November 19, 2021
The San Fernando Valley is part of the City of Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the U.S. by population. If the Valley was a separate city, it would probably be the fifth largest city in the U.S., yet there are all sorts of undeveloped areas around us—natural spaces that you might even call wilderness. That doesn't even count all the critters I see in our neighborhood—squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks.
I can take a 15-minute drive and be on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, and a little longer drive enables me to find myself on some of the other edges of the Valley where I can take a dusty path that leaves the city behind. Not counting any cardio benefit, it clears my mind and refreshes my soul to be surrounded by nature.
If that is tempting, go to this website's Hike SoCal page and check out my next hike.
- Richard Burton
March 6, 2019
Right near my home in the San Fernando Valley lies an abandoned Lutheran church that formerly served the area in various ways besides providing a place for its small congregation to worship. This is more than a one-off exception, but an example of a larger trend. In the article What To Do With Empty Churches, Karl Zinsmeister notes that “when a church [facility] becomes a burden on a dwindling fellowship, moldering deterioration and demolition often result. Other fading parishes sell once-beautiful churches to be remade into condos, restaurants, theaters, and even bars. Such conversions
tripled nationwide between 2010 and 2015, according to the real-estate tracker CoStar Group.”
Zinsmeister goes on to explain how valuable churches are to their urban neighbors, “Once a church is lost, that neighborhood seldom regains a public space offering services like daycare, schools and free or below-market space for local groups, arts events, Boy Scout troops, and sports teams, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and more.” Quoting from a 2016 University of Pennsylvania study, he offered the surprising statistic that 90% of the people served by older urban churches weren’t church members. He goes on to highlight some of the many ways that congregations positively impact their cities, concluding that “if U.S. religiosity continues to decline, there will be serious tears in the fabric of American society.”
It’s nice to know that churches are serving their communities—Christ called his followers to let their light shine before others so they will see their good deeds and glorify God the Father. Good works are indeed valuable, but the ultimate and complementary value is to point to God, the One who transforms lives. Only God revealed in Christ can dispel guilt and shame and infuse lives with purpose—that’s the Good News, the Gospel entrusted to Christ-followers. In every place we meet, and even more so, may every person we touch, be pointed to Jesus, who can restore each person to their God-intended purpose.
- Richard Burton
March 9, 2018
There aren’t many pigs here in the San Fernando Valley, though I do remember that my daughter had a teacher who owned a pet pot-bellied pig. There are, however, a lot of dogs and cats here, not surprising since it’s reported that the U.S. has about 90 million dogs and 96 million cats (Statista.com). I have enjoyed our pets over the years, and I believe pet owners should take good care of their animals.
I found it disconcerting when I heard a radio talk show host disclose the results of asking students at speaking engagements which they would attempt to save first: their drowning pet dog or a drowning stranger. He said that something like a third of them would try to save their dog first.
Later, I ran across a study by a team led by psychologist Dr. Richard Topolski that showed similar results. The hypothetical situation was a bystander observing an out-of-control bus bearing down on a person and a dog crossing the street, and the bystander only had time to save one of them. This study presented more variables for the study subjects—the person might be a local stranger, a foreign tourist, or someone close, and the dog might be their pet or an unknown dog. Predictably, the responses differed based on these factors, yet when it came to the choice between the foreign tourist and their dog, 40% said they would save the dog!
It reminds me of an event in the life of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5. It describes “a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit,” a wild man who lived in the local tombs and mountains. He constantly yelled and gashed himself with rocks, but couldn’t be captured because he was able to break chains and shackles. Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to leave the man, and they entered a nearby herd of pigs, who then “rushed down the steep bank into the sea” and drowned.
After this, the former wild man was “sitting down, clothed and in his right mind.” What a victory! A man who was tormented, a man who terrorized the entire area, was calmly sitting and in his right mind! And
what was the response of the locals to this wonderful deliverance and transformation? They pleaded for Jesus to leave! The passage notes that the people became frightened at seeing the former wild man in his restored condition. But why ask—no, not just ask, but beg—Jesus to leave? Yes, Jesus showed himself to be mighty, which might be a bit intimidating, but Jesus used his power to heal. Seems to me to be a lot better than a dangerous maniac roaming the countryside. So why? Ah, the pigs. These weren’t pet pot-bellied pigs, but livestock, valuable meat on the hoof. And apparently when it came down to it—pigs or man, money or a person—they chose the pigs, or maybe the money. Perhaps not too different than Dr. Topolski’s study 2000 years later that found 40% of our neighbors picking the dog.
- Richard Burton
February 15, 2018
Yes, I’ll admit that my first attempt at miracle analysis didn’t turn out so well (see 2/7/18 blog). With that in mind, I decided to tackle something other than Jesus’ miracles of multiplying food, so this time I’ll look at healing.
Even though the Gospels document many, many healings by Christ, only a small percentage of those healings have specific accounts of how Jesus interacted with the sick persons. There are multiple passages similar to Matthew 4:23 recounting that Jesus healed “every disease and sickness among the people.”
Amazing, yes, but not much insight as to what Jesus specifically did to heal people. In some cases, we know people were healed by touching Jesus (such as Mark 3:10 and Mark 5:28-29). Sometimes Jesus simply commanded wholeness, often by directing the person seeking the healing to do something—to take up their mat and walk, or stretch out their hand.
But we do have several incidents where we have the opportunity to see Jesus in action. First, we’ll look at Jesus healing a deaf/mute, and then two incidents of healing blind persons. To heal the deaf/mute, Mark 7 tells us that Jesus took him away from the crowd, put his fingers in his ears, spit and touched his tongue, looked up to heaven, and said with a sigh, “Be opened!” (well, actually Jesus said it in Aramaic – “Ephphata!”).
In Mark 8, we see how Jesus healed a blind man. Jesus took him out of the village, spit on his eyes, and put his hands on him, causing him to see partially. Jesus put his hands on him once more, and he gained perfect sight. In John 9, Jesus made mud with his spit and put that on the blind man’s eyes and told him to go wash in a nearby pool, resulting in his healing.
Okay, I think I have it! For deaf guys, fingers in the ears and spit placed on the tongue, all while saying “Be opened!” (I think the English should work). For blind guys, spit on the eyes, or use mud made with spit. Hmm…but what if the person isn’t deaf or blind? Then what do I do? And when Jesus directed his disciples to go out and heal, why didn’t he share these very insightful guidelines with them? I mean, didn’t they need a basic healing manual, at least for the deaf and blind category? All Jesus did was give them authority and power to heal and told them to go heal people. Well, maybe I’ll need to try one more time to figure out this miracle stuff.
