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Monday, April 6, 2015

Hope Beyond Wrinkles

Image result for free images of wrinkles 

There are innumerable tips on the internet on how to get rid of wrinkles. There are serums, cremes and lotions, thousands of so-called natural remedies such as applying lemon or apple juice to wrinkles and then, there are more extremes measures one can take ranging from the less intrusive Botox injections to face lifts that take 6 weeks to recover from. All of these solutions assume wrinkles can be prevented, stopped or reversed. The world of cosmetics is proclaiming loud and clear that having wrinkles is a problem to be fixed at all cost. Gone are the days when having wrinkles was a sign of maturity or of an age worthy of respect.
But are wrinkles the real issue? Is the fight really just about wrinkles or does it go much deeper? The obsession with eternal youth has to do, I think, with the desire to reverse the clock and beat the passage of time to hold off the inevitable: namely DEATH.
It is not just the world of cosmetics that is trying to put a stopper on death.
Just this past Monday, I was in the car to pick up my son from school, when I heard a fascinating interview on BBC. A doctor was being interviewed who has developed a special way of resuscitating dead people by cooling their body and brain in order for him to have time to fix whatever problem caused the death and then slowly thawing the brain again and jump-starting the heart. This technique is obviously cutting edge and has many risks, including very severe brain damage. This doctor claimed that, in the future, it will be possible to reverse almost any death, provided the cause of death is something fixable. So, say, if someone died of a heart attack because of a blood clot in the heart, he would be able to surgically remove the clot, fix the heart and then revive the person. But, even he had to admit that it will eventually be impossible if the cause of death is something like widespread cancer that cannot be stopped.

The advances in science notwithstanding, anyone who has stood by the casket of a loved-one knows full well that no amount of creme, healthy eating, exercise or medical intervention could ultimately have prevented the person's death. We are given the illusion of control over our health by the media and even the medical world. And the problem is, the information we are getting is constantly changing, leaving us frustrated in our attempts to control our lives and health. For years we were told that animal fat was what was clogging our arteries and causing heart disease. Good-bye bacon and eggs and butter! But we all knew octogenarians who ate bacon every day and were as healthy as an ox. Now we are told the real culprit is sugar, not fat.
We are told we can avoid getting cancer by eating certain foods and staying away from others. But what about a family I know whose baby was born with a cancerous tumor wrapped around his spine. Or my niece who was diagnosed with cancer at age 2? What bad eating habits could have caused her to develop such an aggressive form of cancer at such a young age? The reality is that we have very little to no control over our lives, our health and the time of our death. Am I saying that because of this, we should make no attempts to lead a healthy lifestyle? Obviously not, but what I am saying is that we cannot control when we will die in the end. Does that thought scare you?
Death is an inevitability we all have to face. All of us have at least two things in common and it might sound so obvious that it's barely worth mentioning: we were all born and we are all going to die

Today, we are focusing on the second reality: We are all going to die. This fact is obvious but what is not obvious is how each one of us will react to it. As I was reflecting on the reality of death, I could think of only two possible reactions to the inescapability of death. I am neither a philosopher nor a psychologist and maybe they have come up with more, but here are my limited thoughts:

The first reaction is the repression of the thought of death. We live as if death won't touch us. We keep dying folk behind the closed doors of hospitals and hospices, we busy ourselves, focus on making life as comfortable and pain-free as possible, gathering up material wealth around us. We will want it all, here and now, especially if we have no belief in an afterlife, we will feel the compulsion to suck the marrow out of this life since this life is all there is. This is the only reality. We become insatiably hungry for experiencing bigger and better things with a sense of entitlement. Pain and sickness will always surprise us since that is not the way life is supposed to be. Loss of health and vitality will lead to deep depression, confusion and anxiety.

The second reaction I could think of is obsession or living in constant fear of death. We may not really want to admit to it, but we are controlled by the fear of dying. That fear, though maybe not even conscious will lead us to be the type of person who will not be ready to take many risks in life. We will be the types to work like crazy and we will try to provide for ourselves a safe and steady environment with no nasty surprises. We might become obsessed with healthy eating and exercise because we've been told we can control our lives that way. We may worry about personal safety and the safety of our loved ones, becoming overbearing parents. We will start panicking when our bodies start slowing or breaking down which will lead to a dogged activism against the inevitable. We will spend lots of money on our appearance in an attempt to slow or reverse the natural march of time. We might have a facelift or breast enlargement to make us feel young and sexy again. Pain and sickness make us angry because we are not able to control them.

