Thursday, September 30, 2010


In a recent Pew survey people were asked how much they know about Christianity. Most people who attend church do well on that survey. I made a survey on how well people know about other religions. Answers are on the comment page. I will post the full results Monday October 4th.

First 10 questions

Next 5 questions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Renouncing Passive Christianity

Theology is a good thing, but when theology becomes a hindrance to one’s relationship with God, it is an obstacle, not a path to a relationship.

The classic case of theology being a bane rather than a bridge was of course Job. When hard times hit, an understatement to be sure, Job’s long held theology pointed to himself as the root of the problem. His sin, no doubt unknowing, was the cause of God’s wrath. The simple solution for Job was to acquiesce to theology and repent. But Job did a rare thing, he rejected his theology rather than God. Job, in some ways, went from a defensive to an offensive position; a dangerous and potentially life threatening stance. Not physical death, but a separation of association with fellow theologians, but more so, the fear of being banished from God for not going along with accepted belief. No greater risk can a man take than to turn against time-honored tradition in search of truth.

Some years ago I was asked to speak on “The Purpose of Prayer in Missions.” Prayer, as we all know, is a mystery. Accepted theology about God and how he interacts with mankind doesn’t help. Some established thoughts about God is that He has a wonderful plan for our lives; He has chosen those who will accept Him; He knows our need before we ask Him; not our will but His be done. If one follows these statements to their logical conclusion one could decide that people are mere spectators in a grand cosmic plan. No need to pray, really, as He has determined the outcome and our only real role is a willingness to be a background extra on the stage of a script written before the foundations of the world. Such thinking leads to passive faith and practice.

But there is another side of the God/man relationship. Jacob who wrestles with the angel all night until he receives a blessing; Abraham who takes the knife to sacrifice his son only to be stopped by Jehovah who said, “NOW I see that you believe (didn’t He know before?); the parable of the widow who wore down an unjust judge and Jesus using the analogy for His followers to never cease praying; the admonishment for us to “work out our own salvation.” This mindset is active, engaged in faith and practice.

What if Job is right and conventional theology is the easy road to passivity and resignation? What if God really does care what we think; that we can really change God’s mind on matters; that God really hasn’t chosen those who will be saved and it does make a difference that we take the Good News of Christ to those who have never heard? Is it possible (hang on to your theological hat, the storm is coming) that God, who is omnipotent has limited His omniscience so that man can be a full partner in relationship with the Creator? Having a pro-active faith makes a difference in how we pray and what we pray for.

In the end God will still be God and we must accept His decision (prayer is not getting our way, but pleading our case). Having a positive faith instead of a passive faith means we, His creation, can live each day in active negotiation, interaction, relationship with the One who loves us so much that He denied His own Son’s request, “If it be possible, let this cup (the agony of the cross) to pass over me.” The choice is ours. We can lay down with passive resignation of fatalism or rise up, take the cross that is before us (you didn’t think life would be without struggle did you?) and be engaged in the gift of life that God has given us.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Culture and the Elderly

Ten days ago I had to make one of the toughest decisions of my life.  My dad, who turned 90 years old in May, became ill and had to go to the hospital.  It was not a life threatening illness, but it could have been serious if not attended to.  My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years back and slowly each day, physically and mentally, reveals his deteriorating condition; every minor infirmity takes an enormous toll. 

It became clear to me that my mom, 86 years old, small and frail, could no longer take care of dad.  After much prayer, consultation with my brothers and mom, we made arrangements to have dad transferred to the Veteran’s Home when the doctor released him from the hospital.  This past week has been one of personal human sadness.  My parents are separated each night for the first time in their nearly 65 years of marriage.  We go to bed wondering if dad feels lonely; there is a deep sense of guilt that perhaps we have abandoned him.

My Indian friends do not understand how we Americans can put their parents in a nursing home.  The extended family is strong in their culture and it’s unimaginable that they would not move their elderly parents into their home or at least make sure they were taken care of in their own home or that of another relative.  But, then again, Indians can’t understand how or why Americans cook their own food, wash their own dishes or clean their own homes.  That’s what the servants do. 

