Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"No Te Preocupes" by Jeff Sutherland

“Si me dieras el si!”

Loosely translated this means, “If only she would say yes”. This is the only sentence I learned in my four quarters of Spanish other than, “Donde es el bano?” (Where is the bathroom), and “Yo quiero mas cervasas.” (I need more beer). The latter two, I must admit, were closely connected as part of my college days. The former, however, proved to have much greater importance as it was a sentence I learned while attempting to woo my future bride into marrying me.

Fortunately God in His infinite wisdom convinced my bride to say yes because He knew I needed lots of help staying close to Him. He also knew she needed to be challenged by my foolish ideas.

In addition to my wife, I have also learned much from God through, more than 30 years of toiling in the soil, making sure the grounds and greens at the golf course were in good shape. Recently, I have seen evidence of this as He used my new amigos and fellow workers to teach me and them more about Him and His ways.

I didn’t pay attention in Spanish class but I sure wish I had. I have a desire to communicate with those I work with not just to say, “Be sure and cut the greens on a 10/2 direction,” (referring to the position of those numbers on a clock in relation to the position of the golf green), or, “Watch out, the chainsaw is slipping from the limb toward your head.” By the time my brain comes up with that translation my amigo is comatose and gushing blood and has been transported to the emergency room for an overnight stay for observation.

In fact, it won’t be until I meet him at the hospital the following morning that I will have worked out the translation. There, I proudly announce the warning I should have given the previous day, “Seguir, la motosierra es deslizamiento de la extremidad hacia su cabeza.”

It is difficult trying to communicate a good Christian witness to my fellow workers when we speak different languages and come from different cultures; but I am trying. I have found one way to do this is through first speaking with my actions. For example, they will often ask if I can help them finish raking bunkers or help them move over the weekend. My answer is always, ‘No problem,” a phrase I picked up in Jamaica on our honeymoon.

They picked up on this and I soon found they would ride by me in their golf carts and yell, “No problem!” Sometimes, when I am tired, and having a difficult time pushing a fertilizer spreader or spraying greens for insects in a chemical suit, in the 100 degree heat of the day, they drive by and yell, “No problem,” and laugh hysterically. Not exactly what you might want to hear; but I am finding that God has arranged it so I could spend one on one time with nearly every one of my new friends.

When I need someone to assist me with the spraying, one of them will work alongside me – a captive audience for my communication efforts – while his buddies point and laughingly shout, “No problem!” During our time working together day I would try to learn from them and they would attempt to learn from me. We would see a turtle and I would point and shrug. “Tortuga” my friend would say.

Animals, work and family were easy enough but soon we would move to more complex ideas, concepts and thoughts. On those rare 70 degree low humidity days when the sun rose among the clouds as if God were showing off, we would both look appreciatively at it and reply in unison, “Gracias Dios por un hermoso dia” (Thank you God for a beautiful day).

We would enjoy our days together despite the hard work. Inevitably though, the questions would come. Things like “Why does God allow evil?” “If God is sovereign why are we responsible?” And my favorite, “What is the Trinity?”

Understanding the concept behind the Triune God is one thing. Explaining its mysteries to someone is something else entirely. Doing it with two people who know 50 words in common with only moments at a time for discussion is, in a word, difficult.

Like me, you have probably found that communication can be hard even in the best of situations. Language and culture can certainly become obstacles to overcome; however, we can find common ground to work from.

When the economy began to sour and housing dried up the chants of “No problem!” continued but when layoffs began, unemployment rose, and as the dollar devalued, raises stopped. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the oil flowed into the gulf and onto our beaches. Suddenly, I found these same guys were looking to me for answers. It was time for a new form of encouragement.

It wasn’t enough to be there to help, to support, to talk through problems, encouragement was needed. Real people needed real encouragement because times were tough. Those words came one day through Hispanic friend who spoke the most English – the one who asked the Trinity question.

He realized it is not enough to just say, no problem, because there are many problems. Even if we are working through them, they are still with us everyday waiting to be tackled. He somehow understood not only what I was saying, but more importantly, what I meant. “No te preocupes!” he said. “You have no worries”, he added in translation.

He hit the nail on the head. Those three words moved our conversation from merely talking about things to actually doing something about them. Why is it so different you ask?

