Monday, December 6, 2010

Being Wealthy

I have never really considered myself to be wealthy. By American standards, I'm not particularly so. I admit that I'm also not truly poor. I have food on my table consistently and can replace my old clothes with new ones as needed. But I also don't have ability or the means to spend money freely on unnecessary things. I don't remodel my home because I'm tired of the old style and I don't have to have the latest techno gadget. Nor could I afford it even if I wanted it.

On Sunday our home group was discussing 1 Timothy 6:6-11 and 17-19. Someone commented that most of us tend to read these verses and think of others whom we know, people whom we considered to be really wealthy. These verses are directed at those people, not at us. Most of us, at least Americans, don't really think of ourselves as wealthy. We're just average people, just getting by, right? I would include myself in that category. As I said, I don't consider myself wealthy.

But the truth is that we need to read these verses with ourselves in mind, for we are the wealthy of the earth. If you are reading this blog, it means you have access to the internet, which already puts you among the elite of the globe. (Yes, I realize that internet access is rapidly expanding, but it still remains a luxury of those who have some measure of wealth in order to afford that access.) We Americans, along with all other Western and economically-advanced nations, are wealthy, even those of us who don't think we are. So when we read a verse that says "Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud..." we need to think first and foremost of ourselves.

"But," you may protest, "I'm really not that wealthy." Compared to the majority of the world's people you are. I have friends around the world who struggle to get by on $200-300 a month and consider themselves fortunate if they can make that much. For the math challenged, that comes to $2400-3600 ANNUALLY. Most Americans make more than that in a month. Admittedly the cost of living differs from one place to another, but I can assure you that it is tough to live on $200 a month anywhere. And there are certainly people making much less than that--a lot of them. (For lots of details on this, check out this website.)

So stop and think about what Paul writes to Timothy and then think about your own use of the wealth God has given you. Ultimately we are accountable to him for the wealth he has given us. I for one want to strive increasingly to live according to Paul's admonition in verse 18, that I would use my money to do good, to be generous to those in need and to readily share with others. I want to stop trying to excuse myself on the basis that "I'm not wealthy" because, in fact, I really am.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections on Philippians 2:4

I've been reading through Philippians the last couple months, taking it slowly so that I can reflect on each section. The past week I've been meditating on the first few verses of chapter two. I came to verse four, which in the NLT reads: "Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing." This verse prompted a lot of thinking.

First of all it challenged me to examine my own behavior. Do I think about the needs of those around me? Do I consider what is happening in their lives and how I might show the love of God through some act of service or a well-spoken word? Although I see progress in this area, I have to admit that I still have a long way to go in this area. I all-too-easily focus on my own affairs and get caught up in my own agenda. In doing so I miss opportunities to serve those around me. I miss hearing God's voice directing me to pay attention to the needs of others. So for me the challenge is to learn to actively look at the lives of those around me and to take concern for their needs and affairs, as this verse exhorts us.

Reflecting further though, I began to wonder whether there are any limits on this exhortation. Should we be interested in the affairs of everyone around us? Do we need to be responding to every need that presents itself or that we are aware of? This seems to me to be an unrealistic expectation. I know of people who say yes to nearly every request made of them, for various reasons. These people, while well-intentioned, often end up being overwhelmed, frazzled and eventually burned out. That doesn't strike me as a healthy lifestyle either and while it may seem spiritually commendable, it isn't sustainable.

So what does God ask of us? He obviously wants us to think of the needs of others as well as our own needs. He wants us to respond in love to the needs of those around us. My present understanding of this recognizes that we must use spiritual wisdom to know where the boundaries are. While being aware of and concerned for the needs of others, it may not always be that I am the one God would have meet those needs. Just because something is a good thing to do doesn't mean that I'm the one that should do it. On the other hand I obviously cannot and should not be self-absorbed, spending all my time, energy and other resources only on myself. To discern how God wants me to respond to a given situation, I need to be in communication with him. I also need to be aware of what is happening in the lives of those around me. If I am not paying attention, I may miss an opportunity where God wants to use me. If I am not walking closely with God, I will not hear his voice directing me. Both elements are necessary. If both are in place, then I can live consistently with God's desire that I look out both for my own needs and those of others.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An Inefficient God

We Americans love efficiency. I love efficiency. Few things can frustrate me like having to deal with a severely inefficient situation--and this happens frequently in my life! God must be teaching me something. But lately I've been pondering whether God concerns himself with efficiency nearly as much as we do. The simple answer is, he doesn't. If we look at Scripture we see God acting in ways that are clearly inefficient. An efficient God wouldn't make his prophet spend 40 years tending sheep in the desert. That's not a very efficient leadership program. He wouldn't entrust the spreading of his message to a bunch of unskilled fisherman and other ordinary laborers. No, if God were an American, we'd have a slick organization with a great PR department and a well-thought-out 5-year plan for reaching the masses. There would be a great leadership development program with guaranteed results in no time at all. That's what an efficient God would do. The world would hear his message in record time.

Well, thankfully we don't have an American God. But I wonder whether our American/Western Christian organizations and churches often end up adopting the cultural value of efficiency and treating it as a biblical value. Now I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to use our resources, including our time and money, wisely. I think God wants us to exercise good stewardship. But if we expect the same standards of efficiency in the work of building his kingdom that we expect from businesses and corporations, I think we are going down the wrong path and will be sorely disappointed. God's kingdom simply doesn't seem to work that way. Does God want results? I imagine that he does. Does he measure his success by the speed and efficiency at which he achieves those results? Based on Scripture it appears he doesn't.