- Richard Burton
Yes, I am impressed with myself! I’ve got this figured out! What do I have figured out? Merely Jesus’ multiplying the bread and fish, that’s what. It’s a bit complex but stick with me on this. All four of the gospels record “the feeding of the 5,000,” and Matthew and Mark additionally document “the feeding of the 4,000.” Between these two events, we can gain some mathematical insights into multiplying food. We will look at three areas:
Food needed: Let’s first calculate the number of people fed. In the feeding of the 5,000, Matthew 14:21 states, “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” If ten percent of the men were single, that’s 500, and 4,500 were married. That would then add 4,500 wives, and assuming 2.3 children per family, 2.3 x 4,500 = 10,350 children. Total it all up, and you have 19,850 people. For the feeding of the 4,000, we will use the same assumptions, so the total crowd would have been 20% less, a total of 15,880. Are you enduring all this math? You haven’t skipped ahead to the “Amazing Conclusion,” have you? Stick with me.
Baseline resource: For the feeding of the 5,000, five loaves and two fish were available, essentially one meal. For the feeding of the 4,000, seven loaves and “a few” small fish were available.
Multiplication factor: In the first case, we estimate that Jesus fed 19,850 persons, and in the second, 15,880. However, there are a few adjustments needed before we can do a calculation of the multiplication factor. In the feeding of the 5,000, it appears that they had been with Jesus for some portion of one day, so the people simply needed their evening meal. In contrast, in the feeding of the 4,000, they had been with Jesus for three days and at that point had nothing to eat, and Jesus was concerned that “they may collapse on the way [home]” (Matthew 15:32b). These people were very hungry, so let’s assign a factor of 1.5 meals per person to satisfy them.
Yeah, I know, talking about food, especially when we’re doing calculations, can make you hungry. Just a little bit more before you get to the Amazing Conclusion, and then you can fix yourself an Amazing Snack.
Using the information from above, we will say Jesus started with an estimated 1.3 times more food in the feeding of the 4,000. We also don’t want to forget the leftovers factor – twelve and seven basketfuls respectively, and we’ll assume that one basket could feed 10 people.
Now for some calculations. In the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus called forth 19,970 meals – the ones eaten by our estimated 19,850 people and 120 meals left over (12 basketfuls times 10 meals), all made from one meal, a multiplication factor of 19,970.
In the feeding of the 4,000, with 15,880 people and each eating 1.5 times a normal meal and seven basketfuls of leftovers (70 meals), Jesus called forth 23,890 meals. However, since he started with 1.3 times as much food, the multiplication factor was 18,323, 8% below the earlier factor. Why? In reading the events immediately preceding the feeding of the 4,000, Matthew 15:30-31 records that great crowds brought all sorts of sick people to Jesus, and he healed them. It appears that there is a “miracle fatigue factor” at work.
Amazing Conclusion: I’m an idiot. That’s probably the best conclusion in this entire analysis. Math, or more broadly, intellectual analysis, doesn’t do a good job of providing insight into God’s miracles. There was no multiplication factor for Jesus, just hungry people. The real analysis? Jesus was moved by compassion (Matthew 15:32), operated in faith that manifest in thankfulness to God the Father, the Provider (Jesus gave thanks in each case), and enough was provided for each person to eat and be satisfied, with food to spare.
- Richard Burton, February 7, 2018
January 13, 2018
You may have seen the recent headline on your Internet news feed: “20-Year-Old Claims $451 Million Jackpot, Hopes to ‘Do Some Good for Humanity.’” We all commend the winner, Shane Missler of Port Richey, Florida, for his good intentions.
There are some hurdles, however, between good intentions and good outcomes, even for the winner of a $451 lottery. For starters, since he decided to take the lump sum payout instead of annual payments, the actual amount of his windfall is “only” $281.2 million. This amount will of course be taxed, leaving about $170 million (fortunately for him, Florida has no income tax; he would have been $37 million poorer were he a California resident).
Now things get complicated. The Good Morning America article noted that “Missler plans on plunking down some of the lottery loot for a new home in Tampa and then pursuing a ‘variety of passions,’…as well as helping others.” Their article also included a statement from Missler: "I intend to take care of my family, have some fun along the way, and cement a path for financial success so that I can leave a legacy far into the future. I have always been one to encourage the idea of chasing dreams and I believe life is about the pursuit of passion. I am 20 years old and my journey has only just begun.”
I certainly wish Mr. Missler well, though there are certainly many pitfalls that will confront him. The stories of bad outcomes for lottery winners have been well-documented, highlighting pitfalls such as poisoned relationships, lavish and sometimes destructive spending, and poor financial management.
But let’s assume – and hope – that none of those affect Mr. Missler. He hopes to “do some good for humanity, to help others,” and he has lots of money – what could go wrong? It turns out that even if he had virtually unlimited money, it is very possible that he could not fulfill that good impulse. Without looking too far for insight, one colossal example comes from the so-called “War on Poverty” launched by legislation in 1964. The 50-year milestone of these efforts arrived in 2014 leading to some harsh assessments – over $20 trillion (yes – that is a “t”) spend over the 50 years and little to show for it in terms of the poverty rate in the United States. $20 trillion is virtually unlimited money, and the result was negligible. Ironically, one analysis showed that based on the money spent on all the current programs annually, it would only cost 20% of those expenditures for the government to simply gave cash grants to every family unit under the poverty level an amount that would put them over the threshold.
Which brings me to a dream. I was on a college campus speaking to a group of students, and I knew that they wanted to have a positive impact on the world around them (which I believe to be largely true, despite the goals being sometimes misguided). “You want to touch the world, to help the world,” I proclaimed, “but to do it, to truly do it, you will need the help of Jesus Christ.” I believe this to be true on both counts – many, many post-high-school and twenty-somethings want to do good, and for it to work, they will need the God of all goodness to be in the middle of their efforts.
Does that mean that every Christian enterprise will automatically be helpful and effective? You already know the answer to that – of course not. But having Christ’s love and compassion as motivation, his wisdom to direct, and his supernatural resources to draw upon can bring about results that cannot be duplicated.
- Richard Burton
December 19, 2017
It wasn’t quite 8 P.M. as he [Pastor Greg] sat in the Food Court of the Burbank Town Center mall contentedly sipping a cup of warm mulled apple cider. He had accomplished his mission and found the two items for Ana and Haley he had hoped to find, and avoided the peril of shopping at the last minute. Even if I found a great present, Ana somehow always knew that it had been purchased on the 23rd or 24th, and that fact alone impugned the entire accomplishment in her eyes; no last-minute shopping for me anymore!
