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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Whose Side Are You On?


Whose side are you on?

Our country has become so completely partisan that it seems nothing positive will ever get accomplished.  The recent discussions about the fiscal cliff and the difficulty that our elected congress has had in getting it resolved is just one in a long line of examples of our divisiveness and separation one from another.  Whether it is Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, haves vs. have nots, or simply “tom(aye)to” vs. “tom(ah)to” we tend to find more and more ridiculous ways of compartmentalizing and dividing ourselves.  And so we need to know: Whose side are you on?  Are you with me… or are you against me…

It reminds me so much of one of the neatest stories in the Old Testament.  It is found in Joshua chapter 5.  Joshua had just taken over leadership from the recently deceased Moses and crossed the Jordan River.  The nation of Israel was on the brink of war.  Every king in Canaan was on guard, fearful of this new nation whose God, Yahweh, had dried up the Jordan river while it was at flood stage so they could cross over and take possession of their land.  Tensions were obviously high.

One morning as Joshua was walking along the bank of the Jordan, he sees a man.  The man is standing in Joshua’s path and he is carrying a drawn sword.  What would you think?  I would probably think the same thing Joshua did and probably ask the same question: “Are you for us; or for our enemies?”  When things are on the brink, it is an understandable question.  Which side are you on?  Friend or Foe?  Ally or Enemy?

But the man responded with a very surprising answer.  When asked “Are you for us; or for our enemies,” his answer was “No”.   It wasn’t a yes-no question.  It was an either-or question.  Joshua wanted the man to pick sides.  Joshua had to be reminded, however, that sometimes it is not about “my side” or “your side” but about “God’s side”.  The man went on to say that he was the commander of the Yahweh’s army and that he had come.  In other words, it’s not whether or not I am on your side, Joshua, it is whether or not you are on my side.  I am the commander, not you.  Joshua immediately fell at his feet and worshipped him.

Most scholars agree that this man was a pre-incarnate Jesus and that, like Moses, Joshua was speaking directly to God.  Joshua may have been given the mantle of leadership over God’s people, but it was God who was in charge, not Joshua.  Joshua may have viewed the situation as Us vs. Them; but in reality the situation has always been about those who stood with God and those who stood against God.

This story is a great reminder to all of us that our petty differences and our partisan thinking is contrary to God’s design – especially for those who claim to be believers in God and followers of Jesus.  We are part of one body of Christ (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:12).  In Christ, there is neither black nor white, slave nor free, male or female, republican, democrat, or any other division (Gal 3:28).  In fact, we are all supposed to be of the same spirit, having the same mind and striving for the same end-game – the advancement of the kingdom of God (Phil 1:27).

Why do we insist on such divisions?  Why must we create teams that separate us?  The answer lies at the very heart of the human condition... our sinfulness.   We all were created for the purpose of relationship to belong to and relate to God.  However, although our sin has separated us from God, we still have that longing within us to belong to something greater than ourselves.  And so we create great causes to belong to.  We use such grand-sounding terms as patriotism and the greater good.  We find something to rally behind so that we can be a part of something important and can relate to others who are like-minded to us.  All the while, though, the most important thing we could be a part of - the thing we were created to be a part of - escapes our attention altogether.

At the end of the day, it is not about your side or my side.  At the end of the day, it only matters whether we are on God’s side.  It only matters whether or not we are one with His Spirit, working to accomplish His purposes, and striving to advance His kingdom.  In Christ, we can relate to and be family with those who might otherwise be completely opposite to us.  In Christ, we can come together in unison with people all over the world and work side-by-side to accomplish one purpose - the purpose of spreading the gospel.  All we have to do is remember whose side we are on.

So here’s the question we all need to answer for ourselves…

Whose side are you on?

Comments are welcome and encouraged.
Blog copyright © 2012 Joel J. Dison

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tis the Season to be... Discontent?

Oh my goodness, it’s finally here.  It’s Christmas time; my absolute favorite time of the year.  The family is all together, sipping cider or hot chocolate or coffee.   I and the missus are snuggled together in our warm sweaters and stockings.  Garland and tinsel are on the tree and chestnuts are roasting on the open fire while the stockings hang from the mantle. As I look out the window, I see the snow drifting down softly. Then, as if on cue, I see my neighbor walking by with his dog leash in one hand and holding his young daughter’s hand with the other.  I raise my cup of chocolate as he passes by in a gesture of greeting.  He responds with a slight tip of his hat while his daughter waves eagerly… (Insert screeching tire followed by a crashing car wreck sound effects)  

Right, whose reality is that other than Norman Rockwell or Clement Clark Moore? Have you been to WalMart or Target lately?   Have you seen the horrific look on people’s faces in the ungodly traffic?  Have you even seen your neighbor walk his dog lately?  And around here if snow is falling outside, the world is probably coming to an end.  Is there a more hectic – or stressful - time of the year than Christmas?  Plus it seems like this year everyone is hell-bent on killing each other...literally.  What on earth is the point of all this absolute insanity?

