Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas is Why I Am a Christian

Christmas is why I am a Christian. I know that some argue for Easter as the most theologically significant holiday, and I would never disagree with that. But for me, Christmas is what connects me to the faith more than anything else. Why? Because God the Son came to us. The Eternal took a step into time and changed everything.

This is what separates the Christian faith from all others. Other faiths seem to be mostly about how we get to the divine. What laws must we obey? To what moral code must we adhere? What prayers must we pray and when? What religious observances must we perform? How can I be good enough to deserve or earn the presence of God in my life? A faith like that could never captivate my soul.

But Christianity is different. Jesus being born in a manger is God saying to the world, “I already love you and I am coming to you to show it. I will make a way for your sins to be overcome so that you can be with me as I always intended.”

Say this to yourself slowly: God ---- came --- to us. Amazing! Captivating! No other god behaves this way.

Every year we get to celebrate this universe-shaking event of God coming to us. It is appropriate that we sing songs and decorate our houses and neighborhoods and gather with family and friends and eat special meals and exchange gifts and hold special services to commemorate such a great event as God coming to us. It can be exhausting at times, but what else can we do but celebrate? The news is just so good.

I am a Christian because of Christmas. God --- came --- to us.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lessons from an Amoeba

Dying vs Thriving
Author John Ortberg talks about a scientific experiment where tiny little amoebas (as opposed to the jumbo-sized amoebas) were put in a controlled environment that was perfectly suited for their survival, in theory. It was the ideal temperature, with the ideal amount of moisture and food. They should have done well. One problem – they all died. When the scientists changed one of the variables in the equation by making the amount of food slightly less, or the temperature slightly higher, etc, guess what happened. The amoebas thrived. Their conclusion was that organisms seem to need a challenge to survive. Enough to think about there alone.

Why we Gravitate Toward Negativity
But let’s turn a corner. It has often been lamented that humans seem to be infatuated with the negative and with bad news. We cannot get enough news about the latest Hollywood breakup, the swine flu, the tanking economy or the deadly bombing in some middle-eastern country. I find that blog posts of mine that are most read are those that highlight some wrong, some injustice, something that is not the way it should be. Those that I see as more uplifting seem to go largely ignored.

My own theory is that blog readers, and consumers of news in general, like the negative precisely because it makes them feel alive. They have something to overcome, even if it is only a mental or emotional exercise. So they gravitate in their hearts and minds toward the negative. Could it be that we do this because dealing with the negative in culture is so much easier than dealing with our own broken and fallen nature? There are all kinds of theological implications here as well.

Why we Need Problems and Threats
Just think of one of the larger implications in this regard. Could it be that we human animals need a certain degree of evil to exist in order to survive? Could it be that a real honest-to-goodness-Utopia would be the end of us all? Could it be that we need for something to be wrong or something to fight against – not with weapons like those of the purveyors of evil and wrongdoing – but with the weapons of faith, hope and love? Could it be that the best place to start is with ourselves?

Running into the Fight
If this is true, maybe running from the fight is the only way to guarantee that we lose, and running into the fight is the only way to win. Maybe Jesus was right when he said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it." May you be one who always runs into the battle with an irrepressible you in your heart!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On The Turning Away

Following Jesus teaches you something about yourself. I’m not talking about the lessons learned as an immediate result of the study of Scripture or time spent in prayer. But there are little awakenings that occur in one’s life as he /she examines that life in light of the nature and character of the one we follow.

23 Then (Jesus) said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. 24 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. 25 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?

Jesus could say this because he had already surrendered his life by coming to us for the purpose of showing us that the way to the Father is the way of the cross. It is the way of giving your life for the sake of others.

So what does this teach me about myself? If I am ruthlessly honest, it exposes how incredibly selfish I really am. I want things to go my way. I want people to defer to my point of view or to my desired course of action. I want my family to serve me and appreciate how fortunate they are to have me in their lives. I want to be served. I want my diet soft drink and the remote. I want … I want … I want.

Twenty-two years ago, Pink Floyd lamented the tragedy of turning away from the needs of our fellow humans in a wonderful song called On The Turning Away. But long before that, Jesus spoke of another, yet obviously related kind of turning away. Jesus says to turn from my selfish ways and follow him. That’s because his way and my way – as much as I’d like to think otherwise – are not the same thing. The closer I get to Jesus, and the more I follow his way, the more corrupt and depraved my way is exposed to be.

This is not an exercise in beating myself up. This is a waking up.  This is grace. This is sanity. This is being able to breathe deeply, smile broadly, give freely and love recklessly. This makes the right kind of turning away and the saving of my life possible.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Courage for What?

A friend recently posted a Facebook status update with the following verse.

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Joshua 1:9

As I reflected on this, something struck me. Joshua hears these words as he is about to fight a very large battle entering into the Promised Land. So he hears what you might expect - be strong and have courage. But he is told to be strong and courageous for reasons that seem to have no direct connection to the battle.

He is told to be strong and courageous so that he might be obedient to the law - the commands and the ways of God (vv7-8). That is how success is defined.

Another reminder that while the battle is important, the kind of person entering the battle, to God, is at least as important.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wrong Kind of Holiness?

I have been a huge fan of the goals of the emerging movement over the past 10-15 years or so. The emphasis on social holiness (acts seeking social justice) is one among many that I most admire. That being said, two unfortunate things seem to have grown out of the larger movement. One is the co-opting of the movement by those who would rather effectively dismantle than simply deconstruct the faith.

The other is that in an effort to build bridges, open dialogue and become more relevant to an unbelieving culture, some among the community of faith have seemingly decided that certain moral standards previously associated with personal holiness are no longer of any real significance.

As an example, it is not that unlikely to find a drunk (as opposed to one simply enjoying a frothy beverage or two), emergent evangelical cursing strongly about something at a local pub. In truth, this has always been the case to some degree. But in the past, for followers of Jesus, it was seen even by the person committing the act, as a violation of our call to personal holiness.

Now it is almost a badge of honor whereby those engaged in the activity may proclaim their freedom from broken, irrelevant, institutional religion. They no longer hide their behavior, or seek counsel for it. They joke and tweet about it, posting the pics on flickr apparently hoping to be seen as, well, relevant. So has personal holiness become the wrong kind of holiness?

From the way I am writing, you can guess I see this as a negative. But maybe I’m off base. Maybe personal holiness has nothing to do with it. Maybe being relevant requires this kind of thing. Or maybe my whole understanding of the meaning of personal holiness is way off. If you think I have gone wrong, let me know where.

Funny, but even as I read back over what I’ve written here, there is a little voice that says, “People are going to think you are one of those up-tight, morality-imposing bigots if you talk like this.” Am I? Where does that voice come from?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

To Risk is to Win

We need a challenge to thrive and know
We are fully alive and not slow to arrive at
The adventure for which we are created
But is too often abated as we become sedated
Pursuing the falsely inflated, abandoning our drive
To fulfill that call of One, who causes the fall of none,
But dreams that all might run to
A life of challenge and risk and not knowing
Like a raging river that’s flowing
A swift current that’s towing us toward more,
Out of the shallows and into the deep.
Only this kind of life makes a heart leap
And dance and spin knowing that only those
Who risk may win, or ever begin to experience true joy.
Thriving through challenge is not just a