Sekai no Hikari: Light of the World

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden…In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

Jesus in a Box

The church has a big problem.

We like to put Jesus into little boxes that fit our comfort zones.

For uber-liberals: Jesus is a socialist hippie who said all war was bad and wants us to be free to explore our sexuality.

For uber-conservatives: Jesus is a sword-carrying manly man who approves of war, and destroys all sinners, mainly of the sexually deviant variety.

For denominations: Jesus was a devout (insert name of denomination here).

For legalistic types: Jesus was perfect, and commanded us to be perfect.

For lenient types: Jesus doesn’t care if we slip up. He loves everyone.

For skeptics: Jesus was a good man, but I don’t know about all that miracle business.

…And I could go on, but you get the idea. Jesus has been, and will always will be, controversial. At least in this day and age, everyone wants Jesus on their side, but most of them don’t even know the real Jesus.

Now here’s what I think: If Jesus came today, he would have something to say to EVERYBODY.

To the uber-liberals, he would probably say something like, “I made your bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit for an express purpose, and that is not to destroy them with illicit sex and drugs. Also, I am not a hippie.”

To the uber-conservatives, maybe he would say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. And right now, you are not in the category of “merciful.” Also, quit it with the gun thing.”

To the denominations, he might say, “That church down the street has my Spirit also. I want you to be one with them, as I and the Father are one.”

Maybe he would give this advice to the legalists: “I am not about checking boxes. I want your heart, soul, mind and strength.” And to the lenient people, “Sin has great consequences, and continuing to sin cheapens my sacrifice.” And finally, to the skeptics: “I am God, and I will blow your mind.”

Actually, maybe that last one is for everybody.

Jesus is God! (And if you disagree with that, then you are going to have problems with this blog…) Can any human expect that we can fully grasp all there is to know about God? We know what God has revealed to us through the Scriptures by his Spirit. But our human desires and ambitions still get in the way of even that. And we end up not knowing the real Jesus.

The Jesus I know knows the reality of human nature. But even so, reality is too small for him, and he does crazy things, like calming storms, that show that he is the one and only truth.

The Jesus I know is probably a manly man. He was tempted in every way, so he understands desires. But he overcame the temptation, and that shows his unbelievable power.

The Jesus I know has a culture that is home to him. But he invites all, from the east and the west, to come sit at his table: the table of the one who brings unity.

The Jesus I know is perfect. He walked in accordance with God all the time. He has a perfect relationship with the Father and the Spirit. He mediates for us as the one true way.

The Jesus I know suffered. His father died when he was 12. He was poor all his life. He was an outcast – thought of as an illegitimate child. (Who would believe the virgin birth?) His pain enables him to be our healer.

The Jesus I know was courageous, and stood up to people. But also, he let himself be spat upon, and whipped, and humiliated, and killed, all out of love.

The Jesus I know never gave up, even when he died. He rose from the dead, giving us hope, and promising life.

In other words, the Jesus I know is my God, and that means he can never, ever be put in a box.

He destroys my boxes all the time. When I am hesitant to love my enemies, he shows me that just as he did, I need to be willing to forgive and forget – and suffer pain – seventy times seven times. When I am being stubborn, he shows me that as his disciple, I need to submit to authority on earth and in heaven. When I am despairing, he shows me that he is the resurrection and the life.

Knowing the real Jesus is the greatest adventure, the greatest trial, and the greatest joy. I die to myself so often, but each time, I find something better.

Will you join me?

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Roots, Leaves, and Grace

This Thanksgiving, I want to talk about grace. I promise it will tie into Thanksgiving, so keep reading.

Grace has had a long history, and I almost don’t know where to begin because the history of grace begins with – well, God. God had his plan of grace all ready to go before we were even created. But for the sake of time, I will start with Israel. (pre-Christ)

Israel had a lot of issues. They were complainers, and they had a painfully short attention span. They kept going to other gods, even after God had proven himself time and time again. So what does God do?

He gives them grace.

