Leaving Church

A friend raised the question today of why so many people are leaving the church. Setting aside the matter of whether or not more are leaving today than in the past (perhaps some studies have indicated that this is true; I have not read them), I am offering my theory as to why people give up on church. I first suggested this idea in my book Above All, Love: Reflections on the Greatest Commandment.

But first a story. Not long after the book came out I was having a discussion with a pastor friend and I summarized my idea. “That’s really good,” he said. “Did you think of that yourself.” I was so startled by his question that I wasn’t immediately insulted. But later I wondered, Was it because I was female? Was it because I have no formal theological training? Whatever the reason for his incredulity, the answer to his question is “Yes, I thought of it myself.” I’m not saying that I’m the first or only person who has had this thought, but I did not get it from anyone else.

While working on the book I focused on the four aspects of being that Jesus mentioned when he answered the question about the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). He must have had a reason for not saying, simply, “Love the Lord your God.” I came to realize that we all have a favorite way of “loving” God—a way that fits our personality and that usually involves one of the four aspects of our being. I then began to wonder if our failure to love God completely in all four areas could explain why the picture we present to the world of the God we worship is so unattractive.

Here is an excerpt. Perhaps I’ll add more detail one of these days.

MANY OF US HAVE friends or family members who once claimed to be Christians but later abandoned the faith. When we consider the factors involved in their decision, we realize that in many cases the “god” they walked away from was not the one, true God, but a partial god, and a god who is not whole is easy to dismiss.

Those raised in austere, legalistic environments easily walk away from a god who is always angry and demanding. Those who were taught that god is more of an intellectual idea than a living, loving being find other “ideas” more intriguing and satisfying. Those who have a “best buddy” god, leave him when human buddies provide companionship more to their liking, perhaps by endorsing their sin or weaknesses. Those whose god is only a reflection of themselves are fascinated for a time, but only a narcissist can have a long-lasting relationship with his or her own image.

Whenever select aspects of the one, true God are emphasized and others excluded, we end up with an incomplete god who is not worthy of worship.

As beings who are created in His image, we need to beware of the temptation to worship an image of God that most closely resembles ourselves. Emotional people can be tempted to worship an emotional god. Intellectual people can be tempted to worship an intellectual god. Socially minded people can be tempted to worship a “do-good” god. God is all of those things and more, but He is not any one of them alone.

Today I would add, among other things, that we also need to resist the temptation to expect everyone else to participate in our idolatry by demanding that they too worship the god who resembles ourselves.

Above All, Love: Reflections on the Greatest Commandment

https://dhp.org/books-453/christian-living/inspirational/ry993.html

On the Fringe

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When butterflies hatch at Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they do so in an indoor tropical paradise perfectly suited to meet their every need. The temperature is perfect. The humidity is perfect. The food is a perfect balance of calories and nutrition to keep them healthy. No need to go elsewhere. Yet some butterflies see the bright blue sky outside the conservatory and spend their days fluttering near the glass ceiling far away from the plentiful food supply.

I want to say to those butterflies, “Don’t you know that everything you need is inside? The outside is cold and harsh, and you will die within minutes if you get what you are longing to have.”

I wonder if that is the message God has for me. Do I look longingly at things that would harm me? Do I use my energy to gain what I don’t need and shouldn’t have? Do I ignore God’s plentiful provision because I imagine that something just beyond my reach is better? Do I spend my time on the fringes of faith?

God supplies all our needs from His riches (Phil. 4:19). Instead of striving for what I don’t have, may I receive with gratitude everything that He has already given to me. —Julie Ackerman Link

Adapted from Our Daily Bread, On the Fringe, 7 March 2013.

Away, Away

“Away, away,” said the two-year-old as she put a blue bunny back in the toy box. Her words were humbling. I was being shown up by a toddler who had already learned something that I had not.

