Senate seat from Illinois. When one reads portions of those debates, the reader becomes impressed with the tenacity of each candidate to the positions being held. They carved into each other's personalities. These were not responses that would garner 20 seconds on the Nightly News. No, they were published word-for-word by leading newspapers of the day.

When election day came, Lincoln lost his campaign for the United States Senate. But, he had begun to win the election for the White House two years later.

I realize that we need some type of time constraint in today's world. But I often wish we could just allow the candidates the opportunity to freely express their positions...not just those words that we want to hear. I do not even see the candidates writing many editorial position papers these days. Perhaps the candidates are motivated by this statement: If I tell the people what they want to hear, then they will vote for me; but if I tell them what they need to hear, then I will lose their vote.

Just a postscript to the Lincoln-Douglas Debate. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860 (by the way his opponent was once again Senator Douglas), Senator Douglas cast aside party animosity and became a strong supporter of Lincoln until his death during the first year of Lincoln's Presidency. So, now you know the rest of the story.

Listen with care this evening...but don't let anyone tell you what you heard. You make that decision for yourself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tyre and Wall Street: An Interestng Comparison

This fall I have had the privilege of teaching a class titled, "Isaiah: Comfort My People." We are going through the book paragraph by paragraph, trying, as much as possible, to ignore chapter and verse divisions. (I must admit that this is easier said than done. And I have come to appreciate those divisions for normal study).

Last night we entertained thoughts from Isaiah 23. This is the final "burden" or "oracle" Isaiah directs against one of the nations of his day. The target in this chapter is Tyre, a city located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in what is today Lebanon. It was a city established by the Phoenicians, a group of people who became famous for their seafaring trade. One commentator said of Tyre that is was comparable to Wall Street of today. It was the business center of the world. It was the capital of the financial markets of the world. It was the hub for the commercial enterprises that traded around the world.

In this chapter, Isaiah sees the collapse of Tyre, crushed by the invading Assyrians. Isaiah is pretty straight forward when he writes in verse 14: Your fortress is destroyed! The response of the world is one of panic and grief. The grain markets of Egypt suffer because the ships of Tyre sail no more, thus providing no means for the grain to be shipped. Ships, waiting to be unloaded along Tyre's piers, now ponder what to do with their cargoes. All seems so hopeless. All seems so lost.

As our class dialogued through this chapter last night, we were struck with the parallels with our current financial disasters. Wall Street has been the "king of the hill" in the financial world. It has been the hub of the financial world. Other countries had patterned their financial institutions after those of Wall Street. As Wall Street succeeded so did other financial markets around the globe. But, in recent weeks we have seen the collapse of Wall Street. Bankruptcies and bailouts have become synonymous with Wall Street endeavors today. This week we began to see the collapse and panic within the financial sectors of other nations. The Russian financial market even stopped trading. Both Britain and Germany have taken steps to nationalize some of their financial institutions in order to keep them solvent. Quite literally, the economy of the world is teetering on the brink of a chaotic collapse.

Why is this happening? I believe Isaiah gives us an answer. It is found in verse 9: The LORD Almighty planned it, to bring low the pride of all glory and to humble all who are renowned on the earth. God "knocked Tyre off its perch" by having it destroyed. Could this present financial unrest be God's way of awakening us to the errors of our prideful judgments and prideful dependencies upon the government and dollars for our security? Certainly this should be a time for national examination. Upon whom or upon what are we depending? Unfortunately, these are not the questions driving our current election debate.

I invite you to carefully read Isaiah 23. Then ask God how you might be used to testify to your neighborhood that God is in control and that we need to place our confidence in Him.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wow! What a Ride!

Wow! What a roller coaster ride! And I am not talking about the one at the Mall of America or Six Flags or any other amusement park. You get on those coasters expecting to be scared within an inch of your life. (Personally, I avoid them like the plague. I don't like intentional trauma!) No, the roller coaster I am talking about is the wild ride we have experienced the past several weeks on Wall Street. Up 200 points...then down 300 points. Down 700 points...then up 500 points. And so it see-saws back and forth. It really is enough to make one reach for the Dramamine, doesn't it?

There is no question that the financial world is teetering on the brink of a major collapse. Banks that survived the Great Depression of the 30's have closed their doors during the Great Recession (and some economist have even hesitated to use that term) of 2008. The paper value of the losses experienced in just one day this past week totaled nearly $1 trillion. Can you comprehend that figure? I certainly can't. I wrestle to understand what a million dollars would be like. Shoot, I am not certain I even understand what $10,000 really is all about. A trillion dollars is a lot of money to just vaporize into thin air. And all of us contributed to that loss. (I jokingly told a colleague that, because of what happened this past Monday, I will need to add a couple of extra years before I can retire...perhaps you will need to do the same).

Of course the blame game is raging hot and heavy. Washington politicians blame the corrupt practices on Wall Street. Financial experts blame the apathy toward which Washington had anticipated this collapse. Caught in the middle...wondering just what happened...stands you and me. And we don't know who to blame.

I read an interesting verse from Proverbs this past week that I think really speaks to the cause of the collapse of our financial markets. It is Proverbs 15:27, which states: A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live. I believe the ultimate cause is the greed of man. The dictionary defines greed as: excessive desire for acquiring or having; desire for more than one needs or deserves. Wall Street CEO's just wanted a little more. American investors just wanted a little bit more. Politicians just wanted a little bit more. And it was that focus upon the "little bit more" that led to all types of financial instruments being created that people knew could not withstand the eventual storms that would come. But we were willing to take those risks because we wanted a "little bit more."

What does Solomon say happens to the greedy man? He brings trouble to his family. And we have witnessed the veracity of that statement. Mortgages have failed. Families have lost their homes. Jobs have been lost. Food shelves are stretched to the breaking point. Yes, families are in trouble.

Now there is nothing wrong with getting a return on your investment, or receiving fair compensation for your labor. But, really how many millions is a CEO entitled to? Is an athlete worth mega-millions of dollars a year, just to play basketball or baseball or football for a few months out of the year? Should I expect to receive 15-20% return from my 401k every year? I am not sure I have the answers to these questions. But I believe they are the right questions to ask. I think that if...and that seems like a pretty strong if right now...we are to survive this economic and financial storm, then we will have to change the way we have done business in the past.

I don't know about you, but I am ready to get off the roller coaster and head for the calmer waters of the Lazy River.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Confident? In What?