This grace isn’t permanent, but he promises them that, one day, he would “put [his] law on their minds and write it on their hearts”, and that his grace would be permanent. But the key thing to understand about this pre-Christ time period is that grace was not expected. It was special, and it certainly did not happen among people. Grace was something that God only sometimes gave.

Fast forward to the first century, when a backwater Jewish radical hung on a Roman cross, and the earth shook with the suffering of God. At that moment, grace became permanent. And three days later, all was revealed to the few faithful, who had until that moment lived in a society of justice. Over the next few centuries, these followers of Jesus brought grace into a society lacking it, and turned Western civilization from a ruthless, warring group of tribes into a transformed people, bound by grace.

Fast forward again, to the Age of Reason. People begin to wonder why we need God for grace, why we can’t just all get along. And the process that began then has continued through this very day: the elimination of justice from society. Now we have people that believe Hitler should not be held accountable for his actions because his moral code thought it was okay to kill millions. (Trust me, I know some people that think this.)

Now here’s where it’s going to get a little theological. I believe that love is like a tree. Picture a tree. It can be evergreen, deciduous, whatever. Just a tree.

Now picture the roots. They’re ugly, and they can get annoying, sure, but they’re essential to the tree’s survival. They provide water and minerals that are necessary for the tree to perform photosynthesis. I believe these roots are like justice.

Now picture the branches and leaves. They’re quite pleasant to look at, right? They also serve an important function. They provide energy by doing the photosynthesis and collecting the sunlight needed to initiate the process. I believe these leaves are like grace.

Now remember that Bible verse? “I am the vine, you are the branches”? So Jesus is the tree, and we are the grafted-on branches. Therefore, we are called to be engines of grace in God’s world, and God will take care of the justice. We were grafted onto the tree of love by God’s grace, and now we are called to be his hands and feet in the world – God’s grace-giving leaves, nourishing the tree of love.

But what happens if we cut ourselves off from the tree? We lose the water we so desperately need to do our job, and we can’t do it anymore. I believe these cut-off branches are like the people who try to eliminate justice from the equation. By cutting themselves off from justice, they are cutting themselves off from God, who is just by nature. I believe this is what modern society is doing.

As an aside, the people who try to take over God’s job and judge everyone are like leaves who have tried to collect their own water. In the end, they end up collecting neither water nor sunlight, just as the cut-off branches, in trying to collect sunlight without water, collect neither.

I think the reason that there are so many of these “cut-off branch” people these days is because we have lost our gratitude at the grace we have been given. The roots are no longer the starting point, and people take the leaves for granted. This Thanksgiving, I charge all believers to, first and foremost, thank God for his grace. Remember the height from which you have fallen, and remember the way God provided you to get back up. Never lose your awe and wonder at what God has done.


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The Moderation Dilemma

The other day, someone I know said that, “everything is good in moderation,” and not to spend all your time, money, or talents on one thing. This got me thinking about that expression. It gets thrown around a lot, and I would venture to say that it has some truth to it. But, like all sayings, it must be thought about before we take it the wrong way.

As Christians, what do we not want? Evil is the first answer that comes to mind for me. So is evil good in moderation? Is sin good in moderation? The answer is obviously no, and this is what’s wrong with beliefs like Taoism, that stress “balance” between good and evil. Despite this, I would venture to say that a Taoist would be as quick to condemn an awful event like the Holocaust, or September 11th, as anyone. But that’s not the point. There is another side to moderation that is not as obvious, and not as insidious, but it is a lot bigger of a pitfall for Christians than evil in moderation.

Now here’s a harder question: Is time with God good in moderation? Is sharing the gospel good in moderation? Well, yeah, but it can always improve. This is something many Christians struggle with. They come to Christ, but then think, “I’m not going to go all out. That would be downright weird. Everything’s good in moderation, right?” Well, the answer when it comes to Christianity, and religion in general, is a big, fat NO.

Moderation has a different name when applied to religion. It’s called nominalism. The nominal Jews: celebrate Hanukkah, but not the Sabbath or Passover, and they don’t go to synagogue. The nominal Buddhists: never meditate or try to better themselves, but vaguely believe in Buddhist philosophy. The nominal Muslims: are of Arabic heritage, and believe in one God. That’s about it. The nominal Hindus: are of Indian heritage, have statues in their houses, have Hindu relatives. The nominal Christians: go to church on Christmas and Easter, believe in God, heaven, and hell.

