Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Doing the Halloween Thing

Saturday marks our annual Halloween observance – a rather peculiar holiday, if you ask me. On one level it’s simple fun, children wearing costumes of princesses, scarecrows, animals and cartoon characters visiting the homes of friends, collecting candy in response to an innocent “Trick or Treat.” Even adults join the frivolity, going to Halloween parties dressed as favorite politicians, entertainers or historical figures.

On another level, Halloween has a more sinister side populated by “denizens of the dark.” Historians report the event has both pagan and religious roots, but it’s hardly considered a Christian celebration in any sense. Viewed by some as a “festival of the dead,” according to various web sources, days leading up to Halloween emphasize the occult, feeding off America’s strange fascination with the supernatural, as evidenced by Harry Potter books, the Twilight vampire series, and any number of films about vampires, ghosts and zombies.

(Even everyday traditions, like Ohio State’s “O-H-I-O,” can take a Halloween twist, as the photo I borrowed from the Columbus Dispatch shows.)

Our preoccupation with death, I suppose, is merely a part of life. Everyone has a beginning – and an end. For many people, the uncertainty – and anxiety – concerns the part at the end. That’s why murder mysteries sell so well, why forensics dramas dominate TV…and why we read the daily obituaries. Rich or poor, male or female, young or old, death is our unavoidable common denominator.

This is one reason I find great comfort in Bible passages like the following:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Do You ‘Live the Christian Life’?

I just realized today marks the 25th anniversary of a very significant spiritual milestone in my life.

For Buckeye fans (of which I am one), Oct. 12, 1984 will be remembered for one of the all-time greatest Ohio State football victories. OSU had fallen behind visiting Illinois, 24-0, but staged a fierce comeback to win, 45-38. Star running back Keith Byars ran for a then-school record 274 yards and tied OSU’s mark in rushing for five touchdowns, including a 67-yarder wearing only one shoe.

However, what I remember most about that day did not concern sports, but spirituality. I was in Minneapolis, Minn. and watched much of the game on TV, but was troubled about why the so-called “Christian life” didn’t seem to work for me.

I had learned verses like Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” and 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” The problem was, although I was a believer in Jesus Christ, I still felt like nothing had changed; I was still struggling with the same weaknesses. “If I’m a ‘new creation,’” I thought to myself, “why do I act like the same old guy?”

That weekend I was staying in the home of a man named Loren Helling and his wife, Betty, and we spent many hours talking about what he called “the real you from God’s perspective,” looking primarily at the book of Romans. We discussed what it means to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) and the reality that apart from Christ, the Christian life is not difficult to live – it’s impossible to live.

This is why Jesus told His followers, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the apostle Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). The secret is not what I can do for God, but what He can do in me – and through me as what Romans 6:13 calls an “instrument of righteousness.”

Over that weekend I recalled meeting in 1981 with a man who had asked, “Bob, how do you live the Christian life?” At first I hesitated, then started listing “to-do’s” – things like prayer, attending church, reading the Bible, etc. In response, the man just shook his head and replied, “You can’t live the Christian life. Only one person has successfully lived the Christian life, and that’s Jesus.”

Three years later I was finally grasping the magnitude of his question and his answer.

As I think about the state of Christianity in America today, it seems we’re not doing very well. The reason, I believe, is not because we don’t have enough churches, or Bibles, or Christian books, or programs. We have more than enough of all of those. The problem, I believe, is we are determined to do for God, in our own strength – “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” so to speak – instead of relying on the power, wisdom and guidance of Jesus through His Spirit that lives in each of us that have trusted in Him.

That’s not to say I have it all figured out. Not hardly. But 25 years later I believe I’m closer to what God calls me to be as a husband, father, grandfather, friend, writer, editor, and mentor. The challenge, one day at a time, is to reflect the truth of John the Baptist who declared, “I must decrease so that He (Jesus) might increase” (John 3:30).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Benefits of Boundaries

We have been remodeling our kitchen, and last week we replaced the old, rickety guardrail around the stairwell leading to our garage. Of course, it had to be removed first, which left an unprotected hole while the new railing was being erected.

