Hypocrite!

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:5

Did you ever wear masks as kid? Playing make believe or on Halloween? This may be an alien concept to post-Modern, Uber-hip Homo Contemporaneous humanoids too concerned with the “social message” sent by their children donning masks which may have some hint of misogyny, inadvertent cultural appropriation, veiled gender identification intolerance, embedded racism, or pigmentation privilege. Clearly, their social antennae are more acutely attuned than those of us who simply like a good laugh.

Society seems to place a premium on being socially and politically correct in public

The “enlightened” enjoy a more refined sense of socially acceptable public visage than true matters of the heart. They know what their friends/followers/fans need to make sense of their own personality oddities and cater to those gaps or shortcomings daily.

Society seems to place a premium on being socially and politically correct in public. Say the right things, and the people will approve. Don’t question someone’s private behavior, mind you – what matters is what they say and do in front of an audience or a camera.  The “mask” they wear matters more than the face they bare in private.

Courtesy: Exceptional Sales Performance

I was reminded of this recently when considering Jesus’ final public sermon. Parts of this sermon can be found in Mark and Luke, but to get the full impact we must turn to Matthew 23.

First, a bit of context. The time is Tuesday or Wednesday during the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. A couple of days earlier, Jesus entered Jerusalem hailed as the prophesied Jewish Messiah by thousands who had made their way to the city for Passover.

Map courtesy CL Francisco

For three years Jesus had taken his message across the Judean landscape, tirelessly healing and teaching and preaching in synagogues from Bethsaida, Banias and Caesaria Philippi, to Bethany, Jericho and Jerusalem.  By day he taught and at night would find rest with friends and acquaintances. (As a side note, I found one interesting commentary that during his ministry alone Jesus walked over 4,000 miles.)

So now Jesus is in Jerusalem for his last fateful visit. As a prelude to his final public message his first act was to enter the Temple courts where he would teach and share the next three days. He immediately noticed several things: the money changers who converted non-Jewish coins into temple-acceptable tribute-paying shekels (and always at a premium to turn a profit); the dove and pigeon sellers who sold “acceptable sacrifices” at exorbitant prices; the sellers of cattle and sheep who offered these animals as Temple sacrifices, again at crushingly inflated rates.

Infuriated, Jesus overturns the merchants’ tables, temporarily interrupting the revenue flow of the Temple priesthood. Most scholars believe this was the final straw that set the Jewish authorities on a course to organize his arrest. Follow the money. An interesting debate has existing since the New Testament accounts first appeared on whether Jesus did this at the end of his ministry (as told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke), at the beginning of his ministry (as told in John), or both at the beginning and end. An well-reasoned explanation can be found here.

Next, Jesus begins addressing the gathering crowds in either the Court of the Gentiles or perhaps more likely the Court of Israel. An astonishing series of lessons follows, beginning with a direct challenge by the Temple rulers to his theological authority and continuing as he tells three parables (the Two Sons, the Tenants, and the Wedding Banquet), refutes Pharisees trying trap him on over a question of Roman Imperial Loyalty vs. Loyalty to God (paying taxes), defeats an attempt by the Sadducees to ensnare his understanding of scripture in a question of marriage after resurrection (of course, the Sadducees didn’t actually believe in the Resurrection), answered the question of which is the greatest commandment and then to the delight of the crowds stunned the Pharisees into embarrassed silence by proclaiming the Messiah was greater than David.

It’s likely these teachings and public rebukes of Jewish authority took place over a couple of days.  Yet while Jesus was probably drained and physically/mentally exhausted at the end of every day, the words, the challenges, the debates, all served to set the stage for what came next.

Jesus dismantles the moral authority of the Jewish order

On that Tuesday or Wednesday before he left the Temple for a final time to return to Bethany to rest and prepare for Thursday’s climatic arrest, Jesus turned his attention away from the Pharisees and focused again on the crowd. Yet his words were aimed like a heat-seeking blistering spear directly at the heart of the malignancy he knew the Priesthood had become.

Jesus’ open comments were devastatingly effective: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Emphasis mine).

*BOOM* In three sentences and 38 words (well, in the English translation at least), Jesus utterly dismantles the entire moral authority of the formal Jewish order declaring the whole priesthood corrupt and false. And he’s just getting started.

“Everything they do is done for people to see,” he says. Does this sound oddly familiar to what we see today in both the Church and secular worlds? “They love the place of honor at the banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.”

Jesus then proclaims seven “woes” on the Pharisees and teachers – accusing them of shutting the doors of the Kingdom against the people, of turning their so-called “saved” into children of Hell, of being blind guides, of tithing from abundance but ignoring the matters of justice and mercy, of caring more for appearances than for substance, of murdering prophets, and finally foretelling with ominous prophetic vision that God Himself had left the Temple would not return to their presence until they accepted Jesus as the anointed Messiah.

“Really, that Jesus was such nice boy…”

So much for Charles Wesley’s “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

The point is this. For three years Jesus preached and taught a message of salvation, a message of redemption through repentance and acceptance of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy.  In encounter after encounter Jesus healed, forgave sins, and invited the lost home to God’s loving Grace. Yet in his final public appearance he laid out the brutal truth that hierarchy inevitably leads to brazen hypocrisy, false teaching and death.

Where do we see this today? The halls of Congress? The lofty modern cathedrals of megachurch celebrity pastors with their mansions and private jets and overflowing bank accounts? The holier-than-thou congregationalists demanding their self-assigned pews but never speaking a single word to the homeless and broken?

Brothers and sisters, hypocrisy lies at the very center of societal decay.  Jesus saw that in the Temple and in the heart of man. 2,000 years later very little has changed.  To purge sin from our lives we can start with the masks we each wear every day – you and me.

Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself, regardless of who they might be.  Sin no more. Ask for mercy. Simple words of Truth, powerful words of Life.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

And the Verdict Is…

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 

I had a love-hate relationship with forensics in high school and college.  For you CSI fans, the forensics I’m referencing have nothing to do with crime scenes and dead bodies (although my debate partner and I did slay quite a few teams in our day).  Rather, I’m talking about competitive public speaking.  Yes, I was one of those guys – cocky, obnoxious, with opinions on everything. Some people might say not much has changed over the years…

To be sure, I loved spending summers at places like Northwestern University in Chicago or Michigan Seven Week honing my debate skills and preparing thousands of 3×5 cards with perfect snippets of cited quotations proving every conceivable angle of any potential topic.  And writing an original oratory speech that made me seem erudite and worldly was a blast at 16 and 17.

The “hate” part involved that scourge of every competitive public speaker: the judge.  Not to say judges were bad people, mind you.  For the most part, they were pleasant enough folks who volunteered their time to sit through generally self-indulgent puffery from young know-it-alls like me.  The problem was, well, we usually did know more than the judges.  All you had to do was ask us!

“The faster I talk the more convincing I get!”

For 8-10 minutes (depending on the event), we’d pour our hearts out on one topic or another, only to wait for what seemed an eternity in some high school or college hallway for a runner to post our fate, determined by someone we’d usually never met before that round and who often told us nothing constructive in their lofty remarks about “deportment” and “fact checking.”  Sheesh!

The interesting thing about judging another’s performance, technique or even their behavior is that for the most part our judgment is subjective.  We see their actions through our eyes.  Not always, of course.  There are clear winners and losers in track and field where the fastest athlete wins, or in a NASCAR race where the fastest car takes the flag.  But in most human endeavors, judging means rendering an opinion on someone else’s actions.

Which brings us to the topic of this post – Judgment.

Courtesy USAToday

As I write this, the news is filled with stories about the mistrial in the Bill Cosby sexual predator case. A lot has been written on both sides and my purpose here is not to render a personal view on Mr. Cosby or his behavior.  There are plenty of voices doing that.  Rather, let’s consider the implications of judging the actions and motives of others.

The Cosby trial is instructive because so much of the case is hearsay and based on the appearance of actions rather than clear-cut proof. “Consensual” turned out to be a very difficult thing to define and the non-verdict was ultimately reached based on what we (the jurors) believed to be true about Mr. Cosby.  How we (the jurors) judged his actions and the motives they imply.

What if the person “on trial” is your friend and the judge and jury turn out to be you?

A sexual predation trial in a civil setting is one thing.  But what if there’s no civil trial involved?  What if the person “on trial” is your friend, or your neighbor, or an acquaintance?  Or perhaps someone you don’t even really know?  And the judge and jury turn out to be … you?

The passage I opened with is an admonition against self-righteousness.  Political dialogue in recent years provides endless examples of smug opinion-sharing in social media and endless “news” outlets. Everyone has an opinion and if someone disagrees they are (fill in the epithet).

Sadly, we find similar self-righteous attitudes pervasive in our faith today.  When asked their opinion of American Christians many respondents overwhelmingly respond “judgmental.”  Not “caring,” or “empathetic,” or “loving.”

Why are Christians often labeled “judgmental?”  I believe it goes to the very heart of what Jesus taught again and again when confronting hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

First, let’s be clear – Jesus did not consider all judgment wrong.  For example, in verse 6 of the Matthew passage Jesus cautions: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  Here the reader is cautioned to discern where to focus his or her faith in others to protect against what Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:15 as “false prophets.”

Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to “judge correctly” rather than by appearances only (John 7:24), and Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 to hold those of the Faith accountable while not judging those outside the Faith.

Christians veer onto dangerous ground when they judge others without sufficient discernment.  Jesus cautions in Matthew 7:3-5 that we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to clear the speck from another’s.  His point here is that too often we attack someone else for many of the same faults we find in our own hearts.

I have a friend, about my age, with a similar background.  For 28 years he was married to the same woman, raised four children, was a strong leader in the church.  What few people knew was that he and his wife had experienced marital problems for years.  After many attempts to repair the relationship, my friend determined their differences were irreconcilable and filed for divorce.

Those not knowing the facts spent considerable time condemning my friend.  One went so far as to suggest my friend should consider finding another congregation, that his actions were “inappropriate” for his church family.

Courtesy RELEVANT Magazine

Candidly, stories like this churn up the wrath of overturning temple money changer tables in me.  While I hold no ill-will against those judging my friend, their criticism comes from a place of self-righteousness, rather than love.  My friend’s decision was somehow not acceptable to these individuals’ view of what church should be.  Alas, my friend did leave.

I suspect had he been sitting in on the conversation, Jesus would have looked at his accusers and simply said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

Self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy.  Jesus teaches us in Luke 6:36-37 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Later, Jesus’ brother James would write “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” meaning that anyone who judges without mercy will receive the same.

Self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy. 

Many of us struggle with this.  I know I do.  Why do we find it so hard to extend grace and mercy to others?  Two potential and rather obvious reasons come to mind.

First, many of us continually compare – we compare ourselves with others, we compare others against one another.  Differences often make us uneasy and it’s easier to “fit” in with each other, to be the same, share the same views.  With some exceptions, most of us don’t want to stand out.  This is true in Christian circles as well.  We have “acceptable norms,” and those who step outside those norms are looked at with suspicion.

Yet the church was never intended to turn out assembly line, cookie-cutter Christians.  We don’t all have to look alike and sound alike and think alike and act alike.  For example, as parents we naturally compare our children to others, trying to get them to do the same things, often forcing them to be something they were never meant to be.  Unfortunately, in the body of Christ, we do the same thing — trying to get everyone to speak and act the same way, forcing them to be something they were never intended to be.  This tendency to compare and get everyone to fit certain “acceptable norms” hinders the miracle of grace.

The second reason is our tendency to control.  As some of my older friends can attest, I’ve struggled with control issues most of my life.  I don’t like loose ends.

“Control” by itself isn’t necessary a bad thing – controlling a flood after a dam bursts, or controlling one’s spending.  The problem occurs when we browbeat those around us into compliance, to control their actions, to fit our view.  Those we attempt to control either submit and become less than what they are intended to be, or rebel and push us away.  Neither of these is an example of grace and mercy and forgiveness.

What can we do to extend grace and forgiveness to those around us rather than rushing to judgment?  Three ideas come to mind (borrowed from Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans 14).

  • Accept others as they are.  In the context of Romans 14, the issue was the eating of meat.  Paul tells his readers to “accept others,” meaning meat eaters and non-meat eaters should co-exist.  Not too controversial these days, except perhaps with ardent vegans.  Consider other, touchier subjects facing Christians today.  To drink or not drink alcohol, to watch certain types of movies, to get tattoos or not, to allow ordination of men and women who are same-sex oriented.  Each of these and a thousand other issues can divide us.  Paul tells us to allow for these differences with discernment.
  • Not dictating to others allows GOD the freedom to direct their lives. While we’re all family, and I may urge you to be cautious in certain actions in your life, grace means I give you the freedom to choose.  God is fully capable of guiding each of us – some to one lifestyle, others to a different lifestyle.
  • We’re not qualified to judge others. God tells us He alone is qualified to judge; who are we to judge someone else?  We’re notoriously inconsistent.  We can seldom read the motives of others, finding it hard to be totally objective.  How often do we jump to wrong conclusions, make judgmental statements, only to later learn of off base and insensitive we were?

Loving others requires us to allow for freedom of choice without judgment.  We may disagree, we may not choose that path, but our charge as Christians is to love our brothers and sisters in the midst of their own choices and let God take them down the path He will.  Sometimes that path leads to and through hardship.  We must love them regardless.

I encourage you to see where you may be rendering harsh judgment against others.  Look into your own heart.  Ask yourself if you are qualified to sit on that judgment seat.  I suspect you’ll find that your first best role is to simply offer guidance, and accept the outcomes with love, grace, and humility.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Dying for a Lie

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised.” – Romans 1:25

Lying has been much on my mind recently. No, not me lying (I outgrew the novelty a long time ago and besides, it’s so time consuming keeping up – maybe there’s an App for that?).  Rather, lying in general.

Shhh … I know what I’m doing.

Lying can take many forms – from simple, “no one will know’” lies like padding an expense report or shaving six strokes from a golf score, to somewhat more serious lies such as cheating on taxes or one’s spouse (in either case they always eventually find out), to the most popular lies du jour involving political intrigue, to that most pernicious, consuming lie … lying to ourselves about who we really are.

In every case, lies are like cancer cells, colonizing in the hidden crevices of our souls and if unchecked metastasizing into raging, out-of-control black holes eating us alive from the inside, fed only by more lies in a never-ending ravenous cycle.

Lies are seductive, drawing us into worlds we wish could be so we don’t have to face the world that is. And the most insidious lies are self-affirming. We believe something is true, therefore we accept anything we hear or see or even experience supporting that belief.

Of course, social media only feeds this cycle. The disparity between one’s online profile and what actual exists behind that locked front door is often so great even we don’t recognize the person we pretend to be.

Which brings us to this passage in 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Let that sink in – no clever stories (i.e. “lies”) but rather the truth, to which they were direct witnesses. No face-saving or life-saving comments whitewashing the reality of their world. Instead, an unfiltered, unafraid proclamation of what they knew to be real: a man had lived, was arrested and crucified by Judean Prefect Pontius Pilate, had died on a cross, was buried, and then he had risen.

There is no ambiguity or parsing of words here, no focus group testing to spare offending the community. Pure, unvarnished truth. And to a person they did this in direct defiance of the most severe penalty the Roman Empire could impose – death by crucifixion on the charge of sedition.

We live in a society where profession of faith is, by comparison, relatively painless. Certainly there are dangerous places in the world today to be Christian, oppressive regimes smothering the free expression of faith. According to OpenDoorsUSA.org, every day 11 Christians are put to death for their faith, 7 churches are destroyed, and 24 acts of violence are committed against Christian believers. Still, across the vast majority of the planet, humans can and do espouse their belief freely.

Why would they die for a lie?

How much easier might it have been for that handful of followers who witnessed the crucifixion and Resurrection to stay silent when imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, or when arrested and paraded before their Roman overlords? How much less painful would their lives have been had they returned to their boats and nets, their tax collecting, their lives as physicians or wives?

At the center lies an obvious question: if the narrative we know today through the four canonical Gospels had not really happened, if Jesus had not really died, or having died had not appeared to them from the tomb as a Resurrected Savior, what could possibly have motivated them to dedicate and sacrifice the remainder of their own lives in futility? Why would they suffer or die for a lie?

Consider an alternative narrative. A charismatic itinerate rabbi with no recognized pedigree emerges from the backwater villages of Galilee, whips the locals into a frenzy through a combination of clever stories and cheap slight-of-hand trickery, runs afoul of the ruling class in Jerusalem, is arrested and convicted by the Jewish leaders who because they have no sanctioned death penalty make a deal with the local Roman strongman to change their charge of blasphemy into the imperial crime of Sedition and is unceremoniously nailed to a cross where he dies – end of story.

The entombment in a fresh grave site owned by a respected Jewish leader? The mysterious rolling back of the stone and disappearance of the body? The 40 days of appearances to the faithful following the fictitious resurrection, and the eventual ascension? None of these ever happened, fabricated out of whole cloth decades after the last eyewitnesses had themselves been executed or martyred.

This is what many skeptics would have us believe – that the resurrected Jesus story was nothing but a myth, a lie passed from generation to generation, growing with each retelling.

Let’s go back to the question – why would these men and women willingly suffer persecution for a lie? There was no upside for them. No cushy pensions, no villas in Capernaum, no lecture circuit fame with their 1st century equivalents to TED Talks such as “7 Things I Learned Walking on Water.” No, the only outcome for them was rejection, persecution, death.

To be sure there are those who tirelessly argue no basis exists for assuming the Apostles actually were martyred, much less executed for their beliefs as followers of a risen Messiah.  “Mass hysteria,” some argue. “Saving face,” others claim. “Grandstanding!” still another insists. For anyone interested in seeing how far the deniers will go, I recommend a blog called Cross Examined. Fair warning – this blog isn’t forgiving to Followers who believe traditional tenets.

The flaw with these and other arguments is in large part connected to a logical fallacy known as Presentism, where someone introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into past events. The followers of Jesus were first and foremost devout, practicing Jews. They were not counter-culturalists seeking a reformation of Judaism in the same way Martin Luther sparked the Christian Reformation in 1517. These were common men and women, practical and grounded, fearful of God.

The story did not tell itself

Yet following Jesus’ execution these same men and women upended their lives to share the Gospel story, first throughout Judea and Samaria in direct contravention of the Jewish Ruling Class edict “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” then into the immediate Gentile world of Asia, Africa and the wider Middle East where they were often shunned and persecuted, and ultimately into the very heart of the Roman Empire where Peter and Paul would both (by tradition) die.

Deniers miss two key points here. First, the story did not tell itself. The sharing of Jesus’ story did not suddenly appear following the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. but instead was being passed from Believer to Believer within days of the Resurrection. The later written versions sprang directly from the verbal passage.