- Messy Hope, Chapter 22
Messy Hope follows a few everyday people in their everyday lives, offering glimpses of God’s mighty working as well as aspects of messiness that confront most of us – to one degree or another – regularly. In this snippet, Pastor Greg is dealing with a common “Christmas task” – locating a gift for a friend or loved one. For many of us, the task can on occasion be sometimes merry, but at other times perplexing or difficult.
In Pastor Greg’s case, he was shopping for his wife Ana and his teenage daughter Haley, and whatever stress he might have had before successfully uncovering the gifts he was hunting had drained away such that we find him in a contented state. And part of his positive situation came from a lesson drawn from previous experience: listen to your wife! Well, more specifically, even when he found the right gift for Ana if he had purchased it at the last minute (and how do wives know that stuff?!), it was somewhat tarnished, even if just a bit, so shop for her in a timely way.
Is this blog a tip sheet on shopping for the woman in your life? Or advice on shopping if your wife is named Ana? Not exactly, but it is about gifts. God has offered each person the incredible gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, and in turn, those who receive this gift by faith are called to let our life be a gift to God. Let’s forget for a moment that there is a rather wide disparity between God’s perfect and multi-dimensional gift in Christ compared to me in all my imperfections is a gift to God, but Christ values us and calls us his joy, his rich inheritance.
The gift each of us can offer to God is ourselves. We lay down our self-will and embrace Christ’s will – pleasing God in our goals and aspirations, how we invest our time and money, and how we deal with others. How does Pastor Greg’s shopping lesson apply to any of this? When he bought a gift for Ana early, it communicated to her that she was a priority, that she was not an obligation or a last-minute thought. When God is our priority in all that we do, it reflects how we value him. I want God to be first in my time allocation, first in my goals and plans, and first in my finances. And as one of my former pastors explained to me, when I put Jesus first, he will help me to love my wife more than I ever could on my power.
So, yeah, it’s a good idea not to shop at the last minute for the woman in your life. It’s an even better idea to put God first in everything we do (and in so doing, I’ll bet you won’t shop for your wife at the last minute).
- Richard Burton
The month leading up to Christmas in the San Fernando Valley is marked by two things: stress and decorations. Sure, everyday life here is stressful year-round, from the infamous traffic on the 405 and 101 freeways to express lines that aren’t very fast to the gazillion soccer leagues jamming every park every Saturday, and Christmas puts it into overdrive. But we will leave the topic of stress to another day and talk about something a bit lighter – literally – and that is decorations.
As soon as Halloween is over, Christmas displays start to appear in stores and malls as well as commercial streets. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the decorating has spread to homes, peaking in mid-December. Santas and sleighs, elves and reindeer, Christmas trees and stars, wise men and mangers, wreaths and bows, snowmen and snowflakes, not to mention Hanukkah menorahs and stars of David. The sizes range from towering trees in malls to bigger-than-life-size inflatables of Santa and Winnie the Pooh (not sure how he relates to Christmas) to tiny ornaments.
And there is one feature common to the vast majority of these decorations: light. Strings of light envelop houses, lights covering fir trees inside and outdoors, spotlights aimed at displays, and lights even implanted into those inflatables. Yeah, Christmas has become too commercialized and secularized, and our “stress and decorations” version of Christmas that thinks “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” is a classic holiday song doesn’t seem to closely resemble what happened in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. But maybe it’s closer than we think. I’ll bet Mary and Joseph were stressed as they were having a hard time finding lodging and her water had already burst. OK, that’s not in Luke’s narrative of the story, but it’s probably not far from the truth. And a God star and a nearby field shining with the glory of the Lord are pretty impressive decorations.
I’ve decided that every time I see the lights of the season in all their myriad variations, whether it’s a Santa or an icicle or a star, I will think about the Light of the World and the Prince of Peace. Yes, even as I sit helplessly looking at the taillights snaking down the 405 freeway, I will choose to consider the Light of the World. He has come to give us peace in the middle of stress and light in the darkness. Jesus even wants to “decorate” us, placing on us “a crown of beauty instead of ashes…and a garment of praise” (Isaiah 61:3, NIV), the very best decorations to be found anywhere at any price.
- Richard Burton
By the way, the sparking view of the Valley on the cover of my novel Messy Hope was inspired by one of the scenes set on a Valley overlook during the Christmas season.
November 2, 2017
When I picture a “college town,” the San Fernando Valley doesn’t exactly fit the criteria. I lived in what I viewed as a college town – Bellingham, Washington, the home of Western Washington University (WWU). Back when I attended WWU for one quarter, the city had a population of about 40,000, and the enrollment at WWU was 10,000. Another classic college town comes to mind every time UCLA travels to play football against Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington. The sportscasters generally have some disparaging remarks about Pullman’s limited hospitality options, which may not be entirely unwarranted since Pullman has a population of 30,000, of which 20,000 are WSU students. Now that’s a college town.
The San Fernando Valley’s population is far too big to fit the definition of a college town, or a “town” by any stretch of the meaning. There are a fair number of sources for post-high-school education, but four campuses are by far the largest colleges and account for almost 90,000 students between them. Yeah, as in three times the entire population of Pullman. The largest of the four is California State University, Northridge (CSUN), with an enrollment of 40,000, followed by three community colleges each with over 10,000 students. Maybe I need to redefine college town; maybe something like this: “Anywhere with over 90,000 college students is a college town.”
So, I have a new definition. What’s the point? Is there something new to say about colleges and universities? They are certainly in the news – whether quoting some professor as an expert on a certain topic or revealing some campus controversy or simply reporting the results of local college sports teams. And virtually every family with children, even toddlers, has given thought to college and its costs. Most view the presence of colleges in their city as a critical asset, although some view them as unhealthy centers of political correctness and indoctrination.
For Christ-followers, the opportunity represented by colleges is sometimes concealed, or unnoticed. In the case of the San Fernando Valley, there are more than 90,000 young adults, eager to learn, often impressionable, and representing persons from all over the globe. Jesus told his followers to “make disciples of all nations,” and what a great opportunity to do so right in our “town” at these campuses. Thousands of persons, mostly in their late teens and twenties, and a fair number of them are international students. What a great opportunity to love, pray, and share the goodness of Christ in both practical and spiritual ways. An amazing way to love an international student? Host one in your home, with some stays as short as six weeks during the summer.