I write this because I sense a growing trend to exalt results, preferably quick results, as the measure of ministry success. Ministries that don't "produce" within the time frame expected by their supporters will lose that support. But those supporters need to understand that in the realm of the spiritual, things move at a different pace. It doesn't mean that God isn't at work. But think about how God often describes the work of his kingdom. He uses metaphors of planting seeds and letting them grow. Maybe we have grown too distant from the land for these metaphors to have any resonance with us. But we would do well to remember what they indicate. God's work takes time and by our standards often seems terribly inefficient. So go ahead and keep tabs on how your favorite ministries use their resources. But realize that results take time, maybe even more time than you and I will have on this earth. That's okay. God's not in a hurry, so we don't need to be either.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Eyes Have Been Opened

I was browsing the internet the other day when this article caught my eye. The editor certainly chose a title that would capture my interest. I read the article and was rather appalled by the assertion of the author. I do not think that making money is inherently sinful, but this author essentially concludes that personal success and happiness is the ultimate moral value. The runs counter to the entire teaching of Scripture, as the author duly notes.

I linked this article to my Facebook page which prompted a colleague of mine to direct me to a second article. He noted that the author of the original article is president of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, which reveals an enormous amount about his philosophy--if you are familiar with Ayn Rand. I was not, but this second article greatly enlightened me and at the same time frightened me.

I won't attempt to summarize the second article. My readers would do well to read it for themselves. I say it frightened me because I was completely unaware of the extent to which Rand's individualistic philosophy had infiltrated not only American culture but American church culture. The author's citation of Ravi Zacharias cuts right to the heart of the issue:

"Wealth and enterprise have so woven themselves around the message of Jesus that popular models of Christianity appear as nothing more than self and greed at the center, with strands of Christian thought at the periphery."

Prior to reading this article I would have described myself as inclining toward libertarianism. After reading it I would hesitate to associate myself with the underlying philosophy he describes. I still am sceptical of the role of government, but I see the point in his critique of unbridled libertarianism. It certainly isn't reflective of the message of Jesus. So I stand confronted by the harsh reality that much of my thinking has been strongly influenced by values that are contrary to the values of Christ, without my having even realized this. That's a painful recognition, but at the same time I'm glad I've had my eyes opened and my thinking challenged. I would never have thought of myself as being influenced by Ayn Rand, but now that I see how I have been, I want to correct my course. Otherwise I might as well sign my name on the new moral code espoused by Yaron Brook and the Ayn Randians of the world.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


While in a discussion with some co-workers today someone threw out the ubiquitous "WWJD?" question in response to our conversation. This led one colleague and on onto an interesting tangent. Jesus never endorses the consumption of coffee, tea or other stimulant beverages. Yet he did turn water into wine and didn't seem to discourage its consumption. So maybe we need to close all our church coffee shops and replace them with wine bars. Or maybe we need to recognize that WWJD? doesn't answer every situation we will face as believers... It can be helpful, but sometimes we have to apply the reasoning and logic skills God has given us.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on Mercy

I've been away for a while, enjoying some time of rest. A week without internet and other electronic entertainments proved quite refreshing. I'm still getting back into the frame of mind for blogging, but I read this blog tonight and wanted to pass it along for others to read.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Resisting the Work of God

I recently had the opportunity to do something that I knew I should do, that would be beneficial both for me and others involved, and that would support my wife in her work in particular. But in my heart I was not eager to do this thing. I really hoped I could find a reason to excuse myself in the end. But such an excuse did not present itself and in the end out of a sense of duty as well as a desire to demonstrate love to my wife, I chose to go ahead with the event. At first I found it hard to participate wholeheartedly, because my whole heart was not in it. But as I relaxed and allowed myself to enter more fully into the situation I found increasing interest and joy in what was going on around me. After the event finished and we were driving home I felt real joy in my heart that I had the opportunity to be a part of this and I thanked God for placing me and my wife in this place at this time.

Later I examined myself to see if I could determine what was behind my initial reluctance to participate. I saw that I hesitated to go because doing so would take me outside of my comfort zone. It would place me in surroundings that might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar and the harsh truth is that I like my comfort zone very much. I like being in situations where I know what is happening and can exercise some control over events. I also like the creature comforts I have around me, limited though they may be. And I like the comfort of my routine. I resisted stepping outside of these "comforts" and allowing myself to be stretched. I also realized that entering the situation would strip me of all that makes me "someone" in the eyes of is world. All of my life experience and the skills I have would would mean little in that particular context. I had to become a humble learner and sit and listen to others who by the standards of the world had little to offer me. My pride rebelled against this. As the Spirit revealed these things to me I had to humbly ask God for His forgiveness for my stubbornness and my attachment to the things of this world, both the material things around me and my identity and reputation. I thank God that he persuaded me to accept the opportunity, for had I not I would have been impoverished in many ways, even though I may not have realized it at the time.

How often does God want to grow us by taking us out of our comfort zone? And how often do we miss these opportunities for growth by resisting this very thing? How often do we cling to our status, identity or creature comforts because they give us a sense of security? And yet God would strip us of all of these so that we could become humble learners, sometimes through those we might least think could teach us anything useful. I am reminded of a citation attributed to Martin Luther:

God's nature is such that he makes something out of nothing.
Therefore, whoever has not yet become nothing, of that person God cannot make anything.

