Monthly Archives: May 2011

Faith That Never Grows Old

 

By Michael Gallup

I have been thinking a lot lately about who I was as a child and why I fell such an affinity for that person but also great distance. I was certainly a dreamer with a wonder-filled view of the world. My mom tells me that as a three-year old I stated that the universe was a picture that God painted. I loved to slouch down in the back seat of the car and watch as the moon “chased” us home. I, like so many other kids, would lie on the ground and observe the shapes of the clouds as they shape-shifted from dragons to motorcycles. I was solely devoted to dinosaurs, determined to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I would pretend to be a sub-mariner superhero who belonged to the super-group the “Wave Warriors” when I played in the ocean and I could stare into the mysterious moss-draped live oaks that lined the tidewaters of South Carolina for hours.

These are things that I find nearly impossible to do anymore and that reality hurts. It hurts in a way I can only imagine death hurts like. Something crucial to who I am, crucial to me actually being alive is at best in a coma. I look into these sources of wonder and I wonder why they no longer inspire.

Perhaps its just Peter Pan nostalgia, that the great crime of my life is that I actually grew-up, but growing up is not the problem, its the dying that is the crime. There are times when I am still surprised but often the tears found there are in mourning of how foreign the sense of awe has become.

Jesus has something interesting to say about all this, that our faith should be like that of a child’s; that our faith could see dragons in the clouds; that our faith could see God closing one eye, sticking out his tongue, holding out his thumb as He determines just the right shade of green for the Milky Way. Yet I find myself feeling like I do in the face of so many of His sayings; I experience a sinking feeling that spits in my face and pronounces that I’m a loser.

Yet that is just where God meets us.

Because childlike faith also means that when we get, as my nephew Caedmon calls them, a ‘big big ouchie’ that a kiss from mom will make it all better.

My inner-child may be dead but my God has a flare for the dramatic and resurrection is His specialty. Before I can have a faith that chases the moon, I need a faith that allows me to run screaming and crying into His arms, demanding cookies, GI Joe band aids, and kool-aid.

And the beauty is that our Father gives good gifts.

I think our sense of wonder as children is a byproduct of our security, we were free to dream because as far as we knew, everything was going to be OK. Yet obviously life has choked this thought to death. We no longer wonder, because it requires a large level of trust.

Because of the scars we bear, we are hesitant to acquire anymore, so we shore our selves up against any kind of surprise and in so doing we toss out the baby with the bath water. But my God has acquired scars so that I could healed of them. We no longer have to fear, we are free to dream, to live. He has died so we must live.

When I was five, I was walking around my yard after a hurricane had downed several trees. As I turned a corner I heard a distinct loud hiss and saw a cotton-mouth snake coiled up, head raised literally inches from me ready to strike. Pure instinct kicked in and I ran faster than I ever have before or since and screamed and cried. Inside my house I found shelter in my dad.

From the safe vantage point of my porch, I watched as my dad chopped the snake in half with a garden hoe. I was sure then that my dad was the strongest and bravest person on earth. I knew it was safe to venture out again because he would be there wielding his weapon to protect me. May we we walk in the mighty shadow of God’s healing, tossing fear to the wind because nothing is too big or too bad for our Dad.

Michael is a student at Denver Seminary. You can read his blog at www.asprigofhope.blogspot.com

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The Problem With Pedestals

by Michael J. Klassen

For over 20 years, Robert Young was one of the most respected men in America. Beginning in 1954, he played the role of Jim Anderson, an insurance salesman and father extraordinaire on the television program Father Knows Best. The Anderson family became the prototype for white, suburban American families with Robert Young as the measure of all good dads.

Nine years after his program concluded, Young made the jump to upper middle-class when he assumed the role of Dr. Marcus Welby on Marcus Welby MD. So believable was he that people sought him for medical advice off the set. His television program ran from 1969 to 1976. Over his 22 year run, Young garnered three Best Actor Emmys—two for Father’s Knows Best and one for Marcus Welby MD.

Who wouldn’t want to be Robert Young?

