Several months ago, I had a friend tell me about several non-Christian friends that he converses with on a regular basis.  As he shares his faith, they keep throwing up the same road block.  It is a question that I think we all struggle with from time to time.  But it is also one that many non-believers cling to as their “evidence” for not believing.

How can a loving God let so many people suffer and die?

God loves us.  We even claim that God is love.  Yet, thousands upon thousands of people are oppressed, abused, and murdered every day right under His nose.  His creation, under the reign of His infinite power, allows people to suffer in brutal, unimaginable ways.  How is that possible?

Perhaps the most loving thing God has ever done, aside from creation itself and that whole “sending His Son to die” thing, is giving us the power of choice.  Free will gives us the option to choose God or to turn away from Him.  It allows us to make decisions based in love or decisions based in selfishness.  He loves us enough to give us the power to choose.

Unfortunately, there are many ramifications for that.  Since God loves us all equally, He refuses to take free will away from anyone, no matter what they plan to do.  While it may be difficult for us to understand, God loves James Holmes (Aurora, CO), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Osama Bin Laden, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler.  God loves them so much that He refused to take their free will away.  I know that sounds too simple.  I know it sounds very convenient.  But if you consider the power of choice that God’s love provides, there is no denying it.

As for the disease and famine in the world, I am afraid the answer is a bit more painful.  It is still rooted in free will, but the blame does not lie on a few sinful individuals.  Unfortunately, the blame lies on me.  And you.  And every other person that has more than they need.  I have enough money to share and feed a hungry person or two, and chances are you do too. 

God created us to take care of one another.  Jesus commanded us to take care of the least of these.  Yet, we continue to buy nicer cars and bigger televisions.  We spend our time on hobbies and leisure activities when we should be volunteering and donating.  You and I are responsible for all of the people in need in this world…don’t blame God.

I agree that earth is a pretty messed up place right now.  However, the problems that we see are not evidence that God does not exist.  On the contrary, it is proof of the free will that we have all been blessed with, and the sinful choices that we make every day.  And if we want to see it change, we need to pray to God that He will help us change.  We are the problem.  Not Him.

It’s odd to feel speechless with so many thoughts running through your head.  Please keep in mind that this was written on Friday, the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I admit that I have become unfortunately numb to these kinds of things.  They are always painful, always tragic.  But the frequency of these events have somehow taken a bit of the sting away.

It may be the fact that my son will be in an elementary school next year, but this one stings a lot.  I cannot even look at the pictures of the families of the victims.  I feel sorrow.  I feel grief.  But most of all, I feel angry.

I feel anger on behalf of the victims.  I feel anger for their families.  Yet, as I look for a place to direct my anger, I keep coming back to…me.

No, I am not blaming myself for this event.  I am not saying that I have helped shift our culture to a place where these things happen.  But what have I done to change it?  What have I done to influence the culture in another direction?

I spend about 1/4 of my time at work.  I spend about 1/3 on sleep.  That’s about 7/12 of my week.  That leaves almost half of my time that I should be using to change the world by introducing people to my God.  It is my job to show people who Jesus is. 

But if I really spent half of my time doing that, don’t you think I might even make a small impact on the world?  Perhaps I could love somebody enough to influence them to raise their children in church, and twenty years down the road a situation like this may be adverted.  That 30 hours of adoption training standing between me and taking in an orphan may not look so bad when I think about how it may impact his/her future actions.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27 NLT)

Maybe I am just rambling or maybe there is a point here, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that I should be doing more.  More to love strangers.  More to take care of God’s people.  More to spread the gospel.  More to be like Christ.

In the meantime, though, I am going to go and hug my children.  I am going to pray for everyone involved and affected by the situation in Connecticut.  And I am going to invite God to yell at me for not doing more.  Feel free to join me in all of these efforts.

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV)

I work for a federally funded TRIO program.  The work that all of these programs do is fantastic.  Taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds and helping them get to, and succeed in, college is a service that is irreplaceable and changes lives.

However, the regulations under which we operate often seem absurd.  There are things we must do, things we may do, things we should not do, and things we can’t do.  We have self-identified goals and objectives, institutional operations, and government legislation that dictates almost everything action we take.

Once a year, we have to report our activities and results to the federal government.  As I sit in on meetings and webinars discussing the details of these reports and how they may impact the future of our operations, I am always overwhelmed and often heavily burdened by the strict guidelines we must follow.

If I get this stressed out and weighed down by this one report for my job, what must the Jews under the law of Moses have felt like.  Their relationship with God was on the line, and the details of their law seem impossible to keep straight.  One of the main reasons that the Old Testament is hard to read is that it is detail after minute detail about how God’s people were expected to live.  And if it is this difficult to read and understand, how much more difficult would it have been to live under and obey every aspect of it?

