Monday, September 26, 2016

What are you afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

Is it a scary movie? Or walking to your car in a dark corner of a parking lot late at night? Or hearing heavy foot steps from behind you, getting closer?

Wikipedia defines fear as a "feeling caused by perceived danger or threat. Ultimately it causes a change in behavior, such as fleeing or hiding."

(Remember being taught the "flight or fight" response in your Introduction to Psychology class?)

Lou Dzierak, writing in Scientific American noted that "the behavior of people around us may influence our response to threatening situations."

In the same article, Michael Lewis, Director of the Institute for Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School said that "fear has a certain contagious feature to it."

In 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, during his first inaugural address President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." He reminded the American people that despite outwardly dire circumstances, they had a choice in terms of how to respond.

So, if we don't want to spread fear, what is the opposite of it?

Christianity Today says faith, peace and confidence are fear's opposites. Which jibes with Merriam-Webster's listing of assurance, confidence, courage and fortitude as fear's antonyms.

King David, who knew a thing or two about fear, wrote "In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe." (Ps. 4.8).

From personal experience, he also wrote "Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will not be afraid. Even if I am attacked, I will remain confident." (Ps. 27.3)

Jeremiah wrote down what God had to say about fear: "Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit." (Jer. 17.7-8)

There have always been terrible events, both at home and worldwide, that cause fear. It isn't a question of fear being justified, But it is a question of how we choose to respond when fear knocks on our door.

We can become anxious, frightful, agitated, and, in general, let fear bring out the worst in us.

Or, we can choose to look outside of the circumstances, outside of ourselves. To trust God.

When we do this, we are actively choosing faith.

With this option comes peace, hope and confidence. Not in ourselves. Not in being able to figure it all out. Not in denying the circumstances. But in choosing to look beyond them.

This perspective can make all the difference.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Who is in your cloud?

Recently I attended an awards ceremony where all three recipients made reference to the importance of having other people in their lives who set examples and kept them focused on the common good.

After the ceremony I got to thinking how these examples equated to the 'vast cloud (or crowd) of witnesses' that Paul writes about in Hebrews (11th chapter).

Spiritually speaking, Paul writes about how important it is to remember that "we are surrounded by a huge crowd of witnesses." (Hebrews 12.1) For Paul, this 'huge crowd' included Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, and Rahab among others.

The importance of having such witnesses, says Paul, is that it keeps us strongly connected to "the life of faith" (Hebrews 12.1)

This connection serves a multitude of purposes. Among them are staying connected to sources of encouragement, wisdom and grace.

Thousands of years past the time of Paul, our culture may have changed significantly. But the social fabric that keeps our culture together hasn't.

We still need examples of those who have gone before us. We still need a family that feeds our soul. We still need a connection to a 'cloud of witnesses.'

And I'm wondering, who is in your cloud? Who is watching over you?

Who has guided you in your journey thus far? Who sets the example that you follow?

You might think that these are questions that only children or youth need to consider.

But I would suggest that its importance never ceases, because if we aren't following someone's example, we are probably setting one for someone else. And we can only lead to the extent that we have been led.

This is indeed powerful stuff.

For example, there have been hundreds of studies that point to the fact that those who are abused are very likely to become abusers themselves.

In part, the rate of recidivism among those who have been incarcerated is high because, while incarcerated, prisoners are surrounded by other prisoners with very few positive examples of how to re-direct their life.

So it isn't only the young who need to choose their friends carefully.

But even if our friends should come up lacking, it's encouraging to know that we can draw inspiration from those who have gone before us.

Your 'cloud of witnesses' can be any of your spiritual sisters and brothers.

In taking this view, I would offer that among my witness cloud are Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Dan Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Jane Addams, Steve Biko, Nelson & Winnie Mandela, Marian Wright Edelman, Bryan Stevenson, Jeremy Courtney and Malala Yousafzai.

While most of these folks have passed on, some have not. Most of these individuals achieved their status as adults, but some, like Malala Yousafzai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize when 17 years of age, were quite young.

What does this 'cloud of witnesses' have in common?

. They were firmly focused on the common good, often at the risk of their own lives
. They helped initiate major social change
. They gave sacrificially, often with little material reward
. They were spiritually grounded
. They were not influenced by their culture's definition of 'success'

I encourage all of us to spend some time asking, who is in your 'cloud of witnesses'? What do they have in common?

And let's regularly ask: Who is watching over you?