It is not easy to allow myself to become nothing, but if that is what must happen in order for me to be of use to God, then may he enable me to accept this humiliation. May I become like Christ, taking the nature of a servant so that God might be exalted.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Job Finished

I was able to finish the roof on the rabbit hutch last Saturday, after a friend brought me a full piece of sheet metal from the market. I bent the edges of the roof over the wood to make it safer, since sheet metal can easily cut a person. It also looks nicer this way.Overall I'm satisfied. I learned some useful techniques as I proceeded with the work and if I should ever build another one (which I hope I won't have to do!) I think I could do even better. Now I need to buy a sheet of plywood and construct a nesting box. I'm waiting for our car to be delivered, since my friend's car is too small to carry the plywood from the market to our house. Then Teresa wants to begin breeding rabbits--and that will be yet another adventure.

Friday, June 25, 2010

It is (almost) finished

Thanks to another day of reasonably cool weather I was able to make good progress today. In fact, only one thing remains to be done.

I began the day by constructing the door for the small section of the hutch. This went reasonably smoothly, until it came time to hang it on the frame. Then I discovered that the door and the opening didn't match as well as I would have liked. However, with a slight adjustment I was able to make a workable solution.
I was not so fortunate with the second door. After my difficulties with the first door, I should have been more attentive to the sizing of the second door. In fact I was, measuring carefully and framing my door very carefully. This second door was probably the most square of anything I'd constructed so far. After attaching my wire mesh I was ready to hang it...only to discover that my nice square door didn't fit the not-so-square opening. This time the problem could not be resolved with a quick adjustment. The door simply was not going to fit in its current form. Time to take a break and come back with a fresh perspective.

After a trip to the bazaar to get some more nails (and a fresh watermelon!), I tackled the problem with the door. I removed the wire mesh, took the frame partially apart and analyzed where I needed to make adjustments. I had to cut down the vertical parts of the door frame by 1 1/2 centimeters and cut a new top piece in order to fit the opening. I wasn't happy about the extra work, but it was my own fault for not testing the door initially. Having reassembled the door, I mounted it in the frame as well. Now it was time to construct the frame for the roof.
My plan for the roof was to construct a basic frame similar to the base with with supports running the length of the hutch. This will give me something to which I can attach the metal roof. This task went rather smoothly, with no unexpected difficulties. Dietrich was quite helpful in this stage, cutting all the boards and helping me nail the frame together. Here is the completed frame.
And here is the roof frame mounted on the hutch. About the time I began to build the roof frame I realized I had a problem. I thought I had a sheet of metal the right dimensions to completely cover the roof. But when I unrolled the sheet, I discovered (or remembered) that at some point a piece had been cut out of it. The remnant would not be enough to cover the whole hutch. I really wanted to make this hutch usable tonight so we could get the rabbit out of her box in the living room. I called a friend who is building some new rooms on his house and asked him if he would pick up a sheet of metal at the bazaar tomorrow when he goes for his own needs. In the meantime I considered covering the roof with some thick plastic for the night. Instead my wife suggested that I just use the piece of metal I have, which was adequate to cover one of the sections of the hutch, making it safe and weather proof for the night. Tomorrow I can remove that metal and attach the new sheet.

With that task accomplished, the hutch was ready for its first inhabitant. The male rabbit (seen in the picture below) was moved from the old hutch into the smaller section of the new hutch. The two female rabbits will currently live in the old hutch until Teresa is ready to mate one of them next month. Before then I have to build a nesting box, which may prove to be yet another experience to share with you.
In the end I have had several moments of frustration and have had to accept that my results would not be the perfect model I would like them to be. I have found a certain satisfaction in working with my hands and constructing something useful, though I think I still prefer expressing myself creatively in other ways. But this experience has given more added confidence to tackle future challenges like this.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Much Progress Today

I decided to take advantage of the fact that the weather was much cooler today, with overcast skies and intermittent rain. Between the rain showers I worked almost all day, even canceling my language lesson so I could work more. So we've got a lot to show today.

I began the day by finishing the base, covering the remaining two supports with sheet metal and then assembling the pieces into the base structure.I then laid the wire mesh over the top and began securing it to the base. I found it difficult to secure it with the sheet metal covering the wood, but in the end it worked.
Here is the completed base with mesh covering. The mesh allows the rabbit's waste to fall through to the ground, where Teresa gets the job of cleaning it up (since this whole rabbit project is her idea!) At the same time the mesh needs to be small enough that the rabbit's paws don't pass through, potentially causing them injury.After a break for rain and dealing with a plumbing problem in the house I returned to work, cutting and assembling the two end pieces and middle divider. Here are the two end pieces before I added the wire mesh.
I covered the center divider with sheet metal to keep the rabbits apart. One half of this hutch will be a nursery, so it will be good for the mother rabbit to not be disturbed by her neighbor.

After covering the outer edges with wire mesh I mounted them on the base frame, adding a board across the top for stability, although I may remove it later depending on how I do the roof. At this point I really saw the effect of not having a square to make sure my cuts were even and my joints squared up. The three pieces I added here all varied to some extent from each other and it was impossible to get everything lined up perfectly. This frustrated me a great deal. Thankfully I am building a rabbit hutch, not a jet plane, so the tolerances are a lot looser.
Finally, I framed in the larger half of the hutch and added wire mesh to the back and to the section of the front that will not be a door. Throughout the day I had the intermittent help of Dietrich. On the one hand this was a good thing, but in terms of having an extra pair of hands and as an opportunity for teaching him some basics of carpentry. On the other hand, because he is very new at these things, he works slowly and with less accuracy than even I can manage at present. I had to discipline myself to be very patient with him and to not criticize any errors he made. Instead I tried to use them as teaching moments so he can improve next time.
Tomorrow I will try to build the two doors and mount them on the frame. Then I need to build the roof frame, cover it with sheet metal and attach it to the rest of the hutch. I hope it will not be too hot so that I can finish all this tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Confronting Fears

When I was in junior high school I signed up for shop class (called Industrial Arts in my school.) I don't know why I chose this class. I guess I wanted to learn some things about woodworking and other practical skills. Instead I learned that I am not particularly handy with wood, metal and the tools humans use to work them. My grades for the two semesters of that class were the lowest I received in my entire academic career. I did finish all the projects, but the only thing I did particularly well at was drafting.