The sad thing is that Christianity is one of the most common religions to have nominal adherents. I believe the reason for this is actually due to its uniqueness in the realm of religion. It is the only religion where justice and grace were fulfilled at the same time by one selfless sacrifice. Other religions are either the “Go do whatever you want” type, or the “DO EVERYTHING RIGHT OR ELSE” type. So with nominal Christians, they’re kind of expected not to do bad things, (justice) but they don’t feel a ton of pressure to do good things, either. (grace) To revise my earlier statement, this is what makes it easier for Christians to be and to stay nominals. The real cause of Christian nominalism is that they don’t understand the gospel. Because when you really comprehend the sheer depth of the gospel, you’re either in or out. There is no longer any in between.

Now about the struggle I mentioned earlier that lots of Christians have: I actually would not consider that nominalism. Many Christians, such as Francis Chan (the author of Crazy Love), would. But the reason I don’t is because we are under grace. Sharing the gospel is not a requirement for salvation. If these people are at least making an effort in some respect, I would consider them not nominal, but simply having a bit of trouble with courage, or faith, or any number of things. (A caveat: I am not saying nominal Christians are unsaved. I do not know one way or the other.)

To those Christians: I understand that sharing the gospel is hard. It’s hard in every way. Knowing when God wants you to do x, y, or z is hard, mustering the courage to do x, y, or z is hard, knowing what to say and when to say it is hard, dealing with attacks from the enemy is hard, the list goes on. I also understand that not all Christians are gifted spiritually with evangelism or faith or apostleship, which all help very well with sharing the gospel. But, I know almost all of you care what God has to say. He says to share the gospel. Now, the point of this IS NOT to guilt anyone into sharing the faith. Trying to force a spiritual conversation wouldn’t help anyway. The best motivation for sharing the gospel is the gospel itself. If you aren’t motivated by the gospel, and you wish you were, just ask God! God calls you His child. He will help you in the best way possible. Also, sharing the gospel, with both unbelievers and believers, (the gospel will never get old!) is a way that God intended for you to get closer to Him. It helps me get closer to God more than anything else does.

Now to the skeptics who are always careful about doing too much of anything: Moderation is always wise. It even mentions a similar concept in Proverbs, where the speaker asks God to give him only his daily bread, for too much or too little would lead him away from God. But, it is things like this that I believe Paul spoke of when he wrote that the foolish would shame the wise. Now, this is not a call away from wisdom, but true wisdom is always following God. And God calls us to be excessive with our faith. There should be a label applied to Christianity: Use liberally.

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Politics and Christianity: Gay Marriage

        I am adding this post as an extension of my previous post on what we should do as Christians in a highly polarized political climate. As most of you know, the Supreme Court just ruled in favor of gay marriage. Most of us do not agree with this. For those Christians that do, whether it be because you do not believe in legislating morality, or because you believe the Bible does not prohibit homosexual actions, I will state right away that there will be parts of this post you will not agree with, and that is fine. Feel free to comment regarding your views. However, I will not accept any mean or derogatory comments.

         First of all, I am deeply saddened at the road our world seems to be going down of late. I believe that gay marriage is a sinful influence on the world, and that things will only get worse from here on out. However, I do not believe our anger will help matters. It will, firstly, make things worse for the world, and secondly and most importantly, make things worse for the people in the world. I believe our world is doomed. That, however, is not a bad thing. As usual, God turns what seems bad around and uses it for the good. Thus, the people in the world are not doomed, and when we are angry about sensitive issues like this, it turns them off to God. Our actions show the world a picture of God, whether this is a true picture or not. By being calm and civil and gracious, yet at the same time standing up for justice, we show the world a true picture of what God is like.