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Monday, September 12, 2016

5 Things to Think About

Here's a few things to consider today.

1. Sometimes it's the little things in life that count the most.

It isn't always the big, more obvious, in-your-face sort of events that move us.

More often than not, it's the everyday, subtle things. If you choose to focus on them they can recharge you.

Dew on ornamental grass. The cool, clean, freshness of the morning air at the start of the day. A monarch butterfly lighting on a flower. Rose-hued clouds reflecting the sunset.

A baby smiling at you while you're waiting in the grocery line check-out can stop you in your tracks.

Little moments like these happening throughout the day can refresh us if we let them.

2. You don't have to have it all figured out.

Nobody has it all figured out.

If someone tells you that they do, it's a sure sign that they don't.

Life is complicated. It's intricate. It's delicate.

The Bible says that the things of the Spirit can't be discerned with the natural mind.  (1 Corinthians 2.14).

Do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to realize the limits of logical thinking.

3. Relationship is more important than dogma.

As far as spiritual development goes, relationship is more important than dogma.

One of the few groups that Jesus openly admonished were the religious leaders of his day. He got angry with them because they thought they had God all figured out.

We can learn a lesson from them if we value relationship with God over dogma.

4. You don't know what you don't know. 

This point is related to point No. 3.

It flows from it.

If we refuse to consider anything outside of our own experience or understanding, then we are limiting ourselves.

Simply admitting that we don't know something brings the freedom to learn and grow.

5. God loves you.

Life being what it is, there will be suffering, pain and challenges.

That doesn't mean that God somehow stopped loving you. That doesn't mean that God became angry and decided to punish us. (There's a scripture that reads, "For God loved the world - meaning us - so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him." John 3.15-17)

Most followers of God's Son are good at reminding us of the first two verses of this scripture, without mentioning the final one - the part about Jesus not coming into the world to judge but save.

It is during times of trial that faith can grow if we decide to trust God.

What do YOU think?!!

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diagram from Art & Psychology: https:goo.go/OoNwYB

Monday, September 5, 2016

What's holding you back?

"What's holding you back? What's got you tied down? God wants to burn it off."

That was one of the major points that Pastor Rick Warren mentioned in a recent sermon highlighting Daniel in the fiery furnace.

His point was that when we go through "the fire" of various trials, God is with us. And God is protecting us.

Warren pointed out that Daniel and his two friends' bodies were not singed or otherwise affected by the fire. The only thing that burned up during their time in the flames were the ropes that had been used to tie them up. (Daniel 3.25).

Warren went on to talk about the symbolism of that act.

Yes, the three men were subjected to the fire. But they trusted God. And God totally protected them. Even to the extent of sending an angelic presence to them (Daniel 3.25).

The only thing that was burned were the ropes that had bound Daniel and his friends. And in the end, they were free. In fact, "Not a hair on their heads was singed, and their clothing was not scorched. They didn't even smell of smoke!" (Daniel 3.27).

They were free of what had bound them.

So Warren then asked the question at the top of this post.

And I've been thinking about it ever since.

What's holding you back?

Is it habit? Is it low self-esteem? Is it fear of what others think? Is it insecurity?

What's got you tied down?

Is it the past? Is it disappointment? Is it an inability to see beyond your current situation?

The fiery furnace can be seen as symbolic for any crisis, said Warren. "And sometimes God saves us FROM the crisis; sometimes God saves us THROUGH the crisis, and sometimes God saves us BY the crisis."

Naturally we want to be spared from any crisis or difficult situation, because we look at life primarily through the eyes of our own experience. We automatically think of pain or difficulty as being bad. So anything that "burns" us is a problem.

But Warren pointed out: "Sometimes the problem in your life isn't the problem."

What if we looked at our life and the crisis (or fire) through God's eyes?

Through His love. His mercy. His grace. His wisdom. His understanding.

We have a God who has tremendous resources freely willing to share them with us. God's the One who says if we can't figure it all out, to come to God for wisdom. And God will give it to us freely, without reproach. (James 1.5).

God's Son also encourages us to ask, seek and knock. (Matt. 7.7, Luke 11.9-10)

Towards the end of his sermon Warren summed up by saying "You're the architect of your life."

He emphasized the importance of building on a strong foundation.

With a solid foundation under us, there is a confidence and trust that promotes true freedom. The freedom to go to God and let God take care of whatever is holding us back.