No worries, conveys the message that regardless of the problems – and there are many today in your life and mine – I choose to give them to God. It means that I won’t worry about tomorrow because He holds tomorrow and He is in control of my life and all of my problems.

Are there things I could worry about? Certainly, just watch the news for five minutes and any thinking person can find plenty to worry about. Times are looking pretty grim and they appear to be getting worse. But I choose not to spend my time, effort and energy worrying about; rather, I choose to focus on what God has for me to do today: sharing with you, my friends, my amigos, “No te preocupes!” You have no worries except those you choose to hold onto.

No matter what language we speak or what culture we are part of, we can put our faith in Him, knowing that each day He will take care of our needs. He promises He will. Even when problems come, we can live without worries. As the Apostle Peter wrote, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6-7

Now, that’s good news!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Who's Going Out On Halloween

"All Hallow's Even" is upon us or, if you don't speak Olde English, Halloween. October 31 is a day kids love to celebrate, as do many grown-ups. After all, it involves dressing up in a costume and pretending to be someone, or something, else and, then there is candy - lots of candy.

The celebration of Halloween has long been woven into the fabric of our culture. Most Americans can remember selecting, or making, a Halloween costume and going trick-or-treating. Many of us still hold fond memories of bags full of candy being gathered as we ran door to door holding out our container to be filled with those delicious morsels - detesting that one person in the neighborhood who always insisted on giving out "healthy" treats - and at the end of the evening emptying all of it into a big pile to cull out our least favorite brands and then negotiate trades with our fellow trick-or-treaters.

As we got older there were parties to attend, perhaps accompanied by innocent prank or two. But, the reality is, Halloween is about much more than just costumes and candy and it is the other elements, along with its origin, that trouble some people. For example, some pranks/"tricks" were not so innocent and brought out a "dark-side" to Halloween. Particularly notable was during the late 1960s/early '70s when hazardous items began to show up in some of the treats given to children. Another concern that has been raised, particularly by some Christians, is the belief there is a spiritual danger that is inherent to Halloween.

Despite these deterrents, the evidence indicates Halloween continues to be a significant event in American culture. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that Americans will spend 18 percent more on Halloween in 2010 than in 2009. And, this is in the midst of an economic turndown. The NRF estimates include Americans spending an average of $66.28 (Gallup found the average spent on Halloween in 2007 was $52) on Halloween related items.

Recently, I received an email from a national pet store chain offering 50% off "pet" Halloween costumes. If the fact that there is, apparently, a market for Halloween costumes for animals is not disturbing enough - this email offered the same discount on Halloween treats and toys for pets (I find myself conjuring up images of dogs and cats in clown suits and ballerina outfits going door to door with a little plastic pumpkin held in their mouth) and also offered matching costumes for owners, so you can dress like your pet (only in America).

Clearly, one thing Americans are not buying into, as it relates to Halloween, is the idea that one should not participate in it. When Gallup polled Americans in 2006, they found that 64% said they "usually" pass out Halloween treats to children (when you add those who "sometimes" pass out treats, this jumps to 83%); a percentage that has been consistent for several decades. For example, a 1999 poll, Gallup found 69 percent of Americans planned to give out Halloween treats - the exact same percentage found in a 1985 ABC/Washington Post poll.

From the amounts being spent on Halloween, it would appear that Americans have worked out any anxieties they may have had about hazardous materials being placed in the treats. But, what about the religious objections to Halloween - how strongly held are those?

When Gallup polled Americans about this in 2006, they found that only 11 percent objected to Halloween based on religious beliefs. Among those who regularly attend church services, including Evangelicals, 27% objected. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Christians, do not oppose the activities traditionally associated with Halloween.

As in the past, this year will find many, including Christians, who hold or attend Halloween parties and/or take their children trick-or-treating and many Churches will hold festivals/celebrations as an alternative for Halloween. However, while these will typically involve children in costumes and the distribution of candy -lots of candy - Churches tend not to place the "Halloween" label on them; preferring to give them more acceptable titles, such as, "Fall Festivals". However, the reality is, these events simply move the features most often associated with Halloween on to the Church property - "a rose by any other name", its detractors would claim..

Those who oppose Halloween as being inherently wicked and evil, naturally find any celebration of Halloween by a Christian as reprehensible. They would say, "The celebration is rooted in occultism, is a Pagan holiday celebrated by witches, and should be avoided by Christians".

