Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Martin Luther King (Page 2 of 3)

American Sniper kills the myth of redemptive violence

americanjpg-bc1aa7War is hell. So said American soldier William Sherman, during the American Civil War. And this is exactly what we see in American Sniper, the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in US military history.

I’ve recently been talking with a friend about events like Anzac Day and how it is viewed by different people. I have always had mixed feelings about what is seen by many to be Australia’s national day, whereas my friend, who had a relative who fought at Gallipoli, is able to resonate much more than me with what Anzac Day is about.

In a similar way, this movie does not glorify the American assault on Iraq following the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. It does however tell the story of the effect that war has on ordinary people who simply want to do their best for their country. Continue reading

Life is a choice

german-shepherds-watching-catLife is a choice.

We find that this is true especially when we struggle. It is through struggle that character can grow. In fact I would say that it is only in struggle that character can grow. We can choose to rise above our troubles or decide to be overcome by them. Rising above them doesn’t mean ignoring them and pushing them asunder. It means moving forward regardless of the storms of life that are swirling all around us.

One of my great heroes, and probably the most courageous person I have ever known of (apart from Jesus, who chose to go to the cross knowing full well what it would cost) is Martin Luther King. Check out this quote from King from his sermon, Antidotes for fear (Don’t worry about the gender-specific language. It was written in the language of the day. Of course this quote applies equally to women as to men):

“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

Often when trouble strikes, we can feel overwhelmed, even paralysed, by fear. It has certainly happened to me. What I have found is that it is through the growing understanding that we are always ok in God’s sight, and slowly coming to the realisation that we can no longer deny God’s unconditional love for us, that we gain the courage to face whatever is in front of us. This can take years, and in reality, is never fully completed until the day we pass from this earth.

Courage is not the absence of fear though; it is admitting that you might be scared sh*tless but moving forward anyway. That’s where it is a choice. There is nothing wrong with being scared; it is when we allow our fears to overcome us that we never deal with the challenges we are facing.

One of the many examples of Dr King’s courage in the face of adversity is captured in this quote from a sermon he wrote while in jail for civil disobedience:

“Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

This is what love does, love born of the courage to face fear, look it full in the face and say, like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “you shall not pass!”.

Life is a choice. God give me the courage to face it on its terms.

Pain as a catalyst for change – by Ian Grimwood

change-e1411088639983Here is another insightful post from Ian Grimwood. This one is on pain as a catalyst for change. It reminds me of a few things:

  • As I realised when my role at World Vision was made redundant, sometimes your life has to be disrupted before you can move forward.
  • Richard Rohr says that until we see that our current way of living isn’t working, we will never change (much like Ian’s point that change happens when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change).
  • Pain is a gift. We just need to choose to see it that way. And that’s when we can see the truth of Romans 8:28 in our lives.
  • Martin Luther King talked about redemptive suffering. Our suffering is never meaningless, despite it often feeling that way.

Coming alive and staying alive

Unfinished-Excerpt-2-Feature-494x196There has been a lot written recently about finding God’s calling on your life. It generally centres around finding out what makes you come alive and then going out and doing it. The common line is that where your gifts and the world’s needs collide, there lies your calling.

Now there is nothing wrong with that idea. God has clearly given everyone certain gifts, and it is our responsibility to use them for the good of the world. This is where meaning and purpose in our lives is found. When we are using our gifts and talents for the good of the world, we are contributing to things eternal. I have been affirmed by different people that I have a gift in writing. If I then use that gift for the purpose of furthering my own ego (“gee, he’s a great writer isn’t he”) then it is not furthering the common good (although God could still use it), and it won’t satisfy.

There is something that doesn’t sit right with me though about all the talk of finding God’s calling and doing what makes you come alive. The idea of doing what makes you come alive is, I think, largely a Western one. It is an idea born of privilege. Millions of people don’t have the opportunity to do what makes them come alive because they’re trying to stay alive. For the majority of the world, finding God’s call on their lives never comes to mind. Martin Luther King made this point when he said that for those stuck in the mire of poverty, “it is the struggle to have clean water, breathe clean air and have clean energy, to eat fresh, untainted food from organic soil; to live in harmony with the earth and live in peace with their neighbours; to actualise their God-given potential to make the world a better place.”

What this does is give us greater responsibility to use our gifts wisely. Luke 12:48 says that for those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been given much in the Western world. Millions of us in the West have the opportunity in our lives to live out our full potential. That’s why I think one of the saddest things in life is wasted talent; people who have such potential but get to the end of their lives never having realised it. I remember a pastor of mine talking years ago about a conversation he had with an elderly man. The man was talking to my pastor about the blink of an eye that our life is in the scheme of existence. He described it as waking up one morning and you’re 65 years old, and your life has gone just like the click of your fingers.