Lately the news has not been too encouraging, especially if you are only living for this life. Wall Street has been riding a roller-coaster down some pretty precipitous slopes. If you are not buckled in...well, you just might fall out. Governmental leaders are now talking about a bail out of the failed banking system using figures that I can't get my hands around. Can you comprehend $700 billion? I don't understand what $1 million is like, let along nearly one million million dollars. Where is that money coming from? I guess you and I will be coughing it up someday. There seems to be a long line in Washington these days, all of them with their hands open looking for hand outs. And I thought the management of a local church's Deacon Fund was difficult (I had those responsibilities back in the early 80's during my days in Chicago). Confident of Wall Street...shaky at best.

And the political electioneering continues at a feverish pace. Although both candidates purport to be agents bringing change to Washington, I am highly skeptical that either will do that. It has been so long since the Washington establishment has even considered making changes...and I doubt they will reconsider any time soon. Yet we will continue selecting new faces who promise us change...and soon they become just like the old faces who have been there almost forever. Confident of Washington...certainly not where I want to stake my hope.

These week we have heard the nearly endless cycle of speeches being given by the world's leaders before the General Assembly of the United Nations. Some, with saber in hand, come spouting fiery contempt for the Western world, especially aiming barbs at Israel. Others reveal a profound sense of apathy toward what is happening in their world. Can the United Nations bring real peace to a world seemingly bent on tearing itself apart? Well it has had over 50 years...and its track record is most pitiful. Confident of the United Nations to bring about a secure peace anywhere in the will never happen.

And what about the Church, you ask? Can a person find security there? Do you want me to be brutally honest? I believe the Church to be as confused as is the world. We argue over worship know, to drum or not to drum...ah, is that even a question worthy of being asked? We divide over how to "repackage" our faith to reach our culture. But often in our "repackaging" we forget what we are to package, leaving us presenting a message that is without any foundation. I believe if Jesus were here He would heave great sighs of despair. We have forgotten the heart and soul of His Gospel. So, confident of the Church...not really.

So where am I to find any confidence? I am being continually drawn back to the Scriptures themselves. Not to any historical understanding of the Scriptures, although I do find referring to ancient writers and their examinations of the Word to be interesting. But I want to hear from the Word itself. I want to wrestle with those texts that I don't understand - and there are many of those. And I want to savor those texts that are meaningful to me. I want them to simmer in my heart and soul like a good soup upon a slow stove. I want all the flavors to come through. I want my life to be permeated by them. Confident of the Word...absolutely, without a doubt or hesitation. I echo the song writer: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness;...On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"To KJV or Not to KJV"...Why the War?

There are many wars being waged within the walls of churches today. There is the "worship war" pitting guitars against organs, hymns against spiritual songs, and hymnals against power points. Then there is what I call the "war of texts." What? You have never heard of this war? Perhaps but it is happening nonetheless. It is the struggle over which translation of the Bible to follow. It is the attempt to identify one version as being more spiritually correct than another.

Recently I was handed an article that featured the following banner: "The Message" Exposed! The writer of the article who, by the way, remained anonymous, compared the King James Version (KJV) to the Message. As I read the article I was troubled in my spirit. No, really I was angered in my spirit. Now I have nothing against the KJV. When I was growing up it was the only Bible translation readily available that had not been judged as being liberalized. (For those of you who can remember those days, the Revised Standard Version had been condemned by many evangelicals as being too liberal). So, I read the KJV. I memorized hundreds of verses from the KJV. In fact, to this day, I find memorizing from other translations incredibly difficult - guess my mind was weaned on KJV. There was a beauty within the KJV that is often lacking with today's versions.

But, is the KJV the only truly biblical translation in the 21st century? Absolutely not! Perhaps the most popular version is the New International Version (NIV). During my days at the Graduate School of Theology at Wheaton, my class on advanced Hebrew exegesis had the privilege of working alongside the translators of the Book of Isaiah for the NIV. This was one of the most eye-opening experiences. I actually got to participate in the dialogue about how words and phrases were going to be translated from Hebrew into everyday language of the 20th century. And I can honestly relate to you that it was not easy. I came to appreciate the "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" (to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill) that went into a Bible translation.

Do we need further translations? Absolutely! Let's see. The KJV was translated in 1611, nearly 400 years ago. But since that time biblical archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of ancient biblical texts. The Dead Sea Scroll discovery in 1947 re-energized biblical translations. And I believe that more translations will appear in the coming decades as more ancient texts are discovered. Is this a good thing? Absolutely! With each discovery comes the realization that God has been superintending the translation of His Word. Have we found errors? Some, but none that changed the doctrines espoused by the Word of God. The reliability of the Word of God is untarnished...undiminished.

Now, what about that article made me so angry. Friends, "The Message" is not a translation. It is a personal paraphrase. You say, "What's the difference?" A translation works from the latest Greek and Hebrew materials available. A paraphrase is an author's restatement of a translation already in existence. Perhaps the most popular paraphrase was the Living Bible. Written by Kenneth Taylor to help his children better understand the Bible, it was a restatement of the KJV. Eugene Peterson began paraphrasing the Bible in order to help his congregation better understand the Book of Romans. While a translation helps us to understand the ancient texts, a paraphrase shares how one person has come to understand what the Scriptures say. Therefore, when I read "The Message" I am not reading the words of God, merely the words of Eugene Peterson as he came to understand those words of God. To compare the KJV with The Message is like comparing apples to radishes. Can't be done!

I value paraphrases as a tool to help to explain one interpretation as to what God is saying in the text. Would I ever build a teaching around a paraphrase's explanation? Absolutely not! The foundation for truth is the Word of God itself...a reliant, consistent, accurate translation from the Hebrew and Greek.

So, if you use the KJV, blessings upon you. But don't go around trumpeting that the KJV is the only accurate, inspired version of the Word! Because it isn't!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Finishing Well through Grace

I have just finished reading a book written by Dr. David Jeremiah titled, "Captured by Grace." It is subtitled, "No One is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God." Dr. Jeremiah uses the lives of the Apostle Paul, the slaver-turned-reformer John Newton, and Newton's famous hymn, "Amazing Grace," to teach us the great principles of grace. It was truly a fascinating book and one that I would highly recommend.

