Friday, July 31, 2009

Taking the Bad With the Good

I just returned from a great time at the biennial Campus Crusade for Christ U.S. staff conference. Our staff conference is always a great time and each year we have it I leave feeling refreshed and motivated for ministry. One of the main speakers this year was Keith Battle, pastor of Zion Church in Maryland and a popular figure at our Impact conferences for the past several years.

Pastor Battle offered a particularly timely message for me during one of the sessions. He preached on a well-known passage, from the 8th chapter of the book of Romans, but offered a perspective on it that ministered to me deeply. In case you're not familiar with the verses (Romans 8:28-39), here is what it says:
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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."
Verse 28 of this portion of Scripture is often quoted by others when we are facing a particularly difficult trial or tragedy in life. However, when confroted with suffering or tragedy or loss, we rarely desire to look for good in the midst of our grief. But Pastor Battle shared an interesting illustration to help me "get" this biblical truth.

Each of us know that in order for our car to run properly we need a battery that will give the car the power it needs to run correctly. We also know that the battery needs both "positive" and "negative" charges in order to work. If it only has positive charges or only has negative charges it won't work. But if it has both it will have the power it needs to run.

Our lives are really no different. I've found that although I appreciate the positive times in life, it is usually as a result of the hard times that I grow the most and learn more about God and my relationship with Him. When things are hard, as they are now, I'm usually at a greater place of brokenness and dependence on God. When everybody in my family is healthy, the bank account has a cushion and I'm not facing any major problems, I tend to "coast" and rely on myself.

The "negative" experiences in life are not easy and I don't enjoy going through them. But I also realize that these times shape me and develop my character. As I look over my walk with the Lord, I can remember specific seasons of life that were extremely difficult to go through then...but I'm grateful for how God used those instances to conform me to His image.

It doesn't mean that all things are good. Sin and death and suffering are not good in and of themselves. But God can work in these things for His glory and our good. It doesn't mean that things always work out the way we want or how we'd hoped they'd turn out. But if we have been called according to His purposes then we can take comfort in knowing that God is working for our good even when our circumstances seem to say otherwise.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Highlights From the Campus Crusade U.S. Staff Conference

I am currently in Fort Collins, Colorado on the campus of Colorado State University (CSU) at the 2009 U.S. Staff Conference for Campus Crusade for Christ. The conference, which is held every two years, is a refreshing time for nearly 5,000 staff from throughout the U.S. to come together for worship, prayer, equipping, training and solid Bible teaching.

Today is a day off for us with no scheduled sessions or seminars and I'm enjoying the opportunity to catch my breath (both literally and figuratively in this high altitude) before the last few days of the conference. Here are some highlights so far:

* The opportunity to get some quality, uninterrupted time with Lori since our parents graciously agreed to watch our children while we're out here.

* Witnessing the progress that Campus Crusade is making in effectively reaching out to ethnic minority communities within the U.S. The make-up of our new staff, the stories we hear from up-front and the seminars offered indicate a greater intentionality in this area. There's still a lot of work to do but the growth is encouraging.

* Hearing from Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, on the gospel. His understanding of the "good news" is a challenge to us all.

* Seeing that Mrs. Vonette Bright, co-founder of CCC and the wife of the late Bill Bright, still has a lot of spunk even after almost sixty years of ministry.

* Listening to Mark Charles, a Native American from the Navajo tribe, explain how culture affects our understanding of God and each other and the need for contextualized ministry.

* The chance to have dinner with Jim Lundgren, a Senior Vice President with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a partner ministry also seeking to reach the next generation of leaders for Jesus.

* Having lunch with Campus Crusade leaders from across the U.S. that lead partnerships throughout the continent of Africa.

* Helping to lead a session for CCC Campus Ministry staff hoping to become better equipped to reach the students of African descent on their campuses.

* Getting to interact with missionaries that have been in God's service for decades. For example, Lori and I were able to talk with Tom Fritz at breakfast this morning. Tom is a Vietnam Veteran who has been on our staff for close to four decades and was the founder of The Impact Movement. We talked about how to use modern technology in order to engage in evangelism more effectively.

* Chatting with David and Lourdes Merriman, friends of ours from our days in Ohio, who we challenged to join our staff. The Merrimans now lead CCC's Military Ministry in San Antonio and reach thousands of soldiers for Christ every month.

