Monday, December 8, 2014

The New Cradle of Civilization

It has long been held that Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization.  Due to recent archaeological evidence though, history books may have to be rewritten.  There is now evidence of civilization in the Balkan Peninsula dating as far back as 7000 BC!

Modern day Bulgaria was once home to a civilization that existed thousands of years before the Egyptians built the pyramids.  These discoveries demonstrate that the people who once lived in the Balkans may have developed the first alphabet, been among the first to fashion gold, and much more.

Such discoveries are groundbreaking, and as an amateur historian who lives in Bulgaria, I’m very excited.  I already knew that Bulgaria was home to the oldest known settlement in Europe.  We now know that Bulgaria was home to what may be the first organized civilization in the world!

I love living in Bulgaria.  I do not need another reason to think it is one of the most interesting countries in the world, but I’ll take it anyway.

Some of the oldest signs in the world.
I'm pretty sure the one on the bottom says, "Ferb was here."

To read further on the discoveries in Bulgaria, click here.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Logic of Jesus' Love

Those who know me well know that I'm a man who loves logic.  In college, my philosophy professor had me come back and guest teach a class on logic the semester after I took his course.  So, when I came across Jesus' words in John 15:10, my logic loving brain kicked in:

"If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commandments and remain in his love."  (New English Translation)

There is much debate in theological circles as to whether or not someone can earn God's love.  Some might think the verse above supports the position that God's love for us is based on our obedience of Him.  If you look at this verse and think that Jesus' love comes through our obedience, you have fallen into a very common logic trap.

This verse presents a typical “If . . . then . . .” logical statement.  These are common statements.  For example, I might say to you, “If you drive north from Iowa, you will arrive in Minnesota.”  My statement is very similar in its construction to Jesus’ statement in John 15:10.  Both have an antecedent clause, (“If you drive north from Iowa,” and “If you obey my commandments”) and both have a consequent clause (“you will arrive in Minnesota,” and “you will remain in my love”).

(For those of you getting confused, bear with me.  You will soon see why this is important.)

Now, some might look at Jesus words in John 15 and say, “You see!  If we want Jesus to love us we have to obey him.  Salvation is based on our works.  Our relationship with God is based on us.  If we don’t obey Jesus commands, He won’t love us.”

This is a logical fallacy called “denying the antecedent.”  To understand why it is wrong, let’s compare this statement to my statement.  “If you drive north from Iowa, you will arrive in Minnesota.”  Does this then mean that if you don’t drive north from Iowa that you cannot arrive in Minnesota?  Not at all.

It is entirely possible to fly north from Iowa and arrive in Minnesota.  It is also entirely possible to arrive in Minnesota by driving west from Wisconsin.  There are many ways to get to Minnesota.  Driving north from Iowa is just one of them.

Now let’s apply this to Jesus words.  Jesus is saying that if we obey his commands, we remain in His love.  He is not saying that if we disobey His commands that He will stop loving us any more than I am saying that driving north from Iowa is the only way to get to Minnesota.

Thus, we cannot use this verse to support a works based salvation or even use it as a means to show that we can earn a greater portion of God’s favor by obeying Jesus.  However, this is not the only mistake some might make with these verses.

Some might say, “I know that I remain in Jesus’ love.  Therefore, I am automatically obeying him.  All I have to do is feel God’s love and obedience comes naturally.  Jesus is more interested in our feelings than our actions.”

This is the opposite argument to the first one, and it is also a logical fallacy.  This mistake is known as “affirming the consequent.”  This fallacy holds that if the consequent of the “If . . . than . . .” statement happens, the antecedent must have happened as well.

Applied to my statement about driving north from Iowa, it would be like saying, “I arrived in Minnesota.  Therefore, I must have driven north from Iowa.”

Again, this is not necessarily the case.  Perhaps you drove south from Manitoba.  Perhaps you took a boat from Iowa up the Mississippi.  The fact that you arrived in Minnesota in no way indicated that you must have driven north from Iowa.  In fact, you can get to Minnesota without ever having been to Iowa.  In the same way, the fact that Jesus loves you in no way means that you are living in obedience to Him.