Just after having read the final chapter in the book and heard once again the story of how both Paul and John Newton spent their final years, I came across a verse in Hebrews 11 that overwhelmed my soul. It is verse 13 which states, All these people were still living by faith when they died. These people ended life well. Oh the final script might not have been what they desired. I am sure that Paul did not envision dying at the hands of an executioner. Nor would John Newton have thought of being blind and of having his beloved wife precede him in death. Not one of us knows how the final chapter in our lives will be written. That chapter might end suddenly - I am thinking of those who went to work, or boarded a plane seven years ago not knowing that the chapters of their lives would end that day - but they did. Or that chapter might come through tortuous pain and difficulty as disease wrecks its worst upon us. We have absolutely no control of the closing lines in the book which is our life story.

But, what God gripped my heart with was that truth - "these people were still living by faith when they died." Do you know what John Newton's last recorded words were? "I am satisfied with the Lord's will." Do you remember what the Apostle Paul said to Timothy, knowing that his death was imminent? I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Both the Apostle Paul and John Newton were still living by faith when they died. Both men had so been gripped by God's grace that, even in the face of death, they clung to that grace to see them through.

This got me to thinking. I have no control over the manner in which God will take me home someday. But I do have control over the attitude that I have as that journey is completed. I like to think that John Newton entered glory humming those words he had written many years before. Why not sing them as your testimony to God right now?

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
'Tis grace hath bro't me safe thus far And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.

When we've been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise Than when we first begun.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where Did That Verse Come From?

Have you ever come across a verse in the Bible that, somehow in a way you cannot explain, you had never read before? It just sort of "pops up" and says, "I am here! Pay attention to what I have to share!" Well, I had that experience a few mornings ago while I was having my quiet time. I have been spending 2008 reading straight through the New Testament. I was reading from Hebrews 2 and I read verse 18: Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted. I had not ever remembered reading those words before. Where did that verse come from?

I remembered Hebrews 4:15 very well. You will remember that it says: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. I have been eternally grateful that Jesus never sinned when He was tempted. He was victorious over those temptations. And yet the picture that came to my mind was of a strong-willed Jesus, who confronted temptation with nerves of steel. Who hit temptation head-on almost daring it to attack. I read Matthew 4 and my mind pictures a calm, quiet Jesus thwarting the attacks of Satan there in the wilderness.

Yet, this same writer to the Hebrews reassures me that Jesus truly suffered when He was tempted. I believe Jesus knew what it meant to be vulnerable to attack. Certainly, when a person has not eaten for a long period of time - to not eat for 40 days almost seems incomprehensible to me - the sight of food becomes a powerful temptation. There was that smell of freely baked bread wafting in the air. There was the rumblings from a stomach that had not been filled for nearly 6 weeks. Jesus' body knew suffering at that moment. And that is only one incident in His life.

What did God share with me from Hebrews 2:18? I believe God was saying to me, "Max, you don't have to be a macho-man all the time. It is okay to admit that you feel some pain, some heartache, some disappointment when testings come. It is also okay to even cry out, 'God, why have you forsaken me' as Jesus did upon the cross. I know the suffering of enduring temptation; but I also know the joys of being victorious over temptation."

Friends, when I read this verse, Jesus became more human to me. The only time I had ever considered that Jesus truly suffered was when He died. Yet I believe the writer to the Hebrews would have us to understand that Jesus knew the suffering of temptation, of trials, of disappointments throughout His life. Yet He was victorious. And so can you be. And so can I.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Is Truth?

Recently I have been reading Paul's letters to his young associates, Timothy and Titus. One of the watch words of instruction is to guard, or to be careful of. We might paraphrase it this way, "Be on your toes. Be careful." Two passages in particular drew my attention. 1 Timothy 6:20-21, which states: Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. The second passage is 2 Timothy 1:14 - Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

We live in a world where belief-systems, especially those of a fundamental, conservative, biblical faith are being attacked. Some have dared even to proclaim that there is no absolute truth upon which we can and should base our lives. Others have stated that truth is merely a relative matter. What I consider to be truth may be something that you don't acknowledge is truth. Is it little wonder that the world seems to approach insanity these days. Is there not something or someone upon which I can rest secure in the belief that an anchor has been found? Must I spend my life asking the question Pilate asked of Jesus - What is truth? What troubles me more greatly is that many Christians today have bought into that philosophy of questioning just what is truth.

Maybe I get more simplistic the older I get. But it seems to me that the Bible clearly states what truth is. It is found in the person of Jesus Christ who made this claim for Himself: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me (John 14:6). It was this very same Jesus who told His disciples: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32). Notice Jesus did not say, "You will know some truth," or "You will know a truth," or even "You will know about truth." He said, very plainly, "You will know the truth." Either that means that there is a truth that you and I can know absolutely, or Jesus Christ was lying. There can be no middle road.

How can we know what to guard carefully, as Paul instructed Timothy? I believe those truths are communicated to us through the Word of God. Paul would declare to Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). He also instructs Timothy to preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2).

Friends, I believe it is high time that, as Christians, we diligently get back into the Scriptures. Not for the purpose of proving this or that theory, or for gaining approval for this or that practice. But to seek the truth. To anchor our souls, once again, upon the Rock Jesus Christ. Yes, there is an absolute truth. His name is Jesus Christ. And He has chosen to reveal His absolute truth to us through the Word. It is time that we truly begin to dig into His Word and to listen to His voice proclaiming those truths upon which we can confidently build our lives.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic Lessons

Every four years the nations of the world send their very best athletes for Olympic competition. As you know, this year those games were held in Beijing, China. We have watched the precision and grace of the gymnasts, the speed of the sprinters, and the power and endurance of the swimmers. We watched with baited breath as Michael Phelps snatched victory from defeat by the slimmest of margins, then only to have the tables turned as the American swimmer Dara Torres lost her race by that same slim margin. We have witnessed the pageantry of the games. And we have observed the pride of each athlete as he or she stood upon that medal podium and heard the national anthem of his or her country being played. For a few days every four years the world comes together, often forgetting the politics and turmoil of the times, and celebrates in a spirit of good competition.

But the success of the Olympics is not the events themselves, but the stories of those who are competing. Some athletes come to the Olympics knowing that there is no possible chance for a medal. Their national anthem will never be heard. Yet they come. Why? Because these are the Olympic games and it is an honor to represent your country, even if but for one moment. Yet, there is always that remote as it might seem...when the favorites will stumble and the door will be opened for an unknown face to rise to the top.