Christians who participate in Halloween celebrations counter, "It is all just in fun and no spiritual connection is being made". Churches with "Fall Festivals" defend them as being an appropriate alternative and an opportunity to make a positive connection with those in their community who attend the event. "People are going to celebrate this day so why not try to capture it in a positive way", they might argue.

As is often true when Christians disagree over cultural influences and practices, factions develop over whether or not one should be involved in those things associated with the celebration of Halloween. As is also true, in many cases, each side has valid points to offer.

Is there an occult, or pagan, dimension to the origins of Halloween? Certainly, there is. It is commonly agreed that, what we recognize as Halloween, has its roots in ancient Britain in the Celtic celebration of the Festival of Samhain, referring to the end of summer. The pagan Celts believed that each year at the time of Samhain the border between this world and the spirit world became thin enough that spirits could pass through and enter this world.

Celts would prepare a place in their homes to welcome deceased relatives whom they believed were good spirits and might visit them from the other side. Some, in order to keep evil spirits from also coming into their homes, appear to have adopted the custom of wearing of masks and costumes to confuse those that were evil.

Naturally, as with any good celebration, Samhain also included food, which is integral to modern-day Halloween. Through the years the other elements and traditions of Halloween that are practiced today, such as jack-o-lanterns; bobbing for apples, etc. would be added. Undeniably, many of them would also have their roots in Paganism, or the occult.

The Church has long recognized this. And, just as today, many in the Church sought alternatives, or tried to capture the day in a different way. Long before "Fall Festivals" the Church tried to give a more Christian emphasis to Halloween. In fact, the Church's influence can be found in the very name itself, a contraction of Hallow (Holy) E'en (Evening), which is what the day before All Saints Day - a time to remember faithful Christians of the past - was called. Protestants would later shift the emphasis from celebrating Halloween on October 31 to the celebration of Reformation Day, in recognition of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on that same date.

While Halloween has always had some association with the supernatural - be it ghosts and goblins, or witches - it is especially true in modern times. There has been a growing interest in Wicca (witchcraft) in recent decades and those who practice Wicca generally embrace Halloween as one of their high, holy days. Some point to this as clear and undeniable evidence of a religious/spiritual dimension to Halloween.

The debate as to whether Christians should participate in Halloween, or not; the argument as to whether it is an inherently evil day, or simply a secular celebration, is nothing new. What does seem new is that it has become a much more embittered battle. All too often, which side one chooses seems to set the tone as to whether or not those of the opposing viewpoint will accept you as a true follower of Christ - something that is, unfortunately, true of many debates within the Church today. However, where one stands on this issue is not nearly as important as the effectiveness and humility with which we are able to discuss our position with those who disagree.

Whether we want it to be or not, there is no denying that Halloween is one of our nation's most popular celebrations. And despite the evidence of an association with the supernatural and it's identification with Wicca, it is clear that most Christians and non-Christians do not have a problem with it and view it as simply a celebration of the imagination. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not associate it with the supernatural; they do not celebrate it as a part of the practice of Wicca. That's reality. It seems to me that our goal should not be to convince them otherwise but to focus on creatively engaging them with the gospel.

I guess when it comes right down to it, I am Halloween-neutral. I can see good points in both sides of the argument. I think it is good to know the background of Halloween - it is certainly interesting. I agree that Christians should not involve themselves in occultism, or pagan ritual. But, if that is our message it is severely lacking. Unfortunately, this is becoming another case of the culture hearing more about what Christians are against, than what we are for.

No matter how you and I feel about Halloween, the culture is telling us they want candy. When they come to my door to trick-or-treat, I can lecture them on the ills of candy, or I can take care of their sweet tooth. In the same way, I can offer something much more satisfying and substantial, as well - the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ.

Whether you should gain this opportunity by giving candy at your door, inviting a friend to a Church fall festival, or convincing someone Halloween is pagan, is not my call. That's between you and the Lord. When it gets right down to it, perhaps the best thing I can do is to try and be more gracious and encouraging with fellow believers as they work through this issue and offer the hope of the gospel to those who do not know Christ.

We would do well to remember that, all too often, the ones who get lost in Christians debating methodologies are "the lost" - those who need to hear the gospel. Now, when that happens, it is indeed a sad trick.