There is an interesting conclusion that we can derive from Jesus’ words in John, and these words are shocking when we think about them.  Let’s start with the reverse of my driving to Minnesota statement:

If you have not arrived in Minnesota, then you did not drive north from Iowa.

There are many ways to get to Minnesota.  Driving north from Iowa is one of them.  If you have not arrived in Minnesota then there is no way that you drove north from Iowa.  Of all the possible ways to arrive in Minnesota, you used none of them, including the Iowa route.

This is called denying the consequent.  If the consequent clause of an “If . . . than . . .” statement did not take place, then the antecedent clause did not take place either.

Now, let’s apply this to the reverse of Jesus’ words:

If you do not remain in Jesus love, you are not obeying His commandments.

If we take Jesus at His word, and apply the rules of logic to His statement, then there is no way that we can even obey Him without Him loving us.

Why is this important?

Because it means that if you are trying to earn Jesus’ love by obeying a set of rules, you are failing.  You cannot even begin to obey His commandments until He loves you.  If He loves you already, why are you trying to earn His love?

This is why I wrote this in the first place.  It is vitally important that we understand this point.  We need to know that it is not even possible to become a good person without Jesus’ love.

It is the work of Jesus in you that allows you to obey Him.  You are helpless without Him.  It was His love that caused Him to come to earth as a man, die for you, and rise again.  It is a love given to you freely and without limit and it is only out of that love that you can be transformed into the person you were meant to be.

Will you accept His love for you?

Will you remain in His love?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Striving vs Abiding

I just got back from my annual retreat.  This sounds a lot fancier than it is.  Pretty much what I do is find an inexpensive motel room near-by and spend a day alone praying, listening to God, and reflecting on the past year.

During this time, I usually read through my prayer journal and scripture notes from the past year.  It is great to see some prayer requests that I completely forgot about that God answered months later.  It is also interesting to see what prayer requests have not been answered.  It is even more interesting to see what prayer requests I am glad were not answered.  Reading the journal is a reminder of who I am, who I was, and who I may become.

This year, I was especially convicted by my entry on May 7th.  I was in Berlin, Germany on that day, and my notes came from a seminar given by one of the ReachGlobal Europe Division leaders, Don Reynard.  He was teaching out of John 15:1-17, and he talked about the difference between abiding and striving.

This struck me to the heart because I almost postponed my retreat due to the fact that I was too busy.  I changed my mind because I remembered how Jesus would often back off from ministry to spend time in prayer when He was busiest.  But it is safe to say that my heart went kicking and screaming into that hotel room.  Don's words, spoken to me in May when I was getting ready for our move back to America at a time when I was far busier than I am now, reminded me that God want's me, not my busyness.  He wants me to abide in Him, not strive on my own.

What is the difference between abiding and striving?

When you are striving:

- You are worried about time.
- You focus on results.
- You have a strong desire to prove yourself.
- You are easily distracted.
- Life enjoyment is dependent on circumstances.

When you are abiding:

- Time doesn't matter so much.
- Results come from God.  You are focused on Him.
- Your identity is in Christ.
- You are focused on what matters most.
- Life is enjoyable regardless of circumstances.

America is a great place with lots of wonderful aspects to our culture.  We love independence and place a strong value on the individual.  Yet, one of the flaws this can lead to is the belief that our individual efforts are the most important thing in our lives.  As Christians, this can translate to us thinking that it is our responsibility to bring glory to God, as if God needs us in some way.  Biblically speaking, this is flawed thinking.

Psalm 46:10 reads:  He says, "Be still and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations.  I will be exalted in the earth."

God will glorify Himself.  Be still.

Of course, we do need to press forward in life, but we must not do so with our own energy.  As Colossians 1:29 reads: To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

If we abide in Christ, we will bear much fruit just as the branch bears much fruit because it abides in the vine.  Branches don't strive to produce grapes.  They just do because they are attached to the vine.  In the same way, we as believers don't need to strive to produce results for God.  We need only be attached to Jesus our vine.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth [Lord of Rest], His name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
-Martin Luther

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fail Well

You can learn a lot about a person by how they respond to failure.  It tells you about their character.