Now obviously, these are extremes, but I think we can all recognize ourselves in these reactions, to a certain degree. Which reaction do you tend to? Repression or obsession?

So how do we live in the face of death's reality, as our wrinkles remind us every day that we are not immortal? How do we not repress death or obsess about death? What hope is there beyond wrinkles?
This is where the Christian message about Easter is wonderfully good news. It has nothing to do with Easter bunnies and eggs. The Bible teaches that death entered the world through sin. Death was not part of God's original design for human beings. Death is a horrible intruder that cuts life short. But worse even than physical death, the Bible tells us that we die spiritually when we alienate ourselves from God, the creator and the life-giver. The apostle Paul wrote that the "wages of sin is death." This means that without God's intervention, we are all doomed to die physically and spiritually. The only thing that can save us is for God himself to lift the curse, to take death upon himself. That is exactly what Jesus did. As God incarnate, he died on the cross on good Friday and paid the wages of sin with his own life. Because of this, God did something amazing! Jesus' sacrifice was accepted on our behalf and God  raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. There was nothing that could hold Jesus in the tomb. His resurrection sealed his work and it was death's death. When we believe in him, we experience new spiritual life here and now and have the promise that we will be raised, as Jesus was, after we die. Jesus says in the gospel of John:

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25)

Jesus also said that he was going to his Father's house to prepare a place for us. This place is what Christians call heaven. There are many descriptions of heaven: a place with no more sadness, sickness or tears. No more struggles, conflicts, wars or broken relationships. It's a place where all things are made new and we are a part of it. If you could imagine the closest human relationships you've ever had, the best party you have ever been to, the most glorious view of nature you have ever seen and the deepest sense of peace and satisfaction you've ever had. That's what heaven will be like, all wrapped up in one experience that is not tied to time or space but will last forever. Jesus says that believing in him guarantees access to this amazing place.

Interestingly enough, patients who have had near death experiences report that the place they saw was so glorious, so beautiful, filled with such love and such light, that they found it hard to go back to this present reality and all of them were forever changed people. Complete atheists who've had such an experience, come back saying things like: "I don't need to believe in a life after death, I know there's one!"

Because of this certainty, we can live in the face of death, knowing that death will not have the last word. We do not need to repress death not obsess about it. We will live in freedom and without guilt. Here's how your attitude will change if you believe in the resurrection:

First, for those who tend to repress the thought of death:

1) You will become more realistic about death. You will no longer repress your thoughts about death, rather, you will allow them to help you prioritize your life into what is really important. Since you now know that death is not the end,  you can afford to become generous here and now with your time and resources. You know you can't  take anything with you so there's no point in being possessive or greedy. People will become more important than things to you.

2) You will not feel the urge to have it all now, since you know the best is yet to come

3) Loss of youth and wrinkles, pain, sickness will no longer surprise or depress you, rather, you will see them as welcome reminders that though this world and your body are wasting away, God will renew all things.

For those who tend to obsess with death, here is how you will change:

1) You are now enabled to live boldly without fear to pursue God's calling on your life. You might go crazy places and do wild things when you listen to God's leading in your life. You will become a risk-taker and encourage others to do the same.

2) You will grow old gracefully, be a fun person to be with and become inwardly beautiful instead of fretting about outward appearance.

3) You will start reprioritizing how you spend your money. Instead of the facelift you've been saving for, you'll want to spend your money on things of eternal value.

For those of you struggling with some aspects of both tendencies:

1) You will live life in such a way that you won't come to the end of it with regrets. You will want to live in reconciled relationships be it with God, family members or friends

2) Your love for God and his purposes on this earth will become contagious. People around you will be changed because of you.

3) When the moment comes, you will be able to release your clutch on life. You will know where you are headed and you will be ready to meet your maker. You will even surprise others around you with your joy and eagerness to finally meet God face-to-face.

When my grandmother was dying, I called her from Berlin to talk to her one last time. She knew her time was coming, had set all other affairs in order, had closure with all her family members. She was ready. One thing she said to me shortly before she died was this: "When you are dying, everyone wants to tell you how great of a person you are. What I need to hear now is how great Jesus is and what he has done for me!" I will never forget that moment and this is why I am writing this today. I want to tell you how great Jesus is and what he did for you. He overcame death out of love for you, he has the power to heal and raise from the dead and restore this broken world. He reaches his hand out to you and invites you to live with him. To really live. Will you accept his invitation today? If you do, you will not regret it, ever! Not for all eternity.