In the San Fernando Valley and in every place that colleges and universities are found, Christians need to embrace these campuses as part of their community and world. Step one is to love the students as well as faculty and staff, pray for them, and be open to practical ways of being the Good News.
- Richard Burton
July 5, 2017
Just last week my wife and I returned from vacationing in France with one of our daughters and her family. As you no doubt know, France uses the metric system for all of its measurements, from weight and volume to area and distance. While riding my bicycle yesterday, I thought that the speedometer was malfunctioning, showing that I was going 25 when I knew that I was going nowhere near that speed, despite any hopeful imaginings on my part. Upon looking closer, I noticed the little notation “K/hr” after the 25, sadly confirming that I was not doing 25 miles per hour. Rather, my speed was 25 kilometers per hour, that is, 15 miles per hour.
My bicycle speedometer decided to welcome me back from my vacation by magically converting to the metric system that I had become (a little bit) accustomed to while in France. Measurement systems are interesting. While driving in France, when the speed limit was posted as 110, that sure seemed fast but is merely 66 miles per hour. When we went to buy some fruit, the prices sure seemed expensive. Nectarines for 3.50 Euros?! Oh, yeah – that’s per kilogram, about 2.2 pounds, so it was only 1.59 Euros. And of course, Euros is a whole other measurement system, so I needed to convert Euros into dollars, which in early June was about 1.12 Euros to a dollar, so the nectarines were about $1.75 a pound. I’m glad my computer didn’t magically convert all our financial transactions into Euros upon return!
Each different measurement system, or standard (as in “the metric standard”), can give a certain impression to someone who uses a different system. When my bike measured my speed in kilometers per hour, I momentarily thought that maybe I was going fast, though it only took a split second to quickly adopt a better hypothesis – my speedometer is malfunctioning. The price of nectarines seemed high until I realized I was buying 2.2 pounds per unit, though that was tempered by the fact that one dollar was only worth about 0.89 Euros.
With these examples, we are talking about different ways of measuring the same thing. The rate of travel on my bike was unchanged whether it was described as 25 kilometers per hour or 15 miles per hour. The number of nectarines was the same whether measured in kilograms or pounds, and their cost did not change whether denominated in Euros or dollars.
But there are measurement systems that can be starkly different, valuing different items in deeply contrasting ways. As an example, while at a party several years ago, a person whom I had briefly met a couple of times but whom I barely knew started our conversation with this question: “Do you own your home or rent?” For this person, this was the most important thing he could know about someone, revealing his measurement standard. Our culture has many standards, often overlapping, including income, size of the home (or its zip code), type of car, career, education, vocabulary, dress size, and many other measurements. Less often is the standard based on integrity, kindness, or patience.
In the real world, measurement systems don’t change magically like my bike speedometer, though people can often adopt standards without making a conscious decision, especially when it is a widely-embraced standard in our culture. I remember when the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart that “more is not better.” That was stunning, yet at no time do I remember deciding to adopt “more is better” as a personal standard; it was just obvious – until God declared it an inadequate standard.
Whether we use the metric system or the English system ultimately makes no difference, though using the metric does force me to do some extra math to make the conversions. But the standards we embrace, often without thinking about it, have a big impact. May the Holy Spirit bring light to all of our standards and direct us into His standards and His ways that always bring peace and joy.
- Richard Burton
May 28, 2017
The City of Los Angeles is known for many things. It is the second-largest city in the United States, is arguably the preeminent hub for film, television, and recording businesses, is the home for multiple major league sports teams, and of course, encompasses The Valley. Less impressively, Los Angeles also tops the nation in traffic, smog, and production of porn films. And did I mention that voter turnout is dismal?
A few years back when my wife and I were walking into the polling place for an election that did not include statewide or national offices, I realized that our two votes could be meaningful. Sure, we all know it’s important to vote (and it is), but why would I think that my vote in the second-largest city in the nation, a city of almost four million persons, might be more than inconsequential?
Why? I did the math. In the dozen or so Los Angeles City elections (ones that did not include statewide or national offices) over the last decade, four of them recorded a voter turnout of 11% or less, one of them as low as 7%. There are 15 City Council seats, and each District has about 120,000 registered voters. In the event only 7% show up, 3.6% of the registered voters would represent the majority of the ballots cast, a mere 4,320 votes to elect a Council Member!
Low voter turnout is sad, but as you can see, it multiplies the impact of those voters who do show up. In the case of the 7% that was recorded in 2007, you might say that each vote was leveraged by a factor of 14! As Christ-followers, regardless of what everyone else is doing, we are called – and equipped – by our Savior to make our lives count. We are called to live in love, to care for the needy, to offer encouragement and comfort, and to hold tightly to the truth. In a world that often finds all of these commodities in short supply, your life will indeed count, and be leveraged for God.
- Richard Burton
May 2, 2017
My wife and I recently had the chance to visit Yosemite National Park, renowned for its waterfalls. Spring is the best time to see the waterfalls, and with the heavy snowpack this winter, God served up an unparalleled water show, including waterfalls that I had never seen in my many trips there. Which brought to mind a waterfall in the west San Fernando Valley.
A waterfall in The Valley? Let me tell you the story. When I was a boy, my family made an excursion to Chatsworth Reservoir in the west valley shortly after a rainstorm. Yes, I know…the whole area is fenced off these days, one more natural preserve that no one can appreciate up close; but back to the story. So as my brother Allen and I were clambering around the hills, I looked up, and there it was – a waterfall! OK, all of 15 feet high, but a waterfall nonetheless. And I promptly named it “Burton Falls” (I didn’t realize that a waterfall with a single span was a “fall,” not “falls”; hey, I was a kid).
Of course, it was a highly seasonal waterfall from a highly seasonal stream in the hills of the west valley, and I never saw it again, in part because I didn’t bother to drive miles on a wet day to try and find an elusive display. But not so elusive was my evident lack of humility. It never occurred to me to name it “Two Brothers Fall” “West Valley Fall” or “Chatsworth Hills Fall.” Immediately and virtually automatically it was Burton Falls (I’ve already admitted the improper usage, but that’s what I called it), and the Burton I was thinking about wasn’t my brother or my parents.
When Jesus said that we must receive the kingdom of God like a child (Mark 10:15), I don’t think the model he had in mind was the 4th-grade version of me. Maybe a younger kid would have been closer to what Jesus was trying to illustrate. And while I don’t want to emulate the me-focus I had as a nine-year-old, I do want to have a childlike trust in God and a humility that isn’t concerned about who gets credit for the good things that God invites us to participate in.