Well, to begin with, Robert Young. His ongoing bouts with depression and alcoholism, and frustrated by his inability to escape his “nice guy” persona and break into the movies, Young unsuccessfully tried to take his life in the early 1990s. He died in 1998.

I, for one, was astonished when I heard that Robert Young tried to commit suicide. He seemed so…put together.

Then five days ago, news surfaced about another personality who sought to take his life—this time successfully. Joseph Brooks is best known for writing the song “You Light Up My Life.” Beautifully sung by Debby Boone, the song debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for a record-setting 10 weeks, earning Boone a Grammy for Best New Artist. With sales of over four million copies in the U.S. alone, the song ultimately became the biggest hit of the 1970s. It also became a film by the same name, earning an Academy Award for best original song.

Brooks was scheduled to go to trial for sexually assaulting four different women whom he had “auditioned” for movie roles that didn’t exist. He was being tried for 91 counts and charged with rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges. Other women were also stepping forward with similar claims.

Again, I was astonished by the accusations and his choice to commit suicide because the “nice” song he had written seemed to belie a man who really had it together. Assuredly, his “sensitive” persona as the result of his credentials drew women to trust him.

But that’s the problem with pedestals.

In our human condition, we try so hard to elevate people to a status that no one can really attain. We expect our leaders to make fair decisions and live perfect lives.

But standing atop a pedestal is a risky proposition. There’s nowhere to go but down and losing your balance is nearly a certainty. The laws of physics demand that standing on any top-heavy structure will likely lead to the person’s downfall. The problem with pedestals is that they fall down.

And yet, still we’re surprised when people eventually fall.

Why We Gravitate Toward Pedestals

After God delivered Israel from the hands of the Egyptians…

After he parted the Red Sea so his people could cross on dry ground…

After he closed the waters on the Egyptian army…

After supplying manna and quail in the desert for food…

After providing water from the rock at Massah and Meribah…

After granting victory to their completely untrained troops over the Amalekite army…

Still, Israel sought to place something on a pedestal.

In Exodus 19-31, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to enter into a covenantal relationship with God on behalf of Israel. God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, but deeper still, he established the blueprint for how Israel would be his people. With almighty God as their God, idols were unnecessary.

And while Moses communed with God atop the holy mountain, the people below fashioned a golden calf which they worshiped (see Exodus 32).

All of us gravitate toward idols. We want a god we can see and emulate. We expect perfection (the calf was made of gold!). And yet the gods we fashion ultimately fail us. You could say it’s the law of spiritual physics: every idol we place on a pedestal will eventually fall down.

Granted, our leaders should be held to a higher standard, but we shouldn’t be surprised when they live well below our expectations. And media personalities like Robert Young and Joseph Brooks? Well, they’re just as messed up as we are.

Which just goes to show that pedestals don’t make good platforms. They’re nice for holding statues or plants, but they’re lousy at holding people.

And in the end, they’re good reminders that the idols we emulate will never compare with the God who loves us and desire for us to live as his people.

All other gods will fail you.

Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.

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Thoughts On Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and the Sad State of American Christianity

By Eugene C. Scott

I’m coming late to the Rob Bell lynching. In case you’re coming in late too, Bell is swinging from the gallows for writing a book titled “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Despite the megalomaniacal title, Bell’s book shouldn’t have earned him a golden noose. This is not to say that what Bell writes about heaven and hell is not controversial or important. Rather I believe the size of the controversy dwarfs the contents of the 198 page book. Others–Bell cites a few of them–have said and written similar things about “heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” without stirring as much dust.

So why the excitement? Because Bell is part of the American Evangelical star-maker machinery: hip, good preacher, mega church, author of a previous best-selling book called “Velvet Elvis,” huge following, and conference speaker–though he won’t be speaking at as many conferences because everybody is mad at him. Bell is a Christian celebrity. If I had written this book–or you–only our friends and family members would have called us heretic.

To me the decibel level of the outcry says more about the state of American Evangelicalism than it does about Bell or theology. Evangelicalism has blindly bought in (pun intended) to consumerism as a cultural ideal.

