Spiritual Sicknesses

sickPhysical illnesses have one redeeming quality: you can test for them.

Sure, the tests aren’t perfect. Sometimes they’re slow and expensive. They have occasional false positives or negatives. But they are generally quantifiable.

If your blood sugar level clocks in at 1,000, the doctor knows what to do. If the EKG shows that you’ve flat-lined, we know we better act fast!

Spiritual sicknesses require more discernment to diagnose. There’s not a blood panel we can order to tell us that gives us the warning signs of our greed or pride. There’s no x-ray that can spot a malignant mass of bitterness spreading within us. No numbers are available that tell us what the three-month running average of our spiritual sweetness is. Determining our spiritual health—or “soundness” if you prefer Paul’s term—requires intentional introspection, self-evaluation, and the accountability of community.

So what’s the plan?

For the next several weeks we’re going to study some specific spiritual sicknesses. We’ll compare them with some physical ailments that you’re already familiar with to help make the study sick…and then, we’ll look for the cures!

What do you think some of the most common spiritual sicknesses are?

Not-church church for atheists

There’s an interesting movement among atheist communities—even in Nashville, the “buckle of the Bible Belt.”

The Tennessean (and others) recently reported about a new trend: Sunday gatherings among atheists. The headline is accurate: “Atheist gathering looks a lot like church.” Take a minute to read that article. I’ll wait right here until you get back…

There are at least 16 of these groups across the nation. Nashville’s is called “Sunday Assembly.” Like a church service, there is music, activity for children, an inspirational message—even multiple services!

communityWhat strikes me most about this gathering is this: people of all kinds have a hunger for community. We find community in all sorts of places: with our co-workers, in our kids’ little league bleachers, with our Warcraft guild, our motorcycle club, our service organizations, and in our churches.

Some churches have forgotten just how hungry people are to be with each other, especially when they’re united by a cause they can agree on. The atheist assembly is just that—an example of people seeking community.

Some churches have lost their community—individuality is key. Churches have been deformed into places where people drop in, check in, check out, and drop out. Church is supposed to be so much more! A place where people get to know each other—warts and all. A place where people help each other. A place where “everybody knows your name.”

Don’t forget that God invented community. The only thing “not good” about creation was that man was alone (Genesis 2:18). Ever since, God has used communities (tribes, nations, church) to accomplish his purposes.

Let’s learn a lesson from this trend and make sure that we are the sort of community God wants us to be.

Tool to Compare Two Countries

I just stumbled on a neat tool for doing something that I want to do fairly often at church.

Want to help people understand the size of the Bible lands? Want to help make a history lesson make a little bit more sense? Once you get past about 100 miles, I lose sense of scale and it gets tough for me.

Overlapmaps.com lets you overlay one country/province/region over another to show the size comparison. Here’s Tennessee and modern Israel:

Tennessee and Israel

(Click to enlarge)

One more tool that’s more useful for modern studies or keeping up with your missionaries. IfItWereMyHome.com will compare any two nations. It will show a land-mass overlay, compare income, life expectancy, environmental data, and more. Pretty neat tool.

Disappointed in the Olympic results? Try seeing how you’d like living in Russia. Here are some of the “highlights.”

If I lived in Russia, I would…

  • Be 83% more likely to have AIDS
  • Have a 68% higher chance of dy ing in infancy
  • Make 67% less money
  • Spend 90% less on  health care

There is good news though — I’d have 4.3% higher chance at having a job!

Comment and let me know how you’ve used these sites, or any others you’ve found.

Conscience: a great tool…when it works!

This Sunday we’re looking at the human conscience; a great tool, but one that can easily conscienceget mis-calibrated.

Mis-calibration cost NASA well over $125 million in 1999. The Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft was designed to fly to Mars, orbit around the planet, and report back on what the surface conditions were like for future exploration. Rather than circling the planet, it flew past it and rocketed out of useful range. The cause of the glitch? One team of scientists did the math using metric units, while another team of scientists used the imperial system. The mis-calibration meant that the numbers in the spacecraft’s computer were basically nonsense.

The human conscience can become mis-calibrated, too. We can become desensitized. The first time we commit a sin, we feel terribly guilty. The second time—fairly guilty. The thirtieth time, we might feel nothing. Scripture uses the language of consciences that have been seared (1 Timothy 4:2). It is also possible that our conscience can be like a smoke detector that goes off too often. It becomes the boy that cries wolf and we always are in a state of worry and anxiety.

Here are a few illustrations about conscience…

A Native American proverb says that conscience is a “triangle in my heart. It stands still when I am good, but when I am bad, it turns around and the corners hurt a lot. But if I keep on doing wrong, the corners wear off, and it does not hurt anymore.”

A Sunday school teacher asked the children in her class, “What is the still, small voice that you always have with you?” One of the kids answered, “My iPod!”

A rich man bought a house next to processing facility that smelled terrible. Unable to stand the stench, he kept trying to convince his neighbor to move, but his neighbor always put him off, saying that he would in “just a bit.” By the time this happened several times, the man got used to the smell quit pestering his neighbor.

We need to let the words of scripture calibrate our consciences, so that they will continue to be useful instruments for helping us live the Christian life.

The Olympics and Pentecost

Olympic season is upon us! It’s that special time every four years where we pretend to understand how they judge figure skating and wonder who managed to combine skiing and shooting into a sport. I’m still hoping for my big break into curling!