This failure year ago left me with a strong sense of ineptitude when it comes to building things with my own hands. I have made some improvement and will tackle small household tasks when necessary. But whenever possible, I prefer to ask someone more skilled to take care of such needs. A few months ago I needed a rabbit hutch built for my daughter's rabbits, so I found a man who could do it, drew out a plan for him and let him handle the rest. Now we need a second hutch for our expanding rabbit family. I tried to hire the same man, but he has not been available. The need has become urgent, since a third rabbit currently lives in a box indoors and has already escaped from the box once. Lacking a good alternative, I decided to undertake this project myself.

I thought I would share the process of construction with you. Because the summer temperatures are quite hot, I will only be able to work a few hours a day in the morning and/or evening. I began today.

Here is the basic model of the hutch. The one I build will follow the same pattern but the two cages will not be equally sized. One will be larger than the other.
Here is the set of tools available to me for my work. Not much to look at, but it sufficed for the building of the first cage.
Here is my work area. I'm sure you're impressed!Here are some of my materials. Wood, wire screen and, not pictured, some sheet metal.
Here are the results of today's labor. My wife asked me to wrap the boards that will form the base of the cage in sheet metal so that the rabbit's urine and feces will not corrode the wood so quickly. You will notice that the first hutch doesn't have this feature, which may affect its lifespan. The two short boards will also be wrapped and together the six pieces wrapped in sheet metal will form the base of the hutch. I hope to finish that part tomorrow and cover it with the wire mesh that will form the floor of the hutch.
I could refuse to try this work out of my fear of failure. I am by nature a perfectionist, but with the resources I have available perfection will be hard to achieve. Can I allow myself to accept doing the best I am able? It's not easy for me to confront my fear of failure, but God is slowly teaching me to not allow fear to determine what I do and don't do.

Monday, June 14, 2010


I am an idolator. This painful realization struck me this morning as I read Paul's words to the Colossians. In chapter 3 verse 5 he writes:

Have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust, and shameful desires. Don't be greedy for the good things of this life, for that is idolatry. (NLT)

On a recent business trip I traveled to the large city where our family lived for more than three years. I had several things I wanted to buy there, things that we needed but cannot find in the city where we currently lived. As I visited the various shops where I could find these items, my eyes were regularly captured by numerous other items on display. I do not normally think of myself as an avid consumer, but seeing all the things around me that are not normally available to me drew out of me a strong temptation to spend far more than I could afford. To my shame I displayed exactly the behavior Paul writes about. I had become greedy for the good things of this life.

As I reflected on this verse this morning I saw that many believers, particularly in America, are very good at concerning themselves with the dangers of the temptations listed in the first sentence. But we give scant attention to that second sentence. We may feel that we are not greedy. After all we are not longing for "sinful" pleasures. But notice that Paul doesn't say "Don't be greedy for the sinful pleasures of this life." He says we shouldn't be greedy for the "good things" of this life. Thinking about the things that tempted me on my recent trip, they were all "good things," things that I could easily argue would be useful for us or simply nice to have. They were not immoral or illicit things. (Can a new propane tank be considered immoral?) But my desire for them indicated that my heart was longing for them inordinately and they had become idols to me.

Paul's words in this passage indicate that God views our consumer mentality and consumer lifestyle with the same degree of anger that he directs toward sexual immorality. A friend of mine who travels regularly to east Asia sees this consumerism growing like a weed in that culture as well, with negative impacts on the society. Yet I don't see that most of my fellow believers in the US really recognize the impact this lifestyle has on us. We don't accept it as idolatry and therefore do not regard it seriously. I am not exempt from this. My experience during my recent trip was quite a shocking wake up call for me as I realized how easily my heart can be pulled toward the things of this world, even good and potentially useful things. But I don't want to be an idolator so I pray that God will help me replace the desires for the things of this world with a desire for the things that will last.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Transforming Power or Foolishness?

I wrote the other day about Paul's call to adopt the attitude of Christ, the attitude of humility and servanthood. In thinking further about the implications of this, I wonder if we are also tempted to not adopt this attitude because we fear that it won't really be "marketable." After all, the world around us seems to respect prestige, power and success. The world doesn't idolize the poor, the downcast and the suffering. We feel pity for them at best. But we don't have magazines and television programs devoted to following their every move in life. So, we could argue, if we are going to reach the world for Christ, we must present him in terms that are appealing. We must emphasize his power, or his blessing, or his ability to help us succeed. But will such a message really transform the world? Will it transform peoples' hearts? Paul didn't tell us that we need to adopt the attitude of the world and its values. He told us to have the attitude that Jesus had.

Paul also reminds us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. While I am all for removing unnecessary obstacles to the Gospel, I am utterly opposed to presenting a message that panders to our cultural weaknesses. I think part of the power of the Gospel lies precisely in its call to be radically counter-cultural (and this not just for western cultures, for the call to humility and servanthood may well be even more counter-cultural in many Asian societies). This power, however, is not normally one that produces quick results. A Gospel of humble servanthood will often be rejected, precisely because this is not the ideal for which most societies strive. Rather, the power of humble servanthood, combined with radical love, is like the leaven of which Jesus spoke. It works its way into the society and slowly transforms it, one person or family at a time. We may impress others through displays of power and wealth. We may even win some converts in this manner. But we will not really be agents of transformation.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Right Attitude

I often return to Paul's words to the Philippians in the first several verses of chapter two. I should in fact return to them more often than I do. I think that Paul reveals fundamental truths in these verses that are key to our understanding both of discipleship and of the very nature of God. In these verses Paul sets the standard for us: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." And what was his attitude? Paul tells us that it is an attitude of humility and servanthood. It is a conscious choosing to give up our rights and privileges. In the book I have been reading the authors remind us:

"Our God is a servant God. It is difficult for us to comprehend that we are liberated by someone who became powerless, the we are being strengthened by someone who became weak, that we find new hope in someone who divested himself of all distinctions, and that we find a leader in someone who became a servant."