I am thankful for the relationship that I have with God because of the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I praise Him for my salvation.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is something that could never be replaced.

However, the lazy person in me is sometimes just as thankful that the law was fulfilled with Christ’s sacrifice and I am no longer responsible for keeping up with the seemingly infinite number of commands brought forth in the law.  Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, and now I can hang onto my cattle.  Jesus renewed my connection to God, so I don’t need to go to the temple to repent.  Jesus came to me so that I won’t have to work my way to God.

Praise the Lord!

My job is amazing.  I get to work with college students every day, and watching them grow is one of the most rewarding compensations that a high salary can’t buy.  I see them come in as who they have been told they have to be, go on a journey to find who they think they want to be, and ultimately stumble upon who they really are.  It is a beautiful thing.

However, all of this growth cannot take place without a little pain.  Changing your identity is never an easy process, as you can spend most of your time feeling confused.  Maybe you are being pulled in opposite directions.  Perhaps you are having trouble breaking old habits.  Yet, unlike many Christians that hold onto their habits, at least these college students have an excuse.

When a person becomes a Christian, they also go through an identity change.  When you declare Jesus as Lord of your life, you are supposed to give up everything to follow Him.  However, we usually end up hanging onto the things that we really like or those that would take the most effort to change.  We give God most of our lives but keep a small percentage for ourselves.  We try to be simultaneously selfless and selfish, completely dependent on Him but independent on our own, who He wants us to be and who we have always been.  See the problem there?

Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.  (James 3:11-12 NIV)

You can’t follow Christ and hang onto your old habits.  You can’t sell out for your faith and still dabble in debauchery.  You can’t change and remain the same.

You either surrender your life to Jesus Christ or you don’t.  There is no in-between.

Sacrifice.  That is what Christianity is all about.  The Bible teaches us to take up our crosses daily to follow Jesus.  (Luke 9:23 )  Jesus even said that there is no greater love than giving up your life for your friends.  (John 15:13 )  We are supposed to sacrifice our desires, our resources, and even our lives for the cause of Christ.  There is no way around it.

However, the Bible teaches that sacrifice is not necessarily the most important aspect of our faith. 

But Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the Lord:  your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice?  Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.  (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT)

Obedience is better than sacrifice.  Doing what we are told is more important than giving things up.  In the Old Testament, sacrifices were often done to atone for sins, or to make up for a lack of obedience.  According to Samuel, though, it is more pleasing to God if we try harder to be obedient in the first place. 

I really don’t believe that Christians, in general, are intentionally sinful.  In fact, I believe that most of our disobedient behavior comes from the lack of being intentional with our thoughts, words, and actions.  Why is that?  Because we take full advantage of the grace of God and the forgiveness that comes with His love.  We know that we will be forgiven. 

Sometimes we even dismiss our disobedience because of our sacrifice.  Some Christians believe that since they do so much work around the church or in the community, that they get a little more grace than everybody else. 

Regardless of the reason, we are far too careless with our obedience…or lack thereof.  No matter how much we sacrifice or how many “works” we do, it is much more important that we follow the commands in the Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We all need to stop being so complacent and taking our forgiveness for granted.  We must be obedient.  If we are, everything else will take care of itself.

Let me tell you about my weekend.  I got to go on my first ever “baseball tour” trip with a couple of my friends.  We went to the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis and went on out to Kansas City to check out Kaufman Stadium.  1,300 miles in just over two days.  It was a great experience, and one of the coolest things I have done in a very long time.

As the trip was put together, we basically had to wait until the two teams hosted games in the same weekend at times that worked well for travel.  Basically, the games we attended were strictly by chance.  As it turns out, however, we stumbled upon Faith and Family Night in Kansas City.  Let the awesomeness commence.

After having arguably the best meal of my life (I am seriously considering moving to Kansas City for better access to their heavenly BBQ), my friends and I headed to the stadium early to check out the landscape.  As we were walking around the area, we found ourselves front and center for the sound check of one of my favorite Christian bands, Building 429.  As if being the only three people standing right next to the stage wasn’t cool enough, the lead singer came down and talked to us for a bit while the instruments were being tuned.  Very cool.

After watching nine innings of the greatest game never invented, the Faith and Family festivities began.  Between an opening set by KJ52 and the headline concert by Building 429, we were treated to a few player testimonies.  Luckily (or maybe it was planned this way), the Texas Rangers were in town and Josh Hamilton came out to tell his story.  If you haven’t heard about his journey, you can check it out here.

