Monday, August 25, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 2

This is post number 2 in an extended discussion of chapter 8 in Andy Farmer’s book Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It.  Last time we looked at Colossians 3:1-4 and pondered the question about what our relational conflicts would be like if we daily set our thoughts on things above where Christ, our life, is seated.

Unfortunately, for all of us, we struggle mightily to seek the things above and set our minds there.  All too often we find ourselves reflecting the truths of Colossians 3:5-7 rather than the previous verses.  Colossians 3:5-7 state:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  In these you too once walked when you were living in them. (ESV)
The things we to put to death in this passage are our earthly, selfish cravings.  You see, peace is not possible when we put our earthly cravings on the throne of our lives.  That is our natural tendency – to put our self and what our self wants on the throne.  If we are not careful, the craving of our hearts can quickly become the true gods in our lives.  They can become the idols we pursue and worship.  In choosing earthly things, we turn away from true peace.  In those times, we settle for much less than shalom, the wholeness and well-being God offers in Christ.

You see, when our cravings rule, conflict will abound.  What does James 4:1-4 tell us?
What causes quarrels and what cause fights among you?  Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  You do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (ESV)
The passions James speaks about here are hidden deep in our hearts.  While we have been given new life and a renewed heart in Jesus, those old habits and selfish ways of doing things raise their ugly heads far too often than we are comfortable with.  In times of frustration, times of stress, in our earthly plotting and planning the things we are to put to death are all too alive in our hearts.  And the saddest thing about all of this is that these things, the earthly cravings of our hearts, cannot truly satisfy our hearts.  They are merely poor substitutes of the satisfaction, the joy and the peace found in Christ.

Following our passions, our selfish desires, and our earthly cravings will always result in more conflict and less peace in our lives in the long term.  What is it that you need put to death?  What is the idol of your heart, the true reason you do and say what you do and say?  Those things were crucified on the cross with Christ.  The power of those things to rule our lives has been broken.  We are no longer slaves to sin, but rather have been freed to practice righteousness.  As a result, we need to daily lay our earthly cravings before the throne of God.  Seek victory in His power.  Ask for the spiritual awareness to recognize these things in our lives and the spiritual will to submit them to the transforming work of God.  Always remember that God has begun a good work in you and He is committed to completing it at the day of Christ Jesus.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 1

Conflict seems to be an inescapable part of life.  Conflict between nations or groups make the headlines, and while that conflict has some effect on our lives, that is not the kind of conflict that affects us most.  Rather the kind of conflict that affects us most in the conflict that results in our day to day relationships, often with the people we are closest to. 

The other day, while reading Andy Farmer’s wonderful book, Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It, I read his chapter on peace in the midst of conflict.  The book’s premise is that real peace – shalom in the Hebrew – is found only in relationship with God, and of course, in Christ.  Shalom as the ancient Hebrews defined it, is a state of being, a state in which order, security, relational harmony, well-being and wholeness rules our life.  There is not anyone in the world who would not want such peace. 

Farmer than brings this vision of peace to bear on the various areas of our life where we struggle to live in peace, particularly the areas of stress, anxiety, grief, depression and conflict.  While all these chapters are graciously written from a pastoral heart, the chapter on conflict was especially powerful for me.  As a pastor, I deal with conflict regularly.  Some conflicts are resolved quickly, others fester. Some come out of family situations, others out of work experiences or ministry life.  As I read Andy Farmer’s wise words, I feel the pull to boil them down into a series of blog posts about peace and conflict.

Colossians 3:1-17 is the focus of the chapter.  Colossians is a book written to Christians who were struggling against false teaching.  Paul begins by expressing confidence in the work of the gospel in their lives (Col. 1:6) and confidently declares that peace with God comes through the reconciling work of Christ (Col. 1:19-20).  He then addresses false teaching in light of that very gospel (Col. 2).

The apostle moves on and in chapter 3 gives instructions to the believers on how the gospel of Christ should be lived out.  He begins with some powerful words in Col. 3:1-4:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above not on things that are on earth.  For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV)
In these verses, to set the stage for his discussion abut the gospel lived out in community, Paul reminds believers of their spiritual state.  Who are we?  We are people who have been raised with Christ.  We are united with him in new life.  We have died to our old life.  Our new life in Christ is hidden with Christ in God.  Christ is our life, and one day, He will present us holy and blameless before God in glory. 

In light of those truths, the mindset of believers is not focused on earthly things, but rather the things that are above, the things that belong to the realm of Christ.  That is our highest aspiration as a Christian – to live our lives with our minds set on the things that glorify and reflect Christ.  But as we will see, earthly things are all too prevalent in our lives.  Earthly attitudes are the reason we have conflict.  They are expressions of our selfish cravings, as we will see in the verses to come.

Before we get there, I encourage you to take the time of reflect on what it means to set our minds on the things of Christ, the things that are heavenly.  Think of the conflicts in your life.  What would happen in those conflicts if we had set our minds on the things of Christ?  Would they have begun?  Would they persist today?  How could they be resolved?  These are the questions we will pursue in future posts.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review - How the West Won by Rodney Stark

In the not so distant past, a standard course in almost every American university was Western Civilization.  It was common for university students to trace the ups and downs of civilization from a euro-centric viewpoint.  Today such a course has basically disappeared completely from the secular university.  Such a course is profoundly politically incorrect.  Today it is profoundly insulting to every other culture in the world to suggest that western civilization is what we have to thank for modern science and economic growth.

As a result Americans have and will increasingly become ignorant about how the world came to be.  Their heads will be filled with absurd history that does everything in its power to downplay or outright deny the debt our present world owes to western civilization.  