This was originally a talk given in Leipzig

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

He winks at me

Image result for free pictures of winking eye
Have you ever experienced Jesus’ tender loving care in your life? Have you ever been touched by his extravagant love or seen him at work in you life in a way that seems either too mundane and quaint or too intimate to be ascribed to the Lord of the universe? These are the moments when heaven intersects with earth and touches us in very meaningful ways. My atheist friends call this luck or chance. I call them heavenly winks. They are times when Jesus acts preemptively to our prayers or reacts to our prayers unexpectedly. 

Here are a few personal examples of the kind of thing I mean and you will have to take my word for it!

Two summers ago I was looking to purchase a pair of white linen pants. It seemed to be the coolest type of long trousers for our Berlin summers. I set off to look for one. I trekked from store to store. This pair was way too long. This pair too tight. This one too see-through. This pair to heavy. This pair too scratchy…You get the picture. I’m not a big fan of shopping anyway, so I got tired and frustrated. I arrived home defeated and empty-handed. A few days later my landlady, an elderly woman who works as a tax consultant, placed a small bag on the steps up to our apartment. She told me it had been given to her by a former customer. I took it upstairs, opened it and in it were 2 pairs of pants. One was a pair of khakis and the other…You guessed it: a perfectly fitting pair of white linen pants. Jesus winked at me! 

A few months ago my parents were visiting from the States and we decided to do a little tourism and drove out to Wannsee to visit the place where the Final Solution was decided. After our tour, we came back to vandalized car. Our license plates had been stolen, front and back. I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry. My husband drove our car to the police station near us and was told that this was a common scheme. Valid plates are stolen off a registered car, placed on a stolen car, driven over the border to Poland, and all this happens before the owner is able to report the crime, since it only takes less than an hour to get to the polish border. My dear husband fought his way through the red tape to register for new plates. A few days later, he brought our car home.

When I went out to drive it the first time, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I attributed it to my husband’s romantic streak. I had semi-personalized plates! B (for Berlin, which everyone has), EO (my nickname ever since I can remember) and a number I can easily remember, even though I’m terrible at remembering numbers, because of Biblical “numerology” (7 for perfection, 1 for unity, and 40 for fulfillment). Now that’s how my mind ticks! The next time I saw my husband I thanked him profusely for being so thoughtful and letting me have my name on the van. “I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “The plates were assigned and handed to me.” Jesus had just winked at me again!

Do you have stories like this to share? Can you see how God loves you ever so intimately, knowingly, personally? Sometimes we really wonder. God do you care? God do you not see me and my need? Moments like the ones I shared remind me that he does care, which means that the things I dislike about certain situations are also under his complete control. I’d love to hear your stories of how Jesus winks at you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

You read Harry Potter?!

How Christians can read books like Harry Potter in a smart way

Image result for free picture of lily potter's graveWhen the Harry Potter books first came out, I was cautioned by many well-intentioned Christian friends not to have anything to do with them because they promoted witchcraft, which is strictly forbidden in the Bible. They claimed that the books were training manuals for witches and wizards, that they blurred the lines between good and evil, hence confusing children and their ability to decide between right and wrong.  So, naturally, I was skeptical.
But I wanted to see for myself. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from a no name author writing about witches and wizards! Though the books were not of same caliber as the Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, they cannot be dismissed offhand. I was surprised by the deep themes J.K Rowling treated. They are the age-old themes of God’s story: the nature of the universe, good and evil, love, death, sacrifice and resurrection. There are few books written today that engage any of these themes quite so powerfully and are simultaneously so popular amongst our children and young people. I have always believed that we can read just about anything with our kids as long as we are talking about the content, the worldview the book represents and how the topics affect us. Obviously, the age of the children is a factor, as well as their maturity level. But if my kids can read Harry Potter, understand the themes in them and talk to their friends about them from within the framework of a Christian worldview, it is a win-win situation.
We all, atheist and religious alike, long for stories of love and sacrifice, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Stories where all evil is banned and justice prevails. It is a longing at the center of every human heart, revealing both a recognition of our limited abilities to make things right and desire for things to be right. It is the deeper magic that goes beyond all common sense, the power of love over death, that draws hearts universally. Harry Potter does this on multiple levels. Here are some of the themes we can discuss with our children and their friends: 

