Monthly Archives: March 2011

Japan Tsunami: A Lesson in Being Ready

Since the tsunami devastated Japan last week, the news has been at times unimaginable. The last death toll I read was around 10,000. As I am writing this blog, breaking news on Yahoo! reports that there are fears of yet another tidal wave hitting the nation.

Yet another Yahoo! article reports that the tsunami had some interesting long-term geophysical results: The shifts in the earth’s crust caused by the earthquake have shortened days by 1.8 microseconds. Combined with two other major earthquakes since 2004, Earth’s days are now almost 10 microseconds shorter. Not that I noticed.

Whenever there is a natural disaster of this magnitude, many Christians ask if it is a sign of the end times. They frequently cite Matthew 24:7-8, where Jesus says, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”

I would urge Christians to read this passage carefully. In response to his disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3), Jesus is essentially saying that such natural disasters are not really signs of his coming. If you read Matt. 24 (a chapter which many people assume catalogs signs of Christ’s return) carefully, you will note that most of it is listing events and circumstances which we should not view as signs of the end.

The first event referred to as a sign of the end is the worldwide proclamation of the gospel to all the nations of the Earth (Matt. 24:14). How sad that so many Christians are busy date-setting and engaging in end-times speculation, instead of telling others about the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Whether the Japanese tsunami is a sign of the end or not, one thing is certain. For at least 10,000 people, it was the end. It does not matter to them whether Jesus returns seven years or 2000 years from now. They now stand before God Almighty to find out their eternal destiny.

In the continental United States, one man apparently was killed by the tsunami. He ignored warnings to vacate the coast, because he wanted to take pictures of the oncoming wave.

There is a lesson here for all of us. None of us are promised another day. I have plans written in my Day-Timer up until September and beyond. However, those plans are all assume I will still be alive. There are no such guarantees. Illness, injury, terrorist attack, or natural disaster can end any of our lives without regard to our plans.

And, we would do well to heed warnings. Warnings to avoid natural dangers are wise to heed. So are spiritual warnings. “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3). Jesus Christ came to die for our sins and offer us eternal life. We do not know when we will stand before him in judgment. Let us all be ready, whether it happens today or decades from now. This is far more profitable than debating when Jesus will return.

Categories: Current events, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lent: A Time of Renewal

Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 9 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

Easter has traditionally been a prime date for the church to baptize new believers. In earlier centuries, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though it focuses on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Since the second century, many Christians on Ash Wednesday have received ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. We are not saved by observing Lent, and Lent does not in and of itself make one Christian better than another. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is not the only way by any means. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It is a weight on their walk with Christ. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be some sort of realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. While not an absolute “no-food” fast, a Daniel fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would personally advise against going on a straight 40-day absolute fast without food. Yes, I know Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Facebook: Fellowship or Fantasy Friendships?

I am a big Internet buff. Some people might say I spend too much time online. That may be true. The Internet can be a dangerous place. Even if you stay on “safe” websites, it can become an escape from the real world.

I especially enjoy spending time on Facebook. It has become a quick and easy way to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. I can get regular (sometimes daily or several-times-per-day) updates from ministries or organizations in which I am interested. My church very effectively uses Facebook to send out announcements and updates, and our church’s online group is a great place to share prayer requests.

Yet, the positive uses of Facebook can be exaggerated. I have known several Christians who say they get their fellowship on Facebook. I have also read blogs where people talk about having online accountability partners. It sounds good, but it is wrong.

Facebook, or any other Internet resource, is not a valid source for friendship, fellowship, or any other kind of close relationship. It is an excellent supplement, but not a source. Getting your fellowship online is like taking vitamin supplements: It is great, if you already have healthy food (in this case, real one-on-one relationships in the real world), but it would be dangerous to build your whole diet around it.

According to my “friends list” on Facebook, I currently have 197 friends. Roughly 1/3 of them are either people I never met (11 of those, to be exact) or people that I would probably have no, or extremely limited, contact with now, if not for the social-networking site. The other two-thirds are almost all either family members, a handful of co-workers, or people from church. Actually, the church crowd makes up the largest part of my Facebook friends’ list.

Despite having so many opportunities to stay in touch with church people–even people I know–online, I cannot think of Facebook as “fellowship.” A good supplement to fellowship, but not the real thing. Here is why.

Most studies find that the vast majority of communication is nonverbal. Suppose you see me in church; you say, “Hi, Mike, how are you?” I might say, “I’m OK.” Do you believe me? Occasionally, people might respond to me by saying, “Are you sure? You don’t sound OK,” or “You look a little down. What’s really going on?” My verbal communication says I am doing well; but my nonverbal communication tells people otherwise.

Online, you will not get that nonverbal queue. I can continue to pretend all is well. I can edit myself very well. If you see me on a regular basis, you can tell if I am being honest online, or if I am hiding something.

If you see me on a regular basis, you have a chance to know the real me. If you read my posts, either on this blog or elsewhere online, you know that background. You know the other details. You know if I am covering something up, or denying something.

Related to this is the risk that, on Facebook, you can be the person you want people to think you are. That can be very different from who you really are. You can hide your real hobbies and interests online. You can pretend you have it all together, when in fact, you are crying inside. The people who see you on a regular basis know if something is wrong. The people who only know about you through the Internet might think you are a spiritual giant, when  in fact you are living in emotional, spritual, or moral defeat.

So, if you have been relying on Facebook, Twitter, or any other online service to provide “fellowship” for you, step away from your computer. Get around some people who live close by. To my Christian readers: Get more involved in church. Find people who will care for you and spend time for you IN PERSON, not merely online. If it has consumed your time, maybe you need to consider giving up some parts of the Internet (including your social networking sites) for Lent.

Go online to keep in touch throughout the week, but make sure you can share about it in person.

Categories: Internet Ethics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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