* Seeing six new Impact staff members join our ministry this summer.

Overall, our time at CSU always involves fun times with old friends, the chance to make new friends, be reminded of our calling in ministry and to learn about some of the things that God is doing throughout the world. You can learn more about Campus Crusade for Christ here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Henry Louis Gates & Racial Profiling

An interesting story is developing in Massachusetts where respected Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by the police in a case of what some are saying is a clear example of racial profiling. Although the facts of the case appear bleary depending upon whose version you read, the following seems to have occurred. Dr. Gates returned to his home near Harvard's campus after getting back from a trip to China. He had difficulty entering through the front door, but he and his cab driver were able to eventually get in.

After being in the house for a few minutes, he found a police officer in his doorway questioning him about a break-in at the residence and asking for some identification. (Apparently a neighbor had called 911 to report two black man trying to break into the house.) Gates eventually showed some ID but not before accusing the officer of exhibiting racist behavior. He then followed the officer out the front door, where he was subsequently placed under arrest. You can read the Boston's Globe's account of the incident here and Gates' version here.

A number of those in Harvard's African American community are pointing to this as an example of the presence of racial profiling in and around the Boston-area campus. I can't say for certain whether this was an example of racial profiling since I wasn't there and the facts seem a bit sketchy at this point.

But let's assume that it wasn't racial profiling and that the neighbor who called the police was genuinely looking out for a neighbor (that she apparently had never met) and that the police officer was just doing his job. Don't you find it odd that a 58 year old man in a polo shirt, sporting stylish rimless glasses and using a cane to get around would be considered to be breaking into a home? By using the front door? In the middle of the afternoon? In broad daylight? You know the old saying: If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck...

Considering the facts of the situation, do we really think this would have happened if Gates were white? How many well-dressed, distinguished looking white men get accused for breaking into their home in the middle of the day? Some might argue that Gates' arrest was deserved for how he responded to the officer. But, again, I wonder how I would respond (or you would respond) if the same thing happened to me (or to you)?

Since I've never been the victim of racial profiling by the authorities I don't know what it feels like. But I have numerous friends of color that have been and it is a humiliating, demeaning experience when you're being accused of being a criminal simply because the color of your skin. I hope that the truth of this incident comes to light and that all law enforcement agencies re-visit their policies when it come to matters such as this.

Thanks to The Field Negro for the tip on the situation.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Should Christians Respond to Harry Potter?

If preliminary reports are any indication, the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, may very well go on to become the highest grossing movie in the series. The movie, which opened Wednesday of this week, is once again stirring the debate of what Christians are to do with this literary and cinematic success. As one who has read all of the Potter books and seen each of the movies (although I haven’t seen “Half-Blood” yet), I'd like to offer a perspective on it.

There are a few roads that we can take when it comes to choices about secular literature, films and music. One extreme is to make the choice to have nothing to do with these artistic expressions and engage in activities like book burnings, picket lines outside theatres, and steamrolling CD's. Another option is to simply ignore secular art and instead create explicitly Christian music, books and films.

From my perspective, though, burning books has never seemed to attract the non-Christian to consider Christ and oftentimes our Christian movies have not produced the quality product that people have come to expect. Just because it says Jesus a lot doesn't necessarily make it good. If dialogue is cheesy, the acting is bad and the plot stinks, people are not going to see it.

Another extreme is to do whatever the culture says is okay and listen to anything that is played on the radio, go to every popular movie and read whatever Oprah is selling this month. Unfortunately this is what many Christians choose to do and it dilutes or even nullifies their witness since what they choose for forms of entertainment is no different than those that aren't followers of Christ.

An approach that I think is more appropriate is to seek to redeem the culture by being salt & light (see Matthew 5:14-16). Instead of letting the world create quality books, movies and music and then boycotting those that produce them after they've become popular, why don't we create books and movies and music that are better than what the world offers? One example would be C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, a wonderful series of books (and later, movies) that have been enjoyed by millions. It is considered great literature by Christians and non-Christian the world over because it is well-written and engaging, yet it is told as a Christian allegory.

So how might Christians respond to J.K. Rowling's mega-popular Harry Potter series? First, we probably need to at least become familiar with the books if we’re going to form an opinion about them. I've heard too many folks speak with absolute certainty about whether the Potter books would be good to read when they don't even know a Muggle from a Mudblood or can't tell you the difference between Quidditch and Dumbledore.

