Monday, December 30, 2013

The Story of 2013

Welcome to my written life. Look back at my posts over the last year and you get a bit of a story. This is the story of how I have tried to be more like Jesus in 2013.

I pondered a lot of theology this year. People or events raised my awareness to certain issues and I sought to not just be right about them, but to live right about them. I noticed injustices, sex trafficking, underpaid workers, even whole nations of people who are being oppressed and forgotten. and felt compelled to speak out on their behalf.  But I learned that the biggest injustices are the ones I perpetuate with my own excesses. So for much of the latter half of this year, I have set out to mark my life with simplicity and discipline. It has not been an easy path, but one well worth taking.

Here three of my favorite posts of the year. These each represent lessons God has been teaching me. They are personal. But they also represent the common condition of all who seek to follow Jesus in the real world. If you only have time to read three, these are the one's I'd suggest.

1. Let's Talk about Fasting - No one ever taught me how to fast, or even that I should fast. I set out to discover what it was all about, and at the end of my first seven day fast I came to this conclusion: we need to spend a lot more time on this.

2. Because We Can - This is about the time my seven year old daughter challenged me to step out of my comfort zone to help others. Sometimes the Holy Spirit sounds a lot like a second-grader.

3. Running to the Fire - Who was Ronnie Smith? Learn about his genuine life, his beautiful death, and how he isn't all that uncommon among Christ followers. "Ronnie ran to the fire. Ronnie fought the fire. And in the end, Ronnie wins."

There are a lot of things about me that I am still not happy with. I get caught up in a lot of the same old hangups I have struggled with for years. I can be kind of self-serving at times. It's not that I don't care about you, I just didn't notice that you exist. Sorry about that.

But when I look back at the last year, I can also see a lot of things I am happy about. God is not done with Zach Spiering. I am a different person than I was January 1, 2013. I have learned to be a more disciplined person (usually). I have a better perspective to view my money and possessions. I have learned a lot about being a better father. I have become more active in serving people.

This year I saw my readership expand. I am not a breakout success. None of my posts have gone viral. But more and more people are reading what I write. Maybe there's something to that.

I am not done changing. I am not done growing. As long as my journey can help and inspire yours, keep walking with me. Let's see how God leads us in 2014 as we seek to live like Jesus every day of the week.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

4 Reasons Why Jesus is Better than Santa Claus

"So what's this Santa Claus about?"
When I am hanging out with international friends around the holidays, especially those from a non-Christian background, the most difficult thing to explain is the relationship of Jesus and Santa Claus. Who is this Santa guy and what does he have to do with Jesus' birthday?

The short answer is that Santa was basically adapted from various traditions by retailers to create a demand for toys and other gifts around the holiday season. But his impact in the holiday traditions goes far beyond that. He is celebrated in art, film, stories, and song. He has become the spokesperson of a holiday in a society that is desperately trying to avoid anything religious or controversial.

But Santa is both deeply religious and controversial. The religion he represents is practiced throughout the year in America. The religion he symbolizes is also in conflict with the religion centered around Jesus. So we need to look at the two carefully and decide which religion we want to embrace. Or rather we need to decide which person to put at the center of our lives. This holiday season when you are deciding who to lift up in your graven images, religious stories and worshipful songs, consider these four reasons why you should pick Jesus over Santa.

1. Jesus Loves Bad Kids.

"...he knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake."

Santa is presented as a jolly guy watching over all the kids, determining who is good enough to get Christmas presents and who isn't. If you're on the "nice" list you get a new toy. If you're on the "naughty" list, you get a lump of coal, or so the tradition goes. Lately he's enlisted the help of the elf on the shelf to keep a close eye on everyone. Perhaps kids are sneakier than they used to be and Santa can't keep up with all that naughtiness. Santa represents a love that is conditional. Be good and you get blessed.