        Now, how do we do this when it comes to the very tough issue of gay marriage? Well, I have a crazy idea. I have always been frustrated by the lack of conclusive nonreligious arguments against gay marriage. (By “nonreligious” I mean things that do not use the Bible as the source of authority. While it is the true authority, the world does not recognize it as such, and using the Bible will only make us seem closed-minded.) Therefore, I propose we admit that we don’t have them, because we don’t. The truth will set you free, right? However, we still need to explain why we believe the way we do. So here’s what I would say:
“I get that some people are gay and that they don’t choose to be, and I don’t know why that is. I know God made them as well as everyone else. I believe that homosexuality is a sin. And I admit that I don’t have any reason why that is, other than the fact that I know God, and I know what He says. There are things in this world bigger than sexuality, namely, spirituality. God is perfect, and I know that for a fact. There is lots of evidence that supports the truth of Christianity, and I can tell it to you if you want. Therefore, since I know that God is real and true, and since I follow Him, I have to trust Him on this.”
If more Christians answered this way instead of being angry, maybe the other side wouldn’t have as much ammunition against us.

        I want to conclude with a list of “don’ts.” I’ve seen people do this on comments on the internet, and it’s not pleasant.
1) Don’t cite the Bible as an argument. They won’t buy it.
2) Don’t tell people they’re going to hell. It will just make them angrier. Plus, only God has the power to judge.
3) DON’T EVER say cliche catchphrases like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” That just makes you sound downright stupid.

        Remember, if you disagree with anything, feel free to comment. Debate (not arguing) is encouraged.

         Grace and peace to you as you figure this tough situation out.


Our Differences

        Humans. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. But those differences pale in comparison to the depth of personality each individual shows. And everyone is different. This, in some ways, is the basis for relativism. But it can also be a support for Christianity.

        Relativism is the belief that each person or group of people has their own truth. In other words, truth is not the same for everyone. Or, as a relativist I know put it, “truth is in a constant state of flux.” However, relativism is often used as a basis by spiritual designers for their own brand of spirituality, therefore, each relativist will probably have their own idea of what relativism really is.

         The relativist, in general, looks at the world and sees all the different faiths that are in it. He or she can’t figure out which is true, and knows they can’t all be true at the same time. Therefore, he or she proceeds to attack the concept of truth itself, claiming that truth is relative to each person.

        The reason for all these differences of faith and theology is simple. In my experience, I have noticed that some humans tend towards certain values. To phrase this differently, each person has things they think are most important. Environmental factors can play a part in this, but a person is biased just by being born. For instance, some people are extremely compassionate, and they think mercy is an important virtue. I call this “the grace side.” Conversely, some people think that morals and righteousness are very important. I call this “the justice side.” These two values are on a spectrum. They both are good in general, but can be bad if carried too far. There are other spectra like this: individuality and community, tolerance and tough love, love for self and love for others, etc. Each person is made by God differently, so they land on different parts of these spectra naturally.

        What relativism seeks to do with these spectra is to devalue their importance. They say things like, “It only matters if you want it to,” limiting the impact of the different virtues by creating dividing lines. A person, thus, is restricted to their own whims and they only hear what they want to hear in light of their truth.

        However, Christianity fits with every virtue out there. In essence, it’s in the middle of all the spectra. Yet, at the same time, it provides a barrier that relativism doesn’t provide: it protects against evil. If relativism were true, everyone could make up their own truth that’s convenient for them, even if it were evil. However, Christianity, with its laws that tell us what to do, and the one true God who never changes and is completely good, makes sense in light of these seemingly conflicting virtues.

        And, with God as the one, absolute truth, and Jesus as the mediator and example to all of us, and us as the beloved creation, everything falls into place. Our differences make sense, and enhance our relationship with God and others. I know I have learned to be a better human, Christian, and servant to God and others by talking to other people who are more compassionate than me, and this includes non-Christians. It’s just because they’re different than me, and I, by God’s grace, am open to learning. Christianity doesn’t create annoying dividing lines like relativism does. Instead, God helps us see where we are strong, where we are weak, and where others can help us. By learning from the examples of others who are better at something than us, we learn different views on the Gospel, and our relationships are refreshed every day.