Even as unstable as the old guardrail was, its mere presence offered protection – especially compared to the yawning opening that remained once it had been taken down. There were no mishaps during the brief transition time, but it struck me how important barriers – or boundaries – can be.

This reminded me of a study of elementary school children years ago that showed if there was no fence around the school, during recess the kids would congregate near the building. But once a fence was put up, they felt freedom to roam right up to the fence line. A friend of mine used to raise sheep and these timid animals also appreciated the security of a fenced enclosure.

To me, this is the purpose of God’s precepts, statutes, laws, commands, word and decrees (as they are variously described in Psalm 119). It’s not that He is some divine spoilsport, saying, “You can’t do this; you can’t do that.” Rather, as our Designer, God knows what’s best for us – and cared enough to offer us a manual (the Bible) and give us protective boundaries.

As someone has said, “If sin wasn’t any fun, we wouldn’t want to do it.” But just because it’s fun, that doesn’t mean it’s good for us – or right. Lust, greed, dishonesty and various other vices may appease the psyche, but we’re none the better for any of them. And whenever we participate in them, we damage others in the process.

That’s why, “All Scripture…is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Faith: A Private Matter?

Recently a controversy erupted over high school cheerleaders displaying banners with Bible passages before football games. The “the wall of separation between church and state” debate ensued.

This also rekindles the similar discussion of whether one’s faith is a private matter to be kept to oneself. Civil persons don’t argue over politics and religion, do they?

Certainly what I believe is not something I should seek to impose on someone else. It would do no good anyway. “One convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” the adage says. But if our faith is important to us, why wouldn’t we want to share it with others? We don’t hesitate to tell about favorite sports teams, books, music and websites.

Imagine somehow stumbling upon the cure for cancer, diabetes or some other disease. If we were to say, “I’m not sharing it with anyone. It’s a private matter,” we would spark no limit of public outrage. The entire human race is afflicted with a spiritual cancer – it’s called “sin.” And the cure, according to the Scriptures, is Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus said that; I didn’t. Frankly, for the sakes of non-believing friends and relatives, I often wish there were many ways to God, rather than the singular way that Jesus declares. But that’s not my decision.

Convinced of that, I also recognize that my faith is not a private matter. Therefore, it’s my duty to always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that I have (1 Peter 3:15). To do otherwise would be to deny them access to the cure for the cancer that has struck us all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

High on the Mountaintop

Living in Chattanooga, Tennessee is literally a mountaintop experience. We have majestic views available from Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain; even a panorama of seven states from Rock City on a clear day.

My wife and I live atop a hill on a cul-de-sac, so just waking up each morning is a mountaintop experience of sorts.

But have you ever had one of those life-changing “mountaintop experiences” you wish could last forever? While on staff with CBMC, I regularly attended conferences – often in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado – where I learned from the best of the day’s Bible teachers. After drinking at the fountain of their spiritual wisdom, I would return home feeling like I was flying several feet higher than the jets on which I traveled.

The fact is, however, life is not meant to be lived on the mountaintop, unless you’re a Sherpa guide, I suppose. The Bible tells of the day Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain where He became transfigured. After Elijah and Moses appeared to them, the disciples wanted to set up camp. They suggested putting up shelters, one each of Jesus, Elijah and Moses. But Jesus took them back to the valley below.

The beloved Psalm 23 also speaks about walking “in the valley of the shadow of death.” Anyone can become enthused on the mountaintop, whether you’re captivated by some awesome wonder of nature or experiencing a spiritual high. But it’s in the valley – of mundane work responsibilities, frustrating financial obligations, discouraging marriage and family challenges, untimely breakdowns of cars and appliances, agonizing physical ailments – that our faith and convictions are put to the test.

Only in the darkest, loneliest spots in the valley can we embrace the truth of Jesus’ promise, “surely I am with you always…” (Matthew 28:20).