Second, the very same power structure that executed Jesus was still in place following his purported resurrection. The persecutions of followers began almost immediately and by the reign of Nero as Emperor in AD 54, being a “Christian” was so dangerous one might well end up as lion food in the Coliseum or dipped in candle wax and serve as a true Roman Candle.

While few “sane” people might subject themselves to this in the 21st Century, the followers of Jesus in the immediate years after his death and resurrection were absolutely convinced of a different Truth. They were eyewitnesses to God’s direct intervention in the course of history and as devout men and women of faith could not reject their mission, regardless of the cost.

The simple fact is not a single Follower in the first decades following the crucifixion was ever documented as confessing – freely or by persecution or torture – the Gospel story of the resurrection was a fake, a deliberate lie. And even in those cases where someone broke under torture, recanted their beliefs and converted to other religions, no Christian has been documented as believing the resurrection was a lie.

In his book “Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection” William Lane Craig writes: The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”

The first followers of Jesus did not die for a lie.  Not because their reported persecutions were not real, but because their story was. Rather than escaping pain by telling a known falsehood, they embraced the consequences by sharing the original inconvenient truth to naysayers of the day: He Is Risen!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

 

Tempus Sugit?

Key West: July 4th week, 1990: fireworks over the water, deep sea fishing for Mahi-Mahi (tourist note: it was not an exactly inspired idea to boat out over choppy pre-dawn open ocean the day-after-the-night-before which may have included one or two extra shots of a smooth libation from what was then a relatively new player in the tequila market called Patron Spirits Company), touring through the charms of Hemingway’s adopted home town.

What I remember most about that Summer week (well, apart from spending time with an incredible woman who would become my wife) was … how time sort of stood still. I later learned there was a popular technique in bars and restaurants of Key West during those days to intentionally slow down service, purportedly enhancing the experience of “laid back cool” made famous by another Key West transplant, Jimmy Buffet.

Apparently the notion here was to encourage visitors to throw away their Daytimers (for the nostalgic folks, this was obviously during a day and age before the rise of the ubiquitous mobile device that these days so often substitutes for a social life), pack their watches in a suitcase (again, these were the days of long ago when watches simply told us what time of day and what day of the month we happened to be stumbling through) adopt an island state of mind and r-e-l-a-x. Oh, and whilst relaxing spend a lot of money. Such is the nature of commerce in the Conch Republic.

Witticisms aside, there was something incredibly freeing about the experience. After the first 24 hours of withdrawal it became serene, almost meditative to sit down in a restaurant or bar, wait at least 20 minutes for the server (casually standing in the corner with two other servers, biding their time and letting you settle in), and learn the art of unhurried conversation all over again.

Learn the art of unhurried conversation all over again.

I remembered this recently when considering how busy our lives have become. Calendars, schedules, meetings, “quick” coffees, calls, to-do lists, kids’ activities, date nights with partners or spouses, drinks with friends … so much to do, so little time.

I get it.

My own online calendar looks like a patchwork quilt on any given day. I even know folks who write their time with God in on their agendas: Wake up 5 am, Catch up on News 5:15 am, Workout 5:30 – 6:15 am, Bible Reading and God 6:30 – 6:45 am, Breakfast 6:45 am. Pencil God right in there between Pilates and Scrambled Eggs.

 

Personally, I blame Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens. Who? It turns out in 1657 these two guys argued over which one invented a little device called a balance spring which, when attached to the balance wheel in mechanical timepieces, caused the balance wheel to oscillate with a predictable frequency when the timepiece was running, thus allowing for a consistent “tick” in the spring. Voilà, the accurate pocket watch was born.

From there it’s a straight shot to 21st Century time management gurus who have us managing our days down to the 5 minute increments so popular with über-efficient productivity experts.

What does all of this have to do with God? More than you might imagine. As time awareness became more culturally ingrained, it found its way into organized church service structure and eventually into our time spent with private study of the Word.

We make time for God, but it has to be convenient: for most Protestant denominations, that means just about an hour, usually scheduled between 9:00 am and 11:00 am. Not too long to interfere with Sunday brunch (or, God

Yo, bra – is that song in the Hymnal?

forbid, game time – especially if you’re a Cowboys fan in Texas) but long enough to get in a few favorite hymns, a sermon that doesn’t put us to sleep, and some social time. Or if you’re more concerned with having serious Sunday morning pillow time, there’s always the Saturday evening service, just before heading to dinner. In and out, like the California burger chain.

In some cases, we take things even further to accommodate busy, scheduled, clock-driven lives. Our fellow worshipers in Catholicism have refined service scheduling to a high art. For instance, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of my favorite churches in the country, has (count ‘em) eight services each and every Sunday! Surely busy New Yorkers can squeeze in God time during one for those!

Yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek. But here’s the point. How many times did Jesus advertise his sermon times, making them convenient for the time conscious? I don’t recall seeing anything like this in scripture “This Sunday: The Beatitudes at 9, 11, 1 and a special evening service at 5:30. We’ll have plenty fish and bread, so BYOB.” 

Credit: Radio Free Babylon

Rather, scripture tells us Jesus simply created gatherings with no regard to time: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.” (Matthew 5:1) Or he would spontaneously teach a lifetime’s worth of sermons in a single lesson on prayer: “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” (Luke 11:1) Or, he would simply climb into a boat on the water and begin preaching: “Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables.” (Mark 4:1-2)

God isn’t impressed with our productivity, nor our busy lives.

Jesus didn’t carve out time for God. There was no “sandwiching” in his ministry; God simply was – 24/7/365.

God isn’t impressed with our productivity, nor our busy lives. He doesn’t care how many meetings we cram into a day, how many people pass through our sanctuary doors on any given Sunday, how many books we sell as well-known authors, or how large our bank accounts grow. Instead, His only interest is our willing hearts offered to Him in authentic worship, and to each other in love and friendship. There is nothing more important than this.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church puts it this way: “If you’re too busy for God, you’re too busy … because you’re putting everything else in front of the number one commandment — love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.”

I began this post with a twist on the well-known Latin phrase “Tempus Fugit,” which loosely translated means “time flies.” I chose to rename it “Tempus Sugit,” or “Time Sucks.” Because time, and our preoccupation with it, doesn’t just fly, it can suck the life out of us, and our worship of God. It takes precedence over keeping our eyes on Jesus and instead keeps them on our calendars and to-do lists.

“Penciling God in” when it’s convenient, when our minds wander in His direction, when our calendars are open, when we’re concerned or out of control, when there are no looming deadlines, in those moments when life brings us crashing to our knees or we’ve just we score a huge success – none of these approaches help us cross the gulf to Grace.

I’m certainly not saying we don’t live in a different age that those who first heeded God’s call, nor that organizing our lives to ensure we attend church or spend time in the Word.  But no amount of scheduling or calendar management or momentary life intercession can ever truly bring us closer to God – in worship or at home. Only a willing heart and a broken watch.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Lost

“If anyone, regardless of reputation or credentials, preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed.” – Galatians 1:9

So, yeah – I’m a “guy” (apologies to the sensitive crowd who might consider that term unseemly in this age of identification correctness).

Let me explain.

  • I love football (the American kind – especially the Dallas Cowboys; don’t hate).
  • I consider well-made (vs. well-done, aka “burnt” in Texas vernacular) burgers a “Capital F” Food Group.

    Downlow Burger from Love & Salt (Los Angeles)
    Photo credit: la.eater.com
  • For me, a meaningful conversation with another “guy” can go like this: “Hey dude – what’s up?” “Not much, bro, you doin’ ok?” “Yeah, man, I’m great – wanna beer?”
  • It’s not a crime to wear the same gym clothes twice (ok, maybe more) without washing them.
  • And I have a genetic predisposition against asking directions.

See, it also turns out I have a love of all things technology. With fingertip access to what was once military-grade GPS systems on that little black appendage semi-permanently attached to the end of my arm, I feel no need to get help from passing pedestrians or especially my ever-faithful-passenger-seat companion (aka my wife) on where I took that last wrong turn. But then, I seem to take wrong turns … a lot. Another story for another post.

It is, however, a great segue to this post. Because it seems to me most of us make wrongs turns … a lot. And this is nowhere truer than in that messy family we call the Church.

It might be easy to support this statement by citing works from writers like Palmer Theological Seminary Professor Ron Sider in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience where he details how evangelical Christians are just sort of like the rest of society: same divorce rate, same indifference to the poor, nearly the same rate of unmarried cohabitation, etc.

If Christians are just as flawed as everyone else, what makes the Church so special?

So if Christians are just as flawed as everyone else, what makes the Church so special? This seems to be a favorite theme these days of en vogue “New Christian” bloggers, pointing to the flawed nature of humanity as Exhibit 1 in their argument that sin is our common bond and thus should be our commonly accepted bondage, freeing us from judgment of any kind.

Yet such easy arguments miss a vastly larger issue: over the last several decades the Church itself has lost its way. Consider what many churches look like today: vast amphitheaters catering to a “here I am, entertain me” mindset craving worship services more akin to rock concerts; in-house coffee shops with central casting baristas complete with just the right combination of tats and piercings; senior pastors delivering sermons tailor made for TED Talk cult status; painless sermons about the great things God has in store for us; empty rhetoric more concerned with talking about change than actually being change.

In many ways, the modern church has fallen victim to “cult-of-movement” worship. Where in the past the Church adapted to a culture and then worked to change it for the better, it seems that today’s church too often adapts to culture in order to be accepted by it as-is. Individualism and consumerism have replaced community and Kingdom. More “me” and less “He.”

Photo credit: theodysseyonline.com

This kind of worship promises fulfillment and purpose found in devout spiritual practice without awkward things like doctrine, teaching, commandments, sacrifice, obedience, or discipline. Jesus is preached more like a hip celeb with 2.2 billion Twitter followers than the Word in the Beginning. Personal relationships are promised with God, comforting and loving, just not sacrificial ones.

Today’s church too often adapts to culture in order to be accepted by it as-is

Credit: Gallup

For many, this type of “worship experience” fulfills their needs. Show up on Sunday (or Saturday night for the contemporary types), get a familiarly caffeinated dose of community, sing a few anthem songs, hear a killer sermon (a poll released by Gallup from April of this year indicated that 75% of worshippers say the sermon is their primary reason for attending church). All done till next week.

Don’t think I’m ridiculing these church-goers – this is where they are and God meets them right there, and their needs. It’s just that elevating the individual experience comes at the expense of God’s desire for real community (Ephesians 4:16). And opens the door for an errant Gospel.

For millions more, these attempts by the church to be more culturally relevant – through activities and missions nearly indistinguishable from secular social activism, to outspoken celebrity pastors taking positions more appropriate in a political campaign rally, to scripture-light series resembling Tony Robbins seminars – ring empty and hollow.

Credit: Business Insider

Which may help explain why less than 36% of the U.S. population now attends church yet when asked nearly 60% claim to be spiritual and to even pray regularly. Something seems missing from much of organized Christianity today for a vast number of believers.

There are, perhaps, a number of reasons for this drifting away from an Acts 2 or Galatians 1 vision of how Church and Community were designed to heed the Gospel. The need for cultural relevance might be a major contributor. As social activists grow louder in their demands for sloganeered “Social Justice,” accepting any and all points of view as equal, the appeal of a church doctrine which appears judgmental gets lost in the noise, relegated to the trash heap of “yesterday’s” religion. “All good paths lead to God and the Church just needs to get over itself,” claim the prophets of New Faith.

And as churches attempt to self-correct, adopting missions and messages deemed more “tolerant” irrespective of true Biblical inspiration, traditional conservative worshipers who feel these churches are straying from the Word may leave in search of something else – or even abandon church altogether; often transforming their faith from a light for the whole world into a lamp hidden under their nightstands (Matthew 5:14-15).

No easy answers exist for those who, to paraphrase Indian philosopher Bara Dada, “like Christ but reject Christians” (as represented by the Church). Perhaps the perceived hypocrisy of some modern Christians is too strong to overcome. Or perhaps folks have simply become inoculated from the real message of the Gospel, as Pastor Doug Ponder recently suggested in this post.

Regardless, if the Church is to emulate Jesus’ example of ministering to the lost, it must first find its way back. That means returning to the real meaning of Salvation, to the Truth that modern cries for Social Justice based on good intentions and actions often ignore the fundamental role of Faith in Christ alone.

Salvation, freely offered, comes at a cost

We can’t simply “feel” our way to God, nor purchase our way into Grace through good deeds or euphemisms. Nor do we earn Salvation by accepting God’s will; rather, we accept Salvation by following the commands and direction given to us by God.

Salvation, freely offered, does come at a cost, requiring that we turn away from actions and behaviors that may seem acceptable to the world but from which God hides face (Isaiah 59:2). This was the heart of Paul’s message to the Galatians in verse 1:10 Am I trying to win the approval of human beings or of God?

Scripture and Biblical instruction are not tired relics from an irrelevant past. They are, as Jesus tells us in John 15, what we must do to receive the gift God offers through the price of the Cross. And when we follow God’s will rather than what the world expects, we may be hated and rejected, criticized and ridiculed and accused, for we offer no safe harbor for sin.

Yes, to some this path seems rigid, even scary. No wonder there’s such temptation to dilute the Gospel message, to soften scripture’s message into one more palatable to modern tastes where no one is told what is right or wrong.

And it’s no mystery churches have lost their way trying to respond. Fortunately there’s a GPS (and even a few Apps) for that. It’s called the Bible. And within its pages are all the directions we will ever need to follow God’s call home.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Beakers and Bibles – God vs. Science

Electric pickles, homemade snow and slime – just the stuff boyhood dreams were made of (at least my boyhood with the chemistry set mom gave me for my 9th birthday). I loved experimentation and discovery, the reduction of things to smaller things, getting to the “heart of heart,” as a one of my junior high science teachers once said.

For our next experiment, let’s create the known universe from these five ingredients!

Eventually (as with all things in my life) this experimentation and discovery journey led me back to God, the original source of all truth. I wish there had been a book like Tina Houser’s “Beakers, Bubbles & the Bible” back then! Nothing like experiments with magnets and paper clips to explain God’s love for us.

Which brings me to a recent post I made reflecting on a few thoughts around Good Friday. As usual, I ran the full social media spectrum spread including FB, Twitter, email, and other sources.

Apparently it got some traction, probably because I mentioned Brussels Sprouts in the title! Someone (not a follower of mine) saw it on Twitter and re-tweeted to their timeline.  At some point, someone else makes a comment (including my Twitter name) ridiculing the post asking “Why the hell is there religious s%$t on my timeline?”  Not to be outdone, someone else replied “They’ll probably follow up with a Bible verse,” followed by a third comment saying “They can’t help themselves, for them it’s faith over facts.”

Faith over facts…. Now, I’d normally ignore silly comments like these but hey, it was Good Friday.  So I messaged all three individuals saying I’d be delighted to discuss facts and faith with them anytime.  As is typical with what social media folk refer to as internet trolls, only one actually got back to me with a tired attempt at a pithy comment about not needing fairy tales but still gave me his email address with a comment something to the effect of “bring it on!”

This was my reply (if this gets a little eye-rollingly dense because I was attempting to speak to a guy professing an understanding of science, feel free to skip to the end):

“You know, @SokhavySheik” (not his real Twitter handle), “I was raised by an ardent atheist father and have had to defend my views on faith since I was in elementary school. I get the whole ‘I’m too smart to believe in mythology’ stuff, I really do. Heck, I did a stint during college in comparative world religions and even went through my staunch Deist phase.  Perhaps you did, too.

There must be an answer…

“So let’s try this a different way, a way which might appeal to your need for facts versus Faith. I have no conflicts in believing the Universe came into existence some time around 13.8 billions years ago (we don’t really know, of course), and at just around the 10−43 seconds  mark (that’s about one quintillionith of a second) into this new Creation quantum mechanics engages, generating dynamic cosmic inflation which in turn creates quark-gluon plasma, eventually (over the next 299 seconds) leading to the supremacy of matter over anti-matter, and then sometime around the first 300 seconds forms helium, lithium, and heavy hydrogen (deuterium and Helium 3) from nascent protons and neutrons by a process called nucleosynthesis.  From there, nature sort of starts the chain reaction of laws balancing laws and matter reacting to matter and *boom* here we are debating the nature of reality (told you I was once a Deist).

“Center ball can do it all …”

“Yet I also have no conflict believing a creative life force (aka “God,” aka “El-Shaddai,” aka “Jehovah,” aka “Yahweh”) purposefully willed all of this into being and has been personally interacting with Creation over those same last 13.8 billion years. To believe that, I ascribe extra-natural causation. To wit: ‘In the beginning …’ and so forth.  This approach doesn’t negate scientific law but rather allows for intent and design. If you’re a billiards guy, think of it as the pool cue striking the cue ball with just the right angle, velocity and trajectory to set the table in motion.

“You, on the other hand, believe in a science maintaining that for eternity there was nothing except, perhaps, an infinite expanse of quarks and leptons swimming in helium-4, helium-3 and deuterium which somehow spontaneously coalesced into what we refer to as this same Big Bang, combusting into everything we know today including that keyboard you spend so much time with.  Your scientific basis for this (if you didn’t already know) is founded mostly on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, an essentially unsolved equation requiring the introduction of quantum potential (a sciency-like term basically saying ‘we don’t know but we think it could be this or that’) and a probabilistic explanation for the nature of reality.  Your equations rely on unquestioning belief in String Theory (by definition unprovable and for which to-date there remain no predictions that can validate its truth) and hypothetical Planck-length particles. See all the conditionals here? Hoo-boy.

“Setting aside little questions like ‘where did the quarks, leptons, helium-4, helium-3, and deuterium come from?’ I’m struggling with your equation that ties it all together. Did your guys ever solve that inch-long ‘Theory of Everything’ equation Einstein couldn’t figure out?

“Better yet, let’s try something a little simpler, something your chemistry-set religion can surely solve.  I believe God is the sole author of all Creation, existing uniquely outside the constraints of our 4-dimensional minds (and I’m including time here just to keep things interesting), yet capable of reaching into Creation at will. You believe in the intention-less superiority of science.

“So here’s my challenge: show me how your science can spontaneously grow a single strand of human hair using only the basic elements of 18 amino acids, lipids, sterols, fatty oils, sphingosine, triglycerides (yeah, that stuff your doctor probably told you was too high), squalene, melanin (you pick from eumelanin or phaeomelanin), some water (I won’t ask you to create Hydrogen or Oxygen – that’ll be a gimme between the two of us) and a few trace mineral elements.  You know, kind of an ‘Iron Chef’ competition for Creation.

Ultimately, science resolves into the same “unknowns” as Faith

“And no, I’m not talking about duplicating Angela Christiano’s 2013 experiment of taking cells from the scalps of prematurely balding men and grafting them on the backs of mice to mimic hair growth. I’m talking the real deal – take some beakers of raw materials, work your sciency magic and grow me a strand of hair.  Then we can talk about faith vs. facts.”