Duck into any Christian book/trinket/Jesus-junk store. Based on most of the products there, we are a community 1,000 miles wide and an 1/8 inch deep. At our local store you can buy “Christian scripture candy” called “Testamints.”

One company sports a name and logo that is oxymoronic: “Not of This World: A Christian Clothing Brand All About Jesus.” As if slick marketing and a cool logo is not of this world. And notice the books in these Christian book stores. Authors having a “platform,” read sales potential, often outweigh artistic writing or powerfully poised ideas.

This focus on celebrity and consuming things supposedly representing our All Consuming God has done far more damage to our sad state of faith than Rob Bell’s debatable theories on hell. Consider how many of us go to church to get our spiritual tanks filled, or hear a good sermon rather than to encounter God. The former are all consumer ideas not found in scripture.

Second, Bell’s book is controversial because he may or may not–it’s hard to tell–believe in hell as eternal punishment the way most other American Evangelical stars do. This is similar to (though more consequential than) a Hollywood star, say Lady Gaga, declaring herself a Republican.

Two of Bell’s main ideas in “Love Wins” are that heaven is not a place in the clouds but living in God’s presence and creation both here and now and then and there (after death) and also that hell is not an eternal fiery pit but rather separation from God here and now and then and there. The after life hell he posits is a redemptive place where those who do not chose God in this life will be able to, eventually.

His first theory–heaven begins here–is not new. Nor is it controversial, despite how most of pop Christianity wrongly believes heaven is only the place we go when we die. Orthodox theologians George Eldon Ladd and Dallas Willard also pointed out that Jesus brought the kingdom of God (heaven) with him when he came to us as Incarnate God and did not take it with him when he left as Risen Lord. If this idea interests you–and it should–read more about it in Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” or Ladd’s “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” They are not easy reads but they are worth the work. As Bell argues, living as if heaven begins here and now makes a profound difference in our day-to-day lives.

Bell’s second major theme, hell is redemptive, also is not new. It is, however, troublesome and controversial. Bell does incredible interpretive and linguistic gymnastics to get to this point. But he never dives deep into his reasoning nor into any of the competing arguments. Even his prose style feels as if it skims the surface. He uses short, incomplete sentences that read more like bullet points than flowing narrative. This has caused some to accuse Bell of setting up and knocking down “straw-men.”

Hell must be redemptive, Bell argues because he cannot conceive of God not getting what God wants. In other words, “Love Wins.”

Bell reasons this on the basis that God is good and loving and it is inconceivable that a good and loving God would torture his creatures for eternity. Therefore he says, those choosing hell will only be there until they finally choose God.

Aside from the biblical problems this raises, it trips over other issues. First, why is God more loving to–in Bell’s words–“torture” people for only 10,000 or 10,000,000 years? If hell is not compatible with a loving God, then it does not matter how long one suffers there. One second is too long. This solution only reframes the problem but does not solve it.

Second, will people who had incredibly hard and indifferent hearts to human suffering and God’s love here on earth have the same hearts in hell? If so, how much time would they have to spend there to finally choose God? Will Hitler spend 10,000,000,000 years while the woman who murders only her husband spends only 1,000 years in hell? How does that square with unearned grace?

Third, though Bell claims he believes love only lives in freedom and that that freedom allows us to choose or reject God’s offer of eternal love and heaven, Bell’s hell seems to be a place–full of suffering–where all there will change their minds. That sounds more like prolonged determinism not love inspired freedom.

One positive thread Bell wove into “Love Wins” is questioning many status quo, popularly held Christian beliefs. Are these beliefs, such as heaven is only where we go when we die and hell is a fiery place presided over by a horned devil, biblical or do our pictures and ideas for them come from other, less inspired places? But the book is not in-depth enough to answer these questions adequately. That said, I do not believe Bell chickens out in the end, as some have accused. I find Bell lets the infinite nature of these questions remain somewhat of a mystery. I want stronger answers. But we mere humans may not have been given them. Finally, I have read these same questions and answers before and better explored in other places–but by less famous authors.