What makes for a successful Olympic athlete? First, there is the vision or dream which propels them forward. Each athlete, years before, envisions themselves competing with an exclusive group known as Olympians. This vision then produces a hunger and a desire to do whatever is necessary in order to enter that stadium on opening night dressed in the colors of his or her country. Every day, year after year, there remains this vision. Through the times of disappointment and heartbreak, there still is this vision. Through the gruelling hours of training and the strains of discipline, there is this vision. These athletes are driven by their vision. Second, there is the commitment to the training, the discipline, the denials, the hardships, and the sacrifices to accomplish that vision. A person does not suddenly awaken one morning and say, "I think I will compete in the Olympics this year." Most of these athletes have trained and strained and trained some more year after year after year.

As I have watched these athletes and have heard many of their stories, I have observed some truths for the Church today. The key to success is that vision, that dream. Sadly many churches today have only a vision of survival. What happened to dreaming big dreams? I had dinner with a pastoral colleague last evening and he shared with me that the leaders in his church are believing that their church could attain a membership of 500 in the next ten years...this within a community of 1200 people. Is it attainable? I don't know, but I applauded this pastor and his people for dreaming big dreams. Solomon wrote these words: where there is no vision, the people perish. May I paraphrase: Where there is no vision, churches falter and die. I like to challenge church leaders with this question: What will your church be like five years from now? If you cannot answer that question, then I doubt your church will succeed. And I also need to respond to that question as the leader of the Village Schools ministry.

The second observation is that of focus and commitment. Friends, ministry does not come easily. In fact, Jesus told us it would be difficult. Ministry is borne upon the altars of sacrifice, more sacrifice, and even more sacrifice. I remember a lady who served in our church while I was pastoring in Chicago. Her name was Ruth. She was already a grandmother. And her ministry was the kindergarten children. That was her focus. She was careful not to let other ministry opportunities - as good as they were - to cause her to lose that focus. Each of those children was loved as if they were her own grandchildren. Each was treated as if they were the only children in the church. And she was heart-broken when she had to miss a Sunday - which rarely happened. Where is our commitment to ministry today?

Why should we care? Have you seen the faces of those who mount that medal stand? There is a glow that surrounds them. Their dreams have been fulfilled. They hear the words of their coaches saying, "Well done. Good job." Friends, the day is coming when you and I will stand before our Savior anxiously hoping to hear similar words: "Well done, good and faithful servant. Go and enjoy what I have prepared for you." Will I then receive a gold medal? A silver one? Or a bronze one? I want to be like the Apostle Paul who told the Corinthians that he wanted to run to win. I want to represent Jesus Christ well. How about you?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Israel: Leadership Change Coming Soon

When I first began writing back in January, I shared with you that, from time to time, I would focus upon what was happening in Israel and the Middle East, especially as it might relate to prophetic times. This week I want to bring you up to date.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his intentions to resign following the mid-September primaries within the Kadima Party. The Prime Minister has been under a cloud of suspicion since the failed 2006 Second Lebanon War. He has been able to maintain his party's coalition government because the leaders of others within that coalition have only given threats to unravel the government. But recently Olmert was accused of fraud and other improprieties with regard to receiving money while he served as Mayor of Jerusalem. This seemed to be the straw that would "break the camel's back."

Now, like here in the United States, Israel has a lame-duck leader resulting in even greater uncertainty about the future of the Middle East, especially regarding President Bush's "Road Map" plan for peace. Who will be the new leader in Israel? That answer is as uncertain as who will be the new president in America? But let me share with you some possible scenarios.

Presently the Kadima Party holds a slim majority of seats within the Israeli Knesset, thus they hold the reigns of power. There are two individuals who will vie for the leadership of that party during the primaries in September. Tzipi Livni serves as the Foreign Minister. She is a bright, intelligent, and upcoming personality within Israeli politics. She also served with the Mossaud, the Israeli CIA. Many see her as more of a centrist in her thinking. Shaul Mofaz is the Minister of Transportation. He is an Iranian born Jew who came to Israel when he was nine. He has held several positions within the Israeli government in the past. He is considered to be more hawkish in his approach to dealings with the Palestinians. Right now polling has these two running neck to neck. Whoever will win the primary will then be given 52 days in which to form a coalition government, thus keeping the Kadima Party in power.

But - don't you just love that word - lurking in the background are two other individuals who must be taken seriously. One is Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor Party and the Defense Minister within the Cabinet. Barak served as Prime Minister during those tumultuous days in the early part of this century when Israel pulled out of Lebanon. He is a man with powerful influence and would love to be Prime Minister once again. There is much speculation as to whether he would be willing to keep the Labor Party as a coalition member under a new Kadima leadership. The other person is Benjamim Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, who also served as Prime Minister in the late 1990's. Mr. Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the Olmert government, especially in its handling of the Palestinian questions.

Should the new leader of the Kadima Party fail to create a coalition government, then the Knesset will be dissolved and new national elections will be called - probably after the first of the year. That would certainly make for an interesting race.

Now I know what you might be saying to yourself: Why should I really care about Israeli politics? Let me tell you why. The challenges the world is facing today have as their epicenter the clash between two people groups and two religions that are facing off in a country known as Israel. Friends, what happens in Jerusalem matters to those of us living in Minnesota or Iowa or Colorado. The relationships that will be established between our new President and the new leadership in Israel will matter to you. So, I will keep you posted because I want you to know.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Glory of God

I have been spending chunks of time this summer studying through the Book of Ezekiel, preparing for a special class that I hope to teach on this book sometime in 2009. I admit that this is the very first time that I have spent quality moments with this ancient, and often, bizarre prophet from the 6th century BC. But God is opening the book to me in unique ways.

One of the themes of this book concerns the glory of God. Now, as you might remember from your own studies in ancient Israeli history, God's glory filled the temple that Solomon had built. We read these words of the eyewitness in 1 Kings 8:10-11, When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple. The glory of God represented the presence of God among His people. I was reminded of the words of Moses, centuries before this grand event, when he pled with God for the people after their sin with the golden calf. Remember what Moses said to God? If your Presence does not go with us, do not send up up from here (Exodus 33:15). As long as the glory of God was there, the nation of Israel knew that God had not abandoned them.