Here's a link to Warren's sermon.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Ben-Hur: A Review

"We have different gods."

That's the bottom line for Judah Ben-Hur and his childhood friend, Messala Severus.

The film Ben-Hur is based, somewhat loosely, on the 19th century novel by Lew Wallace.

Judah (played by Jack Huston) and Messala (played by Toby Kebbell) grow up in Jerusalem but their lives develop in different directions.

Messala leans towards Rome and enlists in the Roman army. Judah stays put and falls in love with another childhood friend, Esther.

Messala eventually returns as a successful officer to his home town, and full of ambition, falsely accuses his friend of treason when a Roman governor comes to visit.

Because of this accusation, Judah is forced into slavery on a Roman ship.

After a few years he becomes free because of a storm that wrecks the ship.

Washed up on shore, Judah is taken under the wings of Sheik Ilderim (played by Morgan Freeman).

During all of this time, Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) is living in Galilee.

Soon, the lives of Judah, Messala, Sheik Ilderim and Esther intersect with Jesus.

Sheik Ilderim challenges the Roman governor to a bet on a chariot race: it will feature Judah and Messala, who has become something of a local favorite.

In a nod to the most well-remembered scene from the 1959 version of the film, director Timur Bekmambetov stages another epic chariot race with the same outcome.

Suffice to say it's worth the price of your movie ticket.

Messala finishes the race defeated and physically broken. Judah vows additional revenge.

Meanwhile Esther, who has been following Jesus, advises Judah that love and forgiveness is the higher way.

Judah isn't convinced until he meets Jesus on the road to Calvary and offers him water. (Several years earlier Jesus had done the same for Judah when he was being taken onto the Roman ship as a slave.)

Witnessing Jesus' crucifixion, forgiving a robber being crucified with him, as well as asking God to forgive those in the crowd who are tormenting him as he dies, has a profound effect on Judah.

He, like his wife Esther, becomes a follower of Jesus.

So instead of returning to the old Hur homestead to finish his revenge by killing Messala, he forgives him.

The story is one of redemption and the power of  love over hatred.

Although the movie does, at times, deviate from the plot of Wallace's novel, it is essentially true to its message.

And the acting is solid.

Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell build a believable bond as friends, making their falling out so painful. Nazanin Boniadi as Esther is also particularly convincing. And Morgan Freeman brings validity to the role of Sheik Ilderim. But Rodrigo Santoro's portrayal of Jesus is outstanding.

In each scene he is in (which isn't that many) Santoro gives us a Jesus who is powerfully unassuming. He doesn't make Biblical pronouncements as much as has conversations. In addition, it is very helpful that Santoro actually looks the part of someone from the middle east.

If you're debating whether to see this version of Ben-Hur, give up the debate and go. You won't be disappointed.

By the way, there's a separate, fascinating story behind the author of the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Lew Wallace was a General in the Civil War. He was involved in a controversy surrounding the Battle at Shiloh. His book was published in 1880 and became one of the best-selling books of the 19th Century.

Here's the movie trailer.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

How to treat 'the stranger' among us

Last week five year old Omran Daqneesh put a face on the Syrian war.

He reminded us that it doesn't matter what the politics of the situation is. What became readily apparent is the human suffering that comes from war.

Omran's face put the cost in terms that every reader could instantly understand.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2015 there were 65.3 million refugees on earth. Half of them were children.

The cause of defending the stranger and foreigner is deeply rooted in most faith traditions, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian. There are plenty of Biblical references for how to treat 'the stranger' among us. Most all of them are calls to treat them with love and kindness.

In Leviticus 25.35 the Israelites are encouraged to treat each other " you would a foreigner and stranger..."

When Job is defending himself from the verbal attack of his friends, who accuse him of being unrighteous, he says, "I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger." (Job 29.16)

Not surprisingly Jesus himself had something to say on the subject. He gave this exhortation in the gospel of Matthew, in a section that's subtitled The Final Judgment, in which Jesus is giving his impression of who will and will not make it into heaven.

"'Then the King (God) will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you invited me into your home..."

When those in the crowd ask Jesus, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger?"
He replied: "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did to me." (Matt. 25.40)

This is one of the few passages in the Bible that gives us a direct glimpse of the bottom line of what being a person of faith is all about.

What if we began to include refugees, our neighbors, those living in poverty, as the 'stranger' among us?

If you need more convincing of our faith-based heritage to reach out to strangers, Paul offers at least two compelling arguments to care.