My landlord in Delhi was nearly the same age as my dad when we lived in India.  I watched my old friend slowly decline and though he was not put in a nursing home I can’t say that the family care for my landlord was any more compassionate or more caring than what many American elderly receive.  Mr. J’s extended family attended to him less, on a daily basis, than we do with my dad in a nursing home 40 kilometers away.  Instead of a qualified medical staff looking after the elderly, the task of bathing, cleaning and feeding in the Indian society is relegated to the same person who cleans the house each day.

The issue of the elderly in culture, as with most things, cannot be generalized.  Each family in every culture make decisions based on the relationships children have with their parents.  Some American families do indeed seem to cast off their parents into nursing homes, as do Indian families who seemingly cast off their parents into the hands of hired staff.  I believe those actions by both cultural families are the exception, not the rule.  Be they American, Chinese, Indian or European, most family members do the best they can for their parents when the tough choices of caring for their final days faces them.  It is the bond between children and parents over a lifetime that determines the last days, and one should not judge either the individual or the culture in such matters.

Mom asked dad yesterday if he was saying his prayers.  His answer from a voice that once was strong now barely a whisper, “I try to, but sometimes I fall asleep.”  That’s okay, pop, go ahead and close your eyes.  God’s marvelous grace continues to sustain you and those who love and pray for you each day.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Insider Movements and Secret Disciples

Question: Can one be a disciple and not believe? Can one believe and not be a disciple?

Answer: Yes.

How can that be?

A disciple is one who follows the teaching or philosophy of another. You can call them teacher’s, guru’s or swami’s. I may be a disciple of say, Rick Warren (pastor of Saddleback Church, author of the Purpose Driven Life) because of the worldwide work he does for social justice and world peace, but that doesn’t mean I believe everything that comes out of Warren’s mouth or every project he launches. As a pastor Warren knows God’s Word I will listen to his teaching with confidence, but his instructions will not be the final word on doctrinal or theological issues. Jesus had many disciples, but not many believers. So, yes one can be a disciple and not a believer.

Being a believer doesn’t automatically make a person a disciple. Belief is a trust in the claim but doesn’t always translate into a commitment of following. I would suggest that the vast majority of Christians in the U.S. (and using that term I am saying born-again believers) are, at best, marginal disciples. They may attend church, give a tithe, but again, most of believers in the West are short on even these two basic activities of discipleship. Being a witness for Christ, demonstrating the fruits of the spirit is a greater indicator of being a disciple of Christ; gossip, having an unforgiving and bitterness in your heart toward your brother, dishonesty in business, covetousness, pride won’t keep you from being a believer, but it will be hard to sell your faith if you are riddled with these undiscipleship qualities.

After Jesus was crucified there was a rich man by the name of Joseph of who asked the Romans to let him have the body of Jesus to be buried in his own grave. The Bible calls Joseph a “secret disciple.” How long was a he a secret disciple? One year? Two years? We don’t know, but he was no doubt a believer who had not yet declared openly his faith in Jesus.

In Muslim and Hindu communities, where the family and social structure is deeply constrained, I believe there are thousands of secret believers, who are not yet disciples. Whenever anyone writes me and quotes the scriptures about how God’s Word demands open confession I remind them of the guy from Aremethia, or his friend, Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night (we still don’t if he ever became a believer). Yes, Joseph did come out of the closet, but the day of his declaration of discipleship wasn’t his day of salvation, he was a secret disciple before he was a declared disciple.

When I get notes about how we should be willing to die for the name of Christ or be ostracized from our family for His sake, I automatically discount it from anyone who does not come from inside the social/family structures of Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism.

And, quite frankly, even if you come from a fundamentalist Hindu/Muslim family and declared your faith openly risking life, limb and fortune and believe everyone else should do the same, I would still take you back to Joseph, Naaman, Nicodemous and make the argument that there is no standard universal pattern for discipleship or for believers. Many have indeed have suffered for their faith and I do recognize throughout history of the church the martyrs who paid a high price for discipleship. However, first and foremost for all true believers is belief or trust that Jesus is the Christ of God who gave His life for man’s salvation. How that belief is played out in action is as varied as those who call on His name. It may be in front of a church or at baptism; it may be in a one’s room all alone for years.

It is my contention that if we can give tolerance for discipleship (you who believe but who are not yet perfect), then we surely can allow God to work in the heart of believers who are not yet known. To not allow this grace will surely be an obstacle for many who might truly be interested in the Good News of Christ and His salvation.