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A Tree Called Home

By Michael Gallup

I’m not sure why everytime I think of home, I feel compelled to describe the Spanish Moss-draped oak trees. I feel the need to become rather verbose and compare the moss to trapped spirits of the men and women damned to never leave the lowcountry (I could think of worse fates). But simply put, nothing speaks of the area like the oaks. These ancient giants with their gnarly knotted elbows meandering to and fro are the epitome of the grandeur and history that so defines the lowcountry of South Carolina. They belong to a rare group of items like the mountains of Colorado and the sea, that no matter how many times you see them they still inspire awe.

As a kid they held a certain mystery for me, that if they could talk, God himself would pull up a seat to listen. Yet they also had a laziness about them. The oaks have the appearance of the rivers they surround, a fluidty that can be rather mesmerizing. When they have reached the grandfather stage of life, their limbs will rest on the ground much like a cane. But most of all, I must speak of them because they are home, as much as mom is even.

Yet, I have been cut off from that land, somewhat by choice and somewhat by force. And this saddens me because my blood has a brown tint to it thanks to those muddy rivers that these oaks line. I know worthless tidbits of history about the plantations that inhabited the land before me, but it is not my home anymore and I wonder if it ever truly was.

Even though I was born on the banks of the black river in Georgetown much like my father before me, I always felt a stranger. My great-granddad wasn’t a rebel and I’d lie straight through my teeth about the fact the my Grandfather was from Pennslyvania. If anyone ever discovered that fact, I’d quickly remind them my mom was from Arkansas. Yet I lived in a place where my friends last names matched those of the plantations and even though this heritage wasn’t always flaunted, I was always on the outside looking in.

Home is a funny place. The cliché is that it is where the heart is, but that is too vague for my sensibilities. I need a place to call home and I think that I am not alone in this quest, that one way to describe our existence is that it is a search for place, for home. The religious thing to say is that God or heaven is our homes and that is not far from the truth as I can see it.

When I think of home, I think of mom and our gardens and a tree. Is it fair to guess that those things stick out because deep in all of us is a longing for a Father, a garden and a tree; a longing for a place that though we may stare into it for eternity it will never cease to inspire awe?

Michael is a student at Denver Seminary who’s greatest accomplishment in life was marrying way up to his beautiful wife Michala, the Director of Children’s Ministry at The Neighborhood Church. Michael has a blog called a A Sprig of Hope where he shares devotional thoughts on life, short stories, poetry, prayers, and anything that grabs his short attention span. 

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What If Jesus Doesn’t Return?

by Michael J. Klassen

Well, tomorrow’s the big day. The uber-famous rock band U2 plays in my home city of Denver, Colorado, and for the big ending, Jesus is coming back.

How great is that?!? A combination of heaven on earth followed up by an earth to heaven.

Of course, two things could turn the evening into a downer. First, the outdoor concert could be cancelled. Or more so, Jesus doesn’t return.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last few months, you know about Harold Camping’s prediction that Jesus is returning on May 21. For a little refresher, you can read my recent post about the coming event. Camping is the former civil engineer and current owner of Family Radio. According to his calculations, Judgment Day is tomorrow.

If Jesus chooses not to follow Camping’s prediction, I’ll be disappointed for a number of reasons:

Jesus isn’t coming back. Living in this world is okay, but heaven is going to be so much better. No more pain and sorrow. No more $100 fill-ups at the gas station. I can eat as much as I want. But seriously, we’ll be in God’s glorious, unhindered presence. People who fear that they’ll be bored in heaven don’t have a clue how much better it will be. I admit that all too often, I focus all my attention on this present life: paying the bills, working hard, raising my kids. And, I allow temporal, unimportant things to stress me out. Eternity, on the other hand, is…forever.

Lives will be shattered. I can’t help but think about the many people who invested their life savings to warn people about Jesus’ return. If Jesus doesn’t come back, how will they rebuild their lives? The embarrassment alone would be overwhelming. Some quit their jobs and lived on their life savings to warn others. When they apply for new jobs, and their prospective employer asks them why they left their previous job, what will they say? Without a doubt, some people will become embittered by the experience.