"You were, at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. " (Ep. 2.12) Paul isn't just speaking to Christians here, He is suggesting that we were all once spiritual refugees without hope.

There is an interesting chapter in Hebrews where Paul lists quite a number of heroes of the faith, including Abraham, Noah, Sarah and Issac.

Paul says that each of these individuals had something in common. "They were strangers and foreigners on the earth." (Heb. 11.13).

And if we still need a gentle prodding of our spirit to get involved, Eugene Peterson offers this beautiful rendition of of why we should care about the refugees (strangers) among us. "Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make your faith visible." (3 John 1.5)

Peterson would be the first to say that the apostle John's words were meant to be an encouragement to people of all faiths.

If you are looking for a way to help refugees, the strangers among us, there are many reputable organizations that are doing great work. Including:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Pre-emptive Love Coalition

World Vision

Doctors Without Borders

Ann Voskamp who wrote A Thousand Thanks, has been an outstanding advocate of supporting the refugees among us.

You are also invited to learn about local efforts aimed at welcoming immigrants through the welcoming initiative.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's a start.

And what about Omran Daqneesh? He was treated successfully and returned to his family. Unfortunately, his ten year old brother Ali, died because of the same airstrike.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Meet Author Ed Cyzewski

Ed Cyzewski regularly writes about Christian living and prayer on his blog, The High Calling and Christian Today. His work has also appeared in Leadership Journal (print) and Christianity Today (online). He’s especially interested in writing about prayer and the unique challenges writers who are Christians face. His work has appeared on HuffPost Live, focusing on evangelicals and politics.

He has a Master of Divinity, but feels more like a beginner in divinity most days. Ed didn’t go into ministry because he’s an introvert. Reading Richard Rohr has helped him accept all of that.

His guest post credits in the publishing industry include posts for leading bloggers such as Rachelle Gardner and Jane Friedman. My post, “Can You Promote a Book without Making Yourself Miserable?” has been featured in Digital Book World and The Passive Voice.

You have a master’s degree in divinity from a seminary. Can you explain where the writing career fit in? Did that come before, after, or during your seminary training? What was/is your motivation for writing?
Writing started out as a side project. I had planned to attend seminary and then go into ministry. After working in a church for a few years, I immediately knew that I wasn’t cut out for ministry. I kept working on writing and tried out the nonprofit sector for a while. However, when my wife went back to graduate school full time for her PhD, I felt freedom to explore writing as my full time job. Having said all of that, the writing that I do on my blog and in most of my books has a pastoral focus. I never stopped sensing the call to be a pastor of some sort, and I find that I do quite a lot of pastoral work through my writing, comments, and emails that I receive from readers.

In your book, A Christian Survival Guide (CSG), you mention the importance of ‘listening prayer.’ Could you elaborate on that? Why is it important to hear God’s voice?
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that prayer depends on us somehow calling down God or grabbing God’s attention. I know a lot of evangelicals are especially anxious about prayer and worry that it just doesn’t work. Listening prayer or contemplative prayer takes us out of the driver’s seat for prayer and helps us rest in the truth of scripture that God loves us. We should still offer prayers of thanksgiving, praise, lament, and petition, but so much of prayer should also involve waiting on the Lord in silence.

I should add that “listening” prayer doesn’t necessarily mean God is actually going to speak to us. Listening prayer is much more about rest and trust. The church’s contemplative prayer teachers warn us against the desire for spiritual epiphanies. Rather, silent or listening prayer teaches us to rest in the trust that God is present to remain open for however God will minister to us—even if that “ministry” is something we can’t quantify.

You also mention a ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ view of the Bible. How does this influence a person’s view of life (world view) and of God?
The impact of this conservative/liberal divide probably depends on your church background. Generally speaking, conservatives believe that the Bible must not only be completely historically accurate, but in many circles it must be historically accurate within extremely stringent guidelines in order to be the Word of God. This has led to Christians engaging in acts such as interpreting the poetic creation story literally or obsessing over the chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah. This results in conservatives potentially missing out on the encounter with the risen Christ that the scriptures speak of, which was the exact problem Jesus addressed in John 5:39. We don’t have to concede that the Bible is erroneous, but we should get our priorities straight and use scripture in order to find the risen Christ. Coming out of a conservative background, I find it far more compelling to let the Bible defend itself in the lives of the people in the church. Does the stuff described in the Bible actually happen in the church? That’s borrowing heavily from John Wimber of the Vineyard, and I suspect that he’s onto something.

