Are You Being Played?

photo credit: Sarah_Ackerman via photopin cc
photo credit: Sarah_Ackerman via photopin cc

Once again, summer had come to an end and the next school year was upon us—as signified by our annual county fair. The array of flashing lights, the mixed aromas of the food booths, and the bold sounds of the high school band competition all contributed to the fair experience. After sampling a few items that probably shouldn’t be classified as “food” due to their lack of nutritional value, we decided to take a walk around the midway.

I’m usually very careful about the types of carnival games I play; I won’t spend the money if I don’t think I have a really good chance of winning. There was one game, however, that looked very doable so my buddy, Jerry, and I plopped down a couple of bucks for the opportunity to throw a softball into a basket. The guy manning the booth made it look easy as could be, so I figured that I too could make it happen and emerge a hero for my wife by winning a stuffed animal. Only a short time later, I was a goat with no prize and a wallet that was ten dollars lighter. I never found out exactly how the carny vendor did it, but I knew I had been played.

Several months ago, while reading through the book of Acts, I noticed a trend. When opponents of the gospel attempted to hinder its spread, they often did so by stirring up the emotions of the masses. One or two lone individuals would incite an entire crowd to drive the Apostle Paul and his ministry team out of town. A lot has changed in the 2000 years since, but the basic technique remains the same. If anything, the strategies involved with manipulating people have improved dramatically.

photo credit: brian glanz via photopin cc
photo credit: brian glanz via photopin cc

We all know that due to our modern technological capabilities, “truckloads” of data are being minded from our daily actions. Businesses, and unfortunately our government, know where we go, where we shop, what we buy, and even what we like, to a large degree. And how is all of this data used? To move us toward particular actions—usually ones that involve us buying a product or placing a vote.

The same general techniques are used with media. Each movie takes the viewer through an intended range of emotions to establish a desired sense of connection. Each political ad is a carefully scripted effort to move public opinion in one direction or another. Each news broadcast carries a similar agenda, only the messages are generally more subtle.

photo credit: Michael Fleshman via photopin cc
photo credit: bMethe via Flickr cc

I have not closely followed the trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. I don’t know what really happened and so I hope and pray that the jury gets it right, and that justice is truly served.However, one thing has really frustrated me about the situation: to a large degree, some media outlets are manipulating human emotions in an effort to drive public opinion.

Why do many news broadcasts continue to show photos of a younger, more innocent looking Trayvon Martin? Why incite a race war by unnecessarily inflaming emotions? This case isn’t about a Hispanic killing an African American—it’s about whether a man recklessly crossed an essential line in his efforts to protect his neighborhood.

photo credit: Michael Fleshman via photopin cc
photo by Orange County Jail, Florida–Public Domain

The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case provides us with a significant example of how public opinion is manipulated, but it is only the very small tip of a very large iceberg. The questions I am compelled to ask are the following: “What moves you?” “Are your emotions the primary driving force in your decision making processes?” “To what extent are you being played?” Emotions play an important and meaningful role in our lives but they if they serve as trusted guides, our general public will continue to be easily manipulated by the agendas of a very few.

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We Have It Backwards!

original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc
original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc

I am in the process of writing and publishing a book, Champions in the Wilderness, which is an adventure in and of itself. Communicating through the written word can be challenging–especially when attempting to convey a particular emphasis. If I write, for example, “Bill had a wallet full of cash,” the reader might be left wondering what point I was trying to get across. Would I be referring to Bill sitting on the curb sulking because of money he no longer has, or to a huge smile on Bill’s face because his wallet is bulging to the seams with an overabundance of greenbacks? Or perhaps, Bill is full of anxiety as he walks through an unsafe part of the city with a wallet full of money.

photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc
photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc

In such a case, one lone sentence can never suffice to provide a proper understanding of the circumstances. A writer’s intent must be established through the surrounding context. Taking this approach to understanding the Bible is all the more important—life and death issues are involved! Gross misunderstandings of the Christian faith abound in our world because of a failure to properly deal with issues of emphasis and context.

In visiting the topic of God’s grace over the past few blogs, I have come to the conclusion that the Western church has a reversed understanding of grace.

Read through the New Testament and you will find more than one application of grace. Grace as God’s unmerited favor is certainly emphasized by the Apostle Paul, but not nearly to the same extent as by the Western church. It’s not that this dimension of grace is unimportant to Paul, but through the entire context of his writings we find much more emphasis on the transformational nature of grace—something that I have highlighted through my recent posts.

photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap
photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap

For decades, if not centuries, the transformational aspect of grace has been virtually ignored. We have it backwards and the cumulative result of this reversal in emphasis is a current generation of passive, rather than active, people who profess a deep devotion to God. This error has been painfully destructive to individual lives, to the nuclear family, to the church as a whole, and even to the world in which we dwell.