- Richard Burton
April 13, 2017
I have lived most of my life in the San Fernando Valley, and one of the benefits is the nice weather. We are just a few weeks into spring and the high temperatures for the large majority of those days have been in the 70s and 80s, pretty much perfect weather for doing just about anything. Not the 80s and humid, not 70s and thunderstorms, simply sunny and pleasant. This is in contrast to, say, Minnesota where I was born at the end of April. The weather like that day? Snow. And how about my Minnesota-born nephew born toward the end of September? The weather like that day? Snow.
Several years ago, one of my daughters moved to Michigan for her husband’s job. After living there for a while, she explained to me that in the San Fernando Valley, we only have three seasons – spring, summer, and fall. I think this might have been after the winter when they had 70 days when the temperature reached 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. That’s 0 degrees as in 32 degrees below freezing. When a cold day for us is when the high only gets into the 50s, she pointedly insists that that’s not winter.
I contend that we indeed have four seasons but their differentiation is more muted than in some locales. Like a connoisseur of fine wines, one needs to gain an appreciation for these subtle seasonal changes. Just as there are physical changes in our weather through the seasons, there are also spiritual seasons and signs. In Matthew 16:1-4, Jesus noted that those listening to him gave attention to the weather and had a pretty good track record of predicting fair weather or storms. They could discern the weather but not the “signs of the times,” the spiritual season.
For each person, there is the overriding reality that Jesus will return and we need to be spiritually prepared. For someone who has not accepted Jesus Christ’s gift of forgiveness and salvation, that would be the first step. For Christ-followers, living faithfully to serve him with the perspective of eternity is always critical.
Additionally, we each have personal seasons in life that affect us spiritually: newlywed, raising young kids, grieving the loss of a loved one, empty nest, and many many other situations that affect our lives. I want Jesus to be in the middle of each season, and I also want to recognize that there are adjustments to be made and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom for living out each particular season.
- Richard Burton
March 27, 2017
I have a lot of relatives in Minnesota where the highest point in the entire state is Eagle Mountain at 2,301 feet elevation. That’s pretty good compared to Florida’s highest point, Britton Hill. Just the name tips you off that it may not be very impressive, so its 345 feet elevation may not be entirely surprising to you. In comparison, we here in the San Fernando Valley have a local peak of 3,750 feet elevation, Oat Mountain. Looking further afield in Los Angeles County, you will encounter Mount San Antonio’s 10,000-foot peak (10,064).
I certainly love the hills and mountains that are abundant in our area for their beauty as well as the hiking I have relished since I was an 11-year-old Boy Scout. But going back to the 19th century and early 20th century, our local mountains made travel difficult. For instance, to travel by stagecoach from the north end of the San Fernando Valley in 1850 to Newhall, the next town north and just a matter of several miles, was an arduous affair. In the middle of Newhall Pass, the coach had to be winched up the highest point of the pass until 1854 when a narrow cut was dug in the past and eventually deepened to 90 feet. It was a sheer cut right through the hill and was called Beale’s Cut. Although partially collapsed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, you can still see it today (see my 12/2015 photo below).
To the present day, the number of transportation corridors into and out of the San Fernando Valley is relatively limited for a community of more than 1.5 million, and the mountains and hills that surround the valley are the main challenges. “Eye-catching and enjoyable obstacles” might be a succinct summary of these mountains and hills. In reading the Bible, there are many references to the beauty of the valleys, hills, and mountains of Israel, and yet in Isaiah 40:3-4 (NIV), there is the “obstacle” sense:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight into the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
In these verses, there is a heavenly call to prepare a way for the Lord, but the ups and downs of the mountains and valleys impede making a highway in the anything-but-level terrain. But an amazing thing happens – the valleys are lifted, the mountains are made low, and the rough ground becomes smooth, so a “highway for our God” can be made, a harbinger of the glory of the Lord that verse 5 says will be revealed.
When the mountains and valleys in your life are obstacles to you moving ahead, they are no longer beautiful and enjoyable instead they are imposing. But God can change the entire landscape to make a level highway. When you are facing mountains, call out to Jesus. As this passage continues, it declares that God will come with might, and like a shepherd, he will tenderly care for his flock (verses 10-11). Our God is ready to do the same today.
- Richard Burton
March 10, 2017
Drought has been a big topic in Los Angeles – really, all of California – for the last few years. It turns out that the average rainfall in Los Angeles is 14.77 inches per year according to the Los Angeles Almanac. I had heard for years that the average rainfall in L.A. was about 14 inches, so seeing the exact number come in at 14.77, based on records going back 139 years, was no surprise. In looking at the annual rainfall year by year starting in 1877, the real surprise was that the average was a very poor predictor of the rainfall for any given year.
Now that I knew the exact average, I thought that most years – or at least many years – would fall within an inch of the average. Yet as I looked through the annual rainfall totals, only six years of the 139 – a measly 4% – generated between 13.77 and 15.77 inches of rainfall. The numbers ranged all over, with more years recording over 30 inches than were within an inch of the average. What can we conclude from this? Simply that rainfall in Los Angeles is highly variable.
As I pondered this, I realized that it had an application for Christ-followers. Paul the Apostle wrote this to his assistant, Timothy: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2a). Every season of our life is not equally convenient for doing God’s work. Within our culture and its worldview and values, every season is not equally conducive to accomplishing God’s work. Yet as believers, we are called to run the race that is set before us with endurance (Hebrews 12:1b).
Regardless of the level of rainfall, life goes on. Similarly, regardless of the environment or cultural milieu, or personal convenience, the work of the gospel must go on. However, we can make strategic adjustments. Just as we have all been watering our lawns less over the last few years, and have purchased a few “drought-resistant” plants instead of some of our more water-hungry favorites, we can adjust in serving the Lord for our situation. The truth of the gospel never changes, but strategies can change – our job is to “make disciples of all nations,” and do it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Summing it up, we will stay engaged in doing Jesus’ work in season and out of season, making strategic changes as the Holy Spirit leads.
- Richard Burton
February 21, 2017
I helped put myself through college with a part-time job throwing newspapers. No, not the two-block paper route done on a bicycle as you saw on a “Leave It To Beaver” rerun, but a serious paper route that delivered to about 2,000 homes covering large swaths of Encino and Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley south of Ventura Boulevard (often with the help of my future wife). Most locals know that “south of the boulevard” in our town means an area of high-end homes.
Having gone to high school with kids who lived in Encino (whereas I lived on the “wrong side of the boulevard”), I was familiar with the area and had visited some of these homes on occasions such as debate team briefings or practices. This was the Beverly Hills of the San Fernando Valley, and in this hilly area, there were a lot of impressive homes.