Are we comfortable with a God like this? Or do we prefer a God that fits better with our preferred lifestyle? I think most humans, not just westerners, like the idea of a God who is powerful and mighty. Certainly our God is that--Scripture clearly affirms this. But Scripture also clearly tells us that our mighty God chose to demonstrate his strength and his love in the most shocking of ways, by emptying himself and become a humble servant to the people he created. Do we really allow this reality to challenge us and inform our way of life?

"Jesus' compassion is characterized by a downward pull," writes Nouwen. "That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward pull, an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries, and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement."

Several years ago I made a career change, just at the time my career seemed to be moving into a truly upward path. My wife and I had recently purchased our first home and for the first time in our married life we actually had some disposable income. At that point God directed us to leave this behind and move into a new area of ministry. It was not, overall, a difficult choice, because we were being called into something we were passionate about. But leaving the things of this life behind did cause some distress. I looked around at my friends and acquaintances and saw that most of them were on the ladder of upward mobility, while my life was clearly on the path of downward mobility. I wrestled with this for a long time until I understood that this path reflected the one God himself followed. I am not saying that this makes me a more righteous person. I still at times struggle with longing for the things other people have. Renouncing the path of prestige and upward mobility is a daily decision I must make. But I have the privilege of choosing a path that allows me to place value on more important things. I think that we as Christians in the affluent West would do well to meditate regularly on these verses and allow them to reshape our understanding of God and our lifestyle choices. Imagine the impact we could have on this world if we radically embraced a lifestyle of servanthood!

I cannot begin to claim that I have realized the attitude of Christ that Paul writes about it. I often feel as though I have only just begun to see this in my life. But I am young. I have many years left to continue to grow. I want to keep these verses before me though so that I will grow in the right direction, the direction of humility and servanthood.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I have been reading a book entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life coauthored by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison. I'm reading it slowly, taking time to ponder what these authors have to say regarding this important topic. Early in the book they make the statement: "Our primary frame of reference remains competition." They say this is the case even when we choose to act compassionately. They write in the context of American culture, but I think the basic themes they address can be applied in other cultures as well.

I don't think of myself as highly competitive (though I do hate to lose!), but as I reflected on this statement I realized how much I do view the world through a competitive lens. Competition does, in fact, permeate our lives. We compete for status, for money, for acclaim and honor. We compete for the affection and attention of our spouses and friends. Even in ministry we often compete for resources, approval and acclaim. We want our efforts and accomplishments to be recognized. We want to be thought well of and considered successful. We often compete unconsciously, but the spirit of competition subtly affects us even when we are not aware of it.

Why do we compete? We compete because we feel the need to prove our worth and establish our identity over and against others. In other words, we compete because we are insecure. If we can demonstrate in some way that we are better than someone else, we can feel a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. How can we break free from this? In order to break free of a competitive spirit we must be secure in our identity in Christ. As long as we are insecure in this we will try to establish our identity in something or someone else. Often that means demonstrating our worth--proving our value--in competition with others. The arena of competition will differ, but the basic struggle to establish my identity in superiority to others remains. But when we are secure in who we are in Christ--secure in our core identity--we no longer need to prove ourselves in competition. Our worth is already solidly established and confirmed entirely apart from anything we do or accomplish. What freedom we can find in this truth, if we will only fully recognize and embrace it!

We also compete because we worry about the future. We operate from a worldview that sees life as a competition to get as much for ourselves as we can before someone else takes it. The pie is limited, so we'd better beat the others and grab as much as we can for ourselves and our children. If we don't, it will go to someone else and we might be left with nothing, or less than we desire. The poor in the world, in this perspective, are those who have failed to compete successfully and while we may pity them, we certainly don't question the underlying ethic of competition that leaves them poor and destitute. But this motivation for competition also belies a lack of recognition of the true nature of God. If we trust fully in the faithfulness, the trustworthiness and goodness of God, we don't have to compete to provide for our needs. We have a God who has promised to supply what we need. We have a God who is capable and willing to do so because he is fundamentally good and loving. I would emphasize that this does not amount to a call to passivity, as if we don't need to do anything except wait for God's blessings to fall into our hands. We should do the best we can with the abilities God has given us. But we can do so without worrying for the future because we know our future is secure in him.

I share these reflections not as someone who has mastered these lessons. In fact I feel I've only begun to learn and apply them. I think there is a place for competition in the world, though I'm still pondering what that place is. For example, I think sports competitions can be fun and enjoyable, as long as we don't base identity and worth on them. But living within a framework of competition denies fundamental truths about who God is and who we are. I want to be set free to live in those truths, no longer bound by the need to prove myself in the arena of competition.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thoughts on Suffering

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, my thoughts turn to the issue of suffering. I was reading a book today that contains excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings related to Easter and Christ’s passion. Let me share a couple of them with you.

“It is not the religious act that makes a Christian, but the sharing in God’s suffering in earthly life.”