Second, we need to realize that the fact is many kids have found a new interest in reading as a result of these books. And this is a good thing. The Potter books contain themes of good vs. evil, love over hate, sacrifice, bravery, etc. that are strewn throughout. We can take these Christian themes and discuss them with our children. However, when there are things that we don't want our kids to think is acceptable (e.g. lying to get ourselves out of jams) we can discuss these things with them and share why it's wrong.

When it comes to the movie versions of the Potter books, we must remember that films are often the expression for our culture’s storytelling. Cinematic art has the power to affect how we see life and understand the deeper questions of our existence. Instead of just producing movies with overtly Christian themes and dialogue (which does have its place), we should also encourage godly Christians who write, produce, direct and act to take their talent to Hollywood and make a difference. At the very minimum, we can look within popular films for themes of love, forgiveness, sin and redemption as a starting point for discussions with non-Christian friends.

Lastly, we can vote with our wallets to support quality movies that are family friendly and contain biblical themes (whether the filmmaker realizes it or not). Being aware of what is being discussed in popular culture will help us in relating to others and help us in learning how to connect their story to God’s bigger story. However, this does not mean that we need to see every popular movie that is being offered. We still need to use our best judgment as to whether seeing a particular film is going to be worth the money we are going to pay for it. But by supporting good movies and not forking over money for the bad ones, we will encourage Hollywood to produce products that are done with excellence AND with quality themes. We can then see more and more popular forms of entertainment that have redeeming quality.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

John Piper on Forgiveness

Taken from John Piper's book, Don't Waste Your Life:
"Why do we cherish being forgiven by God? There are answers to this question that would dishonor him, because there are benefits from forgiveness that a person may love without loving God. We might say, "I cherish being forgiven by God because I hate the misery of a guilty conscience." Or "...because I hate the prospect of pain in hell." Or "...because I want to go to heaven to see my loved ones and have a new body with no sickness." Where is God in these reasons for cherishing forgiveness? In the best case he is there in all these reasons as the real treasure of life.

If so, then these delights are really ways of cherishing God himself. A free and clean conscience enables us to see more of God and frees us to enjoy him. Escape from hell at the cost of Christ's blood shows us more of God's commitment to merciful holiness and his desire for our happiness. The gift of seeing loved ones highlights God's wonder in creating relationships of love. Getting a new body deepens our identification with the glorified Christ. But if God himself is not there in these gifts - and I fear he is not for many professing Christians - then we do not know what forgiveness is for.

Forgiveness is essentially God's way of removing the great obstacle to our fellowship with him. By canceling our sin and paying for it with the death of his own Son, God opens the way for us to see him and know him and enjoy him forever. Seeing and savoring him is the goal of forgiveness. Soul-satisfying fellowship with our Father is the aim of the cross. If we love being forgiven for other reasons alone, we are not forgiven, and we will waste our lives.

What, then, is the root motivation for being a forgiving person? "Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you." We are to forgive "as God ... forgave" us. God forgave us in such a way that infinite joy in his fellowship becomes ours. God is the goal of forgiveness. He is also the ground and the means of forgiveness. It comes from him; it was accomplished through his Son; and it leads people back to him with their sins cast into the deepest sea. Therefore the motive for being a forgiving person is the joy of being freely and joyfully at home with God. At great cost to himself God gave us what we needed above all things: himself for our enjoyment forever. God's forgiveness is important for one reason: It gives us God!"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Batting Stance Guy

A fellow ministry colleague has been gaining some notoriety for his uncanny ability to perform dead-on impressions of Major League Baseball hitters. Gar Ryness, who started his impressions as a kid, has now parlayed this seemingly useless ability into YouTube stardom and an appearance on the Late Night Show with David Letterman.

I actually met Gar a number of years ago through a mutual friend and I distinctly remember his friends egging him on to do the batting stances of popular Major League players of that time. It's amazing how what he refers to as "the least marketable skill in America" has now gained him access to baseball clubhouses and late night television talk shows.