One of the things that draws me to the Olympics is the pageantry of the opening ceremonies. I love watching the athletes come in as each country is announced. Invariably there is a country I’ve never even heard of that sends a tiny delegation. People from every corner of the earth are there. The varying languages, cultures, dress, and ideas all collide for one big event.

languages

One of my favorite events in church history is the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost. It was a day kind of like the Olympic opening ceremonies. Jerusalem was packed and electrified with the energy of one of the special feast days. It was filled with “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). You could hear chatter in all sorts of different languages as you walked down the streets.

stood the source of its power.One of the great miracles of this particular Pentecost was that while the apostles preached, “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” (2:6) “And they were amazed and astonished” because they knew that Peter was neither a translator nor a ventriloquist! God was working an incredible sign to make sure everyone both heard the gospel message and under
Between the languages, the mighty rushing wind (2:2), and the tongues as of fire (2:3), God pulled out all the stops to highlight this as a special day—when something bigger than any one nation or language could hold, the day when God gave birth to his church. When you think about it that way, doesn’t it make you appreciate what God had in mind for his family, the body of Christ?

Two Ships Passing in the Night

“Two ships passing in the night.”

That was the description I heard about one of the “Contemporary Discussions” (i.e., debates) held at the FHU lectures a few years ago. Each side was represented by a well-respected, well-researched, intelligent speaker. As far as I could tell, neither speaker did anything to convince anyone to “switch sides.” None of the questions that were asked afterwards or comments that I heard made me think that was the case, at least.

I may be mistaken, but I have always assumed that the purpose of a debate was to allow two opposing sides to collide in such a way that truth became clearer. But I’ve never heard of a debate that had the desired effect.

bsr005Perhaps one reason is that the people most likely to attend debates are the ones who are already “evangelists” for their point of view. It’s possible there’s an inherent closed-mindedness in debate audiences. I doubt that explains it all, though.

Tonight there was a debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the answers in Genesis guy). I didn’t watch the whole thing, but from what I can tell the results are in. Each side claims some sort of victory and is bothered that the other side didn’t really answer the questions.

That’s the same song and dance you hear after almost every Presidential debate, isn’t it? Usually the perceived winner is based on who had the best one-lined “zingers” or most charisma. The loser is the one who looked unsettled, defensive, confused, or disengaged. Or the guy that I came to the debate disagreeing with, anyway!

But again, wasn’t the point of the debate to use questions to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a point of view?

Okay, fine, I’ll admit that the point of a Presidential debate probably is more about TV ratings and swinging voters by rhetoric, rather than logic! But let’s stay with the main idea: why is so hard for two people who disagree to discuss their disagreement and actually get somewhere?

Here’s the short answer: it’s easier to talk past each other than it is to talk to each other. In a formal debate, each side has chosen what is believed to be their best material. If you’re in their shoes, do you leave your script to actually answer a new question, or do you stay on script? The security of the known sure is appealing, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only thing going on. It is easier to think about my next response than it is to actually listen and respond to someone else. Active listening is a tough skill. It becomes even harder when emotions are high or I feel like something is at stake. So it’s possible the debaters don’t even really hear each other.

Pride is an issue too. How often are debaters willing to say, “You may have a point there”? I’ve never heard or read it. Admitting a weakness or flawed reasoning isn’t the general practice of most of our conversations. It takes real courage and love of truth to be that vulnerable. I don’t intend to malign character, but it is a real possibility in debates that one or both debaters aren’t interested in fighting for truth, but victory. Many public figures are more interested in gaining followers than what’s right. I’m going to be an optimist and hope that this isn’t the prevailing problem, though!

Maybe the most common reason for debaters totally missing each other is this: despite the agreed terms of the debate, it’s pretty common to see that the two debaters are really looking at different questions. If they’re not looking at different questions, they’re looking at them with such different ways of thinking that they might as well be.

So what do we do about it?

When we find ourselves in disagreements—whether they be in public debates, internet comments, or just lunch table conversations—we have to make sure we’re really talking with each other, not at each other. We have to combat our pride. We have to really have interest in truth. We have to be willing to be proven wrong. And we have to explore the deeper questions to see if we’re even talking about the same things.

I don’t have much hope that we can fix the presidential debates, but I think we can make a difference in our own conversations.

A Great Request

Many churches engrave this on their pulpit to serve as a reminder to the preacher!

Many churches engrave this on their pulpit to serve as a reminder to the preacher!

The Triumphant Entry is one of the most dramatic scenes in the gospels. Jesus rides into Jerusalem in an incredible way. Crowds shout “Hosanna!” and even the rocks would cry out if Jesus silenced his disciples. The Pharisees said with a hint of exasperation and exaggeration, “Look! The world has gone after him!” (John 12:19)

After all the tumult dies down, John’s gospel introduces us to some people. He doesn’t tell us their names, just their nationalities. They are Greeks who have come up to worship at Jerusalem. These are “outsiders” who are earnestly seeking God.

These Greeks have one request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus!” (John 12:21).

Two things catch my attention. First is the simple beauty of that request. Lots of folks came to Jesus looking for something. Some wanted healed. Some wanted fed. Some even wanted a king. But these guys just wished to see Jesus. If we’re not careful, we can get caught up in the (good) things that surround Jesus, and seek after those things rather than Jesus himself. That’s a great mistake!

The second thing I notice is that these Greeks didn’t approach Jesus directly. They could have been afraid to—Jewish rabbis didn’t exactly hang out with Gentiles very often. They might not have known just how inviting Jesus really was. Their hesitancy might have been humility. They might have felt unworthy to ask him directly. Whatever the reason, the Greeks asked Philip, and Philip asked Andrew, and together they told Jesus.

There is a parallel for us here, too. While we can approach Jesus directly, most of us are introduced to him by a friend or family member who knows him a little better. One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to help people see Jesus, but that’s not a job for preachers alone. It is a great opportunity for all of his disciples!

I like to ask myself, “Who in my life is asking to see Jesus?”

Then I’ll ask, “Am I showing him?”