The Christian faith will be mocked. Antagonists of the Christian faith will be given one more reason to point their fingers at followers of Christ and laugh. Over the last few weeks, atheists have been making fun of Camping’s ardent followers and using it as evidence of the ridiculousness of our faith. Here’s one example.

Excuse me for moment while I rant: The part that sticks in my craw is Camping’s claim that “the Bible guarantees” the date of Jesus’ return. Really? Where? And why, after 2000 years, did he crack the code, while St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Pope Benedict (an extremely astute theologian) and other theological luminaries missed it? Amazing.

Nevertheless, if Jesus doesn’t come back, it isn’t the end of the world. Life will go on. In fact, our faith will continue. Fortunately, the future of our faith isn’t dependent upon the its followers. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). Sadly enough, this isn’t the first time he’s had to deal with apocalyptic naysayers. People have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning.

The one encouragement I take in this non-event is that people still believe. Deep inside, we know this earth isn’t our home. Big screen TVs and iPads still don’t fill the God-shaped void inside.

Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.

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Are Books About to Become Extinct?

By Eugene C. Scott

I have thousands of good friends. Friends not just acquaintances. People who have spoken into my deepest fears and hopes, people I have shared untold hours with. They have asked and answered questions, frustrated me, left me yearning for more, angered me, comforted me, challenged, and have always been only an arms length away. None of these unusual friends have ever met me, however, nor I them. Still they have walked with me down every path of my life.

I’m not talking about my covey of life-long friends, who are thicker than blood, who also fit the above description. And no, I’m not referring to my Facebook friend count nor people in church, though they are friends too. These are friends some would not count or–possibly–even notice in their own lives. But they are there. And they have so much to say.

One of these friends, one of my best gave me great pleasure–and insight into my own family of origin–by telling me a story about a 1960s tragedy—a murder—that rocked a Minnesota family and brought one brother to his knees and the other to an understanding about the true nature of faith. Through that story, I was transported back to my childhood and warm memories of my family, before it was broken, and how my own loss started me on a journey of faith.

Another less poetic friend shared theology with me that challenged (oh how I prefer avoiding challenges to my beliefs) me and gave me a refreshed relationship with Jesus and a new view of heaven and earth.

An older friend mesmerized me with a series of jokes, puns, and one-liners retelling his life story. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt and I found myself wishing I didn’t take life so seriously; and for a moment I didn’t.

I also had a young friend who shared with me his struggles and victories while growing up without a father. I saw my own struggle in his–my father died when I was eleven. He too had fantasy father figures. His were Bill Cosby from “The Cosby Show” and an older hippy kid who befriended him. Mine was my older sister’s boyfriend. We arrived at a school father/son event in his souped-up GTO. I knew I was the coolest kid there until I realized this guy was not my dad no matter how hard I wished he was. My friend’s story defined my story. Though many men could influence, help, mentor, and love us fatherless kids, no one could replace our real fathers, except maybe God.

There are many more of these friends I could share with you. Strangely none I have seen face to face, however.

As you may have guessed, these friends are all books. The Minnesota family is Leif Enger’s invention in his outstanding novel, Peace Like a River. Enger’s storytelling and prose were so simple and beautiful I have read this novel half a dozen times.

Dallas Willard wrote one of the freshest, most challenging, accessible theologies called The Divine Conspiracy. It describes God’s desire, God’s conspiracy to let us know him and to live life beyond our human constraints. I go back to it again and again and discover new layers each time.

The next friend mentioned above is I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! an autobiography by my favorite comedian, Bob Newhart. I read it in two days and still retell his jokes to whoever will listen.

Next Donald Miller’s delightful books are each funny and light, true, and flawed, real, yet able to slip under the skin and pierce one’s heart. Miller’s fourth book To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father is a slim book—197 pages—each page of which showed me my past and future vistas through viewing Miller’s life.

Some suggest my friends, books, should be placed on the endangered species list. Reading is declining, ebooks may bury books with bindings. Movies and TV have also dug the grave deeper. These good friends of mine are on life support. Or are they?

