Saturday, September 25, 2010

Street Corner Talkin'

York's annual bike night was this Friday, when hundreds of motorcyclists from all over the region converge on downtown York. The official event kicks off with a parade of bikes through the city. Then the four blocks surrounding Continental Square are closed to traffic to accommodate an antique motorcycle show, food vendors, live bands at several locations, and pedestrians. Even if that scene holds no appeal, it's nice to see the oft-maligned downtown York thrive, for at least one night, and become a crowded destination.

The motorcycle sub-culture, I guess like any other wide appeal pastime, is made up of a broad spectrum of participants. There was a seventyish gent with a nineteen-fortyish Harley Knucklehead dressed in the riding attire of the era when his motorcycle was new. He wore a clean white shirt with a bow tie, calf-high, shiny black boots, and a cap with a white visor. There were heavily inked folks on ''outlaw'' style motorcycles, the younger sport-bike crowd on GSXR's, Hayabusas, and Ninjas, and many many many regular Joes (and Joettes) on modern Harley Sportsters, Softtails, Wide Glides, and Electra Glides. Clearly, I was there for only a limited time, and could only observe a limited area at a time, but I witnessed no hostile, rude, or offensive behavior. No one (not counting exhaust pipes!) was particularly loud or making a spectacle of themselves. With one exception.

On the southeast corner of the square there was a group of sidewalk evangelists. I don't know who they were, but I guess they are from a local congregation. Now let's get the disclaimer out of the way....I in no way dispute their right to be there, and to preach however they see fit. And, theologically and philosophically, I am probably closely aligned with them. I credit them with having the courage to attempt to spread the gospel in an environment most of us would not elect. But I was embarrassed by their methods, and dismayed that they may well do more harm than good.

The ringleader stood on a box and shouted to the passersby. His associates carried signs, and approached individuals strolling past to try to engage them in conversation, stepping into their path to hand them a pamphlet. Their centerpiece sign-propped up along the curb and hard not to see said ''Infant Baptism...The Doorway to Hell''. I observed the corner for a short while, and saw absolutely no success with their efforts to engage people passing by. Most folks just shook their head and kept walking. When the apparent leader stepped down from his pedestal, I approached him and related I found his sign-the ''Infant Baptism, Doorway to Hell'' one-offensive, and in my opinion was counter productive. He clearly relished the opportunity to engage in debate, and his helpers quickly moved in to shout slogans and well rehearsed rebuttals. It was hard to get through to them that my point, my objection, had nothing to do with the issue of infant baptism. They mostly just urged me to read this verse or that verse relative to baptism. I was able to express to the leader, though he rejected it, that in my opinion, we as believers should be reaching out in humility and love and understanding, and that by being intentionally provocative, adversarial, and theologically arrogant we drive away people who already are suspicious, skeptical and reluctant about all things church. He and his disciples quickly responded they believed it was their duty to be confrontational and discomforting, citing Jesus's lambasting of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I shook the preachers hand and moved on. We clearly had opposite perspectives, and no consensus was likely. I may be completely wrong here. Perhaps some tract recipients will read it before tossing it, and in time will come to truth. I admittedly have no experience in such an arena, but I think there is a much more effective, Christ like approach to such public evangelism.

Suppose their signage, and more importantly their core message, said things that were no less true, but inviting, gentle, and humble. ''What's the big deal with Jesus?'' or ''Christ offers Love and Forgiveness'' or ''Prayer Works''. Most people, particularly at a secular event like a motorcycle rally, would likely still just pass by. I think, though, they would NOT see those ''witnesses'' as abrasive, loud kooks they want no part of. Among those many people, as in any crowd, there are hurting, lost people. There are at least a few people who recognize they are not the person they need to be. There are at least a few people who desperately need answers. Long before we as believers begin to deconstruct erroneous teaching or pervasive misunderstanding with someone, we must first gently help that person know who Jesus is, what He did, and what their response to Him should be.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Starry Night