I’ll close this blog series by highlighting an important reminder from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Just as in the entire world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, so it has also been bearing fruit and growing among you from the first day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth. Colossians 1:6 (NET)

If our understanding of the Christian gospel does not produce favorable changes in the lives of professing Christians, then something is grossly out of whack. God’s grace, when appropriately applied, will transform even the vilest of human hearts.  Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking otherwise!

Abstinence Almost Killed Me!

original photo credit: Jo Naylor via photopin cc
original photo credit: Jo Naylor via photopin cc

Just about every area of U.S. culture these days seems to be inundated with sexuality. Advertising? Saturated with sexual images. Movies? Full of steamy and explicit passion. Sports? Does the term, “wardrobe malfunction”, bring anything to mind?

I personally believe that greed is the primary factor contributing to our sexual saturation. Astute marketers in pursuit of big profits have successfully managed to manipulate our culture to the point that we cannot seem to escape this overemphasis on sex. Our entire society is paying the price.

It’s not that sex has ever been unimportant. Let’s not forget that God was the original designer of the human body. Long before the days of internet porn, the King of the Universe created us as sexual beings. Sex feels good because God made it that way. That, in itself, should tell us something.

The problem is not that God frowns upon sexual activity in principle, but that our cultural norms have transgressed the healthy boundaries designed by our Creator. A river running within its banks can provide immense pleasure and benefit, but let it overflow those boundaries and destruction of all sorts is certain.

photo credit: seanmcgrath via photopin cc
photo credit: seanmcgrath via photopin cc

The fact that Christians now live in the age of grace does not provide a license for us to live according to our world’s standards. The Bible teaches that we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7-9) and nowhere is this truer than in the world of eros. Can such statements be biblically supported without returning to the legalistic requirements of the Mosaic Law? Absolutely!

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” . . . So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-25 (NASB)

Thus the marriage covenant was established by God for the benefit of humanity. Unless God clearly communicates a change in His standards, His silence cannot be interpreted as an approval of our cultural standards. Only God has the authority to change a covenant He instituted (Galatians 3:15), and any such changes are clearly established in the Scriptures (e.g. from the Old Covenant to the New). Jesus Himself upheld the standard of marriage (Matthew 19:3-12), as did the Apostle Paul (Titus 1:5-6).

I argue, therefore, that sexual immorality, by New Testament definition, involves sexual activity that occurs outside of the boundaries of a marriage covenant between one man and one woman. The entire Bible has a lot to say about this issue, much of which is unpleasant at best (see http://www.openbible.info/topics/sexual_immorality).

The fact that my wife and I have been married for almost 30 years has nothing to do with my opinion on this matter. Due to our scriptural convictions, I never touched Debi inappropriately during the two years in which we dated prior to our wedding day, although, as a typical red-blooded young male, I felt at times that the abstinence was going to kill me! We understood then, and continue to agree now, that it falls upon humanity to conform itself to God’s design, not vice versa.

photo credit: Joe Hastings via photopin cc
photo credit: Joe Hastings via photopin cc

Sex dominates our culture, I’ll give you that. But sex is also sacred, established by God to celebrate the unity of covenant love in marriage. Those who use an argument of grace in an attempt to nullify God’s design open the floodgates for unclean waters to pollute and destroy the very fabric of society. Or, to use another appropriate metaphor, play with fire and you will get burned. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But the smoldering fires of sin will eventually consume everything they touch. It’s not abstinence that gives sway to death but obedience to sexual passions that lie outside of God’s design.

Have you transgressed the boundaries of God’s design for sexuality? Most of us have at one point or another, and, thankfully, forgiveness is readily available for those who are willing to humble themselves and repent. May our Lord grant us the wisdom and grace to reign over our unhealthy desires–not to indulge them!

No Power, No Game – A Key Lesson from the Super Bowl!

Mercedes-Benz Superdome
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It was an odd moment in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome suddenly went half black. The players and coaches stood befuddled, the broadcasters went ominously quiet, and the television cameras simply panned the half-darkened ceiling of the massive dome. Nobody really knew what was going on but one thing was certain—no power meant no game. At least for the next 34 minutes.