What do you think? Email your comments to:


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Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost in Lost

Okay, I admit it – I got sucked into Lost. A couple of years ago I watched a few episodes from the first season and got hooked. I went out and bought all the seasons on DVD and immersed myself in the storyline preparing for the new season that year.

It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense. It was terrific storytelling and we were told the writers had it all mapped out. In fact, it was so well mapped out, we were led to believe, that the season of the writer’s strike, they were upset that some of the plot development from that season would not get in, or would be rushed.

This gave me comfort. So, I could live with my confusion. After all, I knew one day it would all fall into place – the writers had it all plotted out. One day all would be revealed and I would be able to say, “So, that’s why the polar bear was there; that’s where the smoke monster came from.”

So, here I sit after the series finale – my hopes dashed. It turns out it was all a sham. There are no real answers; in fact, it doesn’t appear there was a “real” story. It seemed left open to my, yours, their, interpretation as to what it all meant.

We are left to debate what the smoke monster represented, why the polar bear was there, whether or not anyone even survived the crash. For that matter, was there even a crash at all; or was this just a group of the dearly departed (and we’re not talking airline departure, but deceased) sitting around collectively creating an imaginary plane crash so they could create an imaginary island, ultimately realizing they were all dead so they could move on to the next point?

In the end, this was just an overly drawn out storyline (creatively presented, though it was) to get to a spiritual punch line, rooted in Eastern religions. The spiritual undertones were always there. After all, the “Dharma Initiative” is clearly drawn from Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I am not surprised that the finale would have spiritual dimensions. What surprised me is that the writers decided to wrap everything up in a neat little far eastern worldview that really didn’t say anything.

Among the final scenes in the Church, Jack stands by his father’s casket and behind him is a stained glass window. Each pane contains the symbol of a world religion. The lower left pane is a wheel with spokes (like a wagon wheel), a symbol commonly used by new agers to explain that all religions lead to the same God. The hub of the wheel represents God and the spokes are the various religions. This, it appears, was the secret of Lost.

Recent polling indicates that about 25% of Americans hold some version of this view of religion and God. As such, there are probably quite a few folks who are perfectly happy with the way it all turned out. However, for this viewer, the conclusion was as senseless as the spiritual theories it espoused.

When Seinfeld premiered, we were told it was a story about nothing and we bought into it and enjoyed the ride. Perhaps, if the Lost creators had just told us up front this was a story about nothing I would not feel so much like I had been savoring over a menu filled with wonderful meals, only to be told the kitchen is closed. In such a case, I might be left to try and concoct my own meal with the ingredients available to me, as I have been left to do with Lost.

In the end I must try and piece it all together myself, as must you. No doubt we will draw different meanings and interpretations of the series. And, from the show’s creators’ perspective, I am sure that is okay. After all, the eastern spirituality espoused in the show holds that there are no absolute truths. You have your truth and I have mine.

Make sense? Of course not.

So, in the final analysis we have a group of characters, who may never have been alive at any point in the series, living in an illusionary world of their own making until such time as they can find one another and come to the collective understanding they are all, in fact dead. Upon reaching such point they can then move on with their…er, life – now my head is really spinning – or, next life (can you spell REINCARNATION).

If you haven’t been watching Lost this probably didn’t make any sense to you. Don’t worry, I watched every single episode and, as you can tell, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

For those of you who enjoyed it and love the ending, I am glad for you. As for me, while the journey was quite enjoyable, upon reaching the destination it turned out to be a road that should have been less traveled. Well, that's my truth anyway.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Top Ten Shifts in Faith Beliefs

It is not unusual for someone to ask me what I think are the biggest or most important shifts in faith-beliefs that have occurred in recent years. Answering this question usually leads to an interesting discussion about where we are as a society as regards religious, or “spiritual”, issues. Following is my “Top Ten” list for your consideration and discussion.