It wasn’t always like that, you know.  Normal Rockwell was inspired by something real that actually existed in our culture at one point.  There was a time when Christmas was about spending time with family and creating lifelong memories. There was a time when Christmas was first and foremost about the birth of Christ and only secondarily about all the other stuff. That just does not exist anymore.  Now Christmas is about the lights, the parties, and the shopping.
  
I can’t help but think that the guy who really had it all figured out and saw this madness coming was Charlie Brown.  A Charlie Brown Christmas has always been one of my favorite Christmas shows, but not necessarily because Charlie Brown was lamenting the commercialization of Christmas.  It's just a good, wholesome Christmas story.  As a child, though, Charlie Brown was the odd one out.  As a child, I always related more to snoopy and the rest of the gang, wanting Christmas to be bigger and better.  Well, now it is.  The irony is that even while Charlie Brown longed for a simpler Christmas, the Peanuts Christmas is still far closer to the Normal Rockwell vision than the Christmas I see today.  Hey, even in A Charley Brown Christmas they were still doing Christmas plays and going Christmas caroling.  If only…

Christmas today is more like Jingle All the Way than it is A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been Arnold Schwarzenegger (not that I am built like he is or anything – only in my Christmas dreams - but I have been the guy going all over town looking for THE gift).  We all have at some point.  I just wonder what good old Charlie Brown would say about Christmas in 2012.  Have you watched the commercials this year?  I cannot even put into words the pressure being put on us by the commercial machine to spend more and more of our money.  Half the commercials are preying on our greed and materialism.  The other half are preying on the guilt that comes with the obligation of gift giving – cheerfully and happily (read that manipulatively) encouraging us to be the better gifter. And all of them are preying on that unexplainable instinct to get the best possible deal.  For pity’s sake, Black Friday started on Thanksgiving evening this year!  Now that is just plain WRONG.  A few places even had Black Friday specials before Thanksgiving!  The worst part to me is the trend this year for the big chain stores to hijack our Christmas Carols and rewrite them as their own personal commercial jingle.  Have you heard these (shake head back in forth demonstrating shameful disdain).  

And then there is all of the going and doing.  I was so busy the first weekend in December that I literally had difficulty going to work on Monday morning because I was too exhausted and worn out.  There are parties, and band concerts, and church functions, and family gatherings, and work gatherings.  Plus, in our new found culture of altruistic thinking (because, after all, it is not about us), we all have to try and squeeze in some volunteer time at the non-profit flavor of the day.  It’s no wonder we are all so discontent.   I can’t wait for New Years, so I can get some rest and life can get back to normal!  Am I the only one that is exhausted already?  Like the gang in A Charlie Brown Christmas, we have lost sight of what Christmas is really about.

Here’s where I could be the legalistic, fundamental, self-righteous Christian.  Here’s where I could say “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Or the latest mantra – It’s “Merry CHRISTmas, not Happy Holidays!”  Let’s all just put Christ back in Christmas, right?  The question is – who would care?  Who would listen?  I can’t brow beat you into my expectation for a Jesus-oriented Merry Christmas mood. At best it would make you feel guilty.  At worst, it would turn you off.  Of course, Jesus is the reason for the season, but that is not going to fix our discontentment or make our Christmas any less hectic.

I don’t want to make you feel guilty.  Instead, I think I would like to remind you of something a bit more basic. I would just like to take a moment and tell you a little bit about the JOY that is this thing we call Christmas.  I want to try and offer some JOY for your life – to encourage you to seek that JOY - and hope you find enough  of that JOY to help you through this insanity that we have created called the Holiday Season.

“Behold, I bring you good of great JOY that will be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

JOY to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.”

“When [the wise men] saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great JOY.”