Yes, I know I threw a lot at @SokhavySheik. But as I mentioned, it was Good Friday, so there’s that. And the response to date? Crickets. Because ultimately, science simply resolves into the same “unknowns” as Faith. I just choose to believe there is a benevolent, loving, intentional God at the center of Creation rather than random noble gases and theoretical particles.

Here’s the thing. Believers need never fall into the faulty-logic trap of arguing God over Science. Our God is big enough to provide us brains to hypothesize any Universe we care to imagine. Or, in the words of Baylor University Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and proponent of intelligent design Robert J. Marks: “Saying the Bible is not a book about science is like saying a cookbook is not a book about chemistry.” They’re sort of the same things (at least certain parts, such as the entire first chapter of Genesis). And that God is patient enough to allow our ponderings and debate and arguments and science-ing until we find ourselves intellectually exhausted and right back where this story starts: “In the beginning…”

The events of Good Friday (and of the entire Biblical Story) are about an entirely different metaphysical currency: the currency of Redemption. There is simply no science, no hypothetical phantom bits, no equation, no String Theory, no Quantum Effect, no Multiplex Universe that will ever explain the circumstances and aftermath of Calvary, nor fully describe the simplicity and infinite complexity of John 3:16.

I kept my chemistry set a long time, along with the super cool physician-grade microscope by dad bought me when he still had hopes I’d grow up to be a doctor (sorry, Dad).  I never forgot the lessons of wonder these instruments of man taught me. And the love for accepting the unknown universe around me, allowing room in my tiny brain for the greater recognition that God was, is, and will be all things.

Try sliming that, @SokhavySheik!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Brussels Sprouts, Minding Medicine, and Good Friday: Four Reflections

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” – Matthew 16:21-25

Growing up there were two things I absolutely detested: Brussels Sprouts and a certain type of medicine for a certain type of embarrassing infection for which the treatment was – from my 6-year old perspective – worse than the symptoms! Fortunately, my mother was a saint and taught me to eventually savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine. Gotta love moms.

For some Christians, Good Friday is a bit like that. Or, as another pastor once put it, asking followers to embrace Good Friday is little bit like asking them embrace torture – or nails on a chalkboard!

Truth is, Good Friday is perhaps the most curiously circumspect day in Christendom’s Liturgical Year (fancy term meaning “calendar”). It doesn’t have an entire season of shopping, “bracket” holidays, and mangers with wise men surrounding it like Christmas; it doesn’t have the Joy and Celebration of its big brother Easter just two days later; nor does it have the sacrificial appeal of Lent, where we get to give up something for 40 days (but nothing too hard, of course).

To be sure, nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to build sacraments around the Friday before Easter. Early Christians remembered it as a day of sorrow, penance, and fasting, which is represented in the modern German tradition of Karfreitag (“Sorrowful Friday”). But Jesus never said as he was being led off to trial “Remember this day whenever you gather.”

Still, from my perspective Good Friday is a profound day of revelation, of contemplation, and while dreadful in how it ends, portentous in what it foretells.

This Good Friday, here are four things that come to mind when I reflect on this day and what it represents.

1.  Good Friday is the narrow gateway to Easter Sunday.

For most of us, Good Friday is about the crucifixion of Jesus – pure and simple: black-draped crosses, somber faces of mourning, even Good Friday services with sound effects recreating the hammering of nails into the wrists and feet of Eternal God incarnate.

As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross.

Yet it strikes me that we often focus too much on the end of the scene rather than the backstory, the full narrative.

As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross. Remember, Mary is asked by the messengers at the empty tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

We rush to the tomb, to Easter morning, to the Resurrection without fully embracing that without Good Friday there is no Easter Sunday. The pathway to redemption runs straight through the one-way road of what happens on that fateful Friday.

Consider how much of the story of God and man occurs on that single day. The second-guessing of God’s sovereignty and kingdom plans, the interplay of temptation vs. submission, the secularized mocking of Jesus as the Living Word, the rejection of salvation in favor of personal gain … the list is virtually endless.

Simply put, the entire Biblical story is replayed in the hours before the main event (the Crucifixion), and the most compelling and redeeming aspect of Good Friday is how faithful Jesus stayed to his calling, even in the hours of praying in Gethsemane, even as he was paraded before the Sanhedrin for a sham trial, even as Herod goaded him to provide a single miracle for entertainment value, even as Pilate debated him on the nature of Truth, even as he hung on the Cross.

The story of Easter is the story of perseverance and trust. There can be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday and overcoming the spiritual warfare of that pivotal moment. Without the Cross, and the devotion to walking through the narrow gateway leading there, there is no resurrection. Good Friday is our only path to Easter Sunday.

 2. The Cross is still a problem.

How must Jesus’ arrest and execution have been seen through the eyes of his followers? In less than 12 hours, his entire 42 months of ministry, perhaps even the whole of Messianic prophecy appeared to collapse, to be proven false. Where was the Kingdom? Where was the triumphal Messiah? The power he used to help others completely failed him during these dire hours. He was, it seemed, outwitted, outplayed. How could that happen?

Yet both Jesus’ followers and his accusers completely missed the real message of his life, as Jesus himself told Andrew and Philip in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it produces many.” In deed as well as word, Jesus lived out the very parables he taught.

Even today, some Christians have a problem with the Cross. To have meaning, the Cross must show us miracles and power. It must demonstrate right now the ability of God to take away our pain and suffering. It must reveal wisdom and truth.

Ultimately, God first offers us the Cross through Jesus, the road of surrender, then salvation. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul calls this “the power of and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24). It is the power and wisdom of Jesus in surrendering his will to God that leads him directly to the Cross.

Many Christians today prefer not to think about suffering. In fact, entire ministries are built on the concept of God as a force of comfort, with no sacrifice or suffering required. According to this view, the Cross was not actually necessary, just a prop used to wake up the knuckleheads too dim-witted to see the God in all of us.

The real meaning of the Cross is that our own power or reason or abilities are never enough to earn our way to salvation. Jesus relinquished his will, and so, too, must we.

3. Good Friday is the beginning, not the end.

It’s been said that all change happens in an instant – only our agonizing over the decision takes time. This is no truer than the events taking place on Good Friday and culminating at the Cross.

From the moment of man’s fall in the first garden, our history unfolded as a long, slow, tortuous dialogue with our own consciences, with each other, and with God over how we should respond. We warred, we railed against God’s plea to turn from iniquity, we excused and rationalized our brokenness.

On Good Friday, God stepped into His creation and offered the “instant” change we could not find in ourselves. The Cross is that change. God allows us to put His sovereignty over our lives on trial. He allows us to mock Him. He allows us to beat and debase Him. And yes, He even allows us to hang Him from the Cross of our own imperfections.

Yet, through all of this He remains faithful, inviting us to join Him at the very Cross we created, the very Cross to which He was nailed that we might be free. He compels us to see the broken and bloodied body of His Son. And to see our own broken and bloodied lives hanging with him.

Good Friday is the moment of that change. It is the Beginning of a Redeemed Life. This is the meaning of Jesus’ death, and of the rending of the Temple veil described in Matthew 27:51Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:44. God is no longer separated from Man, the price of our falling away has been paid.

In our rush to celebrate the empty tomb of Easter, we cannot overlook our own complicity in the agony and cost of the Cross. Good Friday is the beginning of the change within each of us. 

4. Faith always prevails, even when we doubt.

Finally, there is a moment – a crucial moment – at the Cross; a moment unlike any other in Scripture. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had been tempted and tested. Obstacles and roadblocks had been thrown in his path. In Gethsemane he asked God if there was another way. Yet through all of that his faith never wavered.

Then came these four words: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” – the one and only time in the New Testament where Jesus does not refer to God as his father. Yes, he was quoting Psalm 22:1, perhaps reminding those gathered at his feet of the foretelling of this very moment. But deeper than that, it was the one moment in his entire earthly existence where he truly become just like us – separated from God, alone in the sea of a sinful world, filled with the desolation of being unconscious of His Father’s presence.

And yet, a few mere breaths and heartbeats later the isolation passes and just as the Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, Jesus utters these words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Even in death, Jesus shows us how faith triumphs. What his disciples failed to grasp time and again about his ultimate destiny, Jesus finally demonstrated – literally – in the flesh. And all through faith.

Jesus knew what lay before him. The comfort of a promised resurrection did not calm the fear of a painful, humiliating death. Yet in his death as in his life, Jesus models for us what faith and trust in God’s plan really means.

On this Good Friday, pause and consider what God is asking you to surrender so that His love might heal you. Perhaps you’ll find your own way to “savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine!”

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Easter Thoughts: They Were No Heroes

“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” – Luke 22:61-62

Note: This post was originally published in 2016.  I’ve condensed it here in honor of Easter week. It may take a strange turn or two, but stay with me.

David Bowie.  Whoa – that’s not a name one normally associates with Easter.  But follow me here and we’ll make the connection.  I grew up loving Bowie’s work – from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars to 1983’s Let’s Dance his music shaped my own formative love of creating and playing music.

Later, I would appreciate how influential Bowie has been on musicians across the spectrum.  Artists as varied as The Killers, Jay Z (that’s right, Mr. Beyoncé),Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta known professionally as Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Lorde, Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, Arctic Monkeys, and countless others attribute much of their direction and style to one phase or another of Bowie’s career. 

(Parenthetical sidenote: for an entertaining read, check out this tongue-in-cheek story from the UK’s Mirror on how Bowie eerily predicted the Rise of Kanye West and the Destruction of the World. But I digress.)

Every year at this time, Christians remember their most sacred and Holy week: an ecstatic, triumphal entrance into Jerusalem laden with prophetic symbolism; the crescendo of confrontations with authorities; the somber and mysterious Thursday night dinner where Passover’s traditional ritual meal was replaced by a New Covenant; the poignant retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane symbolizing a fallen Garden of Eden for a final plea resulting in betrayal, arrest, and further betrayal; a sham middle-of-the-night trial before the self-important Sanhedrin and ending before a pompous Roman magistrate cowered into accommodating the mob; the humiliation of public flogging; a mocking, agonizing procession through the very streets so victoriously entered six days before; nailed and hung from a cross reserved for the most vile of offenders while guards laughed, drank and gambled over the very clothes worn during the ordeal; a final gasp and then … death, burial and sorrow.  Three days later, the impossibility of a promise fulfilled – resurrection and the defeat of death.

This is the story we share each Easter.  Filled with more excitement, intrigue, politics, violence, and redemption than the best Hollywood film.  Our focus is usually the same with each telling – Jesus’ destiny with his accusers and his overcoming their most heinous intentions and conquering sin.

Credit: Masayoshi Sukita

So what, then, is the connection between Bowie and Easter?  This is where we go on a bit of a journey.  In 1977, Bowie released his twelfth studio album, “Heroes.” The album and its title track “Heroes” remain among my favorite pieces by Bowie.  The original version, an up-tempo rocker, became an anthem of sorts, even though the lyrics have always been a bit murky.

In the 2013 feature film Lone Survivor I developed an entirely new appreciation for the song.  The final credits rolled over Peter Gabriel’s updated version and I began considering how the lyrics, with a bit of rewriting, could poignantly describe the experience of the first Apostles during the last hours of Jesus’ life.  And here we begin the connection.

How might that week have looked through the eyes of those closest to Jesus? We certainly get a glimpse in the Gospel stories, yet these retellings are always in the third person.  What must it have felt like to be Judas in the moments after he realizes the great tragedy his betrayal would hold; or Peter in the very moment of his denials; or Mary heading to the tomb Sunday morning not filled with hope but instead openly weeping and mourning?

The Calling of Peter and Andrew – Bernardo Strozzi

These were not extraordinary men and women – a few fishermen, a tax collector, a thief and liar, a Zealot or two with delusions of defeating Rome, a tent maker and Pharisee, a probable prostitute, a possible outcast from an ancient royal bloodline, various tradesmen, hangers-on from the lowest rungs of first century Palestinian life.  Broken sinners all – like each of us.

In the eyes of the Jewish Levitical Priesthood and their Roman overlords, a laughable, motley rabble of would-be revolutionaries; hardly the stuff of regime change.  Pontius Pilate thought Jesus was simply misguided saying “I find no basis for a charge in this man.”  Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler of Galilee and Perea, ridiculed Jesus and draped him in an ornate robe before sending him back to Pilate.

Yet the men and women making up Jesus’ inner circle each shared a common and ultimately unbreakable bond – they followed a leader whose unstoppable presence and force-of-will would topple empires.

During the weeks and months leading up to Jesus’ final week, their enthusiasm and confidence – perhaps even arrogance – emboldened them.  They were in the presence of the Messiah and the overthrow of earthly oppression was surely imminent.  It’s easy to understand how they would be emboldened. Jesus had calmed the storm, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, raised the dead, fed the multitudes, rebuked the hypocrites … why should Jerusalem be any different?

Albert Einstein is credited with many sayings.  Two of my favorites are “Adversity introduces a man to himself” and “The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”

I’m reminded of these in reflecting on the aftermath of the Jesus’ trial and execution.  Those same men and women buoyed with faux confidence saw their true characters revealed, and knew fear and shame and humiliation.  Not the traits of heroes, but more like the actions of frail, flawed, imperfect humans – just like each of us.

Jesus’ followers were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

To believers, the miracle of the Resurrection is manifest and 2,000 years after the event a foregone conclusion.  Of course Jesus triumphed; what other outcome could there have been when the Spirit of God Himself takes on human form? But to the men and women of Jesus’ time, and to Paul, Timothy, Silas, Titus and hundreds and then thousands of disciples who followed them, their strength was anything but inevitable.  They were not heroes from their actions before the Resurrection – they became heroes as a result of their surrender to the grace and salvation evidenced by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Nearly all of the original Apostles and early disciples of Jesus followed him into death or exile.  They did so not with preordained knowledge of Cosmic Supremacy but through that uniquely, divinely-gifted human trait of Faith.  They believed and then were empowered to spread the Kingdom of God. They found the heroes within themselves when faced with the greatest tragedy they could ever have imagined.

If I were to rewrite Bowie’s “Heroes” I wouldn’t change that much.  I might alter
the 3nd verse to reflect Judas or Peter in the Garden.  Or perhaps the 2nd verse to reflect how the Kingship of Jesus redeems the Lost.  And maybe change the line “We could be heroes, just for one day” to read “Now we can be heroes, every day.”

The power of God’s grace can make heroes in faith of us all.  If we simply believe, accept, listen, and act.

One coincidental footnote – Bowie played a cameo role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I doubt he connected the dots…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Men and the Messy Business of Relationship

I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.” – Genesis 28:15

Boys” (*dad-shudder*). As the undeserving father of two beautiful, vibrant daughters I can say with confidence that for fathers the “B” word may well be the second scariest plural noun in the English language. Beginning sometime around the second month of fifth grade and continuing non-stop until an unbearably long, tear-filled walk down an inevitably too-short aisle when “boys” becomes “husband,” we dads struggle continuously with the Barbarians at the Gate we once worked so hard ourselves to be.

Which brings me to what may arguably be the scariest word in the English language for dads everywhere (and men in general). The “R” word – Relationship. Yes, it’s true. Even the strongest men, backyard bruisers who can grill for 20 with perfect temperature control while swilling a cooler full of iced Heineken and reciting every line from Braveheart and Gladiator, even these guys can become wobbly puddles of man-goo at the thought of the R word.

We guys dread R things. Like meeting “the boyfriend” – the one with the bad hair and the entirely too shifty eyes (you’ve met him – you may have been him). We draw blanks when our spouses or partners want to sit down over a glass of wine and have the “R” conversation. And when do guys ever talk about our “relationship” with Bob or Jim or Pete?

“I don’t care if I’m Toby Maguire – no shoulder rubs!”

Most guys simply don’t “do” relationship (the verb, not the noun). We have our poker night buddies, the guys we hang out with during each Season  (Sports, not Fashion or the latest binge-watching series), the dudes we see at the gym, the significant others we tolerate at parties, heck – we’re even on first names with our hairstylists (we used to call them barbers). We “know” guys, we just don’t always have “relationships” with them.

Relationships are messy businesses. They’re hard. Done right, they require advanced socialization skills like listening, considering, actual discourse. They take empathy and understanding. They take, well, they take love. Another word that sends shivers down many of our steely spines. It’s just so much easier to assume than to act.

Relationships don’t “complete” us, they refine us.

Yet relationships are the essence of human interaction. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, relationships don’t “complete” us, they refine us. Relationships allow us safe refuge to cycle out the psychological toxins pumped into our psyches by 21st century living. We get to wrestle with someone else’s view of who we are, try it on for size, checking out the view in a virtual 3-side mirror of love and trust and respect, only to realize the sleeves are too long or too short, or the color just doesn’t suit us, or there aren’t enough pockets. Relationships give us the freedom to grow or not. They can bring us together, or drive us apart.

Turns out God has more than a few things to say on this subject. In fact, one might argue that God is entirely about relationship. Relationship with Him. Relationship with each other. Relationship with our own fractured selves.

The passage from Genesis I opened with was not accidental. From the very beginning of His narrative defining the human experience, God set the tone: “I am with you. I will watch over you wherever you go.” Unqualified. Unbound. Unending.

Imagine for a moment if our relationships with each other were this pure, this transparent. Imagine if we honestly said to one another “I’m right here, right beside you. I’ll be here when you need me.”  Not in some touchy-feely Facebook way, and not just with those closest to us.  But with everyone we meet, every living, breathing soul with whom we share this experience of life.

God is very direct on the subject of relationship. Throughout man’s unfolding story of awareness in God and His plan of Salvation, one theme has reverberated again and again. We are the vessels of grace bestowed by God. It’s our interaction with and relationship to one another that breathes life into the promise of the Kingdom. “The kingdom is among you,” Jesus tells us.

Men – and women – can learn endless lessons from how Jesus demonstrated the art and practice of relationships. We can all follow his example, even those of us who struggle with the enormity and, yes, messiness of the religion that has evolved over the centuries in his name. And it’s really quite simple if we get our heads and self-focus out of the way. Try the following exercise with me sometime in the next week.

1) Think of three people you know, three people you care for, but whom you’ve not connected with in a while. Perhaps they are close friends, perhaps they are people you just met.

2) Write down their names and something meaningful about them. Study that a moment, feel it. Imagine seeing the world from their eyes and from their lives, rather than your perception of it.

3) Reach out. Email, phone, handwritten note, maybe even get in the car and pay a decidedly pre-21st century actual visit. Tell them you were thinking of them. Tell them you care. Invite them into your life.

4) Encourage them to do the same, paying it forward to three of their friends and acquaintances.

