Christians have an important role to play in contending that no human life is "devoid of value." We can do so through courageous protest, as happened in Germany, as well, as in compassionate care for the most vulnerable members of society, as Mother Teresa did. In both approaches theology - what one believes about God and human life - matters. The world desperately needs that good news.
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Capitalism rules worldwide, and a society whose economic fabric depends on constant growth requires that its citizens have ever-expanding needs and wants... In the West, it will take one with soul force equal to Gandhi's to change the prevailing dogma of ever increasing GNP. We may be forced to change our profligate ways some day, when the soil is depleted, the aquifers drained, the icecaps melted, and all the oil wells pumped dry. But the crisis will wait another fifty years or so; we'll leave those problems to a generation yet unborn.
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John Wesley taught that the gospel of Christ involved more than saving souls. It should have an impact on all of society, and his followers worked to accomplish just that. They were dispensing grace to the broader world, and in the process their spirit helped change a nation, saving it from the revolutionary chaos that had spread across Europe.
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Christians fail to communicate to others because we ignore basic principles in relationship. When we make condescending judgments or proclaim lofty words that don't translate into action, or simply speak without first listening, we fail to love - and thus deter a thirsty world from Living Water. The good news about God's grace goes unheard.
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Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
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Faith is not simply a private matter, or something we practice once a week at church. Rather, it should have a contagious effect on the broader world. Jesus used these images to illustrate His kingdom.: a sprinkle of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, a pinch of salt preserving a slab of meat, the smallest seed in the garden growing into a great tree in which birds of the air come to nest.
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God reproduces and lives out His image in millions of ordinary people like us. It is a supreme mystery. We are called to bear that image as a Body because any one of us taken individually would present an incomplete image, one partly false and always distorted, like a single glass chip hacked from a mirror. But collectively, in all our diversity, we can come together as a community of believers to restore the image of God in the world.
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The church works best not as a power center, rather as a countercultural community - in the world but not of it - that shows others how to live the most fulfilled and meaningful life on earth. In modern society that means rejecting the false gods of independence, success, and pleasure and replacing them with love for God and neighbor.
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Our confused society badly needs a community of contrast, a counterculture of ordinary pilgrims who insist living a different way. Unlike popular culture, we will lavish attention on the least "deserving" in direct opposition to our celebrity culture's emphasis on success, wealth, and beauty.
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Someone asked the Swiss physician & author Paul Tournier how he helped his patients get rid of their fears. He replied, 'I don't. Everything that's worthwhile in life is scary. Choosing a school, choosing a career, getting married, having kids--all those things are scary. If it is not fearful, it is not worthwhile.'
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The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down.
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If we insist on visible proofs from God, we may well prepare the way for a permanent state of disappointment. True faith does not so much attempt to manipulate God to do our will as it does to position us to do his will. As I searched through the Bible for models of great faith, I was struck by how few saints experienced anything like Job's dramatic encounter with God. The rest responded to the hiddenness not by demanding that he show himself, but by going ahead and believing him though he stayed hidden.
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The camera follows a young woman as she makes her way through the stands to an area set aside for repentance and conversion. But Jesus' stories imply that far more may be going on out there: beyond that stadium scene, in a place concealed from all camera lenses, a great party has erupted, a gigantic celebration in the unseen world.
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Followers of Jesus stake their claim on the firm belief that God will one day heal the planet of pain and death. Until that day arrives, the case against God must rely on incomplete evidence. We cannot really reconcile our pain-wracked world with a loving God because what we experience now is not the same as what God intends. Jesus himself prayed that God's will "be done, on earth as it is in heaven," a prayer that will not be fully answered until evil and suffering are finally defeated.
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As I look around on Sunday morning at the people populating the pews, I see the risk that God has assumed. For whatever reason, God now reveals himself in the world not through a pillar of smoke and fire, not even through the physical body of his Son in Galilee, but through the mongrel collection that comprises my local church and every other such gathering in God's name. (p. 68, Church: Why Bother?)
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If prayer stands as the place where God and human beings meet, then I must learn about prayer. Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn't act the way we want God to, and why I don't act the way God wants me to. Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge.
I interviewed ordinary people about prayer. Typically, the results went like this: Is Prayer important to you? Oh, yes. How often to you pray? Every day. Approximately how long? Five minutes - well, maybe seven. Do you sense the presence of God when you pray? Occasionally, not often. Many of those I talked to experienced prayer more as a burden than as a pleasure. They regarded it as important, even paramount, and felt guilty about their failure, blaming themselves. Does this sound familiar? (pp. 14/Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)
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And yet when I wish to explore how faith works, I usually sneak in by the back door of doubt, for I best learn about my own need for faith during its absence. God's invisibility guarantees I will experience times of doubt. Everyone dangles on a pendulum that swings from belief to unbelief, back to belief, and ends - where?