I look at my library of friends, lined neatly on the shelves, or not, so diverse and beautiful, and full of life and wisdom–and even foolishness–and I grieve. Their loss, if it comes, will be great. To me people who do not read books (or God forbid, cannot!) are like people who have seldom or never tasted chocolate or ice cream. They are missing something delicious.

Or more accurately they are missing a rich interaction no other medium can offer, daily conversations with people from all over the world and all through time that will comfort and challenge while also delivering them on great flights of fancy. I have read a piece of one book or another daily, missing only a few under duress, for nearly twenty-eight years. I can’t imagine life without books.

In 1953 Ray Bradbury wrote a science fiction titled Fahrenheit 451 in which the government begins to burn books because they deem them dangerous. But like most other beautiful, important things in our lives, nothing so drastic or romantic will spell the demise of books. If books die it will be while we are not looking. Their loss will come at the hands of inattention.

There is hope. Brabury’s novel recounts a secret society that covenants to save their favorite books. Each person participates by memorizing a book and in essence becoming the book. The book through its host, so to speak, comes to life. Bradbury’s idea is not far-fetched because story–factual or fictional–is the life blood we readers share with books. Story is a part of most–if not all–of our lives. Our very lives are stories, unbound, living books. Therefore, the soul of a book, story will live on, as it did before books and as it will after.

And I for one–no matter whether others read or what technology comes–will not easily let go of my many friends.

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Is God Safe?

By Michael Gallup

Every Sunday night I meet with a bunch of losers and rejects and it is beautiful. Each week I hear stories of alcoholic fathers, failed marriages, premature family deaths, depression, suicide, abandonment, and so on. Each of us has deep wounds and have grown tired of easy answers to our tough questions. But in our woundedness we have found a safe place to land, to crash together and in this safety a desire to let others find safety amongst us has taken seed. So we wonder together what it means to be a “safe” place.

At the heart of this question lies a hunger inside everyone of us for safety and security. Yet this hunger is often malnourished by the fast food of safety. We run from our problems, insulating ourselves from the world’s brokenness and especially our own. We take control into our own hands and believe ourselves capable of protecting ourselves. We move to the suburbs, get life insurance, and create a systemized theology that tames our God and puts him into a nice, neat box that we can control. Yet even when we have mastered our lives, we still deep-down lack a true feeling of safety.

But what does it really mean to be safe? If we are to be safe, mustn’t we be safe like God is safe? The bible speaks of God as our fortress, our shepherd. Jesus promised his follows peace and joy, telling them his burden was light. But the scriptures also teach us that the fear of God is the first step in wisdom, that we should be terrified at the thought of falling into his hands. Jesus teaches his followers that if they want to be his disciples they must pick up their cross, in other words, they will die if they follow him. And God tells Moses, his friend, that no one can see Him and live. Can we truly find refuge, safety in the presence of a God who will kill us? I think so.

The safety of God is something all together different from what our American Dream teach us. If we truly seek refuge in him, than we will find safety from our greatest foe: ourselves. It is only in the death of ourselves that we can truly be safe and truly live. It is only when God defeats us that we can have any victory. Safety is not the avoidance of trouble, pain, and death but the facing of it. Safety is the facing of it with the God who is scarier than all our fears. It is in the dying that we come to life. In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the kids are asking about Aslan, the Christ-like lion who rules the land of Narnia. Rightfully so, they are a bit worried about fraternizing with a lion and ask if he is safe. To which Mr. Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

And so we find ourselves seeking safety in a very unsafe God. If we fall into his hands, we will surely die but by God, that’s the very thing we need. Following God, truly embracing His Kingdom call to walk in his resurrection life, means that success, happiness, and confidence will no longer nurse our infantile understandings of life. It is only in God’s defeat of us that we realize that blessing is not something we can grasp or win by talent, force or will but is only available through a gift. It is only in helplessness, when we let go of control, that we will find ourselves in the secure arms of the Father and know that they are good. He is the King, I tell you.