God tells us He will always be with us, watching over us wherever we go. He does that for all of us, freely. How much less it is for us to do the same for each other.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #5 BAD THINGS

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12

12:39 AM, July 20, 2012. The first calls come into 911 dispatch in Aurora, Colorado. 90 seconds later, police arrive on the scene at theater 9 at the Century 16 Cinemark multiplex located at 14300 E. Alameda Avenue in the Town Center at Aurora shopping mall. What they find is nothing short of horrific.

Eighty-two casualties were reported on the scene, including twelve fatalities ranging from a 6 year-old girl to a 51 year-old father. Seventy people were hit by bullets while four people had eye damage from tear gas and eight were injured trying to flee the theatre.

“If God really existed, this would never happen.”

The public outcry was immediate and unanimous.  “How could this happen?” some asked. “Why didn’t someone see this coming?” others questioned. And then there was the ever-present chorus from the non-Believer choir: “If God really existed, things like this would never be allowed to happen.”

All of these reactions are normal.  Inoperable disease, mass murder, unwanted divorce after 30 years of marriage, an inexplicable automobile accident in the middle of the night, an airplane crashing into a mountainside during a snowstorm … so many innocent, good people senselessly hurt, lives destroyed.

How could a loving God allow such pain and sorrow to exist? Perhaps there’s no God at all, or maybe stuff just happens, even to Believers. “Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

This is the heart of our fifth and final installment of things we think are in the Bible but really aren’t:

#5 BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

On the surface, it actually makes sense.  “Good” people are tested by God and “bad” things happen to them for lessons to be learned.  There must be a reason.

Addressing this subject, Rick Warren writes: “This ‘why’ question is human nature, and we all ask it. We have this misconception that if we understand the reason behind our pain, then it will make the pain easier.” As rational beings living in the Post-Enlightenment Age, we can explain anything if we just understand it.

Yet, this very same “why” question isn’t new; it goes back millennia.

It was asked by Job and by David in Psalms; Jesus cried it out from the cross; Giovanni Boccaccio wrestled with the question during the Renaissance; and it was especially relevant during the last century, with global conflicts including two World Wars, the massacre of Jews and others at the hands of the Nazi regime, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, seemingly endless famines in Africa, the Khmer Rouge killing fields, the scourge of AIDS, the travesty in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo War.

And this century didn’t start much better. First came 9/11 and now the Syrian slaughters, and on and on. Why do all of these horrific things happen if there’s a loving and powerful God? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The straight answer is this: except in cases of His direct intervention (for instance, the Creation Event, or the Flood Event, or the protection offered to Moses in fleeing Pharaoh, or especially the birth, ministry, execution and resurrection of Christ), God does not directly cause or prevent either the “good” or “bad” things that happen to humans, natural or manmade.  Let’s explore this with three quick observations.

First, God is not the creator of evil and suffering.  While God exists eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit entwined in a perfect relationship of love, humans were created with free will to either experience or reject that love.  Love requires a choice.

We ask: “But doesn’t God know before hand? Can’t He stop it?” The question, while real, misses the larger point: even in situations where we may be the innocent victim of someone else’s madness or a savage disease, the reality of free choice must run its course, otherwise we humans are little more than mindless automatons.

Second, evil and suffering, while tragic,  are used by God for His greater purpose in drawing humans to His presence.  As Paul writes in Romans 8:28“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Notice Paul doesn’t say how God creates good from bad circumstances, or when any of us will personally see how it plays out. Nor does God promise this to everyone. He makes the covenant that our suffering can be turned to good if we commit to following Him.

Finally, we each decide if suffering makes us bitter or strengthens our faith. In times of deep crisis, especially after we’ve prayed as deeply and most convicted as we can, it’s natural to feel disappointment, anger, or even disbelief when those prayers are not answered. The death of a child to  cancer, a heart attack in the middle of the night, a business failure leading to bankruptcy … senseless pain.  Why, God, why?

On May 3, 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner, was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver in Fair Oaks, California. Her mother, Candace Lightner, could understandably have fallen into endless despair and grief, bitter at the world. Instead, she quit her job four days after the accident and founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). She turned tragedy to good by taking action. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

Jesus said in John 16:33“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. But be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

God doesn’t want us to need an explanation; He wants us to need His strength, to need a Savior, to need comfort and support.  He wants us to trust His will completely.  He asks that we surrender everything to Him – even our grief.

Tragedy will strike; suffering will come; we will struggle and wrestle with pain. But if we run into God’s grace, we’ll discover peace in our hearts for today, strength for tomorrow, and the staggering assurance of eternal life.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #4 LOVE

“He answered, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Luke 10:27

tried to be a good kid. Like, really hard.  But that never seemed to keep me out of trouble!  Take, for instance, that time in first grade when I dunked Peggy “Perky” Perkins’ french braid pigtails in finger paint.  Or the Summer between fourth and fifth grade when I carved my alter-ego initials into a neighbor’s concrete carport.  Or when I nearly got suspended from high school because it never dawned on me that “Fire Lanes” really were meant for Fire Trucks and not my shiny blue ’74 Audi 100 LS. Coincidentally (as some of my high school pals remember), I ended up parking that car in a deep ditch a few weeks later. I’m not sure my dad ever quite got over that…

C’mon – this baby just screams “park me anywhere!”

Of course, in each case (and so many more it’s rather embarrassing to mention them), I was ultimately confronted by the disappointment and sometimes stern faces of my parents.  Yet as hard as it was at the time, I always knew in my heart they loved me – unconditionally.  Yes, they expected genuine apologies and often required me to make amends, but they were always there to pick me up and dust me off. Good as new.

How often do we imagine God in this way? How often do we feel:

#4 GOD’S LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL

Many folks think God is like this – always there to love us and forgive us no matter what we do.  His love is completely “condition-less,” given freely with no strings.  Yet they base this view on a misunderstanding of the nature of God’s love for us.

Interestingly, the term “unconditional love” appears exactly nowhere in Scripture.  No early church thinker or writer used the term.  In fact no author of Christian works of any kind used “unconditional love” before the 20th century. The term was actually coined by renowned atheist Erich Fromm in 1934.  Post-modern faith celebrities such as Richard Rohr or Wilkie and Noreen Au take this concept further, integrating psychology, new-age spirituality and “science-y” talk to present God’s love as holistic spirituality, costless and without strings.

The popularity of this notion is understandable.  Humans embrace love from a secular, or “human” perspective.  Our love as children of our parents (and our love as parents for our children), our love for spouses or partners, out love for brothers and sisters – all of these examples and others are based on a “no-boundaries” mindset and  stem from a deep need for what psychologists call “unconditionals” – basic human needs essential to a person’s well-being.  We love and accept those closest to us unconditionally, just the way they are.

It’s natural to believe God mirrors this, loving us and accepting us exactly as we are. The problem is we then follow that with the idea that if God loves and accepts people unconditionally, we should also love and accept ourselves unconditionally.  “I’m fine just like I am,” we say, “I don’t need to change anything!”

Of course, humanistic love is unconditional right up until … someone lies, or cheats, or hurts, or betrays so deeply we break off all association, never re-opening our hearts to them.  This is one reason divorce rates in this country remain surprisingly high.  And here lies the key distinction.

Equating humanistic, “unconditional” love and acceptance (until it’s not) with God’’s immeasurable, incomprehensible, and unwarranted love is a fundamental misreading of scripture. Humanistic love is typically responsive – that is, someone loves us, and we love them in return.  On the other hand, God’s love is a love that initiates, a love that always IS.  God’s door is always open, because there’s simply no door.  Yet even as the door is open, God doesn’t drag us through … we have to walk in.

Many point to the Parable of the Prodigal, arguing the father in the story, representing God, unconditionally welcomes his wayward son home. And yes, he does bring out the robes and rings, kills the fatted calf and throws a huge party celebrating his son’s return.  The same son who had essentially said “give me my share now, you’re dead to me, dad.”

But notice what the father didn’t do. He didn’t throw a party for the son in absentia.  He didn’t break out the robes and bling celebrating his son while the kid was still traipsing off in far lands with prostitutes and drunkards. He didn’t celebrate his son being “alive again” until he came home.

We must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.

The difference is that while the father’s door is always open, the celebration only happens when the son returns, not while he’s straying.  If the son never comes home, he remains – in the words of the father – “dead.” He must change to receive the fullness of the father’s love. By extension, we must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.

Pastor Miles McPherson prays with Greg Hendricks

Miles McPherson, former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers turned senior pastor of The Rock Churchputs it this way: “Having God’s unconditional love does not mean you have God’s unconditional acceptance.” God loves us unconditionally, but he will not receive us unconditionally.

Jesus tells us in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This, then is the change we must make.  Accept that Christ is the single path to God. Reject the traps hidden in living “of this world.”  Turn away from the common notion that mankind’s morality has somehow evolved over the last 2,000 years and what mattered then is irrelevant now.

God is ready and willing to welcome us home.  His arms are strong enough to pick us up, dust us off, and drape us with robes of grace.  And just like our parents, He’s there to put us back together when we break and come back home. Good as new.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #3 TRIALS

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” – 2 Corinthians 1:8

An acquaintance of mine is a former Navy Seal – yeah, one of those guys. Actually, my friend (we’ll call him “Keysi” for this post, after the Keysi Fighting Method, made famous by the Chris Nolan “Batman” films) is one of the most unassuming and laid back guys I know. Of course, I’ve also never been the object of his ire so there’s that.

We were talking a while back – Keysi’s reluctant to ever discuss anything related to his active duty experiences but occasionally shares a story or two about his days in training to be a Frogman – and I asked him to tell me what got him through BUD/S  training (short for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL).

“HooYah, HooYah, HooYah, HEY! Today’s gonna be another easy day!”

Given that BUD/S generates an extraordinary 80%+ dropout rate over the six-month program and he survived it, I assumed his response would be something like “mental stamina” or “toughing it out.”

He paused a moment and then said “You know, they tried hard to break us – every minute of every day. Hell Week was one of the most grueling experiences of my life, what with the steel pier, the demo pit, the 24-hour training with no sleep, the log pole runs, the endless insults and harassment from the instructors. Did I think about dropping? Yeah, I did. More than once, although it ain’t really macho for an operator to admit it. In the end, I learned one thing: I could never get through it on my own.  It was just too much. But I had my crew, my class, and my God all on my side.”

I thought about Keysi’s comment when putting this post together, especially the last part, about having God on his side.  That leads me to this installment of things we think we know about the Bible but really don’t:

#3 GOD WON’T GIVE ME MORE THAN I CAN HANDLE

This belief is among the most commonly held misconceptions many have of what Scripture tells about how God works in our lives.  The notion is that God will never place burdens on our shoulders too great for us to endure.  Just “tough it out,” the thought goes.  “God knows how much I can take and won’t give me more than He knows I can handle.”

Actually this belief is almost 180 degrees opposite from what the Bible actually teaches us.  Yet as with most commonly misunderstood notions, it seems to be based in truth, in this case, on a passage from 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says:  “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

For me, the most meaningful part of this is passage is found, as it was with Keysi’s comment, at the end.  The burden or the temptation and our ability to overcome it isn’t really the point.  Rather, it’s the “way of escape” God offers that reveals the awesome power of His grace.

The truth is we’re never promised a life that won’t bury us under its weight.  In fact, life itself can be more than any of us can handle. And the Bible specifically tells us this as Paul writes in the 2 Corinthians passage I quoted at the start of the this post. In this passage Paul confesses to being burdened beyond his strength. To be tested this way is a clear indication that we can experience more suffering than we’re able to handle.

The “way out” Paul mentions in the 1 Corinthians passage is found in the realization that by surrendering to God what is too great for us to bear we give to Him the weight of that burden and allow His strength to hold us up.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul writes of God in 2 Corinthians 12:9.

God sometimes allows us to fall into humanly impossible situations.  Like Keysi’s instructors, He brings us to the end of our own strength so we will trust in His ability to do the impossible.  This is the essence of faith.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28. When our trials are more than we think we can bear, that is exactly when God’s grace is most impactful.

This week, give up something seemingly impossible to God.  You’ll find Him where He’s always been – right by your side. HooYah!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #2 HAPPINESS

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28 

4:47 am. Thursday. San Francisco International Airport. Another early morning start and another first-thing-in-the-morning flight.  Yesterday had been long, and yeah, I was out a little later with a client dinner than I planned. So my 3 hours of sleep had barely put a dent in the desire to simply crawl back into bed for the rest of the morning.

Approaching the security line, I was greeted not by the typically nonchalant security folks who spend their time dutifully confirming the 7-year old (and 15 pounds lighter) picture on your driver’s license is actually you, but rather,  a living, breathing human replica of Tigger.

I’m sure you’ve met them – perhaps you’re one of them! Those infectiously happy and gregarious people who seem to have more enthusiasm than a Green Bay Packers fan on Game Day.  Now in full disclosure, I’m usually one of those folks who answers the checkout clerk’s question at the store on how my day is going with an exuberant “Ter-RIF-ic!” and a smile on my face … but not this morning.

No, this morning I simply wanted to get through security, grab a cup of coffee and get on my plane. And there, standing between me and my morning caffeine fix was Officer Giddily Enthusiastic.

Sometimes our faith can be like this encounter.  A smiling, ever-perky pastor providing uplifting messages of how God is interested first and foremost in our pursuit of personal happiness; that if we only cast off our cares and worries and really understand scripture we’ll surely see how God never wants us to suffer, never wants us endure hardship. Prosperity awaits just around the next corner because …

#2 GOD WANTS ME TO BE HAPPY

“10,000 years in a bottle gives you SUCH a crick in the neck!”

It’s a common belief to some that God is little more than a “personal genie,” that if we just rub Him the right way He won’t merely grant our obligatory three wishes but all of them!  We even convince ourselves clearly sinful actions are ok by saying, “It’s fine – God just wants me to be happy.”

What exactly drives this belief? Why are we convinced God serves at our whim?  Webster’s defines happiness as “a pleasurable or satisfying experience; a state of well-being and contentment.”  Happiness is an emotion of euphoria, a state of mind that can come and go. Today you’re smiling gleefully at the check out counter clerk and the next you’re staring bleary-eyed at an airport security officer.

In this sense, happiness is like a temporarily-quenched thirst – the water always needs to be replenished.  Sadly, we often require even more to quench it the next time. And herein lies the heart of the matter.

Nowhere in the Bible – even with the most liberal and progressive reading – do the words “Blessed are the deliriously happy” appear.  Rather, we find “Blessed are the pure in heart,” (Matthew 5:8), or “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” (Psalm 37:4 – and note, the meaning of this is not that God will give you anything you want, but rather that He will place in your heart the desires He has for you), or “Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty,” (Job 5:17).

The emotion of happiness is almost always based on circumstances, and circumstances constantly change. God never asks us to pursue being “happy,” nor does He promise us happiness. In fact Jesus himself tells us quite specifically: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24).

God’s plan is for us is not to achieve mindless “happiness” in the modern sense of the word. He never assures a blissful, stress-free life in this world filled with comfortable possessions and overflowing abundance regardless of our actions or desires.  Rather, He wants us to realize that none of these brings real happiness, just as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well.

When we attach our happiness to the things of this world we become like the rich young ruler, possessed by our possessions

To be sure, God wants our lives to be filled with hope and joy – this is one of the fundamental messages of the Bible. Jesus himself personified joy and was criticized for it (Luke 7:34). But when we attach our happiness to the things of this world – people, possessions or life circumstances – we become like the rich young ruler, possessed by our possessions.

Scripture tells us the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). We can live into that by cultivating the joy God has planned.

Over the next few days, try mediating on God’s promises to be our protector, our comforter.  Declare them out loud (well, probably best not to try that in an airport security line)! Press pause on chasing a fleeting emotional high and focus instead on the never-changing God of creation. You’ll find a serenity and fulfillment surpassing anything of in this world.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Five Things You Think You Know (But Really Don’t) – #1 SELF-RELIANCE

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32 

Ever play the telephone game? You know, where a group of people whisper a phrase to the each other around the room and it changes over the chain from something like “These are a few of my favorite things” into something like “Doorknobs and doorjambs with hasps and strange hinges?” Along the way, each person is absolutely certain they’re passing along what they heard to the next person.

It turns out this also happens in the sharing of our faith.

Admit it – just like me, at one point or another you’ve said something to yourself or to a friend you thought was ripped right from the pages of the Bible when, in fact, it only sounds that way. Maybe to console, maybe to encourage, maybe just to have something to say, but still it isn’t quite the same.

We think these were truths handed down directly from God, like our own mini-versions of Moses’ trip to the mountaintop. After all, everyone just knows certain things are true, right?

There are many phrases, clichés, platitudes, and otherwise “common sense” sayings used by Christians every day, which have in fact, no biblical basis whatsoever! Rather, they’re subtle distortions of God’s message that serve only to steal from us the full joy of experiencing God and authentically sharing that experience with others.

When we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today we’ll never truly experience God.

Living in God’s truth leads us from the bleak landscapes of despair and into the brilliant light of life. Sometimes that truth takes us through dark places and barren valleys before we reach the place God intends for us. And sometimes that truth is difficult to hear, running counter to our deepest desires. It’s natural to seek solace in faith that’s easier to digest, easier to incorporate into our worldview, easier to reconcile with how we believe the world should be.

This is the basic failing of false gospels that detour us from the Word and into more comfortable, indigestion-free diets of frictionless lives where any path (or all paths) lead to God. We see it in popular mega-church pastors who tell us all the “good things” God has in store for us without ever really explaining the commitment required. We see it in popular faith blogs that tell us how traditional Christianity is out of touch with the modern world, filled with antiquated notions and unenlightened artifacts from yesterday. We see it in each other when we profess but do not practice.

The “Capital T” TRUTH is that when we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today, treating second-hand messages as first-hand truth, we’ll never truly experience God.

Over the next five posts we’ll look at a few of the most common and (sadly) popular misconceptions about what’s actually in – and NOT in – the Bible.

Starting with: 

#1  GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES

I love this one – partially due to its blatant and utter lack of biblical grounding, but mostly because I can show off the benefits of my liberal arts education (that would be sarcasm, in case there was any confusion).

A recent study by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group indicated that 68% of “born again” Christians agreed with this statement. However even the most basic reading of the Bible proves it to be quintessentially anti-Gospel. Clearly God gives each of us gifts and talents to develop and enjoy. Yet the entire concept of pure self-reliance (or self-righteousness) and the idea that we should just try a little harder to earn our salvation actually conflicts with the work of God.

Thou dost have great hair, dude …

The phrase actually originates in ancient Greece and may initially have been proverbial. It’s illustrated by two of Aesop’s Fables and a similar sentiment is found in ancient Greek drama. Benjamin Franklin is often credited with bringing it to America, but the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney‘s work.