One thing I discovered while driving through these areas throwing newspapers in the pitch black of 2 in the morning or even the early morning light of 6 in the morning was the fact that these upscale neighborhoods were often akin to a wilderness. About the only people out were police officers, who made my acquaintance many times when they saw an old black Ford driving around with a guy in a stocking cap and a grubby jacket. Fortunately, they waved me along when they saw baled stacks of newspapers in the car. But while there was a paucity of humans, there were plenty of other denizens. I think it was Wile E. Coyote who regularly loped down Valley Vista Boulevard in the early mornings. I saw skunks on front lawns, deer munching on beautiful landscaping, a covey of quail in the same place just after sunrise each morning, and plenty more. I realized that by day, it was a high-end suburb, but by night it was a wilderness and the wildlife ruled. To discover this, I needed to take a fresh look from a different perspective (or time).
Similarly, many people in our lives seem to have it all together and desperately need the love of Jesus. They may be articulate, nice, and maybe even live in one of those Encino homes. But beyond all that, they may be searching for answers, empty, and not sure if it’s safe to make themselves vulnerable. As a Christ-follower, you are called to join Jesus in extending Good News to each person in your life.
On the other hand, there are many Christ-followers who view themselves as disqualified or unqualified to be one of God’s ministers. Worldviews or models or teachings – whether explicit or implicit – may have told you that being a woman, or not having a theological education, or being young, or being too old, would keep you from being a full partner in God’s work. I invite you to pursue the fullness of what God has called you to do, seeing things that may not be obvious in our worldview but that God wants to reveal by his Word and his Holy Spirit.
- Richard Burton
February 10, 2017
Driving in the San Fernando Valley is always interesting, filled with some of the nastiest stretches of freeway in the world! Yes, the dreaded 405 (why do they call it the “San Diego Freeway” when it only goes to Long Beach?), the 101, and the 5, supplemented by other messy freeways like the 134, 170, and 118 that are only sometimes packed. And of course, lots of surface streets are also filled with vehicles and L.A. drivers.
Honestly, when the roads are packed like the Space Mountain line at Disneyland, there’s not much you can do to get to your destination faster. Yeah, sometimes there’s a shortcut or at least there used to be before WAZE let the entire world know about it. And it saves you all 60 seconds. Ideally, I should relax, listen to some good worship music, or one of Pastor Doug’s messages, and flow with the plodding traffic.
But somehow, it just doesn’t work that way. There’s a guy in the lane next to me who wants to slide into the space in front of me – I had better get closer to the car ahead so he doesn’t gain on me. Ah! That idiot just about took off my fender when he made a right turn just in front of me! I should, however, pat myself on the back since I didn’t call him a fool or even “race,” beautifully fulfilling Matthew 5:22.
Why does a simple drive home start to resemble a gran prix race more than a simple commute? Somehow, I want to win, to stay ahead of that other guy, to make sure I don’t give up any advantage. But, hey, just the other month I did let a car in front of me that had been trying to exit the gas station for three light cycles – loving my neighbor, that’s me.
Valley driving doesn’t always bring out the best in me. But God has called me not only to love my neighbor – I think that includes the person stuck in traffic with me as well as the person who lives next to me – and to even love my enemy, like maybe the person who cuts me off or who makes a U-turn in front of me. “Lord, help me to love the anonymous persons driving the cars all around me. Amen.”
- Richard Burton
February 1, 2017
There is a sculpture at Cal State Northridge, San Fernando Valley’s large public university, that is almost an optical illusion. Sitting on the southeast edge of the campus, the sculpture is simply four letters – C S U N, the initials of the school’s official name: California State University, Northridge. If that were the extent of it, it would be no more than a sign, and would hardly be of interest or worthy to be considered a piece of art. What is unique is that from several different angles, it still reads “CSUN" (see the photo below).
We know by experience that when we look at things from different angles, absent a cleverly-designed installation, the view is different. We also know that this is helpful in most situations, allowing us to see different aspects of a particular item by moving from one position to another. If I am buying a car, I want to see the front and back, right and left, as well as in the passenger compartment and obviously under the hood. If my wife and I are making an important decision, I want to gain multiple perspectives.
As a thoughtful person, I like to think that I do a good job of seeing situations from various angles or perspectives, but it is easy to sometimes forget the most critical viewpoint of all – the God perspective. I remember early in my career I had the opportunity to consider a job that looked great from multiple angles. It paid more – and at that point in life we definitely could have used the extra money – it was interesting with the potential for substantial professional development, and did I say that it paid more? But there was one hitch – a lot of travel, some of it international. As my wife Dorothy and I prayed about it, the answer was pretty simple. We had one child and Dorothy was pregnant with twins, and I needed to be around.
From this and many other situations, we learned a few things about God’s view of situations. First, God is very practical. He knows our needs, the balance of our checking account, and the cost of two extra children. Second, God doesn’t sacrifice one value for another – he knows how to perfectly integrate them into his wisdom. Finally, God’s ways are good. As we follow Christ and his direction, we are blessed (John 13:17; John 15:11).
That CSUN sign is pretty cool, but I want to have multiple perspectives, most particularly Christ’s perspective.
- Richard Burton
January 22, 2017
There was a time when everyone I knew understood that “the Valley” meant the San Fernando Valley. That made sense since most of the people I knew lived in the San Fernando Valley, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the San Fernando Valley was the primary Los Angeles suburb. Beyond that, for various reasons, including a popular song from the mid-20th century, people throughout the U.S. knew about the San Fernando Valley, and in the 1980s – for better or for worse – it was popularized for “Valley girls.”
However, in the last 20 years, if I said that I lived in “the Valley,” it would immediately generate a series of questions in the mind of my listener: San Fernando Valley? Santa Clarita Valley? Simi Valley? Silicon Valley? (and not necessarily in that order).
It’s not that the San Fernando Valley is insignificant. If it were its city, it would be the fifth largest city in the United States, and the center of significant industry, especially film and television. But “the Valley” might reflect my parochial mindset, a view that the things about me were the best or most important. For instance, I have lived in California for most of my life and could rattle off a list of “biggest and best” things: tallest peak in the contiguous United States, tallest living thing, oldest living things (well, shared with Nevada), and largest living thing (which has now been exceeded by a humongous fungus, if you can believe it – a mushroom in Oregon). And where I lived was the Valley. Yeah, a me-centric worldview, which isn’t what Jesus had in mind.