        I want to conclude with a quote: 

                “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others…will help you become whole.”    Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender

        This applies to us as Christians, even though we already know the basis for the whole truth. Others’ unique points of view will help us uncover the many facets of the truth in God’s world.


Politics and Christianity: Do They Go Together?

        The other day, I was listening to someone talk about politics. Ever met one of those people who go on…and on…and on…and on about it? This was one of those people. It completely ruined my day. Now, I admit that this was partially because this guy was a major liberal who hates Christians. However, it’s also majorly annoying when conservatives get on their high horse.

         Because of this cringe-inducing interaction, I was thinking hard about politics, and what we should do as Christians. I mean, some of us are liberal, and some are conservative, right? Well, I came to a few conclusions about it, and if you disagree with me, that’s perfectly fine.

1) Actually, that’s the first one. Disagreeing about things as Christians IS OKAY. I took a theology class through church, and their most important thing they had to teach was that we do theology irenically, meaning peacefully, without anger or divisiveness. We are all going to disagree about one thing or another. We all are in the same position as human beings trying to discover the truth, and we are told to build one another up in our walk with God. Therefore, unless something is clearly a sin, one is not to force our brand of Christianity on another.

2) Argumentativeness will accomplish nothing. Don’t be the person who talks about politics all the time. There’s a reason people are supposed to avoid politics in polite conversation.

3) Our loyalties are to God first. Don’t try and change God, and don’t put your ideology before God’s. God’s priorities must be ours.

4) If politics destroys our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not worth it. Debating is fine. In fact, it helps us think. However, if emotions run too high and people get angry, stop.

5) Don’t waste your time on party campaigning and interest groups. Remember, God is the one who chooses rulers. By all means, vote, and if God has called you to politics, go right ahead, but your volunteer time is better spent on a lasting ministry that will touch someone’s life directly.

        One last thought: It’s almost embarrassing to admit when I talk to Japanese people that Americans fight over political issues so much. Politics is keeping too many Christians from being truly effective for God. The fights, denial of our faults, hatred, and annoying Internet comments need to stop. None of that will change someone’s view. God, however, can do so. So when you go out to change the world today, don’t focus on nonessential politics. Instead, be fearless and bold in presenting the one essential: the gospel.

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Dying to Apologize

        So one thing that I fervently believe about the Gospel is that there are already seeds of it in every culture and subculture out there. It doesn’t always have to be “planted” by Christians. Because we are all human, created in the image of God, we have all received something called general revelation. That essentially means that God has revealed little parts of His truths to all of us, through nature, other people, our own nature, etc.

        One example of this is in Japan. Endo Shusaku, a famous Japanese Christian, often likened Japan to a swamp in terms of ability to accept Christianity. A swamp is not a very favorable environment for seeds to grow in. In the same way, Japan is not a favorable environment for Christianity to grow in, and history has aptly demonstrated this. And for a long time, I thought that Japan’s worldview was almost entirely in opposition to Christianity. However, I was talking to my Japanese teacher one time about Japan’s strange fascination with death. She quoted to me an expression that she thought explained that fascination:

死でおわびます=apologize with (one’s) death

        She said that death, to the Japanese, was a way to say sorry for what they had done wrong, and that is why they have such a high rate of suicide. I immediately saw the connection. The Japanese think they have to apologize for their own sin, but what they don’t see is that someone has already apologized for them! Jesus became a human himself, yet lived without sin, and thus he was qualified to apologize for all of humanity. And that he did, giving the whole world, including the Japanese, the option to have life, and have it to the full.

        Since then, I’ve thought about it, and the Japanese are an incredibly communal people. Sound familiar? They, in an ideal situation, would probably do a better job of Christian community than most Americans. The so-called “swamp” is actually a verdant forest, deep down inside. We just can’t give up on the Japanese. We can’t give up on anyone.

        God has given me a heart for the Japanese people, and I intend to do something for God and Japan, when the opportunity arises. Who has God given you a heart for? Who elicits your compassion? I guarantee, there is hope for them, and there is a plan for them, and God will use you, if you are willing.

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