“It is good to learn early on that suffering and God are no contradiction, but much more a necessary unity….I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest, and a strong and courageous heart.”

I think there are two mistakes we can make in our thinking about and approach to suffering. The first, much less common among Americans, is to see suffering as essential to the redemption process and therefore to seek it out. According to this perspective, “the more suffering, the more refined and therefore more holy I will become.” This mindset often expresses itself in a very ascetic approach to life. Pleasure, being the absence of suffering, should be avoided as ungodly. I know a few people who seem to think and live this way and have certain tendencies in this direction myself.

The other error in thinking about suffering, much more common among Americans (and not only), views suffering as a sign that God’s favor is lacking. A person who experiences suffering obviously does not have a proper relationship with God, because God would never allow his children to suffer. Job’s friends expressed basically this mindset. It also lies behind the prosperity gospel, which proclaims that God wants to bless his children and that a person who is not experiencing this blessing (i.e. suffering in some manner) must not be in proper relationship with God.

One of these days I want to do a thorough study on the biblical perspective on suffering. At this point in my life though, what I see from the Scriptures, what I have experienced in my life and what I see in the lives of others is this: God does allow his children to suffer and uses this suffering for the purpose of refining them. However, we’re not to seek after suffering as if the more of it we can find the more holy we will become. I believe C.S. Lewis commented on this, perhaps in his book The Problem of Pain. Unfortunately I don’t have my copy handy for reference. I do know that the Scriptures speak quite clearly to this issue. Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12 and 14:

“My friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you….But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.”

Paul echoes this in Philippians, when he wrote:

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

If we have a proper understanding of suffering, we will be better prepared to face it. If we believe that God would never allow his children to suffer, then our faith in God’s goodness may be shaken when we do encounter suffering. On the other hand, if we deliberately seek out suffering, we may become embittered and forget that God truly is good and merciful and he desires good for his children. But if we recognize that God does allow and use suffering, we will not be surprised when it comes our way and will be able to look to him to lead us through it. This is not to say that the suffering will be easy to endure. It may in fact be quite difficult. But in spite of that we can remember that God can and will use it to shape and refine us to his glory. At the same time, when we have opportunity to enjoy the pleasant things of life, we will not feel that we are somehow unholy, because we know that God also gives his children good things.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Paramount Moral Challenge

This week I finished reading an excellent, thought-provoking book. Entitled Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn (who are husband and wife), the book examines the injustices and inequality women around the world face simply because they are women. The authors present a lot of data but illustrate their arguments particularly effectively through the personal stories they tell of women they have met in their global work. They do not concern themselves with issues like equality in sports in America or the "glass ceiling" in the western corporate world. They concern themselves with the life and death issues that women and girls in the majority of the world face, issues like being sold into sexual slavery, dying in childbirth, being killed to protect so-called family honor and having the opportunity to gain a basic education. In the introductory chapter they summarize their conviction:

We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

After reading their book I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. These are not simply "women's issues," as they are often regarded. They are human rights issues that should concern us all because God created women and endowed them with value just as great as men. The authors are not inherently anti-male. In fact they readily acknowledge that much of the injustice and mistreatment of women comes at the hands of other women. At the same time they point out that most of the power structures in the world have been dominated by men and therefore issues that affect women have tended to receive minor attention. Issues affecting poor women in developing countries suffer this neglect in particular. As the authors write:

Maternal health generally gets minimal attention because those who die or suffer injuries overwhelmingly start with three strikes against them: They are female, they are poor, and they are rural.

As I read this book I felt at times deeply saddened and at other times very angry that we allow these moral failures to persist. I believe that God's people should be at the forefront of this struggle for women's equality, not lagging behind. I do acknowledge, as do the authors, that believers are actively engaged in promoting women's welfare on many fronts. But I wonder if for some believers theology subtly affects their view of women, blaming them for the fall and therefore ascribing to them lesser value. Or maybe people are just not aware of the situation that women and girls in the developing world face and therefore do not realize the great need for changing that situation. Reading this book will certainly change that. Sometimes our strong support for one area, such as standing against abortion, inadvertently causes us to oppose activities that actually provide great assistance to women and in the end actually reduce the likelihood of them seeking abortions. The issues are complex, far more so than they often appear to us in our western cocoons.

Even prior to reading this book I felt a strong desire to do what we as a family can to promote the equality and empowerment of women. But I didn't have a clear idea what we could do, other than the ways we are already engaged in supporting some of the women we know here and our support of two girls through Compassion International. The authors helped me by presenting a list in the appendix of organizations that work to protect and promote women and girls. Even if I can't travel to Africa, Asia or other area, I can direct some of my giving specifically to support these organizations. Some sites even allow you to make direct contributions to specific women or projects. Two of these are and Kiva allows you to loan money to specific women who are seeking to develop their businesses. The loans are distributed through various local organizations. In most cases the money is repaid to you after a period of time, allowing you to reinvest it in another woman or project. (Currently you receive no interest on your loan, but because it is a loan you cannot claim it as a charitable contribution.) Globalgiving allows you to donate to a wide range of projects including small business development, education and healthcare. Contributions through Globalgiving are tax-deductible in the United States.

These days we hear a lot about the need to fight against terrorism. Some have made this the most pressing issue of the century. I would agree with the authors of Half the Sky that fighting for the education, health and equality of women is actually more pressing and will in the long run prove more effective against terrorism than dropping bombs and waging military campaigns, even if at times those too may be necessary. I hope that this book will stimulate the growth of the currently small movement to change the situation of women and girls around the world. I for one am fully behind it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Small, Helpful Change

A couple of weeks ago I made a change in the way I handle my e-mail. Previously I had my e-mail program set to automatically check for and send messages every 10-15 minutes. While working on something at the computer, I would see that a message would come in and, more often than not, out of curiosity I would go read it. This often led to my focus shifting from the previous task to something new. Also, because I knew that messages could come in at any time, I often stopped to check even when I was not working at my computer but engaged in something else.