Now, that brings us to the prophet Ezekiel. In the early chapters of his book, Ezekiel describes the glory of God leaving the temple, in fact, it left the city of Jerusalem. Ezekiel describes it this way, Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim (located above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies) and moved to the threshold of the temple (Ezekiel 10:4). In other words, the glory moved from its resting place for nearly five centuries, and began to move toward the door. Ezekiel then continues his description of God's glory being removed. Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple...They stopped at the entrance to the east gate of the LORD's house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Finally we read, The glory of the LORD went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it (Ezekiel 11:23). Many scholars believe that this is a reference to the Mount of Olives. Any way, God's glory was now removed from Jerusalem. It was a sign that God's judgment could now begin.

Now it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Bible do we read that God's glory came to rest upon the temple, first built by Zerubbabel, then expanded by King Herod. The closest we come to any consideration of God's glory within that structure is recorded for us in Haggai 2:9, The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, says the LORD Almighty. I believe this is a reference to the person of Jesus Christ who graced the temple precincts often with His presence. Could the glory of God have lingered over the Mount of Olives? I do not believe it is a coincidence that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives - the place of God's glory. Nor do I believe it is a coincidence that Christ will enter the city of Jerusalem and the new Temple from the eastern gate, having come from the Mount of Olives. Ezekiel describes that moment with these words, And I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. ... The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east. ... and the glory of the LORD filled the temple (Ezekiel 43:2, 4, 5).

How wonderful will that be! The presence of Jesus Christ as King...that would be amazing enough in and of itself! But the presence of the glory of God as it has not been seen upon this earth since the closing days of the Kingdom of Judah. Wow! And just to think that we will be there to observe it all.

When I stand upon the slopes of the Mount of Olives next March, I will have a new reason to be excited. For it will be from here that the glory of God will be restored to the temple and to the city of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mountains: Communicating God

I just returned after spending nine days with my family vacationing in Estes Park, Colorado. Time away from the office and the day-to-day affairs of the ministry was important. In the Bible God ordained certain times when the children of Israel were to holiday, if you will, from the ordinary events of life. Some of those designated times lasted for only 24 hours - the Sabbath is an example; while others occupied several days - the Passover, in the Spring, and the Feast of Tabernacles, in the Fall, both lasted for 8 days. The God who made us knew that it was important for us to have a change of pace, to escape - even momentarily - from the pressures of our normal work-a-day world.

The Colorado Rockies certainly point to the awesome nature of our Creator-God. Their towering peaks, decorated with white snowfields and rock formations that glisten in the sunlight, truly point a person upward to the heavens. I was moved by their majestic greatness. Yet, it was the little things that stirred my heart while hiking the pathways up those majestic slopes. There was the miracle of life arising from the rocks themselves as tiny pine trees appeared in many of the crevices. I noticed a myriad of wild flowers representing almost every hue in the rainbow gracing the slopes along the hiking paths. Some stood tall almost shouting to a passer-by, "Look at me," while others seemed to hide their beauty in the shade of the towering pines and aspens. And a few were so small that one could easily have by-passed their beauty.

Both large and small creatures roamed the mountain slopes. Elk, many with velvet-covered antlers, were abundant grazing among the grasses and munching on the young shoots of the pines, seemingly oblivious to the snapping of the cameras of the curious hikers. Mountain sheep marched around as if proclaiming their status as "kings of the hills." And then there were the small squirrels and chipmunks. What fun it was to watch them. At one location, I sat almost mesmerized by a chipmunk who was intrigued with my backpack that I had lying on the ground. I think he was interested in a handout - but I heeded the warnings not to feed the animals. I told him that it was for his own good - but I don't think he truly understood as he kept returning.

A thought kept stirring in my heart those days. If the mountains are so beautiful today in a world under the curse, what will the mountains in the new earth be like? What will our relationships be like with the creatures who will inhabit those mountain slopes? Will those streams that flow from those snowfields be more crystalline than those today? Will the colors of the flowers be more exciting? I don't have answers for those questions. But, if a visit to the Colorado Rockies can elicit a "Wow!" from our lips today, I feel confident that a visit to the Rockies of the New Earth will elicit an even greater "Wow!" Oh what we have to look forward to!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On Fallen Heroes

The prophet Isaiah wrote these words in the eighth century BC - Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:22). Centuries later the Apostle John, in relating the events of Jesus driving from the Temple those who had turned the premises into a place for lucrative business, wrote - Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man (John 2:23-25).

I think what both Isaiah and Jesus were warning is the ease with which we are drawn into idolizing others. It is easy to place someone upon a pedestal and even lay garlands at his or her feet. We love to worship our heroes, whether they be in the world of sports, business, entertainment, or even religion. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to play golf like Tiger Woods or basketball like Kobe Bryant. And it is probably not sinful to aspire to become the next Bill Gates. It would appear that even the Apostle Paul challenged people to follow his leadership, for he wrote these words to the Corinthians: Therefore I urge you to imitate me (1 Corinthians 4:16). But there is a marked difference between imitating Tiger Woods' golf swing or Kobe Bryant's jump shot, and putting either of those athletes in a position where they become almost godlike to you.

How we need to remember that men and women have feet of clay. We admire the faith of Abraham, but let us also not forget that he lived a lie for a period of time, pretending to be someone - namely unmarried - that he was not. We admire the leadership of David, but let us also not forget that he committed adultery, murdered one of his best friends, and had a family that was totally out of control. We admire the strength of Peter as he proclaimed the message on the Day of Pentecost, but let us not forget that this same Peter also denied his Lord three times. In all the stories of people shared within the Scriptures, what I find so amazing is how careful God is to expose the warts, the acne, the scars of each one. The only One with no flaws was Jesus Christ Himself.

Isaiah was are just that - men. They are capable of doing some incredibly amazing things. But, those same men are also capable of doing some incredibly stupid things. Therefore his advice was that we not put our confidence in them. Instead he challenged the leaders of Judah to put their confidence in God.

Yes, have your heroes. Have those men and women whom you admire; those whose lives you might even want to imitate. But, don't hold them in such high esteem that they take on the status of a god before you. Remember they are just men and women who are capable of stumbling, sometimes making a royal mess when they do.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Freedom and Independence Day

It was 232 years ago that a group of 56 men, meeting in the city of Philadelphia, signed a document that, not only transformed their nation, but the entire world. Risking fears of reprisals, including imprisonment and possible death, these patriots declared their independence from Great Britain. Surely such a declaration did not come without much prayerful thought and anguish of soul.