1. God doesn’t exist/isn’t real/is dead.
2. There are many gods, or perhaps one God who expresses himself, or itself in many different forms.
3. Many/all religions lead to eternal life, or to the same God – they just have different understandings of who, or what, God is.
4. All religions, basically, teach the same truths, perhaps, with a little variation.
5. The Bible is not God’s word but just another book.
6. Jesus was a great teacher or prophet, but he was not God in the flesh.
7. The universe and man came about through evolution.
8. When a person dies they come back again as another person, or thing, through reincarnation.
9. Man can save himself, or participates in his salvation through good works.
10. There are no absolute truths

If you are interested in reading the statistics behind this list, read our article, Top Ten Spiritual Truth-Shifts.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Pray or Not to Pray by Jeff Sutherland

Thursday May 6 marks one of the most controversial days in the history of our country. Doubtful our founding fathers would believe a National Day of Prayer could cause such division among us.

Our first President George Washington pleaded with the colonists to pray for Congress as they established our Constitution. At that writing, Thomas Jefferson was instrumental yet some would say he actually began the argument by writing to a group of Baptists agreeing with them that a separation of civil government from concerns of religious doctrine and practice were important. Jefferson writes: "...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

And the battle has raged ever since 1802. No one who reads the Federalist Papers, our Constitution, and other founding documents with a critical eye would say George Washington and the “Freedom from Religion” people think the same thing. In 1776 the fear was that our new government would start a ‘church of America’ forcing the colonists to accept the government’s way of worship.

That is one hundred eighty degrees from what the National Day of Prayer was meant to be. The National Day of Prayer was signed into law by Harry Truman in 1952 and Ronald Reagan made the day a permanent annual event on the first Thursday in May in 1988. Last year President Obama used the day to say, “America is no longer a Christian nation.”

This year the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the America free thought organization filed a lawsuit in Madison Wisconsin arguing the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional and federal judge Barbara Crabb agreed saying "It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," adding in a CBS news interview, the Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which bans the creation of a "law respecting an establishment of religion" in the Constitution. She backtracked adding, there was no law preventing Americans from praying or organizing non-governmental days of prayer, and wrote this: "I understand that many may disagree with that conclusion and some may even view it as a criticism of prayer or those who pray. That is unfortunate. A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant or undeserving of dissemination." View CBS News Story

Crabb also wrote, "it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray."

Interestingly, according to many church by-laws and beliefs of many Baptists and other denominations today, they agree wholeheartedly with the Freedom From Religion Organization and Judge Crabb.

While at first glance it seems Thomas Jefferson and the first colonial Baptists would agree with the Freedom From Religion Organization, Judge Crabb. Many of today’s Americans including church members say God and government should never mix. Indeed the atheists and agnostics who formed Freedom From Religion believe that religion should not be tolerated in any manner in our society. According to one of their surveys, 22% of 22,000 freshman college students said their preference was ‘no religion’. Roman Catholic was the only higher answer at 26%. So maybe Obama was right in saying America is indeed no longer a Christian nation.

This year’s National Day of Prayer is to be held at the Pentagon where there was a call to invite Franklin Graham, honorary chairman for the National Day of Prayer and son of evangelist Billy Graham. Protests started from Muslim and other Pentagon workers stemming from Graham’s statements following 9/11 that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion. Adding that "I am not on a crusade against Muslims. I love the Muslim people . . . I want them to know that they don't have to die in a car bomb, don't have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God. But it's through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone."

In an interview on Fox News with Gretchen Carlson, Graham spoke openly about his comments on Islam. He made it clear he had nothing against the Muslim people but he did have a point to make with them. He said you don’t have to die in a car bomb or do any other ‘heroic’ suicide. In the Islamic faith you have to be good enough to die or kill others of a different faith to be assured your place in heaven but in Christianity it is very different. In fact it is the only religion where things are the other way around. God sent His perfect Son to die so you, by believing, can be in relationship with Him. You can’t be good enough. He was.

The National Day of Prayer will happen this year. The festivities will be held at the Pentagon but the speakers will be Muslim, Buddhists and basically anyone else except Evangelical Christians, for they are different. Like Franklin Graham, they are cast as being intolerant of others beliefs; claiming that Jesus Christ is the only truth, the only way to heaven. Imagine!

On this National Day of Prayer, say a prayer for our leaders who make decisions for us that they may look to Him for guidance. Pray for our military as they fight for the freedom of, both those who believe in God and those in Madison Wisconsin who believe there should be no religion. Pray for our churches to boldly make a difference in their communities and with their members, growing them to reach out. Pray for our judges who decide how the laws should be interpreted that they know the true Judge and His ways. Pray for our ministries like Crosswinds. They know the power of those prayers.