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Some of my friends have homes where everything is in place. At my house, everything is on its way to some other place. Dirty clothes are on their way to the laundry room. Clean clothes are on their way to the closet. Books are on their way to bookshelves. Papers are on their way to filing cabinets. Things are either coming or going, and too few of them ever arrive.

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Keeping stuff where it belongs is beneficial, but there are more important things to “put away” than the toys we play with and the items we use around the house.

The apostle Paul told believers in Corinth to “put away” childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). Later, in a letter to believers living in the progressive seacoast city of Ephesus, he told them to put away bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and every form of malice (4:31). These things have no place in the life of a Christian. They belong not in the closet but in the trash.

As we put away stuff around the house, and throw away things that are useless and harmful, may we also take the time to put away our childish attitudes and habits that grieve God.

Ephesians 4:25-32

High Seas Drama

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The ship was rocking on the first night of our Caribbean cruise, but not from the music. As we plowed through the darkness, I watched the sea roll and the waves break.

A bright light on the horizon looked like another cruise ship. For a while I could see it, and then it would disappear.

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To get a better look, I leaned into the cubby hole of our cabin window. Something strange was happening, perhaps an optical illusion caused by the great expanse of undulating darkness. The light seemed to be moving closer, but it wasn’t getting bigger.

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At some point I realized, the light was coming from high atop our cruise ship, not from the mystery vessel. A searchlight was aimed at something, but what?

The object kept disappearing behind great swells of the sea. But slowly it got closer. Our ship slowed down. Soon it was barely moving.

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The bright light in the sea gradually came into focus. I saw a person paddling with one oar. I saw another person waving. Frantic paddling. Frantic waving. And then the object was right below our window.

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I recalled standing on the dock before we boarded, gawking at the size of the ship, a floating hotel with elevators to 14 decks above sea level.

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I tried to imagine what such a ship would look like from a tiny raft. How did anyone in something so small have the courage to come so close to something so immense in such turbulent waters?

Within a few minutes the raft disappeared from my narrow range of vision. The ship remained still. I assumed that crew members at the rear of the ship were hauling the people to safety. I felt relieved that they were saved, even though I was sure this was not the outcome they were hoping for.

Soon the ship started up again, and I thought the ordeal was over. But it wasn’t.

Shortly after we started moving, I spotted another light on the horizon. Another raft? Had two groups left Cuba together? The light became smaller as the distance between us increased. Were we going to abandon them and continue on our way? My stomach churned, and it had nothing to do with seasickness. The whole life-isn’t-fair question was coming up like a partially digested meal. Here I stood, dry and warm in my cruise ship cabin snapping photos of desperate people, miles from any shoreline, being tossed like toys on rickety rafts. There’s nothing fair about that. Nothing fair at all. God, save them, I pleaded. How could we enjoy this vacation knowing that people were left helplessly adrift in these unforgiving waters?

I am not so callous that I did not immediately realize the utter selfishness of such a thought. Although I was not more concerned about enjoying my vacation than I was about their safety, the thought that my own enjoyment even came to mind at such a time intensified my indigestion.

As I struggled to regain my moral equilibrium, I noticed that the light was moving. I first saw it to my right, toward the back of the ship. Now it was to my left, toward the front. The ship was turning. We were moving toward the light. We were going to attempt another rescue. I continued to watch as the ship neared the raft. This time I saw no one paddling or waving. God, please, don’t let us be too late. As the ship moved closer, I once again saw people, still alive. We slowed down, and the raft moved closer to the ship, leaving my field of vision.

I didn’t see it again until six days later.

On Saturday evening, while getting ready for our final dinner on board, we had the television on to catch the evening news. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard the words. Raft. Empty. Washed ashore. Presumed dead.

I jerked my head toward the TV screen. The vessel I had previously seen outside my cabin window being bounced around by wind and waves, I now saw sitting serenely along the sandy shore of a Miami beach.

Mystery Surrounds Raft Found Near Black Point Marina

The fragile boat had reached its destination. Its passengers had not.

A report in the Miami Herald speculated that the passengers had died at sea.