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Bad News For Atheists

by Michael J. Klassen

Two days ago I drove to a Barnes and Noble bookstore to meet a friend at a Starbucks coffee shop. Because I arrived a little early, I decided to walk through the store—a rare treat because I buy most of my books online.

Browsing through the place, I couldn’t help noticing the many volumes on display attacking religion. Authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens claim that humanity suffers from a “God delusion,” and that “God is not great.”

Is it just me, or does it seem like atheism is on the rise?

Interestingly enough, a few years ago I ran across a study indicating that the number of atheists in America has remained the same for quite some time. However, in recent years, they’ve garnered a little more air time. In my opinion, the more publicity they receive, the more adherents they’ll win.

Are we in trouble?

Recently, Oxford University released the findings of a three-year mega-study on the prevalence of religion around the world. The nonsectarian project incorporated 40 different studies conducted by dozens of researchers. People surveyed hailed from countries around the world—China to Poland to America to Micronesia and beyond.

Perusing CNN.com, I ran across an online article reporting on the study:

“We tend to see purpose in the world,” Oxford University professor Roger Trigg commented on Thursday. “We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can’t see it. … All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking.”

Around the globe, regardless of race or location, people instinctively believe in a creator who governs world affairs and gives purpose to our everyday lives. This is a universal phenomenon.

“Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways” Trigg reported in the CNN article. Nevertheless, the study discovered that adults also jumped first for explanations that implied an unseen agent at work in the world.

I won’t go into detail about proving God’s existence, but suffice it to say, long ago Anselm of Canterbury theorized that because people can envision a God, he must really exist. Looks like Anselm’s theory might actually be fact.

“There is quite a drive to think that religion is private,” Tripp said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. “It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few, it’s basic human nature. This shows that it’s much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It’s got to be reckoned with. You can’t just pretend it isn’t there.”

If you fear for the future of Christianity, don’t.

To quote Mark Twain: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.

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The Glory of God’s Absence

by Michael Gallup

There is this interesting story that comes near the beginning of First Samuel. The Israelites are battling the Philistines (I know, big surprise) and are losing. So the Israelites get the Ark of God and bring it out into battle with them. Yet something funny happens at the this point, the Israelites are completely defeated and lose the Ark. Not only are thousands of the sons of Israel slain, but the very presence of their God, Yahweh, has left them. The news is so shocking that Israel’s chief priest Eli dies at the reception of the news. His daughter-in-law goes into labor at the sound of the shocking report and dies in the process. As she is dying, she names her son Ichabod, which means ‘no glory.’ In her dying words she sums up the desperate condition of her people: “The glory has departed Israel.”

Now we have to take some time to understand the desperate situation Israel finds themselves in this story. Yahweh is the defining attribute of this people, they are keenly aware that without Him they have nothing. They have no protection against their warring neighbors, they have no leader. The only reason they occupy the land that is so precious to them is because the glory, Yahweh, has been with them. And now all that they are has been stripped from them. They no longer have any real hope, any real future. Without Yahweh they are no longer Israel but merely a group of sojourners, former slaves in a foreign land. Their very source of being is gone, the glory had departed.

I think that if we are honest with ourselves there are those times when God feels like a figment of our imaginations. These are times when we parade out our spirituality in hopes that it will have some effect against the various trials of this life and yet not only do we find ourselves defeated, but God Himself seems to have left us all alone. We may not be willing to admit it, but the glory has departed. These can be very trying times. Nothing appears as it once did; we become hopeless in a way that deteriorates our very drive to wake up again. These are times when inevitably something must die.

This is a familiar story. In fact the succession of events in the history of Israel are rather cliché, with God and Israel tottering back and forth between blessings and cursings, between presence and absence. Yet when you isolate an episode like the one found in Samuel, it magnifies the despair behind the absence of God. Yet, we have the privilege of knowing the rest of the story. God returns and all of Israel unpops the cork and throws one heck of a party. And it is no ordinary party, not just another Friday evening, but an explosion of celebration, a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza. I’m sure years later they will sit around the campfire reliving that night, perhaps growing a bit embarrassed about how undignified they acted. The joy is certainly not unfounded, for God left and they had no reason to expect His return, but here He comes and it is good news indeed.