I used to feel spiritually inferior because I had not experienced the more spectacular manifestations of the Spirit and could not point to any bona fide 'miracles' in my life. Increasingly, though, I have come to see that what I value may differ greatly from what God values. Jesus, often reluctant to perform miracles, considered it progress when he departed earth and entrusted the mission to his flawed disciples. Like a proud parent, God seems to take more delight as a spectator of the bumbling achievements of stripling children than in any self-display of omnipotence. From God's perspective, if I may speculate, the great advance in human history may be what happened at Pentecost, which restored the direct correspondence of spirit to Spirit that had been lost in Eden. I want God to act in direct, impressive, irrefutable ways. God wants to 'share power' with the likes of me, accomplishing his work through people, not despite them.
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To some, the image of a pale body glimmering on a dark night whispers of defeat. What good is a God who does not control his Son's suffering? But another sound can be heard: the shout of a God crying out to human beings, "I LOVE YOU." Love was compressed for all history in that lonely figure on the cross, who said that he could call down angels at any moment on a rescue mission, but chose not to - because of us. At Calvary, God accepted his own unbreakable terms of justice. Any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God's scheme ultimately leads back to the cross.
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The essence of Christian faith has come to us in story form, the story of a God who will go to any lengths to get his family back. The Bible tells of flawed people - people just like me - who make shockingly bad choices and yet still find themselves pursued by God. As they receive grace and forgiveness, naturally they want to give it to others, and a thread of hope and transformation weaves its way throughout the Bible's accounts.
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We are all trophies of God's grace, some more dramatically than others; Jesus came for the sick and not the well, for the sinner and not the righteous. He came to redeem and transform, to make all things new. May you go forth more committed than ever to nourish the souls who you touch, those tender lives who have sustained the enormous assaults of the universe. (pp.88)
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Family is the one human institution we have no choice over. We get in simply by being born, and as a result we are involuntarily thrown together with a menagerie of strange and unlike people. Church calls for another step: to voluntarily choose to band together with a strange menagerie because of a common bond in Jesus Christ. I have found that such a community more resembles a family than any other human institution. Henri Nouwen once defined a community as 'a place where the person you least want to live with always lives.' His definition applies equally to the group that gathers each Thanksgiving and the group that congregates each Sunday morning. (p. 64-65, Church: Why Bother?)
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Where is God when it hurts? We know one answer because God came to earth and showed us. You need only follow Jesus around and note how he responded to the tragedies of his day: large-scale tragedies such as an act of government terrorism in the temple or a tower collapsing on eighteen innocent bystanders; as well as small tragedies, such as a widow who has lost her only son or even a Roman soldier whose servant has fallen ill. At moments like these Jesus never delivered sermons about judgment or the need to accept God's mysterious providence. Instead he responded with compassion - a word from Latin which simply means, 'to suffer with' - and comfort and healings. God stands on the side of those who suffer. (pp.27-28/What Good Is God?)
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God reproduces and lives out His image in millions of ordinary people like us. It is a supreme mystery. We are called to bear that image as a Body because any one of us taken individually would present an incomplete image, one partly false and always distorted, like a single glass chip hacked from a mirror. But collectively, in all our diversity, we can come together as a community of believers to restore the image of God in the world. (In His Image, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand, p. 40)
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On a trip to Russia I bought one of those Matryoshka 'nested dolls' that break apart at the waist to reveal smaller and smaller dolls inside... it occurred to me to me later that each of us, like the nested dolls, contains multiple selves, making us a mysterious combination of good and evil, wisdom and folly, reason and instinct... (pp.80)
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Why the delay? Why does God let evil and pain so flagrantly exist, even thrive, on this planet?... He holds back for our sakes. Re-creation involves us; we are, in fact, at the center of his plan... the motive behind all human history, is to develop us, not God. Our very existence announces to the powers in the universe that restoration is under way. Every act of faith by every one of the people of God is like the tolling of a bell, and a faith like Job's reverberates throughout the universe.
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As the books of Job, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk clearly show, God has a high threshold of tolerance for what appropriate to say in a prayer. God can "handle" my unsuppressed rage. I may well find that my vindictive feelings need God's correction - but only by taking those feelings to God will I have the opportunity for correction and healing.