On a recent late, moonless Saturday night Lori and I were driving on Route 322 in the Juniata Valley, near Newport, in a convertible with the top down. The highway, there, is sandwiched between a steep forested mountain on one side and the Juniata River on the other. So other than the headlights from other vehicles, and the occasional dusk to dawn light, it was dark- really dark, and the stars were stunning! We spend a good bit of time in that area, and have noticed the intensely starry sky many times before, but even so it's hard not to pause and stare upward for a bit. When we took our exit off of Rt. 322, no one was behind us, so we just sat still at the stop sign for a little while and admired the sky. The Big Dipper was big and bold and right in front of us, just above the windshield. Its pointer stars made the North Star easy to find, which, in turn, located the Little Dipper. Venus looked like a flashlight among the myriad tinier pinpricks of light, and the Milky Way streaked across the sky straight overhead, easily mistaken for a band of thin clouds. As we turned onto our road, Cassiopeia was clearly visible over my left shoulder. It's easy to find, if it's dark enough. It looks like a big ''W'', and is supposed to be a Queen's throne. I've always thought, since my scoutmaster pointed it out to us on a camping trip long ago, it looks more like a barber chair. I couldn't find Orion, though. I think he was still tucked behind the tree line ahead of us, and if we had waited he would have eventually risen into view.

Sunday night, about 9:30, when headed back toward York. The sky was, again, a vast sea of uncountable stars. But somewhere along the way, as we approached Harrisburg from the north, Lori said, ''The stars are gone.''

Indeed, the sky was no longer the deep black, or dark indigo blue it was just 20 minutes earlier, it was now a sort of gray-blue, and as we sat at the first traffic light we hit, near Linglestown, I looked up and could find only a handful of stars in the whole sky! As we continued down Front Street, the sky become pale amber, and I could find only 2 stars! For the rest of the trip, even along the relatively rural stretches of Route 83, the stars never returned, or at least no where near the show they put on up in the valley.

So where'd they go? Obviously, the stars are still there in all their vast numbers and in all their splendor. They still sketch out lions and hunters and dogs and bears and whatever else the imagination of a night time observer can find. But, sadly, in too many places they are faded into invisibility by man made, artificial light. Sadly, too, there are probably more than a few people who have never seen a starry sky, who have never seen Orion, who think the night sky is supposed to be amber.

There was once a time when people needed the starry sky to find their way. When there were no bright reflective green interstate signs, or no Garmin, a skilled traveler could find his way, even across the sea, with the stars. Good luck, though, to someone seeking the North Star passing through Harrisburg! Harrisburg has no North Star. To find it-to find the star that is key to establishing direction, a traveler must get away from the man made light, the fake light, the electric light.

So it is as we travel the dark sea of life. When we seek direction, or guidance, or help, or clarity, we can either immerse our selves in every form of light from every available source, and as a result likely never see the true light, the light that brings truth. We seek to hear a still small voice, and I often lament that voice can be so hard to hear! But we are awash, drowning, in a cacophony of voices that call out advice and guidance and direction, be they friends, or Oprah, or Dr. Phil, or Tony Evans, or Glenn Beck, or this book or that film, or this Pastor, or that teacher, and what we end up with is a vague, contradictory mixture of directions, a pale-amber sky like Front Street at night. If we truly want to hear the whisper of truth, to see the tiny, sparkling, pinpoint of true light that we know points north, we must take ourselves out of the flood of light and noise, and go into the dark, quiet valley. We just may be stunned at how gloriously brightly the real light shines.

Monday, September 6, 2010

An Ancient Problem

2 Kings 17:41 (NIV) ''Even while these people were worshiping the LORD they were serving their idols.''

I've been working my way through the Old Testament from bumper to bumper, and it is certainly true that it is easy to become bogged down in places, nearly stuck in the mud. Most of Leviticus and Numbers were very slow going for me. I'd take small daily bites, but would mix in a helping of Psalms or Proverbs to make the day's reading a bit tastier. I really enjoyed Deuteronomy though. In fact, I might advocate someone undertaking the O.T. in its entirety for the first time reading it before Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Deuteronomy is Moses's sort of farewell message to the Israelite people, and is a tidy summary of the forty years they have been wandering the desert, and a condensed summary of the extensive and detailed rules-The Law-revealed in Leviticus. It is also a caution to the people that are about to enter the long-elusive Promised Land to adhere to these Laws, and not adopt the practices of the current occupants, namely the worship of false gods, man made idols, or the moon and stars.