The nature of Good and Evil

“Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy” says Dumbledore to Harry in the Goblet of Fire. This is a great quote!  It is an ethical statement that presupposes the existence of discernable right and wrong. And how on earth is one to know the difference? This can get us started in a discussion about moral standards. Where do we get them? Why do people naturally know that there is good and evil and that good is better than evil? Is there a standard outside of ourselves? Can we stand up to evil once we’ve identified it? What makes someone a hero?
Lord Voldemort, the incarnation of evil itself, claims that “there is no good and evil, only power and those too weak to seek it” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Ultimate evil is to say there is no good and evil. Evil power is found in blurring all the moral lines. The Bible, too, affirms this truth: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). We can ask, Where does our culture blur the lines between good and evil? Is might really right? How does one stand up to such evil?

The power of love and self-sacrifice

Harry was saved from Voldemort by his mother’s sacrificing her life for him. Dumbledore explains this to Harry: "Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realise that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever" (Sorcere’s Stone).
Dumbledore again mentioned that Lily’s blood, shed in self-sacrifice, was a powerful protection against evil in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.”
"But I knew too where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated — to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day."
Harry is both the recipient of sacrificial love and the sacrifice. He ends up sacrificing his life for his friends at the end of the story. Of course, this is the central theme of the Gospels too. Jesus’ blood shed for his beloved is a shield for us. He took the deadly blow that was intended for us and his blood now covers us as a shield when Satan wants to attack us. We can ponder questions like: How do people deal with their sin? How is one saved from it? In what way is Harry's sacrifice different from Jesus'? Why is the cross central to a Christian’s worldview? Why is it good news? Why is death at the center of love?

Life, death and resurrection

Harry visits his parents’ graves in Chapter 16 of “Deathly Hallows,” On his parents’ tombstone he reads the quote “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” while on another tombstone (that of Dumbledore’s mother and sister) he reads, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In an interview here, J.K Rowling says, “They’re very British books, so on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones,” Rowling explained. “[But] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up — they almost epitomize the whole series.” The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Matthew 6:19, the first from 1 Corinthians 15:26. For death to be put to death is a deep longing of the human heart and this is what the Bible says has happened in Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1Co 15:54-55)
This is not a topic that is discussed often where I live (post Christian, atheistic Germany). People pretend death doesn’t affect them because it is a natural part of life. But they cannot explain the anger and sorrow they feel when they lose a loved one. It doesn’t make sense to have these feelings in a materialistic world. But we can prod…Why does death feel like such an intruder? Is there really anything after death? Is there any certainty we can have that death is not the end? Is there any power that can overcome death?
There are many other interesting themes in Harry Potter, such as truth, identity, belonging, friendship and courage about which one could ask similar questions. 

Tim Keller has been fascinated by story and how story is the fabric into which God weaves and speaks. He reviews Stuart Barton Babbage book entitled The Mark of Cain here. “He showed how these authors’ stories and fiction bore witness to important aspects of the Bible’s account of the human condition. In successive chapters he showed modern literature’s witness to the inveteracy of evil, the impotence of the human will, the horror of alienation, the indelibility of guilt, the gift of pardon, the longing for immortality, the joy of grace, and the mystery of love. In short, he showed the fragments of the Christian story even in the stories told by the great artists of the modern era. Or, put another way, Babbage showed how the Christian master narrative made sense of all these other dark, gripping, and moving narratives.” At the end of it Keller writes: “And, in the end, learning this discipline—of seeing God’s story in the stories we tell today—will be a way for us to deepen our own understanding of and joy in the gospel we believe.”

I understand parents who want to distance themselves and their children from books like Harry Potter. Some might find other books to be far better literature. But we can also read them critically, finding the threads of God's story in them and using them to point others to the metanarrative of all time. I think we can say that all good stories are Gospel stories. If Christians disengage themselves totally from the world around them, they miss out on many opportunities for discussion with their unbelieving friends. Let us use the stories of our day to help our children understand their world, their own hearts, the gospel and how it is good news for them and their friends. Let’s not shield them from controversial topics in the hope of protecting them. Let’s talk to them about how God's big picture of redemption provides reason for hope and a relationship with the living God who can make sense of our personal stories and help us see how they fit into his grand narrative.