Painting with broad brush strokes, liberals may tend to back away from the historicity of the Bible. In some cases this is an overreaction to conservatives who have picked many historical hills to die on. From the conversations I have with my friends who are liberal Christians, they believe that liberal Christians struggle to find the love and compassion of God for them even if they engage in activities that are very loving and compassionate.

In CSG, you pose an interesting question: “What if we thought of reading the Bible as simply having a good time with God?” Could you expand on that?
The Bible first and foremost testifies of God’s great love for us and the way that God restores us through his indwelling Spirit. This is a God who is present with us, loves us, and desires nothing more than for us to love him back—this is why Jesus said that loving God is the first commandment. The Bible had long been something to defend in my conservative background, and I had lost the simplicity of the joy of the Lord.

There’s another question you pose in CSG that’s quite thought provoking. “What would happen if we spoke completely honestly to God about everything we don’t understand or struggle to believe?” What do you see as the results of this type of communication with God?
I think we would come up with theological problems that we cannot solve to our satisfaction or to the satisfaction of others. We may spend years struggling to come up with answers, or we may never find answers. Most importantly, we need to learn to be OK with this. Jesus never promised us all of the answers. He promised to remain with us until the end of the age. Jesus promised us presence, not problem-solving. I wonder if we have a lot of atheists today because we assured them that they could find all of the answers of God in Christianity, when in reality, Christianity promises something far better: God with us.

In another section of CSG you wrote: “Having the right information about the love of God isn’t the same thing as living in that love daily.” Can you offer additional insight? Or an example of this? (On pg. 39 of CSG you quote Frederick Buechner, “Believing in Him (God) is not the same as believing about Him.”)
Perhaps the best way I can answer this is to address the tongue in cheek nature of the book’s title: A Christian Survival Guide. This is a book that aims to clear away the clutter of “Christian Survival,” pushing away all of the things that we are told we need in order for our faith to survive. My goal is to point us to the love of God because that is the only thing that can truly ensure the survival of our faith. It is very possible in my experience to intellectually believe in the love of God and to still fail to believe that God loves me and the people around me.

If you had the opportunity to speak about what you considered the single most important aspect of maintaining a relationship with God and growing in it, what would you say?
I’m sure this will depend on the season of faith for each person, let alone the life stage, as the younger we are, the more we need concrete statements, and the older we get, the more we can handle uncertainty and nuance. However, the thing I keep coming back to after 37 years is the simple practice of believing that God loves me and that I can find my identity in that belovedness before God. I am the sheep the God sought out, I am the lost coin that he turned the house upside down to find, and I am the prodigal son that he will always run out to meet. That is the message of Jesus from the incarnation straight on through to the Resurrection and Ascension. God loves me. God loves you. This is what we must spend our lives untangling, living in, and remembering even when we can think of reasons to suggest otherwise.

What’s your favorite book of the Bible? Or verse? And why?
I used to really love 1 and 2 Corinthians because they were just such a mess, and I think that helped me remember that the early church wasn’t this utopia of spiritual perfection. They really struggled and at times it seemed like they weren’t ever going to make it. However, these days I lean heavily on the Psalms. It makes me wonder why I haven’t leaned on them sooner.

Who are some of your favorite Christian writers? Writers, in general?
I don’t think I have read anyone who can write with the power of Brennan Manning, especially in his book Furious Longing of God. HenrĂ­ Nouwen writes with a spare prose and striking focus that I also find jarring. He packs so much into his tiny books, and they are well worth reading, savoring, and re-reading. It’s basically required for a Christian writer to love Anne Lamott. I mean she invented spiritual memoir as a genre with Traveling Mercies.

You also pose a very thought-provoking question to your readers in CSG. “What do you want out of life?” Would you mind giving us your answer to that question?
It’s such an important question because I think the answer shifts and changes. One moment I am focused on resting in God’s love and the next moment I’m trying to survive financially in a tough situation and then the next our family really needs to spend more time together. It’s one that I return to often because it’s so easy to get caught up in the “tyranny of the urgent.”

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Folks can find me at I’m on Twitter at @edcyzewski and have an author page on Facebook. My new website that offers daily prayer prompts is called Folks who are interested in A Christian Survival Guide may want to check out my book Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life, which I have just re-released on Kindle (and other eBook sites) for just $2.99 (price subject to change).

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