Here's a video of him doing some of the batting stances of today's stars during a visit him the Los Angeles Dodgers. Click here if the video player doesn't show up.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Chronicles 16:23-36

I came across this passage in my devotional time with the Lord today. A timely word for where He has me right now:

I Chronicles 16:23-26
23 Let the whole earth sing to the Lord! Each day proclaim the good news that he saves.

24 Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.

25 Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! He is to be feared above all gods.

26 The gods of other nations are mere idols, but the Lord made the heavens!

27 Honor and majesty surround him; strength and joy fill his dwelling.

28 O nations of the world, recognize the Lord, recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong.

29 Give to the Lord the glory he deserves! Bring your offering and come into his presence. Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor.

30 Let all the earth tremble before him. The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.

31 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice! Tell all the nations, “The Lord reigns!”

32 Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!

33 Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise, for the Lord is coming to judge the earth.

34 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.

35 Cry out, “Save us, O God of our salvation! Gather and rescue us from among the nations, so we can thank your holy name and rejoice and praise you.”

36 Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives from everlasting to everlasting!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tony Dungy's Thoughts on Steve McNair

Tony Dungy, a strong Christian and respected former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, offers some thoughtful insight on the recent tragedy involving former NFL quarterback Steve McNair. I recently discovered Coach Dungy's blog and have enjoyed his perspective on life, family, football and mentoring. About the McNair situation, Dungy has this to say:
"What went wrong? Right now we can only guess, but perhaps time will answer some of the questions. There is going to be a tendency to say, “We should remember the good things Steve did and not focus on the negative.” And we should remember all the great things he did on the field for the Titans and in the Nashville community. We also shouldn’t focus on the information that has come out in the last few days in a purely judgmental way. But I think it would be a mistake to just ignore the more disturbing parts of the McNair story.

I think the best thing we could do is try to learn from it. In my mind, the lesson is that no matter how successful we are, no matter how many good things we do in life, we are all susceptible to temptation and bad choices. And one bad choice can ruin your life; just as it appears to have happened to Steve McNair, it can happen to me.

As a Christian, I believe in the Bible, and it talks a lot about temptations and also about the consequences of sin and bad choices. Christians aren’t immune from those temptations or consequences. It appears that Steve McNair made a bad decision as a married man, just as Governor Sanford of South Carolina did, going down a disastrous path with another woman. Those relationships could have started out very innocently, and maybe even with good intentions in mind. However, at some point, both men had to make decisions on the direction those relationships would take, and both men apparently made the wrong choice. Unfortunately, those decisions will have terrible consequences for them and their families."
You can read Dungy's complete post here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Chris Restuccia: A Life Well Lived

In the early morning hours yesterday, July 6th, my friend, Chris Restuccia, left this earth and entered into the arms of Jesus. Chris had fought a courageous battle with cancer and is now at peace and is free from all his earthly body limited him to.

Chris leaves behind his children, Hannah and Joshua, and his wife, Jo, a tremendous woman who has shown a remarkable degree of strength, faith and courage throughout the course of Chris's treatments and as his health declined in recent months.

Although I'm thankful that Chris is now pain-free and is in the presence of our Lord, it is still hard to believe that he is gone. I will miss our times together and our lengthy conversations about theology, ecclesiology, stewardship, politics, football and the ministry that God had called each of us to. As a couple of the only white guys working with The Impact Movement, Chris and I have shared a unique bond for well over a decade. He was a confidant, an accountability partner and a close co-laborer. Mostly, he was just my friend. I will miss him dearly.

Like many of the people I have the privilege of working with, Chris was not a man that went into the Christian ministry because he had limited career options. In fact, I'm quite certain that he would have been a very successful businessman as a result of the keen entrepreneurial spirit he possessed. Unlike so many others, he chose to pursue the calling that God had placed on his life instead of running after the accumulation of wealth and material items. Jesus Christ had dramatically changed Chris's life and he wanted to invest his life in helping to introduce others to Christ.

There are some that would say that instead of being a missionary that he should have made millions and given that to God's work. But Chris followed what God told him and not what the world would dictate. God blessed him with a wonderful wife and children and gave him the privilege of seeing others' lives transformed by the power of the gospel of Jesus. He is now receiving his reward for a life well-lived. I'm thankful that I can call him friend.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Don't Believe Everything You Read

With the unusually high number of actual celebrity deaths that have taken place in recent weeks there has also been a slew of false reports about other famous people that have supposedly died. While checking my Twitter page last week I saw a few tweets that said actor Jeff Goldblum (pictured here) had been killed on a movie set in New Zealand.