For the greater part of the century and a half since that first colony had been established upon the shores of the New World - Jamestown in 1607 - a healthy partnership with England had been the rule. British ships brought products from the Old World that were absent from the colonies in the New World. British soldiers had helped protect the colonists during that period known as the French and Indian War. But, during the past several decades, the English government, under King George III, made more demands upon the subjects living in the thirteen colonies. Most reprehensible of all were those dreaded taxes...taxes upon almost everything. It was those taxes and the determination of Parliament and the King to enforce them without listening to the logical arguments of the colonists themselves that finally roused the ire of the independent spirit found among many living in the New World.

Bloodshed became inevitable. On April 19, 1775, the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in what would become known as the War of Independence. Now, months after that event, and after weeks of deliberation, the moment arrived on July 4, 1776, to declare before a body of peers and before the King of England and, yes, before the world itself, the reasons for a separation from England. And so the Declaration of Independence was signed and America was given birth.

Bells were tolled. Bands struck up martial music. People shouted with enthusiastic joy. Freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had come. Yet, freedom is never truly free. War would rage for the next five years at the cost of nearly 50,000 lives - many of whom died of diseases and infections caused by wounds and camp conditions. During the tragic winter of 1777-78, General George Washington lost over one fourth of his men at Valley Forge due to starvation and disease. Yet, when British General Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown in 1781, the war ended. The Peace Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, guaranteed the freedoms that had come with such a great price.

Freedom is never truly free. Eighty-seven years later, President Abraham Lincoln, addressing a crowd at the dedication of a cemetery for those who died during the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, said, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Freedom still came with a cost as Lincoln and Americans, North and South, would realize.

Today white marble crosses dot the landscape in cemeteries around the globe reminding us that freedom is never truly free. Exploding fireworks this weekend may recall the joys of celebrating the news "We are free!" But the blood-red strips on the flag remind us that freedom came with a price. We must never forget that!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Happiness

Happiness is one of the operational words of our day. Many Americans take very literally those words found in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There you have it...our guarantee of happiness. And so we plunge ahead with the focus being upon whatever will cause us the greatest happiness. We reflect that "if only we could get that new boat or a new car (especially today one of those hybrid cars so you feel less pain at the pump) or a new job, then we would truly be happy."

The focus of happiness seems to imply a focus upon one's self. I will do whatever I can so that I can be happy. If that means having an affair with another man or woman because that makes me happier than going home to my husband or wife, then I will do it. It is means that I play an extra round of golf instead of spending time with my children, then I will do what makes me happy. There is an interesting statement made about Jonah in Jonah 4:6 - Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. Friends, that is the only mention of Jonah's being happy about anything in the book. He was happy over a vine. And you know how the story of Jonah ends - with Jonah's anger at God because God had, first destroyed the vine, and second, God had spared the city of Ninevah. Throughout the book Jonah is always thinking first about Jonah. The pursuit of happiness is often a very shallow experience. To think only of ourselves and what makes us happy is narrow-thinking. And it can be very destructive in the end - just as Jonah.

What did Jesus say? I believe the answer is found in Matthew 5, a portion we know as the Beatitudes. Now I know you will say, "Max, the word 'happy' is not there"; but many Bible scholars say that the word 'blessed' could be translated as 'happy is the man'. So, let's use it in that way. What is Jesus saying? Happy is the man who, first of all sees himself as God sees him - a man broken with sin. Happy is the man who, secondly, recognizes that only God has an answer for that broken condition. Happy is the man who, thirdly, understands that the beauty of life is not found in pleasing self but in enjoying and pleasing God. In other words, happiness is discovered not when I ask the question - "what makes me happy?" - but when I ask the question - "what makes God happy?"

I have a friend who keeps reminding me - "I have to do what makes me happy." My friend will never find that happiness until he realigns his life with a pursuit of God. He will then discover that when he strives to please God, then and only then, will he discover what truly makes him happy.

So, are you happy? If you are living only for yourself, then beware - what you think is happiness will soon escape your grasp and leave you angry with someone else, probably God. But if you are seeking to please God, then know the depths of true happiness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Leadership

This past weekend I had the privilege of visiting Springfield, Illinois, with my son and oldest grandson, Josiah, who is ten years old. Josiah is quite a student of American history already and Abraham Lincoln is one of his favorite heroes. So, this grandpa, who is also a student of the Civil War and of Lincoln, decided that it was time to visit the new Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. Wow! What an experience! If you ever have the opportunity of visiting Springfield you will be in for a wonderfully enriching time.

One of the high points of the weekend was attending one of the re-creations of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This is the 150th anniversary of those famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas; both men seeking the office of Senator from Illinois. We sat on the floor of the old House of Representative chamber in the old Capital Building. Josiah sat in the chair next to the one that Lincoln occupied when he was a member of the Illinois House over 150 years ago. Two actors approached the center of the room - one appearing as Abraham Lincoln (he wore the usual Lincoln beard which Lincoln did not have until after his election as president in 1861), the other as Mr. Douglas who was known as "The Little Giant." Lincoln was a relative newcomer to the world of national politics and a member of the newly formed Republican Party; Douglas was the master orator and the recognized leader of the Democratic Party. (Both men would run for President in 1860).

Lincoln shared a portion of his famous "House Divided" speech which was given on June 16, 1858. As one listened, one heard passion and wisdom in what he shared. He said that a nation could no longer keep going in two directions, that a decision would have to be made. Then he quoted from Jesus' own words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Then Mr. Douglas shared portions from his very last speech given in the Illinois House chambers only days before he died, shortly after the 1861 election. Although he and Lincoln had been protagonists for many years, Mr. Douglas spoke affirmingly of Lincoln's leadership as President.

My grandson told me as we left the hall, "Grandpa, I could have listened to them a lot longer." Josiah heard something that afternoon I hope he will not soon forget. I heard something that I have not heard in many years. I heard the voice of leaders. I heard the voice of two men from the past who spoke with wisdom and passion about the difficulties of their times. I heard leaders who were not concerned about political pundits or poll-watchers, but men who dared to proclaim the truth.

As I left the Capital, I engaged briefly in a dialogue with one of the hostesses for the event. She asked how I had enjoyed the afternoon's festivities. I remarked to her, "I wished we had such leadership today." Where are the Abraham Lincolns and the Stephen Douglases today? Where are men and women who will stand solidly for the truth without selling their souls to special interest groups or to poll-watchers? Where are the leaders who tell us, not what we want to hear, but what the citizens in our country need to hear? Where are our courageous leaders?