Every Christ-follower is called to be a servant (Mark 10:43-45; John 13:13-17). “Me-centric” and servant don’t go well together. Being a servant isn’t what most of us answered when someone asked us as kids what we wanted to be when we grew up. Yet Jesus lived his life on earth as a servant and told us that we will be blessed in following his example.
So I have had to adjust my mindset. I am thankful for where I live, but I don’t need to view it as a place of particular importance just because I live there or because it’s my city. It is important to God, and every person here. But his view is much larger than mine – he says that he loves the entire world (John 3:16), making each place that we live and work and play important, and we are called to be his servants in all those places.
- Richard Burton
January 13, 2017
I was at church on a Sunday morning to worship God and grow in Christ-like character. I was standing at one end of the church’s multipurpose room and I caught sight of the new guy on the other end of the room. He was probably six feet tall, a couple of years older than me, and well-groomed. And in the seconds, it took to make those observations, I decided I didn’t like him. Why? He was tough and cocky. How did I know that? He had a cocky stance and a tough expression on his face. He was trying to look casual, but his posture was taut, and he was taking in the scene with condescension.
Boy, that’s a lot to determine in a few seconds from fifty feet away, without even a hello or handshake. Being a male and 18 years old probably didn’t help my assessment skills (my apology to those who might fit that profile), and uninformed snap judgments aren’t the exclusive domain of males or 18-year-olds. But how wrong my appraisal was!
It took me some time to overturn my instant opinion, but I eventually found out that Mike – did I mention that was his name? – was smart, inventive, funny, and loyal. And though – in the best way, the guy you wanted on your team. Cocky? Nah, but confident, allowing the entrepreneurial part of him to flourish. And it also turned out that he was studying at UCLA just as I was, on the other end of the campus, in Engineering. We became good friends and even shared rides to school. Yeah, I had it wrong; not just a little, but completely wrong.
I won’t say that I haven’t made any snap judgments since then, but I certainly learned a lesson at the ripe age of 18 about the severe limitations of five-second assessments. And that certainly paid off over the years. In my work as a consultant, I met many clients who were not very likable based on my first – or even second or third – impression. But some of those gruff, salty exteriors concealed solid persons underneath.
Studies indicate that many people rely on first impressions more than they realize, often far beyond the potential for such a five-second interaction to yield accurate information. As usual, the Bible’s recommendations are brimming with wisdom for every situation, including this one: walk in humility (Ephesians 4:2a) and earnestly look to God for true wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 2:2-6).
- Richard Burton
January 7, 2017
It was late fall in the San Fernando Valley (where else would I be?). Our oldest child was five and our twins had recently turned three years old, and there were lots of leaves in our backyard from the four large trees near the back wall. I needed to rake the leaves so I invited our kids to help.
I started by raking them into piles, but before any leaves made it into the trash barrel, three kids were delightedly jumping onto piles, laying in them, and launching leaf confetti into the air. It was a perfectly natural reaction to piles of leaves (see Peanuts comic strip for documentation), and frankly, it was hard to do anything but smile.
Next, I started putting leaves into the trash barrel, and when not doing any of the above, the kids would also pick up leaves in their arms and attempt to put them into the barrel. However, maybe 10% of what started in their arms made it to the intended target, leaving a trail of leaves from pile to barrel.
As you can see, welcoming my children into this project did not reduce my work or increase efficiency. The calculus behind the well-worn phrase, “Many hands make light work,” did not consider that the many hands might be from young children. My work that morning was increased, not decreased. So why did I ask my kids to help? The first reason was simply the joy of being with them. I didn’t benefit from reduced work, but from being with them, all the more because they reveled in the occasion. Of course, I also wanted them to learn to work and appreciate the rhythm of family life that includes work.
Christ has commissioned every one of his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). He left the entire follow-up to his death and resurrection to imperfect people – like the 11 disciples, and like us. Just before Jesus spoke the Great Commission, the text tells us that some of the 11 doubted (Matthew 28:17), one reflection of their imperfect faith, and I can certainly relate to them.
However, as those who have trusted Christ with our lives, we are his gloriously rich inheritance (Ephesians 1:18), the joy that was the prize for which Jesus suffered the cross (Hebrews 12:2). We may be imperfect, but Jesus wants to be close to us, to abide with us (John 15), and when we are doing his work, Jesus is right with us. I think that’s what Jesus meant in John 12:26a when he said, “If anyone serves me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant also be.” And while it is not the point of today’s blog, God has equipped us to do all that he’s called us to do.
God wants us to do his work, to do his calling. But he especially wants to be close to those he loves.
- Richard Burton
December 31, 2016
I have lived in the San Fernando Valley for a long time. In the 1960s it was a fast-growing suburb that even had some remnants of its agricultural past. Back then, it was primarily a white middle-class community, and church membership was prevalent. Over the years, and yes, the decades, significant changes occurred, but I didn’t always notice them in real-time.
However, there was a day when what was obvious to statisticians and new residents registered with me – that the San Fernando Valley was no longer a suburb but it was a city, an urban locale. If it were a stand-alone city, it would be the fifth largest city in the United States, with a population of almost 1.6 million and filled with a wide range of businesses. The suburbs were the places beyond, like Santa Clarita and Simi Valley.
It is also no longer primarily white and middle-class, and church membership is the exception, not the rule. Its people represent a rich, multi-ethnic tapestry, and instead of it being a seeming Christian bastion, it is a mission field. Although I may have been slow to fully realize the urbanization of my hometown, I was quick to note the things that I did not like. “L.A. schools are lousy. The traffic is bad. Half the shop signs are in Spanish or Arabic or Korean or something else. Churches are in decline.” To sum it up, I missed the big picture, highlighted everything not to my liking, and also missed the embedded opportunities.
In the Gospel of John chapter 4, Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman. The text made it clear that Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, and from a broader understanding of the culture at the time, women were second-class citizens. Yet with two cultural barriers to even acknowledging her presence, Jesus engaged this woman, to the great surprise of his disciples. To these 12 men, Jesus offered an important insight: Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest (John 4:35 NIV). Jesus was imploring his followers to gain spiritual eyes to see harvest right in front of them when others would say it is a long way off. In this same chapter, Jesus explained that although he had not eaten lunch, he had food that they didn’t understand – to do the will of God the Father.