An empty Cuban raft turned up near Cutler Bay, sparking fears that the passengers died

Thankfully, our cruise director had previously reported that our ship had indeed rescued four Cuban refugees. Although I was sure I had seen two rafts, what I had really seen was two rescue attempts of the same raft. The first attempt had failed—the raft had drifted away from the ship before the people could be brought on board.

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This shows the location of the ship at the time of the first rescue attempt.

So the ship made a large circle around the raft and maneuvered close enough to rescue the passengers without causing the raft to capsize—in my mind, a nearly impossible feat.

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The loop in the upper right corner shows the path of the ship when we circled the raft to make the second rescue attempt.

Total time spent on the rescue—from the time someone reported seeing the raft until the time the passengers were brought on board—was four hours.

Three men and one woman had been pulled from the raft. The crew had given them food, rooms, and medical attention. The woman was severely dehydrated and would not have survived much longer, perhaps not even until the next morning. They had been at sea for 15 days.

On Friday night during dinner, as we returned to Miami via the south side of Cuba, our captain announced that the refugees were being turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard, who would return them to Cuba.

We had saved them from death, but we could not offer them a new life.

CBS News Report: Mystery Raft Found Near Black Point Marina

2013 Bible Reading Schedule

Here is a link to my 2013 Bible reading schedule. What makes this schedule unique is that we read Psalms on Sunday, the Old Testament on Monday through Thursday, the New Testament on Friday and Saturday, and a few Proverbs every day. The average length per day is three chapters. The longest per day is four chapters.

I hope you will join me. Let me know if you do.

2013 One Year Bible Reading Schedule

Why does God allow evil?

Above all, Love purple

How can God be good and yet allow so much evil? How can he be all-powerful and yet do nothing to stop all the suffering? How can he be the full expression of love and yet tolerate so much hatred?

These are the questions we hear after every tragedy.

For me, the answer is summed up in one of the words that forms the question. It’s the word that makes God such an enigma. It is in fact the only single word that God uses to describe himself. The word is love.

God proves his love by giving us freedom. But along with freedom comes the option to reject God, and this opens the door to evil.

Freedom, however, is essential to love. Without the freedom to choose, we cannot truly love. Likewise, if God doesn’t give us the freedom to reject him, he doesn’t truly love us. If God forced himself on us, he would be a rapist not a lover. If he stood over us with a clenched fist, he would be a tyrant not a loving father. And if he constrained us to behave a certain way, he would be a slave driver not a savior.

Even though God has the right and the power to control human behavior, he chooses not to. He believes in love. He relies on love. He is love. Instead of using force to hold us, he relies on the splendor of love to attract us. In extravagant expressions of truth, goodness, and beauty, he woos us. He longs for us to desire him, and so he waits—patiently waits—for us to see his goodness and to choose him.

Freedom is a blessed gift and a frightening responsibility. We value it for ourselves but mistrust it in the hands of others. We are eager to invoke God to impede the freedom of those who use it for evil, but none of us want God to stop us from our own acts of greed and revenge. Everyone is quick to define evil, but no one is willing to live by anyone else’s definition, even God’s, for God’s definition would put an end to our own selfish ambition.

We want to believe that it is a culture of guns or violence that is killing us. But that makes the problem impersonal. Guns and violence are only a symptom of what’s wrong. It is hatred and self-righteousness that is deadly.

May God help all of us to choose love over hatred, kindness over violence. For we will continue to live in a world plagued by evil until we acknowledge that the way to peace is to choose the kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus demonstrated, the kind of love that extends even to our enemies.

How long, Lord Jesus, will your patience last?
How long will you wait for us to recognize your goodness and surrender to your love? How long will you put up with us blaming you for everything that is wrong and never praising you for all that is right? 

♥♥♥

Love cannot be forced,
love cannot be coaxed and teased.
It comes out of Heaven,
unasked and unsought.
PEARL BUCK

♥♥♥

Love is the only service that power
cannot command and money cannot buy.
UNKNOWN

Adapted from Above All, Love: Reflections on the Greatest Commandment.