As I begin to wrap up this series on violence, I can’t help but make an observation that is somewhat critical of the conservative community standing in total opposition to any form of gun control. This is quite difficult for me to do because I have quite a few good friends I might possibly offend.

The New Testament clearly emphasizes that God has given His church powerful spiritual weapons for the purpose of advancing His kingdom.

The truth is that, although of course we lead normal human lives, the battle we are fighting is on the spiritual level. The very weapons we use are not those of human warfare but powerful in God’s warfare for the destruction of the enemy’s strongholds. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 (Phillips)

I understand that the primary context of this passage is the Apostle Paul writing about truth as our primary weapon for breaking down enemy strongholds; however, in the greater context of the New Testament, we find that truth is not our only spiritual weapon.

Receiving from God
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In His final words before ascending into heaven, Jesus made something quite clear to His followers—He would empower them, through the person of the Holy Spirit, to do all that He called them to do.

But you shall receive power (ability, efficiency, and might) when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends (the very bounds) of the earth. Acts 1:8 (AMP)

In addition to His awesome truth and the amazing power of prayer, God has invested within the heart of every true believer a power that far exceeds anything that the human race could ever envision. Unfortunately, for the most part, it is a power that lies dormant as we pursue a multitude of other methods to satisfy our lives and to do ministry.

A fundamental strategy of any type of warfare is to attempt to disarm the power of the enemy. And I must say that, for the most part, Satan has done an effective job of getting the Christian church to lay down its weaponry. We often give minimal attention to the truth of God’s word, a lesser amount to individual and corporate prayer, and even less to operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The church has been effectively disarmed to the point of having minimal influence in a society being overrun by dark forces.

Gun Rights Rally
photo credit: Elvert Barnes via photopin cc

Our reasons for allowing this to happen may be many but I think they are as weak as our spiritual vitality. In the end, we are either ignorant of God’s power available to us or we aren’t willing to pay the price to lay hold of all that He has for us. Perhaps it is a mix of both, but either way, I can’t help but wonder how the spiritual landscape in America would look if we as conservative Christians were as outraged at the loss of our spiritual weaponry as we are about the possibility of losing our gun rights.

Still, there is good news in all of this! If we will only take the time to dig deeper into His word to discover the power and authority available to us, if we will fast from food and some of our media, if we will spend extended time in prayer seeking His face, God will gladly restore the church what has been lost and neglected. Although God’s power is readily available to every believer, generally, it does not come as easily and quickly for us as it should. Deliberate and extended effort may be necessary.

No Power, No Game! We can whine and complain all we want, but unless we take up the call to spiritual arms, the spiritual landscape of our nation won’t be changing any time soon.

How You Can Help to Prevent Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook Shooting
photo credit: Daniel M. Reck via photopin cc

It has been several days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I am still struggling to process the reality of such a horrible event. Other mass shootings in recent years have scarred communities, but this one has left deep and lasting scars for our entire nation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a similar effect, but there is something different this time around. Those killings were the work of religious extremists operating from halfway across the globe. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the product of our own societal dysfunction. That a young man would maliciously murder twenty first-grade students, jolts suburban and rural America with the realization of what inner-city dwellers have known for quite some time:  something is terribly wrong in our beloved nation.

Of course, an intense battle will be fought over gun control. Some will contend that guns should be banned. Those in opposition will argue that law abiding citizens who carry weapons will actually help to make our streets safer. Both sides will support their arguments with various statistics and anecdotal stories. The battle over gun control, however, provides a convenient diversion from deeper, more difficult issues that must be addressed. To say that guns are at the core of the problem is to grossly over-simplify the issue, while avoiding any sense of personal responsibility for the collective citizenry of our nation.

Greed
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The bottom line is that we have become a nation of self-centered consumers. And while I would never say that such a description applies to every person in the U.S., I do believe that it is quite accurate in a general sense. Even issues such as the misappropriation of pharmaceutical drugs or the prevalence of violent movies and video games are closely tied to greed.

Our freedom that was purchased in blood has now become our demise, for freedom only works when the people of a nation collectively seek the greater good. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was both true and prophetic:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB)

Today, even the Church is driven by a consumer mentality. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders cater to this destructive mindset because they believe it is the only way to get people into their churches and to fund their ministries. Our American gospel is all about what God can do for us, while the true nature of the Christian faith remains relatively untouched.

Money App
photo credit: MoToMo via photopin cc

God, it appears, has become an app that we can access in time of need. We have a salvation app, a provision app, a comfort app, and, at this time of the year, a Baby Jesus app. The sovereign King of the Universe, however, will not cater to our self-centered terms. If we want to relate to God, we must fully subscribe to His entire operating system—one that calls us to seek Him with all of our hearts as a way of life. If we would flock to our churches to seek His presence and drop to our knees in prayer with the same intensity of emotion before a national tragedy, there probably would not be the need to do so afterward.