I'm now very near the end of 2nd Kings. If I were to summarize in only one sentence (probably a mistake to try), the overarching theme of all I've read between the books of Moses and this point, it is the failure of God's people to keep their end of the Covenant-to respect the jealousy of the one true God, and have no part in the worship, practices, and celebrations of idols and false gods. With a very few notable exceptions, leader after leader, king after king, generation after generation to varying extents ignored this command and either actively worshiped these pagan gods, or at best allowed these practices and the ''high places'' of these gods to coexist with the worship of the One True God. Even King Solomon, wise Solomon, who did much to glorify the Lord, the God of Israel, near the end of his life fell into the worship and following of the goddess Ashtoreth, and other ''detestable'' gods.

So, by the last half of 2nd Kings, God's anger with his people was burning. He allowed first Israel, then Judah to be delivered into captivity, removed from the land promised to Moses, and gave the land and the cities to their conquerors.
Like Leviticus and Numbers, the two Kings books have, at times, been tedious. The stories of Saul and David, in the two Samuels, are certainly suspenseful, dramatic, and tense-captivating reading. Likewise the story of Solomon's reign in 1st Kings is a picture of an unequaled period of grand splendor. But much of ''the Kings'' is 'so and so became King of Israel at age 16 and reigned for six months, was murdered, and was succeeded by his son so and so. Meanwhile so and so was King of Judah, served 28 years, died and his son so and so became King.' Generation after generation, on and on and on. Some honored and obeyed God, most did not. Until finally, by chapter 17 of 2nd Kings, God had had enough! The Assyrian King invaded and exiled the people of Israel and “removed them from His presence.” (verse 18)

The last verse of Chapter 17, verse 41, quoted at the top, neatly describes the ongoing, many generational problem between the Lord, the God of Israel, and those people. In the midst of some slow progress passages I wanted to just get through, this verse jumped off the page! Yes, it speaks to the ''stiff necked '' people of the ancient world, but it screams, and slaps us in the face-right here, right now, today.

The God of Israel, is the God of today. He is still a jealous God. He still demands that we have no other gods. He still finds false gods, divination, sorcery, pagan rituals, witchcraft, the worship of stars, planets and nature detestable abominations. He still does not allow idolatry. Few of us, hopefully, have carved images or statues that we worship. And, hopefully, most of us steer clear of the occult, even when it's disguised as harmless fun. But I fear modern western culture has replaced statues and carvings and Asherah poles with upward mobility, achievement, career advancement, and status. This generation's false gods, our Baals, have names like Lexus and Armani and Rolex and BMW and Harley.

''Even while [we] were worshiping the Lord [we] were serving....'' our houses, and our cars, and our 401ks, and our closets, and our egos, and our self-image. It is so easy to read the accounts of these ancient peoples, and recognize their too short memories, or their stubborn refusal to obey, and to imagine if we were in their place we'd do things differently. Perhaps, though, those ancients were just going along with what their culture, their society, deemed normal and acceptable-even admirable. Perhaps, when what seems so plainly disobedient and detestable to us from our vantage point of 3000 years of hindsight was current events, it didn't seem wrong at all. After all, they were worshiping the Lord. Right? They're going to church most Sundays; they sing in the choir; they volunteer for nursery duty; they pray out loud; they even raise their hand during worship sometimes. Doesn't that trump a little obsessiveness about square footage, or a newer SUV? I put something in the plate every Sunday, so it's not my fault people are hungry just a few blocks away! Is it? Besides, I've wanted this watch for a long time, and now I can afford it.

''Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols.''

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again,
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)