Lest we forget, Christmas is all about JOY.  Yes it is about the birth of Christ; and no, Jesus was not really born on December 25.  However, this is the day we have set aside to especially remember his advent and it is supposed to bring us JOY.  Why?  Aren’t we supposed to remember his advent every other day?  Absolutely.  But on the day Jesus was born, angels declared JOY TO THE WORLD.  The coming of Jesus was to bring us gladness.  The coming of Jesus was to bring us JOY.  Jesus himself said that his teachings were so that “my JOY may be in you, and that your JOY may be complete.”  I look around my house and I see at least 3 sets of JOY figurines.  Christmas is all about the JOY of the Lord.




Listen… nothing I can say can make you have JOY this Christmas.  In fact, if you do not know this Jesus and have not placed your faith in him, there is a good chance you cannot have JOY this Christmas.  Even for the rest of us, celebrating his birth will not bring JOY because the JOY is not in the birth itself, but in what he did after he was born.  It was his life and, yes, it was his death.  More importantly, it was his resurrection from the dead and what that means for us – none of which would have been possible without his birth, of course.  So we celebrate his birth with gladness and JOY - or at least that was the idea.

All I am asking is that you take a moment to STOP.  Somewhere in this busy, hectic, discontented season, let’s all just STOP - if for a moment.  Don’t get me wrong.  The Commercial Christmas is here to stay.  We are still going to be bombarded with a department-store redefinition of the holidays.  We are still going to have more to do than we can handle.  I get that.  I’m no different… I’m even trying to sell my book as a last-minute Christmas present (enter shameless plug: www.tinyurl.com/faithbeyondbelief).  All I am saying is that we take a step back, take a deep breath, and then take a moment of silence and peace to just think about the JOY of our salvation.  As it says in Habakkuk 3:18 (not your normal Christmas passage):

“Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take JOY in the God of my salvation.”

And another, Psalm 46:10 (also not your normal Christmas passage):

“Be still, and know that I am God.”  Stillness would be nice right about now...

Merry Christmas.

Comments are welcome.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tin Can Man

A couple of Saturday’s ago, Patty and I were headed to the church to take care of a few things before Sunday services.  As we were coming down Ruffner Road, we saw a very disheveled-looking, upper-middle-aged man pushing an old bike that looked like it was made in the 50s and which had a number of small garbage bags hanging from it in various places.  Admittedly, Patty and I both looked at him as we passed by, looked at each other, and said “pedophile”.   I know, I know.  Don’t judge by the exteriors.  However, we all do it from time to time – and you know you do too.

We went on to the church and took care of business and then locked up the church to head back home.  As we came outside, what did we see but that same man, sitting out on the edge of the brick flowerbed under the church sign.  Feeling somewhat ashamed of my previous snap judgment, I mentioned to Patty that I needed to go talk to him – to which she replied that she was thinking the same thing.  So with Patty waiting in the car, I strolled out to the street to talk to the stranger.

As I approached the guy, his bike fell over.  I immediately ran over and, to the man’s surprise, picked up his bike for him. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said as he sat back down on the edge of the flowerbed.  Good ice breaker.  I introduced myself and sat down beside him.

Wayne – that was his name – was a tin can collector (or more accurately in 2012 – aluminum can collector).  He was a former truck driver who, due to a back injury, could no longer maintain a commercial license to drive a truck.  He was a felon (I didn’t ask why), so he could not get a job anywhere.  He wasn’t homeless – thanks to a bit of financial help from family members – but his only income came from selling cans that he picked up on the side of the road.  He lived a good distance away and had a series of routes that he took every day, picking up cans that other people had thoughtlessly tossed out on the side of the road.   Based on his route rotation, he apparently came down Ruffner Road about twice a month.


Wayne and I talked a bit about a number of things, ranging from the economy to faith.  I shared the gospel with him and he claimed to be a Christian – even as he smoked his home made cigarettes.  At first I thought it was a doobie, but he assured me it was just a good ole’ fashion home-made cigarette. It turns out that with pipe tobacco and rolling paper you can make enough cigarettes to last about a month for only about $10.  Who knew?  Only God knows whether his faith was real, but he seemed genuine enough and he was extremely grateful that I was allowing him to rest in the church parking lot.

From the look of him, I don’t know how he managed physically to ride bikes and collect cans all day, every day.  He wasn’t exactly the picture of health.  He said that finding a good place to rest was more difficult than you might think.  Most churches and businesses, he said, refused to let him rest in their parking lots.  In fact, he said that a lot of people get upset with him just for picking up cans out of their yard.  They come outside, yell at him, and tell him to leave; some even throw things at him.  So let me get this straight… he picks the trash up out of your yard and you throw things at him for it?!?   I don’t get the audacity of some people… then again, my own first impression of Wayne was “pedophile” so who am I to judge their reactions.