Violence in America began to seriously escalate in the 1960’s. What brought it on? I am convinced that the roots can be found to have materialized just after World War II with our collective pursuit of the American Dream. While our nation held to a form of religion, at that point money became our national god. We honored Jesus with our lips, but the real god of our hearts was materialism. Psalm 16:4 tells us that, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (ESV). Is this not an accurate representation of our grief over the Sandy Hook shootings? The violence of our day is, at least in part, the fruit of over half a century of materialistic idolatry on the part of an entire nation.

Shooter
photo credit: LINUZ90 via photopin cc

On a practical level, our incessant quest for more stuff, combined with the rise of secularism and the gradual rejection of the Christian faith, has precipitated the horrible decay of the nuclear family—the building block upon which a healthy society functions. More specifically still, the growing absence of loving, faithful fathers has led to an identity vacuum in the hearts of our nation’s children. Show me a culture lacking in a healthy sense of identity and I will show you a nation of young men immersed in a climate of violence.

As I consider these things, I can’t help but think of the ancient nation of Israel as they found themselves exiled in Babylon—an exile brought upon by their own idolatry. But the God who they had rejected and ignored spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah with a message of kindness and hope.

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how things may appear, and no matter how dark and foreboding the future may look, we can all help to turn the tide of violence in our culture by seeking God with all of our hearts, by putting material possessions in their proper place, and by genuinely loving those around us. Can there be a better season of the year to get our priorities right than at Christmas?

My Wife Taught a Muslim How to Drive!

If my wife were running for president, the 30-second attack ad would probably show a black and white image of rioting Muslims burning a U.S. flag superimposed over a photo of how Debi looks when I forget to take out the garbage. A stern voice would then say, “Debi Santos taught a Muslim how to drive. Debi Santos hates America. Don’t vote for Debi Santos.”

Photo by Dane – CC BY 2.0

Because we have so little firsthand information about anything, we tend to live in a world of stereotypes. What we think we know is often based on a series of images constructed by water cooler gossip, media reports, political ads and carefully crafted public relations campaigns. All too often these images are completely inaccurate.

During our years in college ministry, Debi and I took an interest in hosting international students. It was an excellent opportunity for us to express the love of Christ by meeting with internationals once or twice a month. Our lives were enriched by these relationships.

Fatin was a Muslim teacher from Jordan pursuing a higher degree in English so that she could teach at the university-level back home. Added to the burden of higher education in a distant land, was her need to care for two small children while her husband remained in Jordan for work. With the common bond of motherhood, Debi and Fatin became immediate friends. Recognizing her need for transportation, my wife also offered to teach Fatin how to drive. This all took place not long after 9/11, which presented additional but not insurmountable challenges.

Photo by Keoni Cabrai – CC BY 2.0

I too, had the opportunity to interact with Fatin and her beautiful children, to meet a few of her Muslim friends and to eventually share dinner with the entire family during one of her husband’s visits. Through the years I have met several other Muslims and most have been sincere, warm and friendly; putting a great deal of value on family and friendship—much more than we see in most Christian circles in the U.S.

Several of us in campus ministry later shared office space with students involved with the Muslim Student Association. That experience, for the most part, was negative. The young men were cold and distant—we could not help but wonder if they were involved in some type of terrorist activity. Regardless, we did our best to treat them with respect.

Another significant interaction with a Muslim student took place pre-9/11. He was a very sincere young man with a humble heart and a genuine desire to seek truth. Eventually, and with no pressure from our group, he converted from Islam to Christianity. But things didn’t go so well after that. His father, a high ranking government official, removed him from college in the U.S. and essentially put the young man under house arrest for a season. In spite of repeated efforts on our part, we never heard from him again.

Why do I share this wide range of experiences? In order to show that just as there are significant differences between Christianity and Islam, so there are between Muslims. However, the bottom line is that as Christians, love is our highest call. Would Jesus call it sin to share genuine friendship with those who might be considered our theological enemies? I think not.

As a Bible-believing Christian, I am no religious pluralist. I believe in the supreme uniqueness of Jesus Christ and reject the ideas that all religions are the same and that all paths lead to God. Having said this, I am embarrassed and ashamed by some of the things I see being done and said in the name of Christ.

Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department – Public Domain

When I consider the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other Americans in Libya this week, I find myself deeply disturbed on several fronts. The loss of life is tragic. That they were attacked in a country that the U.S. helped to liberate is highly troublesome. That even one professing Christian may have somehow had a hand in promoting the deplorable film (Innocence of Muslims) that served to unnecessarily heighten tensions between us and them is beyond foolish.

The Apostle Paul and his associates once sparked a riot with their evangelistic efforts in Ephesus. The town clerk finally quieted the crowd by making this amazing statement about those Christian evangelists: For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Paul and his friends apparently lived out the Biblical mandate given by Peter to honor all people (1 Peter 2:17).

If persecution happens because we are faithful to the Gospel, then so be it. Jesus promised as much. But to express any type of contempt or disrespect toward those of other belief systems is to do horrible disservice to humanity, the Gospel and ultimately the God we profess to cherish.

If the Spirit of the living God truly dwells within us, we can do better, much better.

The Glorious Sweet Corn of August

You’ll find it there sitting in a corner of Hoss’s parking lot on most days in August. I speak of an old maroon pickup truck with wooden side boards and a green shaded canopy over the bed—a bed piled high with fresh, recently picked sweet corn. Occasionally, “Silver Queen” is the offering of the day, but I prefer the “Butter-N-Sugar”. A little wooden sign on or near the truck read’s “Himmel’s”, and I must say that I find it to be the standard by which all sweet corn is measured. In fact, after writing this I may need to stop and buy a dozen on my way home from the office.

What makes Himmel’s corn so special? Its delicious flavor! When we eat other corn on the cob we can’t help but compare it to Himmel’s and rarely does it measure up. But that, of course, is our own family opinion and, in all honesty, what we think matters very little in the grand scheme of the universe.

When we speak of glory, we find one standard that rises above all others—the glory of God. There is something so mystically amazing about God that even those who don’t believe in Him want to be like Him. His majesty intoxicates us, His power makes us tremble, His love leaves us filled with an almost confusing sense of warmth. How can He be so high and mighty and powerful, and yet so lovingly embrace our human frailty and waywardness?

Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden, naked and yet unashamed. Fear of vulnerability was not something that even entered their minds. And yet, after eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they immediately found themselves naked, ashamed and very much afraid. What had changed?

While in covenant relationship with God, they had been clothed in His glory. It is like our moon being clothed in the glory of the sun. But its beauty fades when the sun’s direct rays no longer fall on the moon’s surface. In the same way, the human quest for independence has left us with a painful glory deficiency. Almost instinctively, our souls know the taste of glory, longing to return to the majesty that once was. But separation from our Creator means only darkness, serving only to intensify our craving for signficance.

Photo by Crystian Cruz – CC BY-ND 2.0

We see the quest for glory no matter where we turn. From the ditch digger boasting about his thick callouses, to the bank executive relishing her position of power and influence, to the athlete sacrificing his body for the sake of a championship ring, human life is all about the pursuit of glory. When the quest for glory fails, doom and depression take root. But even when we think it succeeds, the effect is only short-term. Soon the glory fades and we find ourselves grasping for more. Like a junkie driven in mindless obedience to his drug cravings, we’re addicted to our glory fix, often without realizing its captivating influence. We will get our glory one way or another lest we die in shame.

The problem, however, lies not in our perceived failure or success. Because, you see, no measure of human glory can ever begin to attain to the glory which emanates from God. How many of us approach perfection? How many have limitless power? How many possess never-ending beauty? How many serve the world with love so pure?

The glory of God is indeed our goal, but we fail so miserably in this quest that we’ve taken to comparing ourselves to one another. Those who run faster and jump higher and think harder and look better are the ones lauded for their greatness. But the comparisons are all in vain. In fact, they are deadly.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I don’t see this statement referring to two separate concepts, but rather only one. In other words, I believe Paul was saying, “all who seek to attain to the glory of God completely miss the mark, falling woefully short of His perfect majesty.” This is where sin finds its root—in the prideful attitude of the heart seeking to be like God apart from God. But unlike our friendly banter about which sweet corn tastes the best, the standard of God’s glory is entirely unattainable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep most from continuing to try.

Photo by DavidDennisPhotos.com – CC BY-SA 2.0

The true freedom of the Christian faith lies in giving up this exhausting quest. By admitting that the full extent of our own glory amounts only to darkness, we position ourselves through the cross of Christ to be restored to a right relationship with Him. Drawing near to Him in love and faith, His glory clothes the dark, naked soul. And once again, like in the beginning of time, life is ever so sweet.