Nowhere to Hide

I smelled something burning, so I hurried to the kitchen. Nothing was on the stove or in the oven. I followed my nose through the house. From room to room I went, eventually ending up downstairs. My nose led me to my office and then to my desk. I peeked beneath it and there, peering back at me with big eyes pleading for help, was Maggie, our dog, our very “fragrant” dog. What smelled like something burning when I was upstairs, now had the distinct odor of skunk. Maggie had gone to the farthest corner of our house to escape the foul smell, but she couldn’t get away from herself.

Maggie’s dilemma brought to mind the many times I have tried to run away from unpleasant circumstances only to discover that the problem was not the situation I was in but me. Since Adam and Eve hid after sinning (Gen. 3:8), we’ve all followed their example. We run away from situations thinking we can escape the unpleasantness—only to discover that the unpleasantness is us.

Although we can’t escape from ourselves, we can come out of hiding, acknowledge our waywardness, and let Jesus wash us clean (Rev. 1:5). Whenever we do, he gives us a clean start. —Julie Ackerman Link

Adapted from “Nowhere to Hide,” Our Daily Bread, 14 November 2012.

Win or Lose, Do Good

Now that the results of yesterday’s very close presidential election are known, half of U.S. citizens are glad and half are sad, depending on their political persuasion. Those who voted for the winner are likely to accept the authority of the government he establishes. Most others will submit, though grudgingly.

Christians, however, are to go beyond mere submission to governing authorities. In a letter to Titus, the apostle Paul said that Christians should also be peaceable and considerate, doing good without slandering anyone (Titus 3:1-2). Titus was working among believers in Crete, a place notorious for its unruly inhabitants. There were good reasons to say bad things about the people living and ruling there, but Paul warned Christians not to do it. In fact, seven times in his short letter to Titus, Paul mentioned goodness: love what is good (1:8), teach what is good (2:3), do what is good (2:7, 14; 3:1-2, 8, 14).

Paul’s letter is a timely reminder that as Christians we are to do what is good for people, regardless of whether we approve of their values or agree with their policies. It may not be easy, but it’s the right thing to do. —Julie Ackerman Link

Adapted from “Win or Lose, Do Good,” Our Daily Bread, 2 November 2004.

No Ordinary Day

On an ordinary day I would not presume to speak for the majority of people—not even a narrow majority. But today is no ordinary day. Today is the eve of a U.S. presidential election unlike any other. This long and grueling election season has exhausted our national patience, depleted our trust in politicians and news agencies, exposed our intolerance for opposing views, and strained our ability to have civil discourse.

But it has united us on one point—and this is where I believe I speak for the majority of Americans: We all will be grateful when this nasty, invasive, deceitful election season ends. We just want it to be over!

Having said that, however, I realize that some of my friends will wake up on Wednesday morning deliriously happy while others will awaken in a pit of despair.

How can it be that my Christian sisters and brothers have such opposing views? Each believes that God is on their side—or perhaps that they are on God’s side—even though each side has good reason to question its own virtue. No matter who wins the election, both sides have succeeded in associating the opposing candidate with the end of the world as we have known it, creating fear, animosity, and distrust.

Yet God works within the flawed and limited system that we have established: an either/or form of government in which one party wins and one loses. So when the results are known and the election is decided, one side will feel vindicated by God, and the other will feel abandoned by him.

While I will be happy when the election is finally over, I will be sad for friends who are feeling bad. So I’m wondering, Christian sisters and brothers, would it be possible—before the results of the election are known—for us to make a pledge to each other? For the sake of Christ, could we simply practice the teaching of the apostle Paul in his letter to Roman believers? Could we bring ourselves to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn”? (Romans 12:15). In fact, if all of us would pledge right now to read Romans 12 before the election and practice it when the results are known, perhaps we will prepare the way for God to do a miracle in our nation no matter which candidate wins.

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