I fell in love. It felt exactly like a fall, a head-over-heels tumble into a state of unbearable lightness. The earth tilted on its axis. I did not believe in romantic love at the time, thinking it a human construct, an invention of fourteenth century Italian poets. I was as unprepared for love as I had been for goodness and beauty. Suddenly, my heart seemed swollen, too large for my chest.
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Thanks to the scientific method, most people in "developed" countries have an outlook of mild deism. We assume things like weather and disease operate according to fixed natural laws. Every so often, though, problems impinge on us so directly that we stretch beyond that mildly deistic stance and ask God to intervene. When a drought drags on too long, we pray for rain. When a young mother gets a diagnosis of cervical cancer, we solicit prayers for her healing. We beseech God as if trying to talk God into something God otherwise might not want to do.
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It took time for the church to come to terms with the ignominy of the cross. Church fathers forbade its depiction in art until the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine.... Now, though, the symbol is everywhere: artists beat gold into the shape of the Roman execution device, baseball players cross themselves before batting, and cancy confectioners even make chocolate crosses for the faithful to eat during Holy Week. Strange as it may seem, Christianity has become a religion of the cross--the gallows, the electric chair, the gas chamber, in modern terms.
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Having spent time around "sinners" and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.
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Forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of blame-and pain-in a relationship...It does not settle all questions of blame and justice and fairness...But it does allow relationships to start over. In that way, said Solzhenitsyn, we differ from all animals. It is not our capacity to think that makes us different, but our capacity to repent, and to forgive.
A faithful person sees life from the perspective of trust, not fear. Bedrock faith allows me to believe that, despite the chaos of the present moment, God does reign; that regardless of how worthless I may feel, I truly matter to a God of love; that no pain lasts forever and no evil triumphs in the end. Faith sees even the darkest deed of all history, the death of God's Son, as a necessary prelude to the brightest.
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God's visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough. ... For just an instant the sky grew luminous with angels, yet who saw the spectacle? Illiterate hirelings who watched the flocks of others, "nobodies" who failed to leave their names...
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Jesus never tried to hide his loneliness and dependence on other people. He chose his disciples not as servants but as friends. He shared moments of joy and grief with them, and asked for them in times of need. They became his family, his substitute mother and brothers and sisters. They gave up everything for him, as he had given up everything for them. He loved them, plain and simple.
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Curiously, the righteous Pharisees had little historical impact, save for a brief time in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But Jesus' disciples - an ornery, undependable, and hopelessly flawed group of men - became drunk with the power of a gospel that offered free forgiveness to the worst sinners and traitors. Those men managed to change the world.
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Jesus gave us a model for the work of the church at the Last Supper. While his disciples kept proposing more organization - Hey, let's elect officers, establish hierarchy, set standards of professionalism - Jesus quietly picked up a towel and basin of water and began to wash their feet.
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I would say my being disheartened has more to do with American culture than anything else. We are becoming a very shallow culture. My goodness, the celebrity ethos has taken over completely. Turn on the television and you see that over and over. There's very little substance. And so, everything gets shorter. Everything is entertainment oriented. Our churches reflect that. A thirty-five minute sermon without a Power Point or video clips is rare these days. That's not true in other countries so much.
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Like all good things, prayer requires some discipline. Yet I believe that life with God should seem more like friendship than duty. Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and also dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, prayer has features in common with all relationships that matter.
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Politics draws lines between people; in contrast, Jesus' love cuts across those lines and dispenses grace. That does not mean, of course, that Christians should not involve themselves in politics. It simply means that as we do so we must not let the rules of power displace the command to love.
Jesus represents a point of common ground an esteemed rabbi to the Jew, a god to the Hindu, an enlightened one to the Buddhist, a great prophet to the Muslim. Even to the New Age guru, Jesus is the pinnacle of God-consciousness. At the same time, Jesus is the divider. None but Christians see Him as a member of the Godhead on an exclusive mission to repair the broken world.
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Politics deals with externals: borders, wealth, crimes. Authentic forgiveness deals with the evil in a persons heart, something for which politics has no cure. Virulent evil (racism, ethnic hatred) spreads through society like an airborne disease, one cough infects a whole busload. When moments of grace do occur, the world must pause, fall silent, and acknowledge that indeed forgiveness offers a kind of cure. There will be no escape from wars, from hunger, from misery, from rancid discrimination, from denial of human rights, if our hearts aren't changed.
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