Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Frills and Thrills of Wedding Planning

Wedding planning is about juggling, and there are a bunch of objects up in the air--save the date cards, invitations, gift registries, ceremony plans, reception blueprints and honeymoon reservations, to name a few. I was oblivious to most of these before Katy and I got engaged, but I've become more literate as we've moved forward.

It's been an interesting process. My fiancee is well-versed in traditional etiquette. She likes to make sure that everything follows the "rules," the unwritten ceremonial guidelines codified throughout the ages--some that seem like they originated in the 19th century, others that look distinctly modern. For her, registries must be both practical and cute, and invitations must be well-written and "fancy." Save the Date cards hang in the balance between cutesiness (a word?) and formality, and the honeymoon should be the "best trip of our lives thus far."

It's not that I object to the rules. I've just been ignorant about the whole deal. Before actually sitting down and planning the different aspects of the wedding weekend, I would have been satisfied with any old ceremony. Demonstrating considerable patience, Katy has slowly refined my thinking, to the point where I've started to appreciate the luxuries I once counted as frivolous. I've gotten a little more interested in all the decorative details of the ceremony and the reception. I've also begun to object to certain things that we've added to our registry, not because they're impractical, but because I think don't they're cute. Katy has created a monster.

Seriously, though, I think God ordained wedding planning from the beginning. As far as we know, Adam and Eve didn't have a ceremony, but they got to start their lives as the only people on earth and without a sinful nature, a situation that doesn't exactly mirror our fallen state. They did have to learn to work together, though, and wedding planning teaches this exact same lesson today. Sure, you can get personal guidance from a more experienced couple, but there's no counseling tool like paring down your invite list, picking the perfect song for the first dance or agreeing on a honeymoon destination. All these feats require a remarkable amount of collaboration. And it only gets more intense as the big day rapidly approaches. Two people are starting to become one.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fast Food Nation Review

I'm not a fanatical liberal, and I don't think that animals should have the same rights as humans. I don't come from the "Save the whales, kill the babies" camp. I don't generally boycott restaurants because of their treatment of animals, and I'm not a member of the Sierra Club or PETA.

But I am a reasonable human being who, because of Christ's work in my life, cares more about human beings than the preservation of the free market. After reading the book Fast Food Nation, my eyes have been opened to what author Eric Schlosser calls "the dark side of the all-American meal," with all its incumbent greed and social injustice.

In his exhaustively researched treatise on the American fast food industry, Schlosser barrages the reader with almost 300 pages of relentless, hard-hitting facts. The notes section of the book alone adds another almost 100 pages. But the book reads more like a series of well-written magazine profiles than a cold, dry encyclopedia. Schlosser covers the issues--the rise of McDonald's and its attempt at global conquest, the woes of the meatpacking industry and the proliferation of foodborne pathogens, to name a few--with the doggedness of a seasoned investigative journalist and appropriate doses of sensitivity and objectivity. While his arguments generally lean toward the left, he focuses on the struggles of real people, which leaves critics little room for argument. You can argue opinions, but it's hard to rebut experiences that have left people's lives in shambles.

This human-centered viewpoint provides some of the most poignant scenes and the book--and some of its most powerful arguments. Schlosser shares one man's story that he says epitomizes the modern-day dilemmas faced by workers in the meatpacking industry, who are mostly immigrants from Latin-American countries. Kenny worked in the meatpacking industry for over 16 years, an uncanny stint in a revolving-door industry where terrible working conditions combined with large companies' desire not to pay for benefits leads to an amazingly high turnover rate. Kenny, a stout Latino, endured injury after injury without compensation from his company. Ironically, he felt a strong loyalty for the company that led him to become a staunch ally in their fight against labor unions, organizations that he would desperately need in the future. Because of the stress and an endless string of senseless injuries, his first marriage failed and his body is now badly broken. After saving a man's life at a factory, he received nothing more than a paper certificate. And after his last injury, as he lay in a hospital bed, the company fired him without even telling him in person.