Jesus represents a love that is unconditional. It's not that Jesus doesn't see what's going on. It's not that Jesus doesn't care. "Go and leave your life of sin," he tells one "naughty" girl. But Jesus does not hinge his blessing on someone being good enough to deserve it. Jesus frees us from the elf on the shelf, or anyone else looking over our shoulder to judge. The gospel emphatically proclaims, "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Rom 8:1)

2. Jesus Loves Poor Kids.

Each year Santa brings the rich kids big expensive presents like IPads and XBoxes and ponies. The poor kids of the world get little or nothing. If Santa does bring them a nice present, it often coincides with their mother's wedding ring disappearing and Dad trying to get it out of "hawk" wherever that is.

Jesus favors the poor. He loves everyone the same, but he knows the poor need a little something extra. So he came to heal their diseases, loosen their bonds and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, good news to the poor (Luke 4:11). Jesus said blessed are the poor and woe to the rich (Luke 6:20 & 24). Jesus knew the rich had everything they needed. They didn't need more toys and games and electronic devices. The poor needed his help, and he helped them every chance he got. Jesus followers still make helping the poor a focus to this day.

3. Jesus Encourages Generosity

Santa seems to have near infinite wealth. Out of that wealth he scatters presents to the good rich kids of the world. Santa teaches kids that there is no need to appreciate  their parents who saved and sacrificed to bring them a gift. It's a jolly guy in a red suit with magical reindeer. Contrary to the popular notion that Santa brings out the innocence of children, Santa actually speeds their depravity. If it's just a guy with magical reindeer, ask for everything you want. Beg and plead. and whine when you don't get it all.  Millions of kids write wish lists to Santa, but how many write him a thank you card? Santa has turned gift giving into a greed fest for kids.

Jesus leads people to be givers, not takers. Jesus' greatest gift cost him everything. Even though he gives it freely, he asks those who receive it to give just as freely (Matt 10:8). Jesus says to give to others as a way to give back to him. As a result, his followers become more and more generous, content with what they have, and using it to bless others.

4. Jesus Changes the World

Santa is a monotonous tradition. He comes back every year to do exactly what he did last year (except we hope he brings us a better gift this time). He never tackles the big issues. He just smiles, ho-ho-hos, and heads back up north for another year, leaving us to figure out our own mess. Jesus came to bring a kingdom that is filling the whole world. Nothing will be the same again.

Jesus' kingdom advances every time we forgive someone, every time we repay evil with good. The Kingdom comes nearer when the hungry are fed, the innocent are protected, and the naked are clothed. The Kingdom comes when people get a vision of the love of God shown to them and go out and spread that love to the world. Today Jesus works primarily through those who follow him all around the world, blessing rich and poor alike, healing diseases, pulling people out of desperate situations and showing them unconditional love. Jesus is still very much at work, changing the world one life at a time.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Running to the Fire: An Eulogy for Ronnie Smith

Ronnie Smith, American teacher killed in BenghaziOn Dec 5, 2013 American teacher, Ronnie Smith 
was gunned down during his morning jog near his home in Benghazi, Libya, where he taught at an international school. He leaves behind a wife and a young son. He was 33 years old

I never met Ronnie, but we did have some friends in common. From what I've learned, Ronnie was a passionate follower of Jesus. He loved the people of Libya. His students and coworkers describe him as a dedicated teacher. He also saw his role as something more than just an educator. He was shining a light on a very dark place. He worked to bring the kingdom of God to everyone he met.

There are several similarities between Ronnie and me. Like Ronnie, I am 33 years old, the approximate age of Jesus when he died. Ronnie and I are both teachers. I also lived in the Middle East, teaching English. Like Ronnie, I am a father and a husband. Like Ronnie, I see my life as more than just doing this or that job. I live to shine light and speed the kingdom of God.

Unlike Ronnie, I have never lived in a really dangerous place. Although, I am sure my friends and family worried about me a lot, the Sultanate of Oman is a safe and peaceful country, with a crime rate much lower than the U.S. I was never threatened once in my two and a half years there. 