The phrase has also found its way into popular culture. In a “Jaywalking” sketch on The Tonight Show, comedian host Jay Leno asked random people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most popular response given was “God helps those who help themselves.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly used it in responding to Jim McDermott who argued, “This is Christmas time. We talk about Good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.” O’Reilly argued for a more selective approach to unemployment benefits, and the importance of individual responsibility, concluding “while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?” Stephen Colbert parodied O’Reilly in response, concluding in character, “if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

Time and again, scripture points out that the lives of those who chase the myth of self-reliance end up, to quote James Bond in Casino Royale, “not well.” Spiritual self-reliance is inconsistence with God’s message. Simply look at Adam, Moses, Samson, Saul, Judas and 10 million unnamed souls since to find clear evidence.

While self-reliance on its own is never directly punished, God clearly favors helping those who cannot help themselves, which is what the entire concept of grace is all about (see the parable of the Pharisee and the PublicanEphesians 2:4–5Romans 4:4–5).

The bottom line is that God helps those who help themselves to the extent their motives aligns with His divine Will. When Jesus faced his most traumatic moment of temptation while in the Garden of Gethsemane the knee-jerk reaction of those around him was to take action. Peter reportedly sliced off the ear of an assailant. Jesus replies: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11). Peter took action to protect his teacher, regardless of God’s plan. Jesus took action but only in alignment with God’s will.

Better stated, God saves those who die to themselves: “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).

Words really do matter…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Be Prepared – Even When You’re Not

“They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” – Acts 14:21-27

I was not a particularly enthusiastic Boy Scout. Sure, I diligently worked my way up the ranks, earning merit badge after merit badge and achieving each level with dutiful pride. I always kept my uniforms tidy (secret confession, I ironed my scarves; yeah, I was sick, I know). And I even helped the proverbial elderly lady across the street once.

Problem is, I had an issue with the whole “Be Prepared” thing. “Be prepared for what?” I used to ask myself. When am I ever going to need to start a fire with two wet sticks and a clump of moss? That’s why God invented matches! My experience with scouting was more like falling off a bicycle rather than a purposeful race. I was “transactional” in my scouting.

The fathers of the emerging church in Jerusalem had a somewhat different perspective.

The Apostles’ initial outreach is in red…

Following the charge given them by Jesus in Acts 1:8 to witness and proclaim the Gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to “the ends of the earth,” the Apostles, Paul, and early disciples of the Church faced a daunting task: how would they equip themselves to carry out what has become known as “the Great Commission?” With one or two exceptions these weren’t men with deep religious backgrounds. In fact, except for the brief time they spent with Jesus they were rather ordinary – kind of like you and me. What possibly steeled them for the journeys resulting in the planting of Christianity across breadth of the Roman Empire?

We read in Acts 8 how a great persecution befell the church at Jerusalem, and just as Jesus had foreseen, scattered its members throughout Judea and Samaria.  Yet Jesus has prepared his disciples – even as they could not have planned for such a potential disaster. Rather than forsaking their faith, they were strengthened by it and spread the Gospel wherever they went. Ultimately, a foothold was established where Barnabas and Paul spent their early ministry teaching and growing disciples (still predominantly Jews although with an increasing interest from the Gentile population).

As I read through Acts 14, which opens this post, it strikes me that there were four specific areas of preparation the Apostles undertook to ensure they were equipped. These four areas are not so different from what you and I can do today in our own walks.

1) They prepared with a defined strategy (verse 21). The Apostles’ plan of action was simple, direct, and easily understood: Preach to Gospel to the lost, with intentionality to go where people could be found – the cities. Notice where time and again the Apostles took their message. Not into the barren wilderness, but rather, into the cities where the Good News could resonate and be magnified.

2) They prepared with steadfastness (verse 22). The early Church faced obstacles its modern descendents can hardly conceive, including persecution and even death. Still, the Apostles remained unwavering in their commitment to build community and reach the lost. They continued in faith no matter the obstacles.

God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them

3) They prepared for succession (verse 23). Jim Collins’ seminal book “Good to Great,” describes in detail the importance of a succession plan in business. How much more important is it that the Church – arguably the greatest enterprise of humanity – also have such a plan. Fortunately, the Apostles adopted Jesus’ (and God’s) own design – build and work through people. Pastor Bobby Welch, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, described it this way: God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them.

4) They were prepared to succeed (vs. 24-27). The New Testament clearly lays out a plan to accomplish the Great Commission. First, the Apostles took action based on their convicted faith in the power Jesus’ death and resurrection as Christ. Next, they communicated the incredible and indescribable wonders of God’s work amongst them. This ensured the news was continually spreading. Third, they were energized to recruit, or “call” brothers to join them and continue the fight for Kingdom building.

This is one of the most essential messages of the Gospel: trust in God to provide, let His Word inspire us to action, and then go share that abundance with others by enlisting them into the joy of the Gospel.

Not long ago I was returning to Austin from a business trip to Boston and had to connect through Chicago. As I settled into my seat and prepared for the final leg, a lady boarded and sat next to me. I was reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God,” and had tucked it into the seat pocket in front of me. It turned out my seat mate had serious issues with the “Christ” part of “Christianity.” She much preferred, in her words, “the more enlightened view” of Unitarianism. She just didn’t believe in the “chains” of Christianity.

Anyone who knows me can guess my reaction. Laptop snaps shut, and I go into engage mode. In the end, we had a lovely conversation. She seemed amazed that I listened and conversed without judgment, and actually considered her point of view. I promised to send her a copy of Keller’s book, which I did (Tim can thank me later).

Small steps, but steps nonetheless. In this case, I was prepared for this unexpected conversation by regular reading and studying of the Word coupled with regular conversations with others. Ultimately, planning only prepares us for when we are in the path of action. The Kingdom is won not by great speeches and comprehensive policies, but one relationship at a time.

This is the kind being prepared I can get used to.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Shouts! Not Silence

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD” – Psalm 96:11-13

A few months ago my wife and I went on a traditional “dinner and a movie” date. Now, this may be no great feat for many of you but with our competing schedules finding time for the just the two of us to get out on a Friday night rather resembles 3-D relationship Tetris!

It was fun – seafood enchiladas at one of our favorite Mexican hangouts, then onto popcorn, diet soda (yeah, I know all about how bad the scientists now say they are), the obligatory box of Nestlé Buncha Crunch and a giant pickle – my infernal movie time addiction.  You can see another reason we don’t get out much …

So in we settled, laughing at the campy trivia questions before the previews, making mental notes to see three upcoming films soon to be released, then sitting back as the feature started.

I canNOT believe she just did that!

Everything was going great! Right up until about 5:27 into the movie, when three girls, er, women behind us – apparently on some sort of girlfriends’ date that I still have never completely understood – began whispering. And not that hushed, sotto voce whisper used for secretive exchanges, mind you. Instead, this was that loud stage whisper people use to make sure those of us all the way on the back row of the balcony are in on their little secret.

For the next hour and thirty-nine minutes, we were treated to a running narrative accompanying the movie soundtrack filled with stories from their personal lives, punctuated with comments like “she’s sooooo adorable,” and “omg! That so reminds me of …” and, well you get the picture.

Somewhere deep inside me still lives the polite Southern Gentleman my momma raised me to be. Accordingly, I held my tongue. But let me be clear: I wasn’t happy. I mean look – I paid my $24 for the tickets and don’t even get me started about the bailout loan I needed for the concessions. This was my movie, by God, and I wanted SILENCE. Why can’t people just learn to sit down and shut up?

I thought about this later after the side-effects of aspartame and salt had subsided. And I flashed back to an altogether different conversation I overheard several years ago in another place between two Elders of a church I was visiting.

Basically, the thread of the discussion revolved around their belief in an “accepted doctrine” view of scripture at odds with the Senior Pastor’s vision for their church. Apparently, and much to the dismay of these two Elders, the Senior Pastor felt that human beings were actually allowed and even *gasp* encouraged to respirate and vocalize during sacred worship time.

Image courtesy of escholarship.org

Their position – and I exaggerate here only very slightly for dramatic effect – was that God means for us to sit somberly and quietly in our pews on Sunday mornings, moving and making noise only when absolutely necessary and as directed by the proper order of service elements by duly appointed conveyors of said accepted doctrine.

Granted, this was an extreme example of doctrinaire imperialism. Few of us today would be so dogmatic as to suggest our fellow congregants “sit down and shut up” (with the possible exception of when attending services at the Inner Springs Church of the Posturepedic). Yet over the years I’ve noticed another, more subtle form of that perspective still spreading through our churches every day: silent solemnity.

Surely you’ve seen it: the long, serious faces on Sunday morning, the stiff backs in pew after pew, the awkwardness when standing for readings or singing; the hesitance to utter any syllable other than a Corporate “amen;” for the most part, a complete lack of joy or emotion in the midst of God’s presence.

I have nothing at all against quiet contemplation. Some of my most profound worship experiences have come when the sheer impact of God’s unfathomable power and love for creation simply overwhelms the soul and the only response is hushed union with the Word. These are moments where all of us can let the noise and clutter of our lives fall away as we’re drawn into the very presence of God.

Yet it strikes me that God wants more than our solemn silence. I’m reminded of this every time I open my Bible to the Book of Psalms, especially Psalms 92-98. Time and again in these verses we read of exhortations and counsel concerning how and why and what we should bring to God in celebration of His majesty. Rarely are we instructed to fall silent and mute in God’s midst. Rather, we’re encouraged to do just the opposite!

God’s manifest act of creation and the resulting kaleidoscope of human experience accompanying our attempts – however imperfect – to enter into communion with God’s creative spirit, are both borne out of joy and delight, not solemnity and seriousness. Momentarily set aside qualms over scripture-as-literal-fact-versus-allegory and look at the astounding language of creation from Genesis 1God speaks and life explodes. Or the Birth Narrative in the Book of Luke, Chapter 2Christ is born into the world and countless angels thunder their joy in song.

King David sang, and shouted with joy, and even danced before the glory of God. We read in 2 Samuel 6 that as David brought the Ark from the house of Abinadab he and all his men – the whole house of Israel – were “celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”

Even in my own experience as a worship leader, I’m struck by the difference in reactions to various services, and how an engaged congregation produces a vibrant, almost electric atmosphere that is literally charged with the power of humans accepting and rejoicing in the presence of God.

The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day 

It seems odd to me that God would prefer our silence and stern faces to our laughter and joyful hearts. Didn’t Jesus surround himself with children as often as he could? Isn’t life itself a celebration of God’s love for His creation? Aren’t we encouraged to rejoice at our reborn spirits? This is how I imagine the true worship of our Creator – shouts of joy and wonderment, not silent vows of pinched frowns and uncomfortable postures masking thoughts of brunch plans and afternoon tee times.

One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is found in Matthew 22. Jesus is engaged in a tedious debate with the Sadducees about resurrection theology, a notion they ardently reject, as once again they attempt to trip Jesus up in details. Deftly defeating their argument, Jesus closes with this statement: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living” (verse 32). I love this! The God in my Bible is a God of Life, always in motion, imploring humanity to live our lives in love and celebration of each gifted day we enjoy.

So the next time you feel an urge to shout out for joy, or close your eyes and raise your hands when singing a song of praise, or simply laugh at the sheer wonderment of creation, bring it on! But please, just make sure you silence that cell phone before the movie starts! Oh – and leave the life stories for drinks afterward.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Daily Spiritual Diet: Not for the Faint of Heart

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  Romans 6:16

Diets – they’re everywhere. Zone, Paleo, Low Carb, No Carb, Gluten-free, South Beach, Atkins, Mediterranean, Dash, 3-Day, Shred, Flat Belly … if you can think of it, there’s a diet for it. Once-famous celebrities gain newfound notoriety through endless commercials discussing how much weight they lost on their highly-lucrative endorsements for this or that meal plan.

Today’s culture seems slavishly obsessed with weight, even as a recent article in the New York Post indicates that while Americans are consuming supposedly healthier foods, the percentage of American adults who are considered obese stands at a whopping 36.5%. Ironically, being slaves to the scale actually makes us slaves to weight.

Slavery is a thread as interwoven into humankind as our DNA. Sadly, there is nothing so abhorrent in man’s experience as one human enslaving another. Throughout our history, from the earliest settlements of hunters and gatherers into local concentrations of shared protection to our relatively post-modern societies of this very day, humans have continuously found ways to prey on the weakest and force the less fortunate into bondage. Today, this bondage can take many forms: physical slavery, while relatively rare, still exists in modern Africasexual slavery, is a burgeoning trade in certain parts of the world; financial bondage, a highly refined form of slavery, flourishes nearly everywhere.

No, this isn’t a post about man’s inhumanity to man. We’ll save that for another time. Rather, it’s about the fire burning inside each of us, and how that fire can ignite the ember of unrest into a flame of action.

John Wesley, the celebrated preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, was a man in whom this flame burned bright and fierce. A life-long opponent of slavery, Wesley remained an outspoken advocate until his death. He not only fought against the scourge of slavery, but as a leader of the emergent Methodist movement he practiced throughout his life a regimen of personal discipline and ordered living.

As horrendous as human slavery can be, there is another, even more insidious form of enslavement many of us fall into every day. That slavery is self-imposed. It burrows into the crevasses of our hearts and our minds because we allow it to thrive there. It’s the slavery of the soul.

Paul writes about this in the passage above from Romans 6, comparing enslavement to sin with the ubiquitous practice of slavery across Palestine in his day. Paul is argues that if we give ourselves over to slavery, we will follow whatever master controls us. As slaves to sin, we are free to righteousness, he writes, yet our reward is death. But now that we have been set free from sin through the atonement and reconciliation of Christ, we are slaves to God, having as our reward sanctification and its end, eternal life.

It can be a difficult concept: trading one form of slavery for another, or that slavery in some sense equals freedom. Yet that is just what Paul is telling us; and where our friend John Wesley re-enters the conversation. Wesley’s commitment to disciplined living, that same discipline that bolstered his fight against slavery – imposed by others as well as self-imposed – offers us a path to follow in our daily struggle against slavish devotion to the things of this world vs. the will of God.

Lewis Allen, Pastor of Hope Church in Huddersfield, UK, is a well-respected follower of Wesley’s teachings. A few years ago he created a list of questions we should ask ourselves regarding our own spiritual discipline based on the teachings of John Wesley. I share that list here for your consideration. I’m fairly sure you’ll find something of value in one or more of these questions as part of your daily spiritual diet!

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
  4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
  5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  6. Did the Bible live in me today?
  7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
  8. Am I enjoying prayer?
  9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
  10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  12. Do I disobey God in anything?
  13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  15. Am I jealous, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  16. How do I spend my spare time?
  17. Am I proud?
  18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
  19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
  20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
  21. Is Christ real in me?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Love Wins. Every Time.

He said to the disciples, “Why are so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Mark 4:40

Control: kənˈtroʊl [kuh n-trohl] – to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command. Control has always been a capital“B” capital “T” Big Thing to me. Friends, jobs, relationships, family, dog’s bathroom habits, cable channel remotes … all of these and a thousand other things offer abundant opportunities to exercise my “control-at-all-costs” gene. Control. Sure, I’m the master of it!

My genetic pre-disposition for control showed itself early. In sixth grade I alphabetized all 63 of my mother’s spices – much to her dismay, as she apparently didn’t cook on an A-Z basis. Later, I would iron. Iron everything (nothing like a good crisp crease to make the world right).

It turns out Control is also one of our species’ favorite pastimes. Look around at the endless devices we’ve erected to “control” our environment. We feel if we can just bring order to chaos and make the unpredictable a little more predictable we can make sense of an incomprehensible world. Control becomes our answer to the soul-searing question WHY, God?”  Control becomes our proxy for … Love.

This is especially true in times of traumatic global calamity – for example in the face of horrific events such as the Holocaust of World War II. Survivors from death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau tell heartbreaking stories of watching their fellow Jews being marched to gas chambers, wondering aloud why God had so utterly forsaken them.

“What happened?” they wondered. Why had God forsaken their covenant? Why did He not protect them now? A group of Auschwitz prisoners felt so moved they conducted a formal trial, to try God for His indifference (this true story was turned into a BBC television special entitled God on Trial in 2008). For those who find this a curious notion, putting God on trial would not have been a blasphemous oddity, but rather something altogether understandable to Jews – in the tradition of the psalms, the Book of Job – and even Christ’s terrible accusing cry from the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”

In the end, a group of prisoners finds God guilty. And immediately, one of the rabbis among the prisoners says: “So what do we do now?” The reply is classic: “Let us pray.”  That is, the Jews accepted God for what He was.

I thought about this story as I read the verses from Mark 4:30-41. This passage is the well-known episode of Jesus calming the waves during a storm while his Apostles panicked. I was curious with a line from near the beginning, where the evangelist says, “They took him, just as he was, in the boat.”

What might this mean? For context, Jesus had been teaching people by the lake all day. Mark mentions several parables in this chapter (the Sower, The Mustard Seed, The Growing Seed) and the implication is that by day’s end Jesus was exhausted, probably in need of rest, maybe a bit withdrawn. His Apostles had been with him all day, and were probably just as tired. Perhaps they wanted rest. Perhaps they wanted to eat. Yet, the passage tells us they cast aside those concerns and took Jesus, as he was, in the boat with them. Jesus may not have delivered what the Apostles needed at that instant, yet they accepted him.

I travel a great in my business and often read books about faith while in flight. It’s fascinating to me how many folks I meet are interested in talking about the matter of belief. Frequently the subject of God’s role in their life comes up, and often it takes the form of disappointment – either God has disappointed them or the church hasn’t lived up to expectations, or they believe they’ve somehow disappointed God, and turned away from Him in shame.

Obviously, in these situations people feel hurt and abandoned in some way – by circumstances, or God, or God’s people, or their families, or even by themselves. I’ve talked to many people who have a similar reaction: “I don’t need people or gods who I can’t depend on, so I’ll be my own protector.” The ultimate profession of “control.”

This profoundly saddens me because it is so obvious these individuals are crying out for love or compassion yet can’t see that the problem is their own need to impose order and control rather than turning their eyes to God in humble acknowledgement that we cannot know all things as God knows them. In the absence of control, we abandon.

Jesus had an entirely different approach.

Indeed, Jesus’ ministry was built on a deep and profound reconciliation between people and God, as he continuously reminded his followers. He admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees for their insistence on arcane rules and points of Law as a way to control the lives of men and maintain righteousness. He chided the self-righteous and pious leaders of his time who rejected those who showed less adherence to the Law than they.

Perfection is a fiction existing nowhere except in our imaginations, where it rages like an out-of-control virus

In contrast, Jesus modeled love and reconciliation in everything he did. He accepted everyone, meeting them where they were, loving them as they were, assuring them God loved them the very same way. There was no requirement to perfect their lives before they could enter the Kingdom. He did not try to control their hearts or thoughts. He showed them the Way and invited them to follow.  Love wins every time with Jesus.