Kenny's story isn't the only interesting and relevant anecdote in Schlosser's narrative. He attended a restaurant owners' conference where the keynote speaker was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He researched a McDonald's in Plauen, a small city in Germany where public demonstrations contributed to the unification of Germany and the crumbling of the Berlin wall. The restaurant is situated about a mile from the Dachau concentration camp, but the chain promises it's not trying to capitalize off of the people who come to see the place where about 30,000 Jews and gypsies died senselessly. Their position was given a bit more credence when they stopped distributing flyers on cars in the parking lot of the concentration camp that said "Welcome to Dachau, and Welcome to McDonald's."

Call me liberal, but I do think there's something wrong about exporting a cultural of obesity and self-indulgence to nations around the world. Having traveled to China, I can say that it's fun to see signs of Americana in countries that have been closed to ideologies of civil liberties and free trade. But that shouldn't come at any cost. We have to be vigilant to ensure that economic expansion doesn't cause our moral compass to malfunction.

Will I stop eating burgers and tacos because of Schlosser's book? Probably not. But at least I will know another side to a complicated issue, one that impacts real human beings in a negative way on a day-to-day basis.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Proximity Problems

I caught myself saying something the other day that really didn't make sense. I was explaining that I have one friend who is struggling with the truths of the Gospel, while another is denying their authority and placing his faith in his experiences. While both are nonbelievers, the former, I said, is "closer" to salvation than the latter.

There's a fundamental error in evaluating someone's proximity to salvation by their ability or willingness to embrace scripture's authority or grasp its difficult concepts. I do believe that we can sense the Holy Spirit's work in some lives better than in others, but my faulty evaluation left out one essential variable: the power of God.

Judging by appearances, my assessment of the situation is largely correct. If this was a continuum, with salvation on the positive end, damnation on the negative and conflicting ideas taking positions based on the extent to which they are conducive to the two absolutes, I would have a reasonable argument. But salvation is not a continuum. Nor is it a Venn diagram, with luke-warm territory hovering somewhere in the middle. Salvation is a game of absolutes, and you're either in or you're out.

In more than a few scriptures, Jesus lets us know that he's not big on outward appearances. He said that the tax collectors, prostitutes and other assorted sinners (you know, the kind that we would never dare associate with today) were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the teachers of the law, the religious leaders whose ritual purity was only exceeded by their spiritual ignorance. And in John 3 he says that men fall into two camps: Condemned for not believing in the Son or saved because of their belief in him.

Before we get into measuring someone's proximity to faith, we should remember that outward acts of righteousness can never nullify the curse of sin. The man who sins once is just as far away from salvation as the one who daily wallows in inequity. The man who dies in a brutal car accident is just the same as he who passes away in his sleep. They're both dead.

And whether a lost person is spiraling out of control or straddling the line of legalism, Jesus can bring them back to life.

Friday, March 16, 2007

God Doesn't Need Us

One of my friends is on a mission trip to Peru, and he just sent me an email about how God used him to miraculously heal a woman who had been partially paralyzed in a stroke. We won't know the complete details of this spiritual encounter until he returns to the States, but from his description, God is the only explanation for her healing, and other people came to know Jesus because of it. My friend confessed that when he began to pray, he didn't possess some monumental faith. He just asked Jesus to heal her body, and the Lord obliged.

My friend's experience is an example of how God chooses to use the prayers of his saints to do the impossible, even in spite of our sinfulness and unbelief. But even though God is gracious enough to let us take part in his work, he doesn't need us to get things done.

In China and other parts of the world where the supernatural encounters are a way of life, God often uses visions to get people's attention. People will often describe a dream in which Jesus came to them--without any intermediary--and called them to believe. Paul, the apostle formerly known as Saul, had a blinding vision of Jesus on the Damascus road that led to his conversion and his subsequent commission as missionary to the Gentiles. In each of these encounters, God dealt directly with the people he wanted to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.

Later in Paul's ministry, he was performing miraculous signs in Ephesus, a town famous for its temple to the Greek goddess Artemis. He often went to the synagogue to reason with both Jews and Gentiles, attempting to convince them from the scriptures that Jesus really was the Christ. He was widely renowned as a teacher, and he was well-respected among the people, so much so that the his ministry threatened the livelihood of the silversmiths, who made their money crafting idols for Artemis worshippers. Some sons of a Jewish high priest decided it would be fun to use Paul's authority cast out a demon. Because they didn't have Jesus' authority within them, the demon didn't respond in fear. He basically said, I know Jesus and Paul, but you don't mean anything to me. Then the demon, who indwelt one man, took on all seven of them and sent them bleeding and crying back to their daddy.