However, we do not have the luxury of knowing the end of our own stories. We have no way of knowing if the dark night will pass. In the moment of pain, it could seem that all is lost. But we should know better. These stories and even are own are testimonies that although God may seem distant now, He will not always remain so. There is a day coming, when we too will lose our dignity in joyous celebration. The glory may have departed but it is not lost forever and that is good news indeed.

I mentioned earlier the inevitably of death during these times of divine absence. In the moment, death seems to have the ultimate say, the final word. As we acquire scars, it can seem as if our state is deteriorating. But it is in the dying and in the scars that true life and true beauty emerge. Just as the soil cannot produce its yield until it is broken, nor can we truly thrive unless we are pruned. These times when God is absent remind us that He is all we truly need, that He is all we truly hunger for. And that realization kills the things that have seized our attention away from Him. That realization brings death and scars, but by God, it also brings life.

The good news is that today is not the end of our stories, even if today brings death, because death no longer has hold of the final chapter. The joy is that even in the face of the Absence of God, we can rejoice in His ultimate return. The beauty is that we can pull the cover off our wounds and see them for what they are, simply the breaking of our soil so that we may finally blossom.

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What Would Jesus Say To Osama Bin Laden?

by Michael J. Klassen

One name has dominated the news headlines around the world this week: Osama bin Laden. Sunday night, U.S. president Barak Obama announced to his fellow Americans and to the world that the infamous leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network had been shot and killed in a surprise maneuver by a bevy of U.S. Navy Seals.

Within moments, Times Square in New York City was packed with people celebrating the death of the world’s most reviled and admired man. Reviled because he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of people in the U.S. and around the world. Admired because he embodied Muslim fundamentalist hatred toward the west.

The next morning, newspaper headlines trumpeted the master terrorist’s death. The New York Daily News probably offered the most intense headline: “Rot In Hell.”

Amidst the differing opinions about this man’s death, I began wondering What would Jesus say to Osama bin Laden?

After some reflection, here’s what I imagine Jesus would say:

Osama,

My beloved, my heart breaks from witnessing the end of your life. How I wish you would have made life-giving—instead of death-giving—choices. Had you taken to heart what your holy book, the Qur’an, says about me, you would have known that I, too, am a humble servant of God. You would have known that I am the healing prophet—and I could have healed your angry, embittered heart.

Centuries ago, another man hated my people. His name was Paul. He killed many of my followers for similar reasons that you have killed. But I stopped him and showed him that the power of love always triumphs over the power of hate. Hate always, always ends in destruction. As I spoke through my brother James, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

That’s why violence never solves anything. Every seed you sow brings a harvest of the same seed. If you sow seeds of mercy, you will reap a harvest of mercy. If you sow seeds of violence, you will always reap a harvest of violence. Did you think your destruction on September 11, 2001 would resolve anything? Efforts to defend the Muslim faith through jihad will never work. You cannot change the world through violence. When you hate your enemy, you become your enemy. Your enemies in America would do well to learn this lesson, too.

If, indeed, you believed that your god is great, why did you take matters into your own hands? You should have trusted him to mete out justice. He never needed your help.

You must also understand this: Not all Americans and people in western society follow me. Many people are more committed to their political cause than they are to me. They may appear to be my followers, but their allegiances lie with civic religion instead. They think that their patriotism is equivalent to Christianity, which it isn’t. A good American isn’t necessarily a good Christian. But of course, you know this now, because you are guilty of the same offense. You were more committed to your political cause than you were to your faith.

Unfortunately, your actions gave many Americans a distorted view of Islam. In the same way, the behavior of some Christians give the rest of the world a distorted view of Christianity. Anyone who burns the Qur’an or mocks Muhammad in my name does not know me.

But despite your violent ways, I want you to know that I love you as much as the people whose blood is on your hands. Your regrettable behavior did nothing to make me love you any less. So while people are celebrating your death, I’m grieving instead.

Jesus

Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.


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