But Benghazi is different. What the heck was Ronnie doing there anyway? A review of recent history reminds us that Benghazi was home to the bloodiest battles of the uprising to overthrow former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Less than a year ago it was the site of a terror attack on a U.S. embassy. Benghazi is home to a number of radical Islamic groups, some with ties to Al Quaida. Benghazi is not a nice place to be. Everyone with half a brain is getting out of Benghazi. But not Ronnie. Ronnie was doing everything he could to get in.

Eventually someone will try to make a martyr of Ronnie. I doubt he would consider himself to be one. Although a dedicated follower of Jesus, his faith probably had nothing to do with his becoming the target of terror. It probably had more to do with his nationality and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it is no accident that Ronnie was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ronnie had learned what followers of Jesus have known for hundreds of years. Jesus did not run away when death was on the line. Neither do his followers. When there is a fire everyone runs to get away. Christ-followers run back to the fire to help others.

Ronnie is certainly not the first to run into the fire. There was a hermit named Telemachas who willingly entered the Roman Colosseum and stood between the gladiators, imploring them to put down their weapons and stop killing each other. His blood was the last spilled in the Colosseum. There were the five missionaries who decided to love the most brutal tribe in the Ecuadorian jungle. When attacked, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming did not return fire, but willingly gave up their lives. Then there are countless others who's names are lost to history. People who hid Jews, bandaged wounds, smuggled Bibles, entered war zones, leper colonies, and every dirty place imaginable, because Jesus led them there.

I am preparing to move to one of the more dangerous cities in America. Some of my friends and family are rightfully concerned. Although we will be living in a relatively safe neighborhood, it will still be a big step down from Joplin, MO. Detroit is no Benghazi, but it's no picnic either. I am well aware of the risks. I also, like Ronnie, know the reward of following Jesus even into the hard places.

"If there's any single person in the entire universe that you can take a chance on, it's God." Ronnie once said. Ronnie took that chance. Ronnie ran to the fire. Ronnie fought the fire. And in the end, Ronnie wins.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Lot Like God

You are a lot like God.

I say this indiscriminately, regardless of who you are, or how you stumbled onto my little website. 

You could be a thief, a liar, a pervert, a glutton, a murderer. But above all those you are godlike. Don't just take my word for it. Check out what the Bible has to say.

God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female. (Gen 1:27, The Message)

God made people to be like him. To be his co-rulers over the rest of the creation. He made them godlike. He made you godlike.

In fact, this concept, imago Dei is repeated throughout Scripture. Although people sinned and fell short of God's glory, there is still a lot of glory in people. The Psalmist expresses how man is "a little lower than the angels" and "crowned... with glory and honor." (Psalm 8:5) James reminds us of the worth of our fellow man made "in God's likeness" (3:9). Jesus even called all people gods, quoting Psalm 82.

The Bible tells me that every human is glorious. Every human being is valuable for their own sake. Every life is precious, even yours.

Stated another way. You are not an animal. You have more in common with the Sovereign of the universe than you do with a gorilla. Our own language acknowledges this. The opposite of natural is man-made. No one calls a beaver's dam unnatural. But the Hoover Dam is not natural, it is man-made. People are more than just natural beings.

Our godlikeness is evident in our many ways. You don't even have to acknowledge God to be godlike. You are godlike when you create things, because you were created in the image of a Creator. You are godlike when you love. Animals are incapable of love, but you and I were made in the image of God who is love. It is also evident in restraint. When you forsake your fleshly desire to sex, food, or comfort, you prove your godlikeness. Like the One who has absolute control over nature, you control the nature within. 

But, the doctrine of imago Dei is incomplete without the doctrine of the fall. If we are made like God, then why are we so screwed up?  Did God do a bad job making us like him, or is He just not so good to begin with? The fall gives us a third option. The fall explains how in spite of our perfect origin, we choose to fall short of this divine mandate. We sin and give up our glory. We screw ourselves up.

But if you follow Jesus, like me, you get something more. You get recreated. You "have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." (Col 3:10 NIV). In following Jesus we realize the full potential of our God image, our godlikeness. We get renewed so we can better bear that image.