Into this realm of historical absurdity rides Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist at Baylor University.  In his latest tour-de-force entitled How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, he argues that the world is much poorer when we ignore the fact that the modern world owes a vast debt to the free civilization begun with the ancient Greeks.

In addition to recounting the history of the West, he looks at things in a whole new way, tackling the received wisdom of how and why history happened.  For example, he argues that the fall of Rome was a good thing for civilization because autocratic, imperial Rome stagnated progress rather than accelerated it.  The Dark Ages, famous for being a time of ignorance and stagnation, was actually a time of development.  He addresses the effect of climate change on history, especially the centuries long global warming in the middle ages and the little ice age that followed.  According to Stark, the scientific revolution was no revolution at all, but merely a continued development of scientific progress that began with the founding of western universities.  On top of that, he presents a strong argument that the vast majority of scientists of the day were devout or at least practicing Christian believers.  Rather than the modern argument that Europe took advantage of its colonies, draining them of wealth, the actual truth is that European nations poured much more into their colonies then they took out.  He also expands on some of the recent scholarship that shows that the influence of western, Christian missionaries had a profound and continuing impact on developing nations.

Stark answers questions such as why China, which developed so much technology, was never able to apply that technology to its civilization as a whole.  Why were eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, telescopes and microscopes found only in Europe for centuries?  Why did science, geographical exploration and capitalism develop only in Europe?  What is the right answer to the modern view that the western world is profoundly in debt to Islam?

The fact is, in the west, and only in the west, could a person find freedom, property rights and governments that were not imperially autocratic.  Out of these things and more, western civilization developed.  Compare that to a typical Eastern civilization like the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  For example, at the battle of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571) between Mediterranean Christians and the Ottoman Turks, Ali Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman naval forces had his whole personal fortune with him on his galley.  When the ship was captured, all of it was plundered by enemy sailors.  Why did this man have the equivalent of millions of dollars on his boat?  Because there was no other safe place to have the money in the corrupt, autocratic Ottoman Empire.  There was no place that this man could have his money that was protected and free from its loss or confiscation at the hands of a repressive economy run by a megalomaniac sultan.

As our nation becomes increasingly autocratic, as our government erodes constitutional freedoms, as private rights increasingly take a back seat to the “public good”, Rodney Stark’s book is increasingly important.  If we forget how we got here, we have no hope of continuing on that path of progress.  While Stark’s book is not the only history book you should read, it is definitely worth a read , if only to counter the increasingly absurd arguments of those who seem to be increasingly hateful of the freedoms and economy of the West.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review - AHA: The God Moment that Changes Everything by Kyle Idleman

I have always enjoyed Kyle Idleman’s books.  There are a number of reasons.  His sense of humor appeals to me.  His writing style is comfortable.  But most importantly, he has an ability to say profoundly challenging things in an accessible way.

Idleman’s newest book, entitled AHA: The God Moment that Changes Everything, is case and point.  The book is humorous.  It is an easy read.  And he has done a wonderful job reminding us of how God brings transformation to our lives.

The book, which is based on the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, begins with some thoughts on the whole self-help genre.  Self-help books are everywhere, covering every topic.  The very volume of self-help books suggests that they do not really help much at all. Is our “self” really able to help us with the problems we face?  The main premise of Idleman’s book is that we need to reject our self’s offer and help and embrace the provision and power of God’s help.

Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, almost everyone finds themselves, at times in their life or in certain areas of their life, in a distant country.  There are times when we have walked away from God, perhaps with our whole life, or perhaps in particular areas of our life where we do not want to submit or obey to God.  There are, of course, many reasons for rejecting God’s provision and care.  AHA reminds us that God is often not who we assume him to be.  He is an ever present source of help.

The book is contains three main sections, each section focusing on one part of the transforming work of God in our lives.  The first – “A” – stands for sudden awakening.  The prodigal son, having rejected his father, spent his inheritance finds himself feeding pigs to make a living.  As Luke 15:17 notes, one day, in the midst of that situation, he came to his senses.  He came to a realization of where his life was leading.  It was not a pretty picture.  God has many ways of bringing sudden awakening to us.  His uses his Word or the words of others, or perhaps He gives us a taste of the future consequences of our actions.  During this time of awakening, we come to the recognition that we cannot turn our lives around ourselves.

The second step is “”H” – brutal honesty.  As Luke 15:17-19 notes, the prodigal son said to himself - my father’s servants are better off than I am.  He looked into the mirror at his life and saw that it was profoundly lacking.  Such honesty brings healing and drives us to God for His forgiveness.  Of course, we can find all number of excuses to avoid being honest with ourselves.  We can deny the depth of our problem.  We can project the reasons we have problems on others.  We can minimize our problems, convincing ourselves they are no big deal.  But if we avoid those kind of pitfalls, we come to a good but painful place, and we can be honest about our lives or areas of our lives are deeply in need of God’s help.

The last step in AHA – “A” – is immediate action.  The prodigal son did not spend weeks pondering his fate.  Luke 15:20 simply states that after he realized his predicament and was bold enough to be honest with himself, he got up and went back home.  He acted.  Without action, the awakening God brings to our life amounts to nothing.  How many times have you been convicted by a sermon, only to walk out of church without doing anything about it?  Passivity, procrastination and a defeatist attitude that convinces us that it is too late are the enemies of action.

Luke 15 tells us how the story of the prodigal son ends.  His father embraces him, forgives him and celebrates his homecoming.  Our story can end up the same way.  No matter how far we have run, or how long we have run, or how many areas of our life we have resisted God’s call to holiness, God is still there.  His patience and mercy and grace is still available.  And like the prodigal son’s father, our Heavenly Father longs to embrace us, forgive us and celebrate our homecoming.