Perhaps the most common response to failure is to blame others.  Perhaps you think you failed because your teammates were incompetent.  Perhaps you think you failed because the deck is stacked against you.  Maybe you are too poor.  Maybe you are an ethnic minority and others look down on you for being different.  Perhaps it is social injustice that has held you back.  Perhaps “the man” is keeping you down.  It is a common knee-jerk reaction to blame others for our lack of success.

I once knew a guy who would speak very highly of his girlfriends until they broke up with him.  At that point he began to call them crazy women who should be in therapy.  After several such break-ups, I realized that the so-called crazy women he dated were not the problem.

It is tempting to blame others for our failure.  If the failure is our fault, it means that we are flawed in some way.  Few of us would claim to be perfect, but we don’t like it when our flaws are on display.  Thus, we quickly look for someone else to take the blame for us.  In doing so, we give up our responsibility and become the victims.

The problem with taking the victim route is that, though it is a road paved in the lilies of sympathy, the destination is slavery.

When you blame others for your failure, you are making them responsible for your success.  Do this often enough and you end up making your success completely dependent on them.  If you are completely dependent on others, they have complete mastery over you.

Of course, there are legitimate times when someone else is the cause of our failure.  But if you consistently look to others to make an excuse for your inability to succeed, you are likely on the road of the victim.  You are willingly becoming the prisoner of the one you blame.

The other response is to look at ourselves first when we fail.  Rather than blaming society for our problems, we take responsibility for our actions.  Rather than blaming our teammates or coworkers for their mistakes, we look at our mistakes.  We try to find out how we can be better.

In Jim Collins’ book Good To Great he writes about several companies that made the jump from being good companies to being great companies.  In every case the CEO’s of the companies were men or women who would look at themselves first when things went poorly and looked at their team first when things went well.

This is a painful thing to do.  When we look at our flaws we are reminded of our imperfections.  Yet we gain nothing in running from our mistakes.  Making corrections, making improvements, and making amends are practices that make us better.  Unlike the road of the victim, it is a road paved with discomfort, even pain, but the end result is victory.

Of course, there are times when failure is not our fault, and when that happens, the true cause of failure needs to be addressed.  But if you find yourself consistently looking first at how you can be better, and second at how others can be better, you will find that you are on the road to success.

As a man who has spent over a decade in professional ministry, I have made many mistakes.  I have also had many successes.  In almost every case my successes came as a result of a lesson learned from a previous failure.

It is easy to blame projects that fall apart on others.  It is tempting to blame dwindling attendance at our church on a complaisant congregation.  Blame is a balm to our ego.  It is a steroid that makes us look strong but that ends up weakening us until we die as the true failures we are.

Take responsibility.  When you fail, fail well.  You will find it makes you stronger, freer, and better.

“Success is not final.  Failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”  -Winston Churchill

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Are People Basically Good?

One of the core beliefs taught in the Bible is that humanity is fallen, evil, and in need of a savior.

This is not an idea that is easily accepted.

We prefer to think of ourselves as self-sufficient creatures that can to fix our faults on our own.  Many religions teach about improvement through some sort of personally actualized system.  Many Christians also embrace a philosophy of self-salvation.  The concept of an evil humanity is largely rejected in America today.

No one really wants to confront the depravity that is in the hearts of all people, because if we do we have to confront the evil that is in us.  This makes us uncomfortable.

And besides, it is easy to look past the evil of humanity when you live in America.  Things are actually pretty good here.  Just last week I heard a major concern about whether or not the new iPhone had a strong enough case to keep it from bending while carried in skinny jeans.  It is easy to think the world is a pretty good place full of good people when our biggest problems are the strength of the aluminum cases on our phones.

To better understand just how evil humanity is we need to take a look at some of the worries that people of other countries suffer.  When we look at the larger world, our need for a personal savior becomes clear.

For example . . .

In Bulgaria, people worry that Russia will turn off their gas this winter.

In Ukraine, people worry about whether their country will still exist tomorrow or be taken over by a power hungry man.

In Syria people worry about being killed because they are part of the wrong faction.

In Iraq people worry about being beheaded for their beliefs or nationality.

In Israel people worry about attacks from neighboring anti-Semites who want to wipe them off the face of the earth.

And in America we worry that our new iPhone will bend in our back pocket.

And we think it's a big deal when it does.

Do you still think we are basically good?

Do you still think we don't need a savior?