After a quick Google search and checking a few reputable online sites, I saw no report of his death and guessed correctly that it was a hoax. But Goldblum isn't the only actor that has been reported to kick the bucket recently. I've also read that stars like Harrison Ford and George Clooney had died. (For what it's worth, they're still around).

Actor Rainn Wilson, who plays the immortal Dwight Schrute on NBC's The Office, showed his funny side when he broke the story on his Twitter page that he, too, had apparently died on a movie set in New Zealand. writes that Goldblum also took it all in good fun when he appeared on the Colbert Report:
"In the episode, host Stephen Colbert jokes that he thinks Goldblum is dead even as the actor appears on stage beside him.

Goldblum then posts to Twitter to try to prove that he is still living.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have huge news," Colbert says, upon reading Goldblum's tweet on his phone. "The dead can Twitter."

Goldblum then reads his own false obituary into the camera."
Very simply, don't believe everything you read. With the popular of online social networking, news, whether it is true or not, travels more rapidly than ever before. So anytime you see a friend or an online site posting something outlandish, make sure you double-check your sources before spreading the information on. Check the sites for established newspapers online for breaking news and visit to check on newer rumors or potential urban legends. Your friends will thank you for it.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Brennan Manning on Fear

From Brennan Manning in The Ragamuffin Gospel:
"There is one barrier to love that deserves special mention because it is so crucial to the second call of Jesus Christ - fear. Most of us spend considerable time putting off the things we should be doing or we would like to do or we want to do - but are afraid to do. We avoid it because of our inordinate desire to be thought well of by others. So we come up with a thousand brilliant excuses for doing nothing. We put things off, waste the energies of life and love that are within us...

Each of us pays a heavy price for our fear of falling flat on our face. It assures the progressive narrowing of our personalities and prevents exploration and experimentation. As we get older we do only the things we do well. There is no growth in Christ Jesus without some difficulty and fumbling. If we are going to keep on growing, we must keep on risking failure throughout our lives.

When Max Planck was awarded the Nobel prize for his discovery of quantum theory, he said, "Looking back over the long and labyrinthian path which finally led to the discovery, I am vividly reminded of Goethe's saying that men will always be making mistakes as long as they are striving after something."

You know, in spite of the fact that Christianity speaks of the cross, redemption, and sin, we're unwilling to admit failure in our life. Why? Partly because it's human nature's defense mechanism against its own successful image our culture demands of us. There are some real problems with projecting the perfect image. First of all, it's simply not true - we are not always happy, optimistic, in command. Second, projecting the flawless image keeps us from reaching people who feel we just wouldn't understand them. And third, even if we could live a life with no conflict, suffering, or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence. The Christian with depth is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Thoughts on Death & Dying

Along with many others, I have thought a lot this past week about the topics of death & dying. The number of celebrity deaths has been abnormally high, but on a personal level, I have a very close friend that is likely near the end of his life here on earth.

One of my favorite writers, Randy Alcorn, addresses this topic on his blog. Randy is a thoughtful apologist on a number of topics and, more specifically, is an authority on heaven. Alcorn comments:
"God uses suffering and impending death to unfasten us from this earth and to set our minds on what lies beyond. I’ve lost people close to me. (Actually, I haven’t lost them, because I know where they are—rather, I’ve lost contact with them.) I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal diseases. These people, and their loved ones, have a sudden and insatiable interest in the afterlife. Most people live unprepared for death. But those who are wise will go to a reliable source to investigate what’s on the other side. And if they discover that the choices they make during their brief stay in this world will matter in the world to come, they’ll want to adjust those choices accordingly."
Death is always hard to deal with and when it happens to someone close to you it is even harder. As a Christian, I believe that death is merely the passing into a better life for the believer in Christ. But knowing that doesn't necessarily make it easier for those of us left behind. We must still deal with the emotions of grief, sorrow, sadness, anger and loneliness. We must wrestle with our questions before God (even though we may not receive the answers we want) and move on with our lives while keeping our loved ones in our remembrance.

I encourage you to check out Randy Alcorn's article "Looking Forward to Heaven", as well as a wealth of other resources on his Eternal Perspectives ministry website here.