As I was talking to Wayne, I was convicted about my own partiality towards him and had to remember that James specifically taught against such partiality.  In fact, in my book, Faith Beyond Belief – Understanding True Faith from the Book of James (www.tinyurl.com/faithbeyondbelief), I spend an entire chapter talking about “Faith that is Impartial” (Chapter 4) – but clearly I still need much improvement in this area myself.  James teaches us how hypocritical and foolish it is to show partiality.  We show favoritism to the rich and powerful thinking they will help us while we ignore the poor and needy.  In reality, it is the rich and powerful who do us the most harm.  God alone is the judger of hearts. Instead we are to live by the Royal Law found in scripture – that is, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  I thought about how I would feel if I my only source of income was collecting tin cans.  I recall how as a kid I used to walk the neighborhood streets looking for returnable glass bottles so that I could turn them in for candy money.  Basically that is how Wayne was earning money for food.  Can you imagine living on candy money?  I thought about how I would feel if I was cursed at daily and had random objects thrown at me because I was picking up trash out of their front yards so that I could eat.  What a horrible life. 

As I was finishing up my conversation with Wayne, I pulled out a five dollar bill and handed it to him.  “I didn’t ask for this” he said, looking longingly at the money. “I know,” I replied, “which is exactly why I want to give it to you.”   He took the money and commented how that $5 would feed him for two or three days – and to think $5 doesn’t even buy me lunch most days.  Different worlds, people, different worlds.

I have no idea what kind of person Wayne really is.  He might very well be a pedophile.  He did not mention why he was a felon and I didn’t ask.  However, every indication is that whatever he may have been in the past, he was now a hard-working man doing whatever it takes to get by in a world that is set against him in every way possible.  Admittedly his conditions may be partially due to his own mistakes – but who among us can say we have lived a mistake free life?  How can we say we love our neighbors if we turn our backs on them, judge them, ignore them, or even curse them?  Caution?  Sure, prudence dictates that regardless of who Wayne may really be, we have to be cautious around people we don’t know… but not partiality.  Partiality is a sin, making us judgers with evil motives (according to James).

Maybe you are a better person than I am.  Maybe you would not have come to a snap judgment if you saw him pushing his bike down your road.  Maybe you would welcome him with open arms into your church.  I certainly hope that is the case, and at the end of the day I did invite Wayne to church and assure him that he would be welcome.  However, I am thinking that Wayne is the kind of guy that would cause you to cross over to the other side of the street when he approached.  I am thinking that Wayne is the kind of guy that would cause you to look at the ground when you passed so that you didn’t have to look him in the eye.  I am thinking most of us would be guilty of partiality.  I was.

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” James 2:1 (ESV)

Comments are welcome.
Blog copyright (c) 2012 Joel J. Dison

Friday, December 7, 2012

Does Progress Trump Faith?

On December 5, 2012, there was a symposium in New York City where the issue of God and science was debated… again.  The theme of this debate was whether or not progress trumps faith.  I find that ironic.  It seems like over and over again we see this same battle brewing between those who say there is NO god, and those who KNOW God.  Those who say there is NO god indicate that science has eliminated the need for religion altogether.  In this particular debate, it was stated that “we can do it without God.”  Despite the fact that this statement itself is both an admission to the existence of God and a declaration of independence from that God, the statement itself demonstrates just how feeble mankind is in his quest for being like God himself.  We don’t need you, God.  We can do it ourselves.   The statements sound more like a three year old talking to his mom than it does an educated, philosophically minded scientist.  “I’m a big boy now.”

One thing I did like about this particular debate was that it did seem to move beyond the errors that religion has made in the past about science and focused instead on the concept of religion and the existence of God.  I’m no scientist, but I am not completely uneducated in the sciences either.  As a believer in God, I am fully convinced that God and science are not incompatible.  As one of the participants in this debate pointed out, the questions that science is trying to answer are not the same as the questions that religion is trying to answer.  I would take that a step further and say that even when we know all there is to know in this lifetime, we still will never be able to bring these things together.  However, the fundamental message of Christianity and the true message presented in God’s Word are in no way incompatible with anything that science has discovered since the beginning of time.  It is when the church makes declarations about science that are not supported by scripture that we get in trouble.  That has been the problem throughout history.   Ultimately, science and the Bible will be proven compatible.  I believe that.  Call it faith.