For a few moments this past Saturday afternoon, I heard real leadership. It is a moment in time I shall never forget.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

An Interesting Word Order

I was reading this morning from my favorite chapter written by the Apostle Paul - Romans 8. In my own opinion, this chapter is the greatest piece of writing to come from his pen. It is a chapter that has encouraged and blessed my heart on more than one occasion.

But I noticed something this morning that resonated with another text in the Gospel of John. Let me share Romans 8:30 - And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What I had never considered before was the particular word order of the verbs Paul used. He began with "predestined." Oh how this word has created controversy within the history of the Church. There is that centuries old debate between Calvin and Arminius. Without going into much detail - you can read as many systematic theologies as you would like - let us simply say that the word implies that God knew what was going to happen before it happened. Yes, I know it sort of blows our minds - that is because we are finite and think finitely, while God is infinite and thinks infinitely.

Now, we might expect that the second word Paul would use would be "justified", having reference to our salvation. Remember his words earlier in this epistle - having been justified by faith, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). But Paul uses the word "call." Is it possible that our "calling" preceded our "being justified?" That thought is what brought me back to Jesus' statement recorded in John 10:27 - My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. Then Jesus proceeded to say, I give them eternal life... (Also see John 10:3-4). Salvation comes after we have listened to the "call" of God. We are "called" to be saved. And, when we follow that "call", then we receive eternal life and so are "justified."

We tend to use the phrase "make a choice for Jesus" in our evangelism. And, in a sense, there is a choice we must make. However, it is a different type of choice than choosing to buy a car, or getting tickets to the Twins game, or selecting whether to purchase that new dress. It seems that both the Apostle Paul and Jesus said that salvation is responding to an invitation and that invitation comes, not when we demand that it appear, but when God ordains its appearance. Listen to these words of Jesus - No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44). The Apostle Paul outlined it in Romans 8 this way: predestined by God, called by God - I take this to mean to be invited to His salvation, and then justified by God - the actual act of salvation itself.

In our evangelistic emphasis, perhaps it is time that we invite people to listen for God's calling. And, when such a calling is heard, encourage them to respond by following Jesus and receiving eternal life.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Through Cyclones, Earthquakes, and Tornadoes

In recent weeks we have witnessed dramatic pictures coming from Myanmar, China, and our own country of devastation caused by cyclones, earthquakes, and tornadoes. Tens of thousands of people were suddenly ushered into eternity...sadly, most without knowing Christ. Millions of others had lives turned upside down...a few will never fully recover. Property damage is almost beyond comprehension.

The question I am often asked is, "Is God saying anything to us through these catastrophic natural events?" Let's turn to the Scriptures to seek an answer. First, we know that God has spoken strongly before through catastrophic natural events. It was with a flood that God destroyed the world during the days of Noah, promising afterwards to never again use a flood to destroy all living things. We also know that God used an earthquake to destroy the families of the rebellious Korah, Dathan and Abiram (read Numbers 16). And God used a strong storm to get the attention of Jonah. God even spoke to the children of Israel from a mountain burning with fire surrounded by the quaking of the earth, thus driving fear into their hearts (read Exodus 19 and 20).

But we also know that at times when we most want God to speak through a natural event, then He chooses to speak in a quiet voice, much as He did with Elijah (read 1 Kings 19). So, is this a "Moses Moment" or an "Elijah Moment?" Should we be anticipating God's voice, or does He remain silent?

A text I have shared with many in recent days is from Romans 8:20-22 which reads: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Personally, I think we are hearing a lot of groaning today. I think we are hearing the natural world crying out in a multitude of ways that the time for its redemption soon draws nigh. The occurrence of strong earthquakes and destructive tornadoes has increased exponentially this past year. Volcanoes, some of which have been silent for years, are bursting forth. I think the earth itself is anxious for those days described for us in Isaiah when the curse will have been removed.

I know that some will be quick to label these events as evidence of "global change", previously known as "global warming." But I tend to see the hand of God at work. I recall the statement of Jesus to His disciples: There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:7-8). When a woman's contractions begin, a birth is imminent. As our earth increasingly groans, could it be a sign to us that a "birth" is imminent - that birth being the coming of the King to His Kingdom?

As we wait we can help those whose lives have been shattered because of these groaning - people in Myanmar, Central China, Kansas and Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota. We can be the Body of Christ reaching out to them as He would do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Happy 60th Birthday, Israel!

On May 14th, Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence as a nation. The parents of this new state were zealousness of Zionism in the person of Theodor Hertzl and the ashes of the crematories in Germany and Poland. But, above all was the guiding hand of a God who had promised this strip of land to Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was truly born out of adversity. Following the end of World War II, as the death camps were being liberated by Allied Forces, the world began to see the images of the holocaust that had taken place during the preceeding years under Nazi rule. The images today still haunt a person, so one can only imagine what those pictures did for those who lived during those days. There was a sense of collective guilt on the part of many Western world leaders that such atrocities happened during their administrations. How could such evils be corrected? The viable solution seemed to be implementing an agreement made back in 1917 between England and leaders of the Zionist movement. This agreement, known as the Balfour Declaration, stated that the Jews should have their own homeland and that homeland should encompass what was known as Palestine...the ancient land of Israel. So, in November 1947, the newly created United Nations, in one of its first resolutions, created the State of Israel. And on May 14, 1948, Israel's new Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared Israel to be a free and independent state - a homeland for the Jewish race.

But, unlike many births, this one was not to experience many moments of joy. Immediately the neighboring Arab nations declared war upon Israel hoping to drive this new child into the sea. But God worked His miracles and Israel survived. (Read Larry Collins book "O Jerusalem!" to get a sense of Israel's birth and the miracles accompanying it). In 1967 and then again in 1973 those same neighbors attacked again with Israel defeating its enemies in most remarkable ways. And, from 1979 - the days of the First Camp David Accords - to 2000, Israel lived in an uneasy peace with its neighbors. That climate changed in 2000 with the Intifadah or Palestinian uprising under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. World leaders met in various locations and at various times to bring stability and peace to this region. But no sooner was the ink dried than attacks and counter-attacks prevailed. That continues until this present day. (Read Anton LaGuardia's book "War Without End" to better understand the history of this portion of the world).