Josh’s story is pretty amazing and he never hesitates to give all of the glory to God.  I am sure that he is often asked how he keeps his focus on God when he is so often surrounded with things that have caused him to stumble in the past.  One scripture that he quoted as being a part of his strength is something that I have read several times, but somehow has never grabbed me like it did this weekend.

He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:30 NIV)

Isn’t that the foundation of Christian faith?  Isn’t that what taking up your cross daily is all about?  Here I was having the time of my life, having all of these great experiences that I will cherish for a long time, and I was slapped in the face with a reminder that I really shouldn’t matter.  Awesome.

I find it interesting that most Christians really buy into the first part of this verse, but we often choose to ignore the second part.  We want to be closer to God and do great things for Him.  But we also want to accomplish great things for our own glory and reputation.  We believe that He must become greater, and that we can become greater also.

Unfortunately, that’s impossible.  If we truly seek Jesus Christ and try to make our lives like Him, we must become less important.  If we want to do more for God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to give up our own dreams and desires.  If we really want Him to increase in this world, we must all be ready to decrease.  Are you ready?

Each summer, our Wednesday night youth group sessions take on a very interesting form.  At the beginning of the summer, we give all students the opportunity to write down spiritual questions on small pieces of paper.  We put the pieces of paper in a bucket and draw them out at random throughout the summer.  With each question, the students get the first chance to provide answers and supporting scriptures.  Once they are finished, the adult leaders and youth pastor chime in.  We have some amazing discussions and I am always humbled by how much I learn from them.

Recently, we pulled out a question about whether or not we should try to please other people.  Many good points were made by all.  Some mentioned the fact that we should never compromise our faith for anybody.  Others mentioned that, if we love others as we are called to, we will be spending a great deal of time making people happy.  And the ultimate trump card was when somebody said that we should work on pleasing God, and then whether or not we please others will work itself out.

Ultimately, it was a very productive discussion.  The teenagers were very involved and they seemed to grasp the balance between doing “good” and making others happy.  But there was one analogy that our youth pastor gave that I felt was worth sharing specifically. 

Think about being on an airplane when something goes wrong.  The oxygen masks drop from the ceiling and the cabin is losing pressure.  Of course, the selfless thing to do is to help others secure their masks.  However, every flight begins with the instruction that you should put yours on first.  Why?  Because if you are not taken care of and in a good position to help others, then you will not do them any good.

That’s a fantastic lesson for life.  Yes, we should be selfless and want to help others.  We should be willing to sacrifice to meet their needs.  But if we are not healthy ourselves, particularly spiritually, we are not going to be of any real help to anybody.  We should not stretch ourselves too thin. 

Yes, we should try to please others by serving them and showing Christ's love, but we need to put our relationships with God first and that sometimes means saying, “no” to things.  That sometimes means turning down ministry opportunities or skipping church events.  That may mean letting people down or hurting their feelings.

I know that sounds bad, but just think how more effective you can be if you are not running on fumes.  Try to picture how passionate you can be about God’s word when you actually have time to prepare your lesson.  What would it be like if we were all able to focus on our callings and utilize our spiritual gifts as they were designed?  Revival, that’s what. 

If you feel run down and out of steam, do yourself a favor and tell somebody, “no” this week.  Tell them a bald blogger said it is okay.  I’m sure they’ll accept that.
I recently took some flack on Facebook for professing that I did not want to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies.  Apparently, they are kind of a big deal.  I get that.  The summer Olympics only happen once every four years, and the hosting country gets a chance to do weird things to stand out.  Good times.

Let me be clear:  I have absolutely nothing against the Olympics.  However, I do have a bone to pick with ceremonies.  Pageantry, in general, really frustrates me.  I can’t stand parades.  I don’t like awards shows.  And I definitely don’t watch any kind of pageant.  (Note:  Also…not a huge fan of weddings.  I'll talk more about that tomorrow.)

Why don’t I like pageantry?  Am I just a cynic that randomly opposes popular events?  Not so much.  It’s just that I am not a huge fan of self-glorification.  Yes, I struggle with needing recognition and praise.  But the creation of events, the spending of money, and time and effort expended for nothing more than a showcase just comes across as being over-the-top selfish.  Could these resources not be used for more productive activities?  Does anybody really deserve this kind of recognition?

Especially within the church, why do we spend so much time recognizing personal accomplishments?  Yes, we should thank and encourage folks that are working hard for the Lord.  And absolutely, a lost person coming to know Christ deserves a standing ovation.  But why do we design these drawn out recognition services?  Is it really necessary to highlight everyone that follows in obedience? 