Yet Saved does not mean Perfect. If God required us to be perfect, there could  be no salvation at all. Perfection is a fiction existing nowhere except in our imaginations, where it rages like an out-of-control virus, leaving nothing but the wreckage of human shells devoid of emotional or spiritual depth in its wake.

I hear this over and over from people who feel they’ve been pushed away from God by the controlling motives of those who require them to measure up to some arbitrary standard of alleged perfection. And how many personal relationships have been destroyed by this very issue? It’s sad that people often turn their backs on God (or each other) when their expectations aren’t met. How many times have we run away from God because we perceive God has let us down?

These are all examples of our reacting to a world we don’t understand by trying to seize control. By abandoning someone who has hurt us, we control our emotional outrage. By turning our back on God when we find ourselves in the midst of what we consider unwarranted calamities, we control our own inner sense of justice in the world.

Such acts of desperation masquerading as bringing order and chaos and meaning to our lives are, in fact, the very things that destroy souls. Control is not the answer – forgiveness grounded in love is. When Jesus said “turn the other cheek” he wasn’t encouraging masochism. Instead, he was teaching us that the urge to take control of a perceived wrong by inflicting another wrong will only perpetuate the brokenness of the relationship. Forgiveness, accepting people as they are, loving them as they are (or even in spite of who they are) instead of attempting to change them into the perfect example of whom we think they should be is the very essence of living a Christ-filled life.

To be sure, forgiveness and acceptance don’t mean we’ll never have conflicts or need to exhort or correct errant behavior. In the story from the Mark, Jesus
accepted his disciples, and loved them, even though he was dismayed by their lack of faith. He probably didn’t appreciate being awakened from a sound sleep (I wish I could sleep that soundly in a tossing boat!) and if he reacts to low blood sugar the way I do there’s a pretty good chance he wasn’t feeling altogether hospitable (they didn’t have Red Bull in those days). Yet, he also gently scolded them for their inability to trust God.

It’s ok to tell people (or God) when you’re hurting because of something that happened. It’s healthy and normal to say “this is causing me pain,” or “I think what you’re doing is self-destructive” because that’s what people who really love each other do. That’s what real relationship is about. And that’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. It’s the kind of authentic relationship in community that we should have with one another.

Because in the end, Love really does win.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Delusion of Success

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18:18

As a kid I loved Albert Einstein. You know – the crazy hair, the rumpled clothes he didn’t change for days on end (yeah, that’s where I picked up my wear-till-they-stand-on-their-own gym clothes personal hygiene habit), that funny accent and goofy moustache. Oh, and the little equation that got people so excited a few decades back.

During his life, Einstein allegedly said a lot of curious and interesting things. Some of these are just urban legends (like the infamous “no bees, no humans” blurb), although I suspect Einstein would have taken credit! Others, like God doesn’t throw dice with the universe” ring clear and true as the deep reflection of a brilliant scientist looking out at the vast cosmos trying to make sense of it all.

One of my favorites is: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

I love this quote. It’s great a example of why Einstein was such a hero of mine: he seemed unconcerned with the ways of the world. Einstein was Einstein – he really didn’t care what the world thought.

We see this same trait in people all around us, although not always through the lens of famous patents-clerks-turned-physicists. Like the guy at work we all know will “never go anywhere” because he doesn’t spend enough time kissing

Photo courtesy of Fodor’s

up to that ogre of a boss whose idea of career development is making sure you know all the syllables in her absolutely-must-have-mid-morning “Light-Iced, Double-Shot, Non-Fat, 8-pump, Sugar-Free Vanilla, Extra Caramel, Caramel Macchiatto.” Or your friend from college who’s completely happy in the same job he got in 1996 because who needs all the hassle with that responsibility thing? Or the neighborhood 6-year olds who can play outside on a Summer day for endless hours doing absolutely nothing…

Not caring for the ways of the world is a talent, a gift. Although instinctive in children, we tend to lose it during the whole “adulting” thing and recapturing often takes cultivation and effort, particularly in the face of a world idolizing achievement and image. Not measuring ourselves against the trappings of a material life is so counter-cultural that people who follow this path are often referred to as “losers;” or worse, they’re simply ignored by the privileged ones with clucking head shaking.  This seems especially so in the very pubic conversations of the last 24 months or so.

It’s tempting.  So many of us build empires of self-importance around our lives, filled with the noise of conference calls and flights to the next city and endless meetings with endless people wanting “just one more thing” and charity functions for “really good causes” and perfect houses in ideal neighborhoods and church obligations and, and, and … until we are often deafened to the simple, small voice of God within our hearts, quietly reminding us that the sum total of every material thing in our lives can never really measure our “value.”

Pause a moment and think about your own definition of success. What mental picture gets conjured? Big house? A couple of expensive cars? Flush bank accounts with your retirement and kids’ college tuitions fully funded? Exciting vacations to exotic locations every year? Maybe enough excess cash to give generously to charities of your choice and fully tithe at church? Or even 23 million followers on FB?

Love this guy…

Western culture seems to have somehow created an art form around chasing the successful life. We build shrines to wealth, sacrifice our souls on the altars of money and power, inevitably viewing ourselves as unique in history. And while we gain in material possessions and status, how easy is it lose sight of true meaningfulness?

Scripture offers us a telling view into a different measurement of value and worth – God’s measurement. Over and over we read of the corruption and deception the pursuit of material success can have on the weak heart.

One particularly pointed example comes from the New Testament, an brief conversation between Jesus and a wealthy member of the ruling Jewish temple aristocracy. This encounter, described in all three Gospels, is one of the clearest messages God gives us on the distinctions between earthly value and spiritual value.

In the story, Jesus is asked by the man what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds saying he should obey the commandments. Simple enough, check! The man is pleased, but senses there must be more, saying he has obeyed the commandments since he was a child. When he asks Jesus again, the answer is not so simple. “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have, give the money to poor and follow me.”

That sound you hear? It’s the sound of tires screeching to halt. The man simply couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up his identify in exchange for the eternal life he sought.

Could you? Could I? Could any of us? If God told us that what was standing between us and a relationship with Him was the house we are so proud of, or the job we work so hard to keep, or (as in the case of Abraham) a child we love above all else, how would we respond?

My heart goes out to the wealthy man in this story. He’s like you and me and so many others in the world. We fall victim to the trap of believing that success equals a blessed life. We play by the rules, go to church if that’s our faith, work hard, and reap the rewards.

We think God smiles on our accomplishments. We believe we’re living good lives. It doesn’t dawn on us that these material measurements of success, these trinkets of achievement, have actually become our idols, our substitutes for devotion to God. We follow the rules so that we may keep these things.

Some folks interpret this story to mean money and wealth are inherently evil, as though having them is always wrong – we should simply abstain from any form of success or wealth accumulation and commit ourselves to a life of poverty.

I have a different interpretation. In my view, the wealth of the man confronting Jesus was a proxy for something deeper, a yawning unbridgeable canyon separating the man from God. The man had made money and wealth his god – not Yahwey, the almighty architect of creation. Jesus understood this, and placed before the man the truth that his life was not about God or Godliness at all. It was the man’s love for money, not money itself that was at issue.

Every day, we are asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God.

Each of us has our own form of separation, something we place above God. For some it’s certainly money. For others, it could be entertainment, or sports, or gluttony, or sex, or social standing. Or maybe even pride in our own righteousness. None of these is necessarily wrong, just as money is not inherently bad. Yet, when they keep us from salvation they destroy our souls.

Every day, we are being asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God. Sometimes that question is direct, like the encounter between Jesus and wealthy ruler. At other times the question is more subtle, like asking us to compromise our beliefs just a little to get something we really want. In every case, God is reaching for us, extending His invitation.

Let’s try something together this week. Take a few moments to inventory our lives. What have we placed “first?” What can we not walk away from? If the answer is anything other than answering God’s call to love Him with all our heart and to love each other as we love ourselves, then I suggest that like that rich young ruler, we may never know true lives of value.

Oh, and be sure to tip your barista next time you order that oh-so-complicated mid-day pick-me-up!

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Now. No, Really – Now!

The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” Mark 1:15

I’ll admit it, I kind of like Twitter – I kind of like it a lot. In fact, I kind of like the entire notion of all things digital, real-time, and social: TwitterFacebook, Pinterest,  Skype, even *old school alert* SMS  (aka “texting” for my online-challenged pals), phones.   Apparently, given the entry of “Tweetstorm” into the modern lexicon, I’m not alone.  Just listen to cable news any morning for breathless reporting of that latest 140 character missives from at least one very well-known social media aficionado.

Many of my friends, especially those people a little *ahem* older than me, don’t “get” the Social Media concept. “Seems like a waste of time,” says one. “Just another form of stupefied TV watching,” opines another. Or this one: “Twitter’s a glorified altar of narcissism from which voyeurs and provocateurs alike can shout ‘here I am! Look at me right this second!’”  They clearly haven’t figured out I’m in that business.

To be sure, a casual romp through the Twitter Public Timeline can produce a mind-numbing litany of apparently meaningless chatter, a kind of digital “white noise” punctuated by voices emptying any and every immediate thought into the virtual stream of consciousness that is the online world.

Yet Social Media concepts like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr and others offer another face to those who look just a little deeper. For the emerging class of the online fluent, these and other sites are opening new doors on communication in the 21st Century, and redefining our very understanding of relationships.

The immediacy of these tools, their “now-ness,” creates a real and altogether novel form of intimacy lost from our past, when we used to gather in market places every day for one-to-many interactions. Unlike email or its gray-haired daddy snail mail, Social Media provides an opportunity to instantly connect with like minds anywhere, all the time.

In a sense, Social Media is like a pervasive, omnipresent force into which all of us can tap at any time and connect – like, say, electricity.

Which brings me to a sermon I recently heard based on the passage above from Mark. In his remarks, the pastor compared the Kingdom of God to electricity – something tangible, right here, right now, available for all Christians to “plug in” to.

I’ve thought a lot about that message. It seems intuitively “right” to me. Indeed Jesus’ entire message and ministry has always seemed to have an immediacy about them, a sense of doing more than just “believing” in an invisible God.

The Kingdom of God is already here, surrounding us, within us, in our midst. Like electricity, it flows through us, available to everyone.

At the core of the Gospel, at the very center of the message preached by Jesus, is a simple yet simultaneously confounding concept. The Kingdom of God – that unfathomable promise of Salvation and Grace bestowed on creation by a loving and benevolent creator – is not simply some distant, beyond-the-stars destination we’ll get to one day with our First Class Ticket on the Salvation Express purchased by the blood of a martyred prophet. The Kingdom of God is also already here, at this moment, actually present in the “now” of our lives. Surrounding us, within us, in our midst. Like electricity, it flows through us, available to everyone.

Quite different from the notion that we should repent out of our sins in exchange for a free upgraded suite at The Hotel Paradise after checking in with St. Peter down by Pearly Gates Junction (try finding that on Yelp).

Time and again Jesus demonstrated that his Kingdom ideas were verb-ish, rather than noun-ish. Over and over he describes the Kingdom of God in terms of doing something right now rather than a destination to pursue: a farmer sowing seeds (Matthew 13:3-8); a man planting a mustard seed (Luke 13:19); yeast worked into dough (Luke 13:21); a man separating weeds from wheat in his fields (Matthew 13:24-30); a fisherman pulling in a net overloaded with catch (Matthew 13:47-50); casting out demons by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28); sending his disciples to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:2); healing the sick so that the Kingdom of God has arrived (Luke 10:9). To Jesus, the Kingdom of God seems to be something we live here and now. There is an urgent immediacy to his teachings.

Viewed through this lens, how different might our response be to God’s Kingdom invitation? Think about this a moment. Really pause (you online addicts, I know how hard that can be) and consider. What would your life look like if you lived in the Kingdom now, not at some future time after you leave this existence? What would be different? How would you interact with your family and your friends and even those who are not so much your friends? What if we were already citizens of the Kingdom?

Something jumps out me in reading the New Testament, something that screams out in every act and deed Jesus performed, and seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles. God’s plan is to work through the body of His Church – you and me. His plan is for us to do unto each other every day.

How many of us learned in Sunday school that we should believe in God and not commit sin because that’s how we get into Heaven when we die? “Sin management,” some folks might call it. What if we take a different view? What if we believe in God because we already live in the Kingdom and Kingdom citizens have a responsibility to connect with each other and those in need right now – not after we all die? In other words, what if we focused on the outcomes of our relationships with God and each other rather than the rules and regulations of religion?

Try something new this week. Instead of waiting for Sunday to “do church,” find an opportunity to “do church” on your morning train, or at the grocery, or at your kids’ football game on Friday night. Talk to someone. Ask how they are doing – and listen when they answer. Share your own story with them if they invite you. Live as though you are already in God’s Kingdom. Plug into the electricity of God’s love and feel how connected you are to everyone, all the time.

And in the meantime, make time to meet some new friends. They’re all around you in the Kingdom.

Peace (via @rdgreen on Twitter, or maybe @rgaustin on Facebook).
Colossians 1:17

The Greatest Fixer of All

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” – Mark 9:23

I’ve always been a fixer.  It’s kind of what I do.

When something’s broken, I fix it.  See a cracked or chipped place in the wall?  Patch it up. Leaky faucet?  Yep, that’s me with the wrench (well, in truth I’m not much of a plumber but I’m dynamite with a cell phone so I know who to call).  Broken relationships?  Bring ‘em on.  Thorny problem at work?  Send it my way.  And don’t even get me started about crooked pictures.  Tip: if you ever invite me over for a cup of coffee or bite to eat, don’t be surprised to find me wandering around your house looking for crooked pictures, smudged windows, out-of-place books.  It’s a curse.

The “original” James T. Kirk”

One of my great childhood heroes, one of the guys on whom I modeled myself, was  Captain James T. Kirk.  Kirk defined the idea of the ultimate fixer.  He never believed in the no-win scenario.  Yeah, I know he was created by Gene Roddenberry and only lives in films, but Kirk could fix anything!  I wanted to be just like him.  And don’t get me started on the Shatner vs. Pine claptrap.

Of course, with age comes “wisdom” – that grown-up sounding word too often serving as a proxy for “acceptance” in place of “perseverance.”  We learn of consequences.  We learn of fallibility.  We learn of our own shortcomings and inadequacies.  We learn of the brokenness in our hearts and how sometimes no matter what we do, we can’t fix the problems right in front of us.

It’s a hard realization for someone convinced of their own invincibility.  Someone like me.

I have a friend, a very close friend who has recently been struggling; wrestling with internal voices and external pressures and doubts and uncertainties.  Many of the same issues a lot of us face every day.  There are times when these voices and pressures and doubts become deafening, drowning out the real truth: my friend is, in ways large and small, amazing.  As a parent, as the child of parents, as a friend, as a sibling, as a human being. Absolutely, utterly amazing.  A miracle – just as we all are.

The fixer in me wants to help, to rush in and begin barking orders, to repair the brokenness. But I can’t.  It saddens me, and hurts my heart.

How many of us have faced this, a situation where we’re seemingly powerless to solve the pain in someone else, wanting to solve the problem but unable to make the rescue?  It’s a sobering, humbling experience.  And sometimes, it causes us to doubt.

A story very early in the Bible, from the book of Genesis, reminds me of this scenario.

Abraham and his wife Sarah had wanted a child for years, yet they had never conceived.  Sarah, assuming she was simply not meant for motherhood, had long ago put away her hope.

One day God appears to Abraham, in the form of three men standing under a tree.  Abraham instructs Sarah to prepare a meal for the strangers and visits with them.

During their conversation, God asks Abraham where his wife is. Then He says something incredible: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” (Genesis 18:10).

Nearby, Sarah overhears their conversation and laughs out loud, saying she and Abraham were too old and she would never have the pleasure of a child.  She had given up.

When God heard Sarah’s laughter, He said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

Is anything too hard for God? We each face challenges and difficult situations in life. And in the midst of them God asks, “Do you think your problem is too hard for me to fix? Or do you believe I can work it out for you, even though you think it’s impossible?”

Jesus reminds us in Luke 18:27 “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  How many of us really believe this?  How many of us accept that God can perform the impossible in our lives, in our families, in our jobs, in our futures?

Of course, we’re quick to counsel others that He can. We tell others to pray, to have hope, to believe in the impossible because God is the doer of the impossible.  But do we really believe these truths for ourselves?

You won’t read that in the Presbyterian Book of Order, the Church of Christ Book of Worship, the Baptist Manual of Theology Christian Doctrine Church Order, the Methodist Book of Discipline, or even the Catholic Book of Canon Law.  Astonishingly, it’s the ultimate Truth of our faith.  God is not simply the Creator, the maker of all things, who acts and then sits back watching it unfold.  God is also an action-oriented DO-ER yearning to do the impossible in our lives.  The message of Scripture is clear: if we don’t believe this about Him, we don’t believe in Him at all.

Yet, how many of us at one time or another have lacked belief?  That kind of response points to only one thing: we’ve bought into The LieThe Lie of Hopelessness.  The Lie of Impossibility.  The Lie that God is powerless to help us.

Friends, no amount of counseling or shoulder-leaning or therapy in the world can help us unless we absolutely believe God’s word: Nothing in our lives is beyond His ability to fix. Otherwise, our faith is in name only, futile and impotent. The unspoken truth underlying our faith is this: we can’t really believe in God until we believe He is God of the Impossible.

I’m a father, blessed with two amazing, beautiful daughters for whom I would do or give anything.  So I relate very well to a story told in Mark 9:14, where a distraught father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus’ disciples seeking deliverance.

This boy was considered hopeless. Both deaf and speechless, he spewed out only guttural sounds. He foamed at the mouth like a mad dog, and physically he was skin and bone, emaciated by his awful struggle. His father had to hold onto him continually, because the demons constantly tried to cast him into the nearest river, lake or open fire, wanting to kill him. His situation was dire.

Unspoken Truth: we can’t really believe in God until we believe He is God of the impossible.

While the father asked the disciples for their help, the boy’s demons began manifesting themselves as he foamed at the mouth, rolling on the ground, contorting and gyrating wildly. Scripture tells us the disciples prayed over him – perhaps for a long time – but nothing happened.

It must have seemed an impossible situation. Soon the doubting scribes crowded around, asking, “Why is the boy not healed? Is this case too hard for your Lord? Is the devil more powerful here?”

And then Jesus came on the scene. When he asked what was going on, the father  answered, “I brought my son to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him. He’s a hopeless case.”  Jesus responded simply, “All things are possible to he who believes.”  Christ was telling everyone present, “Do you believe I’m able to handle anything except what Satan has claimed for his own?  I tell you, there is no problem, no impossible circumstance, I cannot fix.”

Yet with a single word, Jesus made the impossible a reality.  He discharged the unclean spirit and, taking the boy by the hand, lifted him from the ground.