For various reasons I disabled the automatic send and receive feature in the program. Now if I want to send my messages or check for new ones, I have to consciously choose to do so. I didn't actually make this change primarily for this purpose, but I have found that it has helped me focus on my work better. No longer am I distracted by incoming messages, nor do I stop and check my inbox regularly to see if something new has arrived. I perform a send/receive two or three times a day, read through what comes in and decide how to handle the new messages. Sometimes a message will force me to change my focus and deal with something urgent, but more often than not after reading my messages I can return to whatever I was previously engaged in. My interaction with my e-mail has become more focused which has in turn helped me focus better on other tasks.

This seems like a very small and sensible change. Probably most people already work this way. Since I work at home and my personal and work e-mail is the same, I find it more difficult to separate work and personal life. This small step has helped me implement a better routine. I don't feel so distracted by the false urgency of my inbox. I am better able to choose where I want to focus my attention and manage my time more effectively. So I you write to me, don't expect an immediate response!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't forget the salt!

The other night I prepared the mixture to make a loaf of bread in our bread machine. I usually do this late in the evening before I go to bed so that the bread will bake during the night and be hot and fresh for breakfast. I set the timer for the bake cycle and went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning I checked on the bread and saw that it had baked a nice golden brown loaf. The smell was delicious. I removed it from the mold and left it to cool on the counter for several minutes.

After taking care of some other morning tasks I returned, sliced myself a couple pieces and put them in the toaster. Once they were toasted nicely I buttered them, added some jam and took my first bite. I was looking forward to the nice flavor of the fresh bread and jam, but the minute I bit into the bread I realized that something was not right. The bread was beautiful, but flavorless. It didn't take long to ascertain the problem. I mentally reviewed my preparation process from the previous evening and realized that I had forgotten to add the salt. The recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups of flour and only two teaspoons of salt, along with several other ingredients. You would think that in that much flour a couple teaspoons of salt wouldn't make that much difference, but it does. The bread that I baked looked nice but without the salt it lacked flavour. It is edible, but not enjoyable. It certainly wouldn't convince anyone to eat bread who had never tried it before.

Jesus compared us to salt. He said that we are the salt of the earth. Our salt is part of what draws unbelievers to his kingdom. Leave the salt out and the flavour will be ruined. No one will want to enjoy the "loaf" of his kingdom. As I think about this in terms of my own life, it reminds me that I can do lots of good things in this world and provide some benefit. But if I am not in relationship with my Saviour, I will lose my saltiness and became bland and flavourless. People will not be drawn to him through me simply because I do good things. They will be drawn because they "taste" the flavour of Christ in me. Without that salt, my life loses its purpose. Jesus spoke to this when he asked what use salt is that has lost its saltiness. It's not good for anything.

In a similar way if our churches simply become social gatherings where we come together to hear some good words, enjoy some coffee and fellowship and maybe do a few good things as a community, what value does it have? If Christ is not the center of our lives as communities of believers, then our churches are not really any different from any other community group. They may do some good, but they aren't really drawing people to the kingdom.

Next time I make bread, I'll make sure I add the salt. At the same time, I want to make sure I'm maintaining my saltiness by keeping Christ as my center.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Struggling to Worship

I have been struggling for the past couple months with the issue of worship; specifically with the issue of Sunday morning worship. I have reached a point where I don't look forward to our Sunday morning gathering most of the time and I attend primarily out of a sense of obligation or duty. I know I should go, so I do. But my heart is most often not focused and my spirit not attuned to what God might want to say through the music or the message. I recognize that this is not a good situation to be in, but I'm struggling with how to change myself and/or my situation.

Our current worship community consists of six families. All of the families have children, ranging in age from just a few months to my teenage daughter. My son and daughter are the oldest two children in the group. There are no other children in their age range, the closest one being our friend's 8-year-old daughter. So my children don't enjoy coming to worship because they really have no one to relate to. They are too old for a lesson oriented to the rest of the children, but they are not yet willing (and maybe not fully ready) to participate in an adult-oriented lesson. So in addition to my own struggle with not wanting to attend, I struggle with having two children who don't want to attend. I make them go, but I feel rather hypocritical in doing so, since I most often don't want to go myself.

In the past we have followed a format where we gathered for a time of prayer and singing, after which someone would go with the children into a different room for a lesson while the remaining adults would stay together for an adult-oriented lesson. Since the beginning of the year we have adopted a format where the children and adults stay together for the majority of the time, with the lesson being taught to include both children and adults. Lately we've modified this a bit to have a lesson for both, followed by some time when the adults can consider the lesson separately and more in-depth. This has helped, but still much of our worship time is filled with the distraction of young children who are too energetic to sit still and too young to really focus on a lesson. I find this really distracts my attention from listening as well. I feel like I should welcome the presence of the children as a gift from God, but in reality I just see them as a disruption.

I recognize that much of the issue lies within me. I have the choice of how I will respond to the situation. I have the ability to try to listen to God amidst these distractions. Perhaps I am simply not wanting to hear from God. At the same time, I would like to find a worship environment in which I and my children could engage with eagerness and desire. I would like to find a group where my children are at home because they have other children their age. Unfortunately there is no such group available to us here. This problem exists not only in our worship community but in our social life as a whole.