We should be serving to glorify God, not to get noticed.  We should be accomplishing great things for His Kingdom, not for our own resumes.  There are reasons to rejoice, and God’s love deserves to be celebrated with every breath.  However, all of these ceremonies and events designed to recognize our own efforts and accomplishments really do nothing more than make us look selfish and arrogant.

The vast majority of ceremonial events are inherently self-serving, and I am not down with that.  There you have it.  That is why I didn’t watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  That is why I never smile at weddings.  And that is why I only go to parades for the candy and to convince my children that horses are friendly. 

Call me a party-pooper.  Call me the Scrooge of pageantry.  I’ll gladly rock that on a t-shirt.  Bah, humbug! 

I can’t dance.  Seriously…it is painful to watch.  Remember that scene in Hitch where Will Smith tries to teach Kevin James how to dance?  Yeah, I wish I could dance as well as Kevin James.  If everyone danced like me, everybody would have rooted for John Lithgow in Footloose.

Luckily, everyone does not dance like me.  That is why I don’t dance in public.  I don’t want to make a fool of myself.  That, and my wife won’t let me.

Believe it or not, I ran into a similar situation in the book of 2 Samuel the other day.  When the ark of the Lord finally arrived in the City of David, King David was so excited that he threw a party.  He went out in the street, gave away some bread and some desserts, and as they say where I’m from, he cut a rug.  And apparently he wasn’t fully got a little weird.

When he went back in the house, he abruptly found out that his wife had been watching from the window.  She quickly let him know that she did not approve of his behavior, and that his attire and performance were not very kingly.  His response blew my mind.

David replied to Michal, "In God's presence I'll dance all I want! He chose me over your father and the rest of our family and made me prince over God's people, over Israel. Oh yes, I'll dance to God's glory—more recklessly even than this. And as far as I'm concerned...I'll gladly look like a fool.  (2 Samuel 6:21-22a The Message)

David did not care how people viewed him because of his worship.  He was willing to do anything for God, no matter how it reflected on himself. 

I wish we were more like that.  We don’t like to hang out with outcasts because people may think we are weird.  We don’t stand up for our beliefs because we are afraid of being excluded.  We don’t fully express our love and obedience because we are too worried about fitting in.

David had it right, as he so often did.  We should be willing to be outcasts to reach the outcasts, give up our statuses in society to seek justice, and ignore the funny looks to worship as we feel led.  God is unbelievable, and it is about time we started acting like it.

My son is completely obsessed with superheroes.  We can’t do anything without it turning into a crime-fighting adventure.  Going to water the plants?  We have to find the Joker hiding in the garage.  Headed to the grocery store?  We have to put the Riddler in jail before he steals everything.  I am actually pretty sure he thinks Mr. Freeze causes winter.

Batman, Robin, Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four.  They have become a part of my everyday life, and I could not be happier about it.  What better way to teach a child right from wrong than to encourage him to be a hero

At a recent visit to the park, my son was pretending to be Robin chasing the Joker all over the place.  At one point, he took a leap off of a structure that was a little too high for him to be jumping off of.  Luckily, he was okay.  But I felt the need to say, “That was a pretty big jump.  Be careful.”  His reply was absolutely perfect.  Without missing a beat, and with great humility, he said, “That’s what superheroes do” and resumed his pursuit.

In his mind, he was doing a job and anything that came with it should be expected.  There was no need to draw attention to or acknowledge anything that fell in line with his Boy Wonder job description.  He was focused on a mission, and that was all that mattered.

Why aren’t Christians like that?  I know some are.  I have seen them.  But those folks are rare.  In general, Christians are not very gung-ho about keeping their heads down, using their gifts for God, and actively sacrificing their own desires without seeking some sort of recognition.  Especially in America, we want to be recognized for our hard work, our talents, and our sacrifices.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 19:9-14 NIV)

Often times, we won’t even do the work unless we know there is something in it for us.  Why have we let ourselves become so worldly that recognition has become such a powerful motivator within the Church?  Like my son, we should be ready to shrug off unnecessary praise and say, "That's what Christians do" and get back to work.  Not only is humility the right thing to do, but it is part of the job description. 

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)

Being a Christian is full of expectations.  We are supposed to give up all of our self desires and spend all of our time doing whatever God wants.  We are supposed to give without judging, seek justice without fear, love the unlovable, and be willing to sacrifice everything.  On top of that, we should do so while expecting zero recognition or praise.  Wow…that seems like a lot to ask of an adult with so many other responsibilities.

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4 NIV)

I think I will go play superheroes with my son now.  Perhaps he has a few more things to teach me.