But here's why I cite this obscure story. As a result of the incident, the fame of Paul, Jesus and the Father spread throughout the city, and the town's sorcerers got together and had a good old-fashioned scroll-burning party. Because they feared God, they set their magic spells on fire, and many of them believed in Christ. In this incident, Paul didn't do anything. No faithful apostle came and explained the wonders of the Gospel to these sorcerers. God himself used a demonic beat-down to effectively end the practice of sorcery in Ephesus and draw some high-ranking officials to himself.

Never approach God thinking that he needs you to accomplish his work. Ask him to allow you to be a part of it, and he will, but remember that he's always the director and the star of the show. For him to give us bit parts in this great drama is more than we deserve and enough to thank him for. We're expendable, but somehow, in his great wisdom and grace he counts us as dependable. Appreciate this privilege and when he calls you, don't let him down.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

God of the Airwaves?

Picture from the Gospel for Asia radio ministry website.

Here's a little test. Say the word "televangelist" out loud, and see how long it takes you to cringe. If it takes you any more than two seconds, you're probably not American.

Both Christians and anti-Christians in this country lament the prosperity preachers who kidnap the airwaves in efforts to amass earthly riches. They often promise that blessing their ministry financially by sowing a "seed" of a certain dollar amount will result in a miraculous blessing from God. They even encourage viewers to use credit cards, to take a "step of faith" even if they're on their last dime. Like a true infomercial, they publish testimonials where past seed-sowers rave about the miracles God performed in their life as a direct result of their support of the ministry. Interestingly, these preachers rarely mention that the work of God spans more than just one channel and that giving is not limited to their particular ministry.

Nor do they stop to talk about the true, spiritual riches of a relationship with Christ. People should give because they will get, not because they want to reach the world for Christ. I have actually seen a preacher say, "This is not the salvation program. This is the prosperity program. If you want the salvation program, tune in later."

Looking at how mass consumerism has impacted the mega-church generation in America, it's not surprising that wolves in sheep's clothes have gotten in on the telecommunications market. In many other countries though, the broadcast media are regularly used for noble, eternal purposes.

Unlike the schnazzy-suited, slick-haired salesmen that grace American TV, those who broadcast the good news in closed countries have nothing to gain but persecution. I just read a story about a Christian in Algeria who put his cell number on TV for anyone who wanted to learn how to follow Jesus. The man that called him back had been looking for another Christian in Algeria for years. The broadcast media continue to play an integral role in maintaining the revival that resulted.

Gospel for Asia, a ministry that targets the most unreached people groups throughout the 10/40 window, uses radio to get the word out to places a missionary may never reach. Thousands have come to Christ as broadcasters speak the simple truth of the Gospel, a story that many people in these remote regions have never heard. Although the airtime is expensive, the harvest of souls has been well worth the cost.

If you support a television ministry, don't get the idea that I'm condemning you. There are some good programs to counteract the bad. But I'm glad that for every preacher farming for cash in America, there's a selfless servant of Christ using the airwaves to carry his light to out-of-the-way villages in the most shadowy places throughout the world.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Spring Broke

So, it's spring break again. For the fourth time in my college career. The set of dates hasn't changed. My laziness leading up to the break wasn't any different. But an important detail is not the same: Trevor Williams is staying in the country.

For the past three years, spring break has held the promise of international adventure. My freshman year, I took a free journalism trip to Jordan, the oft-forgotten "other" Holy Land. Sophomore year, I toured Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand and Laos en route to a VCD-bombing mission in southern China. Last year, I trekked across Coiba, a massive island off Panama's Pacific coast that served as a prison colony until a few years ago.

So what about this year? I have traded the exotic for the mundane, adventure for practicality. I will be painting an office building. The upside? This time I'll be putting money into my bank account rather than emptying it. The downside? I had to watch as all my roommates packed their bags for mission trips in Central and South America and the Caribbean, scolding myself as I coveted their adventures.

But God has something for me this spring break, and I don't just mean a few hundred bucks. Through working, waiting and praying for my friends on mission, God's going to teach me discipline. I can't go abroad all the time, but I can do God's work right where I am. Learning to be faithful to him is the greatest adventure we can ask for.