When you’re young you don’t think about such things. And many of us spend our whole lives letting ourselves be distracted by the constant entertainment served up to us. As Walter Brueggemann says so powerfully in The Prophetic Imagination, we are so satiated that we don’t realise we are wasting our lives riding down a river of purposelessness.

So what is the best way we can discern what our call is, apart from realising what your gifts are and using them to meet the needs of a broken world? Rich Stearns, President of World Vision US, describes it well in his recent book, Unfinished. Here is some of what he says: Continue reading

What Will People Say at Your Funeral? – updated

martin-luther-king-funeral-processionSpeaking to some family members on the weekend, one of them spoke about their brother who had just recovered from prostate cancer. We also talked about someone else in their 50s who had recently succumbed to breast cancer and how she left behind a husband and children who were traumatised by it all.

The conversation turned then to how life catches up with all of us. We all go the same way in the end. From dust we arose and to dust we return. It made me think about what sort of person I want to be remembered as. It also made me think about what sort of society we want to have for those who come after us.

As I think about our comfort, complacency and apathy, particularly about how much we grumble in this country despite being the richest country in the world, I think of the movie The Hunger Games. In that story, people are so satiated that they have lost all sense of morality and sense of compassion for others. They happily go to the games and have no idea what is happening to the disadvantaged in their own city.

The same is true of us. The idea of leaving a legacy in our lives seems a distant memory, and not even a memory for most of us. We are so busy trying to be happy in our lives that very few of us think about what sort of world we want to leave our children. If asked, most people would say that of course they want to leave a better world for those who come next. But we don’t stop to ponder anymore. We have forgotten what it’s like to take time to stop and smell the roses.

Are we so consumed with pleasure that we have forgotten what gave us the good life in the first place? Do we really believe that there is any value in taking time to stop and think and ponder about life? Or do we blindly and unthinkingly accept the mantra that what really matters is the economy, that the key to having a good society is having a strong economy? I suspect most of us do when it all boils down to it.

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Reflections on 9/11 – Pain as a Gift

cross over world trade center in rubbleThis is the third and final of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here and the second is here.

Christian faith is about hope, that goodness really does prevail. As Martin Luther King said, the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. I have to ask myself, do I really want life? Or do I want a counterfeit that promises the world but leaves me more empty than before?

It has been said by many people that God is more interested in our character than our comfort. In Wrecked, Jeff Goins writes:

“People who allow their hearts to be broken for the brokenness in the world have something that most of us don’t. Compassion. Selflessness. Freedom. They “get it” in ways that most of us would find envious. There is a distinct clarity of purpose and calling in their lives that is astounding. In the face of suffering, they somehow have learned to shed their narcissism in exchange for a more meaningful life. It is incredibly brave and inspiring.”

He continues by talking about the necessity of pain if we are to really live:

“We cannot become who we are without going through pain. And who can do such a thing without trusting the struggle is worth it? Or that the results will be good? We must endeavour to be wrecked with a deep, reckless faith that confounds the world and maybe even puzzles us at times. It will be worth it.”

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Reflections on 9/11 – Happiness and Hope

hope

This is the second of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here.

Study after study has shown that money does not make us happy, and, in Australian society, once you own more than about $100,000 any amount over that won’t increase your happiness. Yet despite this we are still offered, and we still enter, lotto draws that offer such incredible amounts of money, believing that ‘life could be a dream.’ And studies show that lotto draws are becoming more popular among Australians. If this is not addiction then I don’t know what is.

The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘we realised were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ For the addict, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The thing we are doing over and over is trying to get rich, and the different result we are expecting – which goes against all the evidence – is that it will be different for us. If our culture was in a 12 Step program, we wouldn’t be at Step 1, which is the acknowledgment that we have a problem. We are a culture in denial. As well as the fact that study after study shows that money doesn’t make us happy, we now know that since the end of the Second World War, the rate of depression in Western countries has risen tenfold. Materially we are the richest people in the history of humanity, and we have ten times the rate of depression to show for it.

But as I mentioned above, don’t misunderstand this. This is about finding life, not making us all feel guilty and miserable. Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness. It’s about a better way, a way that is life-giving, but not the way we are told is life-giving. The way that really is life-giving often feels like the way to unhappiness and death.

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Reflections on 9/11 – The Last Days of Mohamed Atta

Over the next 3 days I will be reflecting on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The events of that terrible day reveal some fascinating insights into our Western contradictions, hope, happiness and what really matters in life. Today’s post is called ‘The Last Days of Mohamed Atta’ (Atta was of course one of the hijackers). 