The fall is real. Evil, sin, death, all real. But we as image bearers can reverse the tide. We have a commission of the One in whose image we were created in to restore good to the world. We get to join Him in the work of restoration. When we do, we get to show that we are indeed a lot like God.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

4 Kids Books That Help Me Follow Jesus Better

Unless you have young kids or teach them, you are unlikely to browse the children's section of your library or bookstore. Some people may assume children's books are childish, simplistic, and below them. They couldn't be more wrong. Kingdom lessons come in unexpected places. The simplicity of these stories shrouds weighty truths.

Jesus said that unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3). Perhaps that's why children's stories can be so powerful. They let us strip away our pretense and see the world as God intends. Like children. Like our Father, who as Chesterton says "is younger than us." For those of us who have sinned and grown old, children's stories can be our bridge to the kingdom.

My list contains books from a variety of reading levels. They are all books found in children's sections. Despite there apparent simplicity, all these books have had an impact on the way I live my life. All these books that have moved me to follow Jesus better. Maybe they can help you. 

Loser by Jerry Spinelli

Donald Zinkoff is that unflappably friendly kid. He isn't good at sports or school work. He doesn't care when people laugh at him. It makes him happy that others are laughing. In fact, Zinkoff never seems to hold any regard for himself or his preferences. He will do whatever it takes to help others and make them happy. But this seldom wears him down. Zinkoff, despite his label expresses pure joy again and again. 

Seldom have I seen a character that so exemplified the kingdom of God where the last are first and servants are the greatest. I don't want to give away too much, but one of the best things about Loser is how the hero is not given the hero's reception that we often expect at the end of a story. Sacrificial love doesn't earn Zinkoff the respect of most of his peers. But the love he exemplifies will capture your heart and your holy imagination.

The Teddy Bear by David McPhail

The boy and the teddy bear are inseparable.  But one fateful day, the boy looses his favorite teddy bear at a diner. The bear is thrown away and recovered by a homeless man. The man finds great comfort in the bear, taking him everywhere as he treks the lonely streets of the city. The man and the bear are now inseparable.  A chance encounter between the man and boy will leave few eyes dry. 

The Teddy Bear exemplifies sacrificial love in a way that is applicable to children.  It teaches us the value of people versus the value of things. It also introduces homelessness with compassion and humanity. Fitting for followers of a homeless King.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Most of you have probably read this one at some point in your life. The tree gives something to the boy, piece by piece  until there is nothing left but a stump. "And the tree was happy."

There are two main themes that reverberate throughout this simple tale. They are two sides of the same coin. First, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35) The tree finds joy in sacrificially giving to the boy. Why do we so often deny ourselves this joy. Secondly, the things we think will make us happy are temporary. The boy always needs something else to maintain his happiness. Think about it. Who has more joy? The boy who gets what he wants, or the tree who gives it to him? 

"And the tree was happy."

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia are purposefully pregnant with spiritual themes. They are wonderful teaching tools for children and adults alike. The Voyage in particular brings about two wonderfully interwoven themes. Transformation, and Adventure.

The heart of this story is about a boy whose name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Eustace is introduced as an obnoxious know-it-all, the kid that gets on everyone's nerves. Eustace is transfixed on himself and his problems. In his mind everyone is against him, and so he subsequently is against everyone.  When Eustace and his cousins are magically transported to Narnia, Eustace misses the adventure and wonder the other kids experience.  He spends all his time complaining and devising a way to get home.

Half way through the story, Eustace is brought face to face with his true self, when he is physically transformed into the dragon that long resided in his heart. But the beauty of this story is Eustaces transformation. Aslan, the lion that represents Jesus shows Eustace his inability to remove his dragon skin, and then removes it for him, washing him and returning him to his human form. 

Then comes the adventure. And Eustace and his companions see plenty of it. The story shows us Eustace on better days and his worse as he and his companions journey ever closer to Aslan's country.