I know that ultimately we do not gather for worship for the sake of what we can gain from it. I realize that worship is finally and most importantly about God and not about me. But I also see that the situation in which we come to worship can and does impact our ability to turn our hearts to God in worship. I'm really struggling with this right now. I don't know what the solution will be.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


When my children were young, I swore that when they became teenagers we would not face the typical challenges parents and teenagers face. I naively believed that if I just laid the right foundation in the early years, the teen years would be smooth sailing. Foolish pride.

I would still argue that laying a good foundation in the early years will make a huge difference in the teen years. But now that I have my first teenager, I see how simplistic I was to believe that all the challenges of teenagers could be avoided by good parenting in early life. Of course, I must also admit that I could not write the book on parenting in those years. I certainly made my share of mistakes and failed more than once as a father. But I don't think I was a complete and total failure.

Now, several months into my first year parenting a teenager, I understand much better that teens really are different creatures. You have to interact with them differently. The little girl I knew is becoming someone new. It is not an easy process for her or for me. But it is a necessary process. She must grow and mature. Occasionally I still hear of parents who claim their teens are practically perfect and that their relationship with their teen is ideal and blissful. I confess that I am skeptical. I think that some parents have better relationships with their teen than others and that there are certain things we can do as parents to enhance that relationship. But I also believe that there is something in the process of a child beginning to establish his or her independent identity that creates an inherent tension and struggle between parent and child. This underlies the agony of the teen years. Of course I still have a lot to learn, since I'm only several months into this period. But my illusions of coasting blissfully through this time have certainly been shattered--and for the better.

Having said all that, I must also add that I really have much to be thankful in my teen and pre-teen. Yes, they have their weaknesses and sometimes they absolutely make me crazy. Some days I want nothing more than to disown them. But in my more rational, calm moments I realize that I could have much worse children. I don't worry about them getting involved in drugs or other activities that would seriously harm their lives. I don't spend my nights wondering where they are or what they are doing. They still enjoy spending time with me and my wife--at least occasionally! I do worry about them, but at the same time my worries are not without hope and the confident belief that their lives are in God's hands. This doesn't absolve me of my parental responsibilities, but it does give me a peace when I see my own failures and imperfections as a parent.

No, these teenage years will not be trouble-free. But I don't think they have to be completely horrible either. They will be messy, just like the rest of life. I hope and pray I can enjoy the journey, trusting in my God to bring us all through stronger, wiser and closer to one another and to him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dishes and God's Grace

Our children share the responsibility of washing the dishes in our house. They alternate days, because they found it too difficult to work together. They don’t like this chore and complain about it regularly. Yesterday was Teresa’s day and after much footdragging she finally went to the kitchen and did them just before Sharilyn began preparing dinner. As she worked on dinner, she needed several items that Teresa had just washed. But when she pulled them from the drying rack, she found that they were not really clean. We discussed how to deal with this. At times we have made the children rewash individual items that they didn’t wash properly. This time we decided that she should have a second day of washing dishes to help her recognize the importance of doing the job well. This morning when I put away the rest of the dishes though, I didn’t find any other poorly-washed specimens, so it seems that her failure was limited to a few specific items that are harder to wash.

This afternoon while enjoying a cup of tea in the gentle afternoon sunshine that streamed into our kitchen, I began to consider washing up some of the dishes myself. Normally washing dishes is not my job, but occasionally I will do it voluntarily as an act of kindness and to demonstrate servanthood to my children. They have a difficult time with the thought of doing any unpleasant task they are not obligated to do. So I hope by occasionally stepping in and relieving one of them of a required task, they will see an example and choose to emulate it. So far this hasn’t been highly successful.

As I contemplated whether to wash dishes for my daughter, I began to wonder whether I would be sending the right message today. After all, she was supposed to do them to help her learn to do a job correctly. Would my doing them show her gracious servanthood, or would it show her only that she could get away with being unthorough? I thought about the fact that she probably wouldn’t even receive my labor with thankfulness, because she rarely says thanks for any favor we do for her. Because of this I started to lean against doing anything for her. But then God interrupted my thoughts. He asked me to think about this in light of his love and grace. Does he stop showing grace to us simply because we fail to thank him for it? Does he stop loving us because we don’t respond the way we ought? Thankfully he doesn’t!

Considering this question further I realized that one of the main reasons we fail to receive grace as grace, be it from God or from others, is that we believe in our hearts that we deserve it. I operate as if I believe God must treat me with love and kindness, so when he doesn’t I’m put out and when he does I take it for granted. I see the same thing in my daughter. She doesn’t respond with thanksgiving to my acts of kindness toward her because she feels she deserves them anyway. She may not express appreciation for me washing the dishes in her place because she feels it was unfair for her to have to do them in the first place. Once again I see my relationship with God reflected in my relationship with my children.

I understood that my decision to wash or not wash should not be dependent on the likely response of my daughter. But I still didn’t have an answer to my original question concerning the balance between showing servanthood and teaching responsibility. I don’t know that one can make a hard and fast rule about this. I think it must depend on how the Spirit leads in each situation. Some parenting methods overemphasize discipline to the detriment of demonstrating loving service, while other methods overemphasize grace to the point of encouraging irresponsibility. I want to find a balance that displays both in healthy, proper measure. In the end I decided to wash part of the pile of waiting dishes. Our drying rack cannot hold that many dishes anyway, so to attempt to do them all would have meant stacking them in unwieldy towers on the drying rack. I left the items that Sharilyn had found unacceptable yesterday, so Teresa will still need to follow through on her responsibility to do those well. But maybe she will also see an example of undeserved kindness that will enter her mind and heart and eventually bear fruit. She hasn’t discovered my work yet, so her response remains to be seen.