And while Jesus didn’t go into detail as to what that meant right then, he had explained to them before: he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus made it clear that he didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick (Matthew 9:12), and in his final commission to his disciples, he made it clear that his good news was to be extended to the ends of the earth, to every ethnos – every people group. As Jesus’ followers, he wants us to have spiritual eyes to see opportunities where others see a woman who is twice disqualified. Jesus wants us to see an opportunity to serve and bring good news in all the things that I might include in my “this bug me” list, and then for us to go and make disciples in his love.
- Richard Burton
December 24, 2016
What? You don’t know about Boxing Day!? If you are old school and have a physical calendar, just look at December 26th and it will be identified as “Boxing Day.” I am guessing that you also probably don’t know about second breakfast or elevensies, but that is a whole different topic. In any case, Boxing Day is a holiday – like an official government-offices-are-closed holiday – in the UK, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations like Australia and New Zealand. It has been around for hundreds of years, and there seems to be reasonable agreement that it came from the practice of better-off families giving boxes with gifts to their servants and tradespersons. These days, it is mainly known for professional sports matches and shopping, similar to our Black Friday, hopefully without anyone being trampled (they will save that for the soccer matches).
Boxing Day comes on the same day as Saint Stephen’s Day and was sometimes known as the Second Day of Christmastide. That early practice of sharing with those less-well-off sounds like a pretty wholesome way to follow up Christmas in our over-commercialized, self-focused culture. There are a lot of great Christian organizations that help the needy in our local communities and deeply impoverished places around the globe. Maybe a new tradition of a gift to one of them on Boxing Day would be a good way to spend the day after Christmas.
- Richard Burton, RichardBurton@messyhope.com
December 16, 2016
Marriage is a union between one man and one woman. That is the position taken by most evangelical Christians, as well as its logical counterpart that views gay marriage as unbiblical. Gay rights have been a contentious political issue in the United States for years, with gay marriage possibly being the pre-eminent flash point over the last decade or so, finally settled in law by a Supreme Court decision (Obergefell vs. Hodges, 2015). However, just as the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion fell far, far short of settling the issue of abortion rights in the public square, it seems that this 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage has not settled the dispute among a divided American public.
For Christians, even though this debate has been battled most prominently in the political arena, it is not a political issue. It is an ethical/moral issue based on a biblical understanding of Humankind, not a political issue, even though it has been played out in legislatures and courts across the nation. Politics by its nature is about competing views vying for control, and unsurprisingly it manifests itself in adversarial ways. That leads to an important question: as Christians, is political engagement our primary purpose? And while we are at it, we should probably also ask whether we can accomplish the goals Christ imparted to us through political means.
I think many believers could endorse a summary of Christ’s calling in three essential commands: Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19); love God with everything you are (Matthew 22:37-38); and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). Politics is somehow missing on that “top 3” list. Even if you decided to make a longer list – the top 5 or 10, even the top 25 – I doubt that politics would get on the list. As an aside, how a Christian should approach politics and civic responsibility are worthy topics in their own right but are going to be almost completely ignored in this blog.
So here I am, a Christian who believes that gay marriage is not biblical. How does that play out in my life? Do I abandon that position? No, but I take the right stance: remember what my highest priorities are – like going and making disciples and loving my neighbor – and if it somehow comes about to deal with this topic, to do it biblically.
In their book, Evangelical: Becoming the Good News People We’re Meant to Be, Lance Ford and Dan Kimball observe that evangelical Christians are often not viewed as “good news people” by those around them, and one of the reasons is their politics. As we discussed earlier, politics is adversarial by its very nature, and many Christians have adopted an adversarial tone towards those who have different views, the very ones that God loves and wants to draw to his Son. What would be a biblical way to express my views? “With gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15b). Paul writes that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone” and that “opponents must be gently instructed” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
So I take the stance of loving my neighbor as myself, the posture of expressing myself on every issue with gentleness and respect. Having done that, I can then kindly maintain my biblical position.
- Richard Burton, RichardBurton@messyhope.com
If you are wondering what “hobbits” are, then you are not familiar with The Lord of the Rings, a three-book series by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a fantasy series, with various races in free Middle Earth – Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Men were mighty warriors, Elves were wise and brave, and Dwarves were stout and hardy. And then there were Hobbits, also called Halflings. Half the size of men, these simple folks enjoyed hearty eating, and celebrations, and avoided “the outside world” beyond the small realm of Hobbits.
If you haven’t read these books (or seen the movie trilogy), I don’t want to spoil them for you by telling you too much, but a ring of incalculable power, forged by the evil adversary, had fallen into the hands of a hobbit who gave it to his beloved nephew Frodo Baggins, not suspecting its power or potential for evil. The hope of all free people in Middle Earth lay in destroying this ring, which could only be done at a particular location in the very heart of the evil kingdom. While the other Peoples all played their parts, it was Frodo and his faithful companion Sam, also a hobbit, who accomplished the vital mission on which everything hinged.
These little people who carefully avoided “adventure” turned out to be resilient, persevering, determined, and substantially free from many aspects of greed and pride. It was appointed to them to do the impossible task, the essential task, and those who were little-regarded, who were viewed as weak and vulnerable, fulfilled it.
There is some spiritual truth in this. God has a Great Commission, a calling to bring the good news to the entire world. God did not leave this work to mighty angelic messengers. It wasn’t even left to the highly educated, politically connected, rich, or religiously pious.
The Great Commission – essentially “go and make disciples of all nations” – is found in Matthew 28:18-20. It was given to the 11 remaining apostles after Jesus’ resurrection, just before Jesus left Earth and ascended to heaven. Amazingly, in verse 17 it tells us that they worshiped Jesus and that “some were doubtful”! And this is whom Jesus left the entire work of God on earth to – the whole enchilada.
Chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, tells us that God chose the weak, foolish, base, and despised things of the world to do his work. That’s the hobbits, a metaphor for us – the disciples who may doubt, whom the world looks down upon, whose only resources are from God. 1 Corinthians 1:31 says that Jesus is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
Often we can live like hobbits, enjoying life in our insulated realm, eschewing change or “adventure,” and viewing ourselves as small and impotent. But God called us hobbits to save the world, to bring the good news to all sorts of places, to do things that the obvious candidates can’t, tasks that can only be done by those who rely on all that Jesus is.
We are God’s workmanship, designed for good works (Ephesians 2:10) – the amazing works that only God can do. That’s why God put his very power in us (Ephesians 1:19 and 3:20), so we can do the works that Jesus did (John 14:12).
In my book Messy Hope, you will find that everyday people with no impressive resumes are used by God to do powerful things that affect individuals and their entire communities. Join these folks that some might consider “weak” or even “base” in turning the world upside down!
- Richard Burton, RichardBurton@messyhope.com