Becoming like Jesus begins with something we can't do. It begins with our absolute dependence on God to kill the old man and make us new. But it is also a lifelong process. It is a struggle filled with both good and bad days.  But the journey, once begun is an incredible adventure. Don't miss out on the adventure of a life of following Jesus.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Let's Talk about Fasting

We don't talk about fasting much in Christian circles. But in the anonymity provided by the Web people more freely express their views. I searched several online forums about the topic and here is what people are saying.

"Fasting doesn't work for me. When I'm hungry, I feel I have to eat something."

"No one can possibly concentrate on God when they are craving food. "

"It is not a commandment in the Bible although there is nothing wrong with doing it if you feel the need"

And my personal favorite

" Yes many christians fast for a small amount of time like a day or 2. but some really hardcore christians with mental problems will do it for like a week. because they say it makes them closer to god."

I've never had such awkward moments around other Jesus followers as the times it came up that I was fasting. First there was the decision if I should even tell them. Do they, "need to know." Because if it isn't absolutely essential for them to know, then my telling them would just be boasting. I am a Pharisee and my fast counts for nothing. Then if I don't tell them right away, and it comes up later, like when we set down to eat, it's even more awkward because I have left out a pretty important part of my life which also affects them. 

Then there are the reactions. Some people decline to eat around me as if it would be just too painful  for me to see someone eat. Some eventually eat but looked rather sheepish about it. Several people quietly admit they should probably try fasting too, or explain why they can't. In the middle of my seven day fast, I was talking with a dear brother whom I have the utmost respect for, and when my fast finally came up in conversation he said, "Well at least you weren't trying to tell me about it." as if I would have been committing a mortal sin had I brought it up at the beginning of the conversation.

The Bible has a lot to say about fasting. Yet I have seldom heard it brought up without a reference to Matthew 6:16-18.  The misuse of these words of Jesus only help keep this valuable spiritual exercise at the fringe of our  faith community. Here is what Jesus actually said.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (NIV)
The hypocrites disfigured themselves so that everyone who walked by them on the street would immediately know they were fasting. It became their super-religious identity. "Look at me, I'm holy because I'm fasting." So Jesus warns not to make a public spectacle of yourself and show off the fact that you are fasting. He never says not to tell anyone. In my private conversations with friends and family, there is no reason why I should feel weird about telling them I am undertaking a major spiritual exercise. 

Ironically, I could talk all day about prayer, and no one would feel awkward. No one sees any boasting when I say, "I'm praying for you." But if I added, "And I'm fasting too," then suddenly people are offended. This is hypocrisy.

We are so uncomfortable talking about fasting because fasting is uncomfortable. I don't think very many Christians fast. It's hard to say for sure, because they never talk about it if they do. But unlike prayer, or Bible reading, the two socially acceptable Christian disciplines, fasting goes against the grain of both our culture, and our fleshly appetites. Being reminded about fasting reminds us how wealthy excessive and undisciplined we really are. It may even make us feel guilty to hear someone talk about it.

We need to talk about Fasting
There are several reasons why we must buck the trend and bring fasting out of the shadows.

1. Jesus did it (Matt 4:2). He also made it clear that he expected his followers too (Matt 6:16, Mark 2:20). That alone should tell us that fasting has value. 

2. Christians throughout the ages have found great spiritual benefit in fasting. They also weren't afraid to talk about it. Read the writings of many great Christians through the ages -  Tertullian, Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, John Wesley, Andrew Murray  - and see how often fasting comes up. It has only become obscure in recent history. Why?

3. Fasting, as we discover in the Bible, was often a communal event( Leviticus 23:27, Acts 13:2-3). It was usually meant to be a spiritual exercise for the community, bringing the community together. It's also a lot easier to make it through a fast knowing others are going through the same thing with you.

4. Fasting is more complicated than just not eating for a while. We need to be taught why and how. We need mature disciples to mentor the newer ones on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, Bible study, and fasting.

5. Our culture is plagued by excess and self-gratification. The followers of Jesus are often just as caught up in it as the rest of society. We are seriously ill.  Fasting is not the cure, Fasting helps clear away the clutter so we can find the Cure