Every time these debates come around, though, I am always astounded at the fact that the naysayers in the world just don’t get the hypocrisy of their position.  Consider this statement: “…I want to emphasize that 500 years of science have demonstrated that God, that vague notion, is not likely.”   Beyond the obvious arrogance of the statement is its inherent hypocrisy.   The scientist who made this statement has admitted that he cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.  Rather, his interpretation of the science indicates that it is not likely that God exists.  Ironically, another scientist can look at the same data and draw the exact opposite conclusion – and many of them do - “Three out of five scientists do not believe in God, but two out of five do.”  The whole point is that the very statement that God does not exist is itself a declaration of faith.  No one can emphatically say “There is no God” unless he is either (a) a fool or (b) holds all the knowledge in the universe (which, ironically would make him God).  Since we do not hold all the knowledge in the universe, that just leaves us as fools.  The more adamant the atheist, the greater the fool. These scientists say the empirical evidence does not prove the existence of God, but they fail to acknowledge the truth that it does not disprove him either.  Darwin’s theories may have caused some scientists to doubt the existence of God, but since then “science has made a whole bunch of discoveries, but they point in the opposite direction.”  In other words, the more science we discover, the more evidence we find for the existence of God. Therefore, the intellectually honest scientist can only say “Based on the evidence I have, I do not believe there is a God” – a statement of faith.

Worse than that, those who deny the existence of God simply don’t understand the very nature of our faith in God and its purpose.  According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is the “assurance” of things hoped for and the “conviction” of things not seen.   I hope in the salvation of Jesus Christ and the resurrection to eternal life.  I am so “assured” of this hope that I act on those assurances.  It changes my life.  I live this life based on my hope in the existence of the next life.  Can I prove it will happen? Well I can come up with all kinds of rational, philosophical arguments for it, but at the end of the day it is still “not seen” and so I must have “conviction” in my mind that even though it remains unseen, it is nevertheless true. Ultimately all faith requires us to believe in something that cannot be proved. There is no such thing as "blind faith."

Ironically, the anti-God contingent lives by faith as well, and they do not even realize it.  They have a hope also, but it is such a meaningless hope.  Their hope is that their interpretation and understanding of the empirical facts that they have observed is correct.  They have no hope for the future, just hope for this life.  They are living for this life alone and they are hoping that there will be no accountability for their actions in the afterlife, so they posit that no such afterlife exists.  As is our hope, their hope remains “not seen,” but yet they hold fast to their convictions.  So “assured” are they in their hope and so “convicted” are they in what they cannot see that they long to proselytize the rest of us to their way of thinking – to their faith.  As one of the scientists in this debate said when he pointed out that as a Christian, the opposition had already rejected all gods but one, “What I am asking you to do is go one god further with us.”  Join us. Believe as we believe.  Live as we live.  Become one of us. Sometimes atheists are better proselytizers than we are.  They may not want to admit it, but they live by faith, too.

Is this really progress?  Are we to replace one faith with another faith?  When nothing can be absolutely proven, then only faith remains.  That is the difference between science and religion.  The purpose of science is to set out to find and discover that which can be discovered.  The purpose of religion is to put meaning on those discoveries.  Even if the faith of some determine, like it was stated in the debate, that perhaps there is no purpose at all.  What a pitiful meaning their religion has given them!

We all choose our faiths for a reason.  Some choose their faith because it is the only thing they know.  Others choose their faith because they need to justify their life choices.  Still others choose their faith because they have come to the conclusion that their specific faith holds the key to the meaning of life.  Of all the religions in the world, including atheism, I only know of one religion in which God himself chose to come to earth as a man, suffered and died to pay the penalty of the wickedness that I have done in life, and rose from the grave to defeat death.  Science cannot grant eternal life, only study it (although admittedly they are trying in good religious fashion).  Of all other religions, Jesus is the only one to actually defeat death; and yes, there is enough evidence for me to choose to believe that is true. Jesus is the only one who claimed to be God and performed miraculous acts to prove his case.  Jesus said he was the ONLY way to have eternal life.  If he is telling the truth, then there is ONLY one way to God; only one true religion; only one means of salvation; and only one path to eternal life.  Exclusivity is not in vogue these days, but when someone makes these assertions, you must assume that they are either (a) a lunatic or (b) telling the truth.  Vogue or not, I believe he was telling the truth.  That is the whole point of faith.

Note: the information about the debate in New York City used in this blog was obtained from an article at http://www.livescience.com/25303-science-vs-god-debate.html.

Blog copyright (c) 2012 Joel J Dison