In his latest book, The Road Trip that Changed the World, Mark Sayers talks about the contradictions we all live with. He uses the very revealing example of the 9/11 hijackers and their exploits in the days before they slammed planes into icons of what they saw as Western decadence. Here is what Sayers says:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/40927169 ]

The extraordinary actions of the hijackers highlights for me, not just the contradictions of our lives, but the confusion and deception we all buy into, whether or not we are aware of them (and mostly I don’t think we are aware).

All humans want to be happy. To quote an unlikely source – current Collingwood AFL coach Nathan Buckley – we all want to feel good. And our culture drums the message into us that a certain type of lifestyle will bring us the happiness we all crave. As M. Scott Peck said, we are people of the lie. In this case it is the lie that possessions will fill the void within.

In The Road Trip that Changed the World, Sayers goes on to talk about the consumer Christianity which has become so dominant in The US and in Australia. Relevant Magazine recently had an article questioning whether or not we would still follow Jesus if your life didn’t get any better. Here is a penetrating quote from the article:

“If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.” This is the subtle promise of much Christianity today. If it is not straight out prosperity teaching, where the idea is that God has a plan for you to be fabulously rich and beautiful, then it is something more subtle where the idea is that God will ‘bless’ you when you serve him. And ‘blessing’ implies that things will go well for you.”

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Thoughts on the American psyche

My wife and I recently returned from spending some time in the United States. Having been there a few times now, and having some family over there, I have decided to pen my thoughts on this country of contrasts, of opportunity and of deprivation.

We were in Florida on the 4th of July, and we spent the evening with a few hundred other people watching the fireworks and celebrations. As I watched and took on the reactions of the people, I was impressed by how much Americans love their country, and by how genuinely patriotic they are. While I do believe that Americans go over the top with their sense of patriotism, there is a reason for it, and on the other hand, I don’t think Australia goes far enough with it. And frankly I am sick of people who constantly bag America for this and other reasons when they have probably never even been there. It is easy to be judgmental from afar.

Americans really believe they are the greatest country in the world, not necessarily in the sense of being superior (though of course there are indeed many Americans who believe their country is superior than others; and that attitude is not just limited to those who believe that America is somehow God’s promised land), but in the opportunities they have in this country. Freedom is everything in this land; it is what has made it great. But it has also led to an arrogance that will one day be its downfall. For example, for Barack Obama to say, in response to the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, that “no matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country” was the height of American hubris.

But despite the claims of freedom that this country is built on, I am convinced that Australia has more freedom than the US. Our health system is not out of reach for millions of our citizens, we do not live in nearly as much fear of a major terrorist attack on our shores, and our level of poverty is generally not as high as in many places in the US.

As I watched the fireworks and was impressed by the love of Americans for their country, I was equally impressed by the view that America does not have a right to impose itself on the rest of the world. No country, however powerful, has that right.

Martin Luther King once made the point that a true patriot is one who loves their country enough to criticise it. He was responding to those who said his criticism of America came out of a hatred of its ideals. King though, loved his country, and wanted it to be the best it could be, to live out its ideals of equality and freedom for all. His criticism did not come out of any resentment or an attitude of judgmentalism or superiority. It came out of a dream he had for his country.

Any criticism must come out of a motivation of love. Otherwise it is tainted with self-interest. I tend to think that there will be many people gloating over the problems America is facing at the moment, looking forward to the decline of the American empire. I have to admit I struggle win that myself at times, but it is not the way of Jesus.

It is easy to be seduced by America and the very consumer culture that is the source of many of its problems at present. The ideal of freedom of enterprise, private ownership of property and individual opportunity are the unshakable bottom lines of this nation, and they have provided both opportunity and heavy costs over the years.

My relationship with America is one of both love and anger (as opposed to hatred; I don’t believe in hatred). Having a brother who has lived there for half his life, and having been there myself a few times, I see both sides of what, in my limited opinion, is both good and bad about this country.

One of the privileges we had while in the US recently was watching in person the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch of the shuttle. The word ‘awesome’ is bandied around everywhere these day to describe things which are really incredibly mundane. But watching this live was, for me, truly awesome. To watch as people are blasted into space was to realise, as my brother who was with me at the time said, that this is the very frontier of exploration. It was estimated that 750,000 people lined up on the Florida coast that July morning. It was a sight to behold, seeing the enormity of what a country can do in terms of technology. No wonder the patriotism on that day was so strong.