Can you imagine the joy in this scene?  That clean, freed boy must have run to his father and embraced him.  And the father’s heart leapt with joy.  God had fixed it all.

God restores whatever appears dead in our lives with a single word.  He acts even when we don’t, even when we won’t, even when we can’t.  He stands ready to save us from even our most desperate brokenness.  And He does this with or without our acceptance.  Yet to receive the power of those actions, we must accept as true His ability to act as God of the Impossible.  In a word, we must Believe.

The friend I mentioned earlier is, blessedly, taking action, even as I write these words.  I’m so incredibly proud of my friend for taking this step. I may be unable to fix the situation, as much as I want to believe I could, but with God’s help, and with prayer, I have no doubt my friend will overcome the doubts and fear and pain and sense of insufficiency holding them back from realizing the miracle they truly are.

God can fix anything.  Even you.  Even me. It’s kind of what He does.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

The Self-Delusion of Self-Absorption

“But mark this:  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” –  2 Timothy 3:1-5

Navel-gazing – it’s a common occurrence.  No, I’m not talking about the lustful look I often have when browsing the produce section of H-E-B (that’s Texan for “grocery store,” y’all) while passing by the overly-genetically-enhanced navel oranges that look oh-so-good but actually taste kind of like extra pulpy Sunkist without the cardboard container.

Nor do I mean the vacant stares so many people have when practicing annoying Yoga postures while they really are gazing down at the their navels.

And I’m certainly not referring to the shifty eyes some of my guy friends have when a young lady (or not-so-young, these days) walks past in a bare-midriff top sporting one of those sparkly piercings winking out from the stub of what was originally an umbilical cord.

Rather, I’m thinking of an entirely different kind of navel-gazing; the type usually accompanying self-preoccupation, self-obsession, self-absorption. For instance, the buffed and coiffed crowd from the recent Oscars kerfuffle who seem to believe their voices are somehow more poignant than the masses.

I read a lot.  Some of my reading turns to online blogs, a veritable cornucopia when it comes to the self-absorbed.  Any given day yields post after post of exhausting self-analysis and historical references to lost childhoods and failed marriages and abusive bosses and generally all the bad things that have kept the reader from being who they really should be, if only XYZ wouldn’t keep popping up in unexpected (although in reality perhaps completely predictable) ways.

The self-absorbed individual perpetually turns the focus of every conversation back to their own trials and worries.  In fact, some people have developed it into a high art form often even seem witty in their hand-wringing.

There are many types of self-absorption.  There’s the pity seeker who wants the world to know how challenging their lives are; the attention lover who talks incessantly about how attractive or intelligent or desirable others seem to find them; the reverse psychologist who rejects any form of flattery only to seek and expect more (also known as the “passive aggressive reverse maneuver”).

Is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited, dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history of the world?

And then there are the professionals – self-help gurus feeding off the popularization of self-love, self-esteem and the other obsessions of self so en vogue today with modern psychiatrists and psychologists.  With such role models bombarding society from every corner, is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited, dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history of the world?

Scripture gives us a generous amount of guidance in the perils of self-absorption and self-love.  Paul admonished in his letter to the Philippians “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

From my perspective, we see so much self-absorption in those around us because in truth the world can sometimes be a pretty sucky place to live. And while some folks do display genuine love and concern for others, in truth, most of us (I embarrassingly include myself in this category) are usually wrapped up in ourselves.

Our central failing is a lack of understanding that when we put love of ourselves over the love for those around us, the  results are inevitably a focus on how unlovable we are.  Ironic, no?  The more we look inward, the more we crave  external validation.

Scripture is clear that the way of the Believer is vastly different from the way of the world. We’re taught that genuine love for our brothers and sisters rather than ourselves is our calling card. John 13:35 quotes Jesus telling us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

How can we avoid the trap of self-absorption?  How do we look outward rather than inward?

Reflecting on this question, I’m reminded of the 3rd Chapter of 1 John. John reveals in verse 11 that as Believers we are to love not ourselves, but those around us: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”  He then goes further, reminding us that our love one for another is one of the strongest proofs that we are saved, (verses 14-15).

Many people, especially those with a high degree of self-preoccupation, appear to love others.  They lavish those around them with praise and compliments and gifts and attention, making a point to remind everyone how loving they are.

Sadly, the motivation for this type of outward display is often more about the giver rather than genuine love for the person receiving.  And when their “love” is not reciprocated in a manner meeting their expectations, the giver can feel betrayed and abandoned.

Yet when we step outside of self-reflection and self-love, when we turn our gaze from within and look instead at the world around us, if we allow our love to be God-like and all it should be, three very clear characteristics emerge.

First, God-like love is extensive.  As early as Genesis 4:8, we read about the perils of self-love in the actions of Cain against his brother Abel.  Cain did this out of jealousy and self-absorption.  Contrast this with Jesus, who loved so much that even as we were his enemies, he laid his life down for us (John 15:13Romans 5:8).

This type of genuine, God-like love knows no boundaries and sets no limits. It is unconditional in the truest sense of the word. It expects no reciprocity, nothing in return.

The second characteristic of God-like love is that it’s expensive – there is a true cost to genuine love.  No better example of this cost

can be imagined than the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross of Calvary.  Jesus held nothing back.  He saw our need and met that need with every resource he had.

That’s what real love for others is about. What we have, what we can give – whether it be our time or money or material possessions – these things we should offer freely to those around us regardless of the cost.

Finally, God-like love is expressive.  Genuine love doesn’t simply talk, it doesn’t build a world of words, it takes action. Without the cross, the promise of John 3:16 is meaningless.

How many of us know people who talk but don’t really do? You’ve seen this person, maybe you’ve even been them at times in your life (I know I have).  Promises to help, best intentions, commitments to follow-through for someone in need of our time or attention – yet we don’t deliver.

I have a friend, an acquaintance I’ve actually never met in person.  We share thoughts and ideas occasionally online but really don’t have any deeper relationship.  Not long ago my friend told me he learned that another of our online acquaintances was experiencing a crushing run of bad luck and was at a crisis point.  He asked me if we might pool our resources with one or two other friends and help this individual out.  There would be nothing in return for this help, no tax-deductible receipt, no repayment of the money. It was simply people with genuine love helping a brother.  Without hesitation I said yes.  My friend reminded me that love, real love, is about action, not about faux concern or empty words of “empathy.”

Over the next few days, have a conversation with yourself.  How is your “love” life?  Are you truly caring for others in a selfless and genuine manner?  Do you give freely with no expectation of a return?  Can you forgive and love even when someone repeatedly disappoints you?

Honest answers to these simple questions will be far more profound than all the self-help books ever written.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Dead Christians Walking

Jesus said to him, “Let dead people bury their own dead. You go and tell others about God’s kingdom.” – Luke 9:60

Wait … I’m not ready!”  How often have you heard (or said) that when a deadline looms suddenly? Buy more time, ask for an extension, make up a great excuse (like we all did at least once in high school) – anything to get out of doing the one thing we should do right now.

Some of us (myself included) tend to be world-class procrastinators.  Others are simply afraid.  Still others of us feel ill-equipped.  Whatever the reason, we often find reasons why can’t face something head on.

I was reminded of this while reading through the verse from Luke at the beginning of this message.  In the story (whether the Luke 9 version or the Matthew 8 version), Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the cost of following him.  One disciple speaks up and asks if he can go bury his dead father before joining the journey.  Jesus responds with the well-known phrase “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Many people find this passage a little harsh, even disturbing.  The guy’s father had just died!  What could Jesus have been thinking?

The answer lies in Jesus’ perspective on the question.  In fact, Scripture indicates that much of what we view as compassion would be considered by Jesus as little more than misplaced caring for the “walking dead.”

For context, we need to remember where this passage occurs.  In Matthew Jesus had completed a series of healings (a man with a skin disease, a Roman commander’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, many people suffering from various demons), demonstrating yet again the proactive nature of his ministry.  When a teacher of the law suggested he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus replied “Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” meaning his ministry had no time to rest and that following him came at a cost. It was then the question of burying the father was put to him.

Luke places the story at the end of chapter 9, which is filled with accounts of Jesus’ ministry in action: the sending of the twelve, the feeding of the five thousand, the explanation to Peter of the meaning losing oneself to God’s larger plan, the mountain top epiphany, healing the boy with the evil spirit, the explanation of how the least important person is actually the most important person, forgiveness of the Samaritans for rejecting him.  Then Jesus exchanges comments with followers about the cost of following him and again the question of burying the father was put to him.

In both versions, Jesus draws a stark contrast between what it means to really follow the path God has laid before us and the easier, less painful path we often choose for ourselves.  This second path is what Jesus refers to when he tells his follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.”  Jesus doesn’t literally mean to let rotting corpses bury rotting corpses.  Rather, he’s addressing the tendency so many of us have to allow other things to come between us and God.  In this sense, Jesus was recognizing that the follower was more considered with matters of the flesh than matters of the heart and the spirit.  The follower was, in effect, a “dead man walking.”

In truth, we’re all dead men walking, condemned ultimately to die. Time eventually runs its course and there is nothing we can do to reverse it.  Regardless of how much success we achieve or fame we receive, no matter who our families are or how widely we travel the world, even with all the money of a Bill Gates or the charity of a Warren Buffett, nothing can create a barrier between us and death.  This was also true for Jesus.

Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, put it this way:

“On the day he died, Jesus was escorted from a Roman prison and marched to Golgotha – a trash heap outskirts on the Jerusalem. Roman guards walked to his right and to his left. Soldiers walked before him and behind him in a cross-like procession.  He was a dead man walking. He was alive and breathing, but he was living under a death sentence. His fate was sealed. Time had run out. His death was imminent.”

Jesus knew he must walk the walk each one of us walks every day – the walk of condemnation to death – in order to provide us the greatest gift of all, the gift of eternal life.  God lifted Jesus from that death sentence and returned him to us as a way of announcing that we, too, can receive this amazing gift.  Yet importantly (and to Jesus’ point when speaking to his follower), this gift is not free, and is not our birthright.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates that true faith, the faith that leads us to the Kingdom, is “verbish” rather than “adjectival.”  Jesus continually pushes his followers and, by extension, you and me to understand that the Kingdom already is.  We are invited, to enter, but that invitation must be actively acknowledged, accepted and received.  We must act here and now rather than delay for some future time.

This is the real lesson Jesus was teaching his follower when telling him to let the dead bury the dead.  Spiritual deadness, the way of this world, leads to true death.  Jesus was saying “tend to the living, the needs and the relationships of those who need your attention, those who need to hear the Word of God.”

Jesus teaches us that our lives are meant to be lived in active service to each other, rather than dwelling on the past.  The present is all we can affect moment-to-moment, and if we look backward, regretting the mistakes or losses of yesterday, we lose sight of what God has laid out for us today.

This week, try two things.  First, reflect on something in your life that has you looking backward.  Perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps a mistake resulting in a change in your life plan, or maybe simply a general feeling of failure and regret.  Hold that thought in your mind.  Focus on it.  Then write it down on a piece of paper, find a match, a burn it, letting the flames melt the pain and regret from your heart as they consume the paper.

Then, find someone in need of your attention, reach out to them, and let them know you love them.  Focus on now rather than yesterday or tomorrow.  Be the love for them you seek for yourself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

True Hope

“(H)ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”Romans 5:1-5

We’ve heard much in recent years about the enduring power of hope. Studying Romans this morning a passage from Romans 5 struck me as particularly revealing. In these early chapters Paul is writing about the supremacy of faith over works under the law. “Justification” in Paul’s view has nothing to do with how good we are or how many laws we follow; it can never be earned by works. Faith in the price paid by Jesus on the cross overrides any work or action we can ever take before the eyes of God. This is where true hope lies.

This passage takes the argument further. Our faith in God and the justification we have through the blood of Christ is the only authentic grounding of our hope. Yet this hope is not costless or without pain. Instead, we stand on faith to celebrate and glory in our own suffering. Paul contends that suffering and the endurance of hardship teaches discipline and perseverance. In time perseverance in face of pain and hardship builds character as we await God’s timing and receive His blessings based on His will. With character comes the power to hope and trust that God is indeed, in control of our lives. In this way God’s love can flow into and through our hearts as an outward display of the Holy Spirit connecting each of us to our neighbors and to God.

The lesson doesn’t end there. Today’s society is built on an entirely different vision of hope. More empty and rhetorical than Paul’s description, hope in the secular world is not something we develop through quiet obedience to God’s will but rather more like a tired punch line. It comes with no cost, no effort, and is rewarded by the only god of this world – man!

John Kekes, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University Albany and a well-known atheist writes in chapter 10 of his 2010 book “The Human Condition” how humans can find hope in a secular world through modest control over our lives. That is, by exerting our own will we can create hope – or at least the illusion of hope – in an otherwise hopeless world. This seems rather shallow to me, much like a parrot miming the words of its master with no real understanding of the depth or meaning behind the words.

Psalm 39:7 proclaims: “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” Hope is only authentic when placed solely in God’s saving grace. Anything less is little more than a cheap imitation masquerading as something it can never be.

While sharing dinner recently with a colleague in San Francisco, the conversation inevitably turned to America the aftermath of the 2016 election. I say inevitably because being from Texas, I’m regularly asked by friends in California and New York to discuss my opinions on matters of current interest. I suppose I’m an easy target!

Nevertheless, into the conversation we plunged – my companion holding views which, on the surface, appeared as diametrically opposed to mine as possible. The topics were wide ranging: from abortion to gun control, climate change to institutionalized racism, unemployment to tax relief. I came away from the table with considerable food for thought and will share some of that in later posts.

What struck me most about this 3-hour dinner was not our differences, but rather how much alike we were in our compassion for others and our love of honest discussion where each side sought first to understand the other before replying. I imagined at one point how different this same conversation might have been over social media with someone I seldom if ever see face-to-face, comfortably safe behind the protection of a digital veil. As many of you can attest, those discussions often to confrontational and devolve into acrimony and name-calling.

Ultimately, we determined that our end-state goals and desires were not that far apart though perhaps our means to those ends differed. And that got me thinking about church. Yes, church. Specifically, the current trend of many so-called “revolutionaries” to withdraw from traditional congregation-based church formats in favor of individual faith journeys.

One of these individuals, Kelly Bean, Associate Dean at UCLA School of Management and author of How to Be a Christian without Going to Church writes: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ … If you want to start a church, just have a party in your house and see who shows up.”

Kelly is right about this – as Jesus himself proclaimed in Matthew 18:19-20, if we get together in his name, he shows up. The specific text is Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Jesus is all around us, even when we don’t perceive his presence.

Yet there is something uniquely missing when we withdraw from the church because it doesn’t “speak our language,” or – more specific to this post – avoid people in our daily lives who disagree with us because they don’t speak our language. To paraphrase Donald Carson, a Canadian-born, Reformed Evangelical theologian and professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, life should not made up of “friends,” but rather of those who disagree with our points of view.

Why? Don’t we have enough debate and argument in our lives? The point here is that there is indeed a key difference between tolerance and relationship. Tolerating someone else’s opinion merely means putting up with them, not understanding or relating to them. While noble in its stated intent, it deftly sidesteps the messiness and inconvenience that comes from loving and knowing someone else, even if they disagree with you. And the ultimate danger in empty tolerance is that it can end in rejection of the other person if their opinions don’t fit your world-view.

What I was reminded of during my dinner is that two adults with well-formed if differing thoughts about the world can engage in constructive, probing conversation and walk away closer than they started. This is in the best tradition of Jesus’ core message about community as stated in Luke 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”

Listen. Learn. Relate. You might find more in common that you ever imagined.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

 

Safe Distances

“Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.” – Mark 14:54

Have you ever met someone who thinks life is just easier on the sidelines? Never really making hard decisions, or sticking with the decisions they make. Living to watch others do what they only wish they could do. Longing for things they can’t quite bring themselves to reach for.  Wanting forever but afraid of tomorrow.  Safe distances.

Perhaps there’s a bit of this in each of us, keeping the most exciting, challenging and even transcendent possibilities in our lives just out of reach, at safe distances.  Maybe we fear being hurt, or perhaps we lack the confidence to pursue our dreams because, well, FAILURE. Safe distances.

Regardless, folks living on the sidelines set up endless barriers between themselves and the amazing fate that could be theirs if they only had the courage to believe. This is true in our Faith walks as well.  Indeed, it’s been the case since the first followers of Christ professed their devotion but seemed to lack the backbone to exercise their desire.

The core issue is found in our ability (or lack thereof) to follow into the
unknown, or the dangerous
.  We resist.  We argue with ourselves.  We lie awake at night and wrestle with what we should or shouldn’t do.  For Believers, many times these contemplations center on how we should respond to God’s call.

The “following” theme appears throughout the New Testament, most prominently in the Gospels (Matthew offers twenty-four examples alone). Yet the theme of following isn’t limited to merely being close to someone, marking their footsteps at safe distance.  Rather, it calls for a relationship; a relationship between us, God, and other followers. A relationship of intimacy, not distance.

Scripture also shows us the shortcomings of our ability to stay committed.  Take the example of Peter.  On the eve of Jesus’ arrest, after three years of being as close to Jesus as anyone possibly could, Peter shifts his focus, deciding to step to the sidelines.  In Mark 14:54 shortly after Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter followed Jesus at a distance:  “Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.”

Peter thought he was playing it safe.  He was watching from the sidelines. Yet he was actually in greater danger because of his fear.  In trying to protect his life, Peter in fact endangered himself even more by placing distance in his relationship with Jesus, denying three times he even knows Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).

God asks for our allegiance especially in times of adversity in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision.  He pleads for our fellowship if we will only agree to follow where He leads.

Like Peter, however, we too often follow the right person but at the wrong distance. We do this out of fear, and that fear makes us vulnerable to doubt and insecurity.

I recently saw a real-life example of how we can so easily close the distances in the relationship spaces of our lives.  A mother and her five or six year old son were walking through a busy airport concourse and the child kept getting distracted and wandering off.  The mother, apparently exhausted with trying to keep up with her son, finally just stopped in the middle of the concourse and watched as the child continued wandering several yards ahead.

The child suddenly looked around, no longer able to see his mother.  Realizing he was alone and sensing the distance that had grown between them, the child burst into tears and quickly ran back to his mother, enjoying the safety of being close to his protector. When you and I become aware of being separated from God or a loved one, do we rush back or continue drifting, perhaps placing even more distance between us?

Fortunately, Peter’s story had a redeeming ending. After denying Jesus, he confessed his shortcomings and boldly accepted Jesus’ challenge to take the Gospel to the world. As far as we know from the recorded life of Peter, he never permitted such dangerous distance to form in his relationship with Jesus again.