But the Israeli people continue to survive. To be honest, they do more than merely survive...they thrive on making the land better. Swamps, once home to deadly malaria, now are homes to banana plantations. Deserts, once inhabitable, now produce some of the finest citrus fruits in the world as well as some of the most beautiful flowers. Israel continues to be a land of contrasts - one can step from the 21st century into the 8th century BC in a matter of minutes. There is a mutual respect of the ancient with the modern. Jerusalem is the city where the three monotheistic faiths meet...often with controversy and chaos rather than with peace and understanding.

So, I want to add my anniversary greetings to this nation that I have come to love so very much. It is not a perfect country. But it is the nation where the King will some day reign. And it is that hope and promise that make Israel a nation worthy of our attention.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"The Shack" - The Concept of Trinity

One of the most difficult of doctrines emanating from the pages of Scripture is that of the Trinity. While the word "trinity" is not found within the Bible, one cannot deny that the portrait of one God existing as three persons is present. We know those as God-the Father, Jesus Christ -the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Usually, when a human author attempts to explain the Trinity, he begins with one person of the Godhead, then proceeds to the second and then to the third. In many ways we isolate the one from the other two. Yet, in his book "The Shack", the author William Young attempts to have all three persons of the Godhead in one location at one time. You might remember from our previous study, that he portrays God as a large African-American woman named "Papa." Jesus is pictured as being a Middle Eastern man who, we later find out, occupies himself with carpentry. And the Holy Spirit, named Sarayu, is a woman of Asian decent dressed in blue jeans and a brightly colored blouse. Yes, I have to admit that when I first read those descriptions (pages 82-85) I was taken back. To describe God and the Godhead in those ways seemed almost blasphemous. Then I remembered how often the biblical writers themselves often used human phrases to help us to understand God: "the hand of God", "the arm of God", "the eyes of God", and "the face of God" just to cite a few. I think Young is doing something very similar. He is trying to help us to understand God in the midst of this fictional setting.

Once I got past the descriptions, I was intrigued as to how the author portrayed the relationship that existed between the participants in the Trinity. There was an intentionality about those relationships, yet there was some levity as well. I have to be honest and admit that I don't often view the members of the Godhead as having a good time together. In fact, the account I usually draw from my study of the Word is that there is a seriousness and even a sobriety between them. Could it be possible that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit actually enjoy each other's presence? Could it be possible that they enjoy some humorous dialogue over a meal together? I know this, when we get to heaven we will find that there was much more to the relationship between the members of the Trinity than we ever considered here below.

If I had a complaint about how the Trinity is portrayed in "The Shack" it is the lack of a semblance of authority between them. In fact, the author strongly states that there was no "chain of command" between the members. He writes: "It's one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you," Jesus added. "Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you." (pages 122-123).

From my own study of the Scriptures, I have tended to observe that there was a delineation of ministry - some would use the word function - between the members of the Trinity. God, the Father, was the creator and sustainer of life; Jesus Christ is the redeemer and our blessed hope for tomorrow; the Holy Spirit is the one who causes us to understand God's Word and reveals to us the person of Christ. Also, the Bible describes a system of hierarchy almost from the time of the creation itself. God placed men and women - He used the term "mankind" - as head over all His creation. That describes a hierarchy. Then, following the fall, God placed Adam as head over Eve. More hierarchy. Jesus Christ, although He proclaimed His equality with God, nevertheless strongly asserted His obedience to the will of His Father. That seems to imply some type of hierarchy. I don't tend to think that hierarchy is as detrimental to a relationship as Young seems to believe it is.

This criticism set aside, I found "The Shack" to be a fascinating study of the relationships between "Papa" and Jesus and Sarayu. I also became engrossed with the development of the relationship Mack had with all three Persons during his weekend stay. I believe Young was reinforcing the biblical principle that God desires a living relationship with each one of us. And sometimes that relationship becomes most acute during times of suffering and heartache.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"The Shack" - Who Is God?

One of the great questions that confront readers of "The Shack" concerns an understanding of God. Yes we do a lot of talking about God and sometimes even hint that we know God. But, I believe if we were really honest with ourselves, most of what we understand about God could fall into either one of two stereotypes. William Young mentions both. The first is that of the old grandfatherly type. Young has his God character say to Mack Mackenzie: To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes (p. 93). There are those moments when we want God to wipe away all our hurts, to solve all our problems - always to our best interest, and to give us our every desire. We want God to "make everything better." But God does not always do that. In fact, I have found that He very seldom does those things. I need to come to the realization that He is God and I simply need to trust Him.

The second stereotype is also confronted in this book. Young has Mack say these words in a conversation with God: "But if you are God, aren't you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?" Mack could feel his deep anger emerging again, pushing out the questions in front of it, and he was a little chagrined at his own lack of self-control. But he asked anyway, "Honestly, don't you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?" (p. 119). In my teaching of the Bible I have had many students whose understanding of God was founded upon a similar thought. God was angry. God was vengeful. God always got even. In response to this statement, Young has his God character respond with words that cause serious reflection: "I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it" (p. 120).

Read that statement once again...slowly. "Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside." Now read Psalm 32:3-5. Sin consumes us. God offers us a cure...deliverance from the power of sin and from the penalty of sin. Yet many people continue to succumb to the disease of sin by refusing God's offer. Could we say that God's wrath that is now and will be in the future poured out upon the world is a consequence of mankind's refusal to accept God's offer rather than His punishment upon sin?

Well we have not touched upon how Young created God's character in his story. I honestly admit I was not prepared for that presentation. In fact, it almost caused me to quit the reading. For I was not ready to receive God in the person of a "large beaming African-American woman" who desired to be called "papa." I immediately was tempted to say, "Hey, this is very New Age, for don't they describe God as being a woman?" But, I continued reading, and slowly I began to understand why the author described God in this way. He was forcing me to think of God outside of those stereotypes that I so easily ascribe to God. He was asking me to see God as greater than anything I could envision. I don't think the author was saying that "God is a woman." No, because at one point in the story we do see God taking the form of a father figure.
Nor do I believe that the author is asking us to see God in everything around us - sort of a pantheistic view. But the author is most definitely challenging my concept of God. Even the dialogue within the story invites me to rethink that concept. And, I must say, that, after reading "The Shack" I have had a desire to reread especially the Old Testament to gain a better understanding of God in order to know Him better.

Reader, don't let the appearance of God as a large African-American woman deter you from proceeding further into the book. Remember, this is a work of fiction and some literary license is granted in that genre.

In our next meeting I would like to address the subject of the Trinity and how the author understands that concept.