It must always be remembered though that, while this technological brilliance of America has certainly driven its innovation, it has been at the expense of social safety nets for the millions of less fortunate and less free, those who miss out because of billions of dollars spent on the space program.

Perhaps my response to the shuttle launch was also linked with my thoughts on the cultural hegemony of this nation. When we were in America, it hit me about how much we are infiltrated by American culture through television. It is so constant that we aren’t even aware of it. This cultural hegemony is largely what makes America so powerful. Through television, American culture has for years been exported around the world. The idea of American freedom and the American way of life has been shown to billions around the world, non-stop, 24/7, and, quite simply, it is part of our identity. That is why, when many people visit certain parts of the US, it feels familiar, they feel like they know the place; there is a level of comfort with the surroundings. Such familiarity also gives America more power. Image and perception is everything, and the America that is exported around the world is the America of Hollywood and dreams, whereas the other side of America is often hidden, for instance the side that has 46 million of its citizens living in poverty. This is one example of the lack of liberty that many people experience in the land of the free.

A final word must be taken from the Gospels. America was founded on the belief of many that they were a nation blessed by God, a light on a hill. And the constant refrain we hear from American Presidents at the end of every speech is ‘God bless the United States of America’. Well, my word toAmericais “be careful what you pray for.” The God in whom the Pilgrim Fathers placed their faith said “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The way of Jesus is inevitably the way of suffering. And this is the tension with which America lives. It is truly a remarkable nation, one that has given much good to the world, but it is also one which has inflicted untold suffering on innocent millions in the name of the very freedom which it proclaims to the world.

The psyche of America is indeed a wounded one. Today of all days the nation will be feeling this. The Founding Fathers seemed to have great motivations for the new country, but it has been greatly misguided over the years, leading to equally misguided hatred on the part of those who would destroy it.

On the statue of Liberty in New York harbour, the sign proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. And in Matthew 25 when the nations are brought together, it will be those who treated these very people as Christ did who will go into the glory set aside for them. Will America heed the call? On this day when many are mourning, may God truly bless the United States of America.

Tiredness, frustration, and trust

In the U2 song, Peace on Earth, Bono sings of his frustration about our constant talk of peace without it ever really happening. Peace, peace, when there is no peace is the cry of the prophet he is echoing. All around we see power corrupting and people in power getting their way at the expense of those with no power. Over and over again it happens.

I have no trust in political and economic systems. Ultimately I trust more in Jesus, whose power did not corrupt and through whom our desires for power are redeemed. John Smith asked a question many years ago which is a challenge for everyone who claims to be a serious follower of Jesus. The question is this: who are your friends and who are your enemies? The point he was making is that, when you look at the life of Jesus, his friends were overwhelmingly the powerless, the marginalised and the oppressed. And his enemies were overwhelmingly the rich, the powerful and the oppressors. If our friends and enemies are the same type of people who Jesus had as friends and enemies, then chances are that we are following Him and can claim the name ‘Christian’. If our friends are the rich and powerful, and our enemies are the poor and powerless, then it is pretty much certain that you are not following Jesus and cannot legitimately call yourself a Christian. Harsh words, but I defy anyone to tell me that what I am saying is not biblical.

Another question that John Smith has asked is along similar lines. It is a study of Jesus’ encounters with the powerful and the powerless, and whether they were positive or negative encounters. Not surprisingly with Jesus, his encounters with the poor and powerless were overwhelmingly positive, whilst his encounters with the rich and powerful were overwhelmingly negative. Jesus was constantly in trouble with the authorities, and at the same time, the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

Until the day Jesus returns there will be injustice and abuse of power in this world. Humanity is too sick to change itself on its own. Martin Luther King knew this. On the day that President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, King told his wife that the same would happen to him one day, because society is too sick to know any better. Tragically, this great prophet of the 20th century was right, cut down himself only five years later, one more person who stood up for the powerless being silenced in the ultimate manner.

I feel a deep sadness and frustration when I see the powerful abuse their power at the expense of the powerless. A clearly guilty white collar worker gets off because he can afford the best lawyers; executives give themselves huge bonuses while they decry any request for a pay rise by those lower down as dangerous for the economy, and politicians share the perks of office while their constituents struggle each day to make ends meet.

Who can we believe in any more? Who is trustworthy? And here is where I point the finger at myself. Am I trustworthy? Do I abuse my power to get what I want at the expense of those who don’t have the resources that I do?

It is at the times when I hear of power being abused that my faith in Jesus is strengthened. He is the only one who is ultimately trustworthy; He walked his talk, he lived out the courage of his convictions, and when abused himself, he continued to show the way of love. In him is our trust ultimately not misplaced. In him is our only salvation.

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