Staying at a safe distance may seem comforting. In fact, it can be the most dangerous place of all.  Get engaged with the passions of your life.  Follow the direction of where God is leading you.  Being a spectator in your own life is, ultimately, the loneliest seat in the stadium.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Learning to Learn

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”Ephesians 6:1

Like many folks in my generation, I grew up listening to the advice of my mother and father. Not that I was model child, mind you, just that they were there and, well, I listened. Sometimes I learned. More often, I nodded and ignored. Such is youth.

Of course, ask any 15-25 year-old today and you may get a different answer. Not only do they ignore as we did, they tune out! This is not completely on them – today’s distracted society creates plenty of opportunities to look the other way and if we’re being honest, parents in many cases are too overly concerned about being “cool” or “friends” or “young” to actually practice real parenting. Such is life in Century 21.

When my mother passed a few months ago, childhood memories played over and over in my thoughts. I had decided to deliver the eulogy and as I tried organizing my comments into a narrative that conveyed her life but also reflected what she taught me, I was reminded of Proverbs 1:8 “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” Okay, so Proverbs is talking about fathers but play along here.  The deeper meaning beyond an Exodus 20:12 admonishment to respect your parents is to learn from those who come before us.  They’ve lived the mistakes we haven’t yet imagined.

Throughout my life, I’ve strived to learn something new every day. My dad called me a “human vacuum” because I always inhaled information and could recall it effortlessly. This proved to be highly benefi
cial in growing a profession, but it also provides a valuable lesson in life.

Learning happens in several ways. The two most obvious (and most often employed) are: easy and hard. The hard way? Hurl yourself into a brick wall, back up hit it again. Rinse and repeat. The easy way? Learn the first time we face plant. And sometimes, we can simply remember what someone told us 10 years ago…

Chuck Swindoll, senior pastor at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas, wrote: “The wonderful thing about God’s schoolroom is that we get to grade our own papers… He doesn’t test us so He can learn how well we’re doing. He (allows) tests so WE can discover how well we’re doing.”

There’s vital guidance from scripture in this. Proverbs 1:8 is more than a mere suggestion to respect our parents and God isn’t throwing us a trick question. When we resist instruction, the teaching continues regardless of our opinion!

Our challenge as leaders (and humans) is to discern lessons as they are presented in our daily lives, learn from those, then move to the next lesson.  Sometimes we can even remember what mom and dad told us.

Rinse and repeat.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Too Much is Never Enough

 

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

 One of my favorite movies every year is the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I suspect we’ve all seen this film many times, maybe with at Christmas time with friends or family.  One of the key early scenes is a confrontation between the hero, George Bailey – a man whose future lies in front of him – and the evil millionaire Henry Potter, a man seemingly with everything yet has no redeeming qualities.

In this scene, George is preparing to leave on his long awaited trip to Europe, but is stopped by Potter’s desire to take over the Building and Loan built by George’s father.  Of course, we know how the story ends.  George stays, loses the $8,000 meant for his European trip which he decided to use to save the Building and Loan, and learns the true meaning of life and “having it all” along the way.

What if we could really have it all?  Money. Power. Love. Sex. Respect. Popularity. Absolutely anything we wanted. Many of us spend our lives wishing for that very scenario—or at least imagining what it would be like. But not many of us get there.

Mel Gibson, who has recently re-emerged to Hollywood accolades, got there.

Once an obscure Australian actor, Gibson’s first big break came at 23 in the cult classic Mad Max. More big roles followed in blockbusters such as the Lethal Weapon series, Maverick, Ransom, Conspiracy Theory, Payback, What Women Want and Signs. As his international stardom grew, so did his bank account. At one point Gibson was one of the top-paid actors in the world getting $25 million for every movie he starred in.

But acting wasn’t enough for him. In 1993 he stepped behind the camera to direct The Man Without a Face. Two years later he earned two Academy Awards for directing and producing Braveheart. He earned over half a billion dollars for his production of Passion of the Christ. He seemed unstoppable.

Gibson’s success didn’t stop with his career. He was married to the same woman for 25 years, and they had seven kids together. People magazine named him the Sexiest Man Alive. Premiere magazine listed him as one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Worldwide fame. Unlimited riches. True love. Fatherhood. Widespread respect for his talent. International renown for his sexual appeal. Virtually limitless power in his career. Rarely does one man get so much in one lifetime.

Mel Gibson had it all. So he must have been the happiest man on the planet, right? He had the power to do almost anything he wanted. The money to buy almost anything he could imagine. Almost nothing was out of reach for him.

Yet Gibson felt something was missing. All he had wasn’t enough. So he added some new experiences to the mix: addiction. Drugs, alcohol, women, anything. His addictions very nearly ruined his life, if not his career.

Eventually Gibson sought treatment for his addictions. But after getting clean and sober, he found himself right back where he had started: with an emptiness in his life.  He was in the celebrity wilderness for over 10 years.

Gibson wasn’t the first guy to reach that depressing conclusion. In fact the viewpoint is as ancient as the Old Testament.  King Solomon, sometimes referred to as the wisest man in antiquity, was such a man.  Solomon reached the same conclusion about life on earth over 3,000 years ago.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes, he spells out everything he tried in his quest for meaning in this life—and how all of it left him feeling empty.

What happened to Solomon in his quest for meaning?  How did a man who began with so much promise end with such despair and hopelessness?  And more importantly, could this happen to you and me?

Early in his reign, Solomon was described as a king who could do no wrong.  The first 10 chapters of I Kings offer numerous instances of Solomon’s remarkable fitness as King of Israel:

  • In 1 Kings 2 Solomon consolidates his rule.
  • In Chapter 3 God grants him wisdom, wealth, and honor.
  • In Chapter 4, we see Solomon coming into the fullness of his wealth and fame.  Verse 26 reads “Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses and, and twelve thousand horses.”
  • Chapters 5 – 7 describe the building of the Temple and Solomon’s palace, where over 180,000 men were conscripted to provide the labor.
  • Chapter 8 details the dedication of the Temple and the placing of the Ark into inner sanctuary.
  • In Chapter 9 God appears to Solomon for a second time, saying He had heard Solomon’s appeal and promising to put his Name and eyes and heart on the Temple forever and to establish Solomon’s royal throne over Israel forever, so long as Solomon walks before Him “faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness.”

But then God says something else, something foreshadowing not only Solomon’s later years but the very future of Israel itself.  Listen to the God’s admonition from verses 6-9: “But if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name.’”

This is a remarkable warning from God, directly aimed at Solomon’s one significant character flaw – indeed, the central character flaw in so many of us – pride and the belief that he could discern a better path than the one God has directed.

What I find most interesting here is God’s consistency.  Throughout scripture, God compels us to stay on a path to righteousness.  He doesn’t lurk in the dark corners, waiting for us to make mistakes and raining down punishment when we do.  He tells us plainly, simply, how to lead a life of fulfillment.  He also tells us the consequences when we don’t.

Solomon seemed to have his reign secured.  He had followed God Faithfully and used his wisdom and wealth judiciously.  Yet lying in Solomon’s heart was the seed of his downfall.

What caused that downfall?  In a word, COMPROMISE.  Solomon

“The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon” – Edward Poynter, 1890

compromised his wisdom to gain earthly possessions and fame.  Ultimately, these compromises emptied Solomon’s heart of his love for God.

Solomon’s compromise is our compromise.  Solomon’s downfall is our downfall.  Solomon’s problem was not ignorance but outright rebellion – just as we rebel in our own ways.

Late in life, reflecting on his past, Solomon would realize the mistakes he made in writing Ecclesiastes.  His conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13 is telling: “Now all has been heard; here is the heart of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is duty if all mankind.”

No prosperity in the world matters more than this, even today.  As Jesus admonished the crowd in Luke 12:15: “Watch out! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possession.”  Rather, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” just as Solomon had done early in his life.

So many of us know the legacy of Solomon all too well. Over the course of our lives we fall victim to the pursuit of position, of money, and yes, the lure of adoration.  Every achievement – a promotion, a large bonus check, flattery from someone – feeds this sense that we are somehow responsible for our own destinies, that we need no one but myself.

The truth is we are in control of our own destinies.  God grants us that choice.  He calls us to righteousness and we have the choice on how we respond.  We can choose God’s path or we can choose a different path.  When we select a path different from the one God has put before us, He warns us of the consequences.

Like Solomon, most of us have chosen wrongly in the past.  Those choices may have taken large tolls on our relationships, our health, even our walk with God.  All for the pursuit of wealth or recognition or popularity or acceptance.  And all for, as Solomon discovered, nothing.

Yet the story of redemption is, ultimately, the story of return: returning to the path God has set before us, returning to our true selves rather than the selves we have created, returning to the unconditional love given to us by our heavenly Father.  At the moments of our own turning points, perhaps times in when nothing seems to really matter, we find redemption and acceptance and are welcomed back into the arms of a loving God.

Solomon had choices.  We have choices.  God awaits our response.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Small Steps

Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him. Saul’s servants then said to him, “Behold now, an evil spirit from God is terrorizing you.” – 1 Samuel 16:14-15

November 28, 1979. Air New Zealand Flight 901, a large passenger jet with 257 people on board, left Auckland Airport in New Zealand for what was planned as a short sightseeing flight to Antarctica and back. Unknown to Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin, flight coordinates in the on-board navigation system had somehow been incorrectly modified by a mere two degrees the night before. They were never notified.

The error placed Flight 901 some 28 miles east of where the pilots assumed they were. Approaching Antarctica, the plane descended to a lower altitude, giving the passengers a better view of the landscape. Although experienced pilots, neither men in the cockpit had made this particular flight before, and had no way of knowing the incorrect coordinates had placed them directly in the path of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s second-highest active volcano rising more than 12,000 feet from the frozen landscape. The inevitable result was tragic: everyone on board died in the crash.

This heartbreaking disaster was brought on by a single, minor error – a small, misplaced step even before the flight began with drastic consequences.

Our lives are sometimes like that. We make decisions leading us astray one step here, one step there. Nothing major in the moment yet potentially disastrous in the long wrong. A furtive glance at a bar followed by a “harmless” text; trying something “just once” because everyone else is; a little exaggerated accomplishment on a resume; a mindless bit of diversion on the internet when no one is looking; that extra, last shot at 2 am (ok, so maybe that one was from personal experience). Small steps.

Scripture tells this story multiple times. One example is the downfall of Saul, King of Israel. His life beginning with great promise, Saul met a tragic end after starting as a “choice young man.” 1 Samuel 9:2

Saul’s shortcoming was a simple one: he was given very explicit instructions by God concerning the Amalekites but instead, he acted on his own. In fact, he believed his disobedience was actually pleasing to God! He spared the Amalekite king and saved a few sheep and cattle to use as a sacrifice. As we read in verses 14 and 15, God was not pleased at all.

Consider the situation. Here is Saul, trying to take the initiative, more or less accomplishing the task, but missing one small detail. Because he acted on his own. For those who know the story, things don’t end well for Saul. God rejects him as king of Israel and anoints David as his successor.

The life of Samson as told in Judges 13-16 is a similar story. His march to ruin happened one small step at time, one bad decision followed by another. He taunts his enemy (step).  He excused his current behavior because he had done it before (step). He believed his actions had no consequences (step).

The difference of a misstep, whether on an airborne flight without the pilots’ knowledge, or with a king’s inability to follow God’s call, may seem trivial. Yet the consequences can be disastrous.  Like dominoes, one decision results in another decision and another, each built on the first domino. Without a pattern interrupt or mid-course correction an unnecessary consequence becomes unavoidable.

And this, ultimately, is the power of Grace. The small steps we’ve each taken on the road to where we are can be undone through God’s limitless Salvation. While this doesn’t free our decisions from consequence, it does mean we are not forever chained to our mistakes. And unlike the pilots of flight 901, we can correct for those two degrees of flight coordinates.

To be sure, it may take many more small steps to undo our choices from yesterday. We may not be able to leap from the proverbial frying pan and clear the fire all at once. But we have the ability through Grace to take that first new step.

God gives us the chance to reclaim our lives. We have to find the strength and faith to believe. And then, with God’s help, we can erase the guilt of our past and walk confidently into the future created for us.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

Integrity Matters

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”1 Timothy 4:12

Integrity is more than just a word, particularly for leaders. Integrity matters.

Built day by day, year after year, integrity is in many ways our lifetime’s work, the sum of every decision we make (right or wrong) and every word we speak. Integrity doesn’t volunteer itself, but is instead hard-won, built over years of worthy effort and honed with truth and fairness. It is also fragile – difficult to build but easily demolished with even a single failing.

This is especially true for the current generation, many stepping into leadership roles for the first time.  Perhaps as leader of a group at work, or leader of a youth ministry at church.  Or even leader of their families.

Integrity, more than any single skill, trait or capability, often defines success or failure in life.  Perhaps more than any other time in history, today’s young leaders are faced with more ways to bend the rules, skirt the edges of moral strength, and even redefine the very understanding of “right” and “wrong.”  Moral relativism ultimately leads to a moral vacuum.

In the first letter to his protégé Ephesian pastor Timothy (1 Timothy), Paul writes to the emerging young leader about how to face the inevitable struggles he will face as an energetic new face in the church working with older Believers who may find difficulty following his leadership because of his relative inexperience.

What makes this Epistle so profound is how specific Paul is in his instruction on leadership. At the core of the letter, considered by many to be the most complete and detailed letter of instructions to the growing church following Jesus’ commissioning of his Apostles, is the concept of integrity. Paul advised Timothy on the practical matter of purity in leadership that should define Christian leaders and the congregations they shepherd.

And yes, secular business leaders can take a cue from this.

Leadership is built on trust, and trust is founded in the integrity of living each
 day
with discipline, honesty and good faith. If leaders follow this, they will be rewarded with the ingrained integrity habit and followers who believe in their leadership.

Wayne Oates, the American psychologist and educator who coined the term “workaholic,” once wrote “Maintaining your integrity in a world of sham is no small accomplishment.” In the words of Billy Graham, “Integrity is the glue that holds our way of life together.”

“An overseer … must be above reproach,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “… self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable … not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy.”

Wise words to us all. If we follow them our integrity will take care of itself.

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

War of Words

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” – Proverbs 15:1-2

So I was on FB the other day (“Facebook” for anyone who has spent the last 10 years in lost deep in the rainforests of Amazonia is a place where 1.86 billion people freely share intimate details about their waking existence and more than occasionally their opinions on every conceivable issue of the day). No, really – I was on FB. Ok, not so much of a stretch to believe that, I admit.

Thumbing down my timeline while waiting to board a plane – because apparently that’s what we do with smartphones these days – I idly began counting the positive, uplifting comments vs. the negative remarks. Predictably, in this age of the instant megaphone, negative posts won by a margin of nearly 7 to 1. You can guess the topic.

What struck me most was not that people have opinions. Nor that they feel free to share their opinions. We call that the market place of ideas and it’s a hallmark of free societies.

“Crushing Words” by Tabenrea via DeviantArt

Rather, what gave me pause was the level and tone of anger and bitterness from people on all sides. While it’s not surprising how loud the decibel levels have become over the last couple of years there seems to be a boiling-over happening today. And I was reminded of a verse from Proverbs 15 that reads “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”

We all know folks with no filters. Something comes into their minds and immediately erupts from their mouths. I was certainly guilty of that during much of my younger years.

While the ability to measure what and how we share our thoughts is a clear mark of spiritual and emotional growth, the opposite is also true. Not being able to control one’s words is usually a sign of social immaturity and can do significant damage to relationships and peace of mind. (Editor’s note: to some, too much filtering leads to “bureau-speak” and creates all sorts of social ills.)

The Book of Proverbs is filled with wisdom seemingly crying out to us, as relevant today as when these 31 chapters of sayings were first collected over 2,700 years ago. In Chapter 15, King Solomon speaks to the importance of moderating our words by comparing positive comments to their negative counterparts, and the results of each: peacefulness or wrath, knowledge or folly, healing or a crushed spirit.

Said differently, when we can’t control what we say, we don’t just fail to uplift or enlighten (or especially persuade). Rather, we create lasting divides between ourselves and others that can often never be bridged.

Jesus offered a clear guide on how communicating with others can be both persuasive yet uncompromising. His approach combined a number of ways to share ideas without shutting out the other person with shrill arguments or crass insults.

For example, he used countless stories (parables) – or illustrations – to breath spiritual truth into ever day life. His mastery of hyperbole to drive home his point (e.g. “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it away” – Matthew 5:29) shocked his listeners without insulting them. He spoke eloquently, often poetically. He asked questions of his adversaries rather than condemning them. He used physical demonstrations of his points (e.g. washing the feet of his disciples, holding up a Roman coin to distinguish God’s provenance from worldly obligations, the lesson of unselfishness while pointing to a widow giving her last two coins).

Honest disagreement is healthy. Mindless insults and condescension neither broker peace nor win discussions. Our words are the outward displays of our hearts and minds and can betray what we think rather than what we show. In the words of James 3:9 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”

Here’s a thought: before you initiate or respond to the next perceived offensive comment on social media or in a social setting, pause and ask yourself a couple of things. Do you have a hard time controlling your words? How will the other person hear what you say? Will your response help bridge or divide?

Peace.
Colossians 1:17

The Grace of Silence

 

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Psalm 131:2

I was having drinks with a friend recently, a self-proclaimed “agnostic.” As an aside, my definition of agnosticism is someone who lacks the intellectual curiosity to learn what Faith entails yet also lacks the (fill in your descriptive term of choice) to outright deny the the existence of a Creator. And yes, I said this person was a friend and yes, we were having a drink.

Actually, I don’t determine friendships based on someone’s political, religious, social, or financial viewpoints even if they differ from mine. Many of my friends hold beliefs diametrically opposed to mine. In fact, I can easily befriend anyone as long as we can share a laugh, a vigorous debate, and a handshake (or hug if they have no personal space issues) over a meal or drink. Well, except Philadelphia Eagles fans and anyone who still has a pair of JNCOs lurking in the back of their closet (you folks know who you are). Sorry, but a guy’s gotta have his standards.

Back to the story. My friend had read a recent post of mine that contained a bit of a faith overtone. He chortled and said “wait – you don’t really believe God actually speaks directly to you or anyone else, do you?” I thought a moment and remembered advice I’d been given a long time ago. I told my friend “The way I see it, life is a school. There are many teachers and God comes to different people in different ways.”

He laughed off my answer and we changed the topic to football. Because, you know, Super Bowl LI.  (Editor’s note: can we TALK about that come back?”)

The truth is, God doesn’t have to speak to us through state-of-the-art sound systems, or even through disembodied booming voices from the heavens. The book of Job tells us “For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it.” (Job 33:14).

Rather, I believe God speaks to us in the silence of our hearts. In her book In the Heart of the World, Mother Teresa considers this subject. “In the silence of the heart God speaks,” she writes. “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”

Perhaps all of us need a bit more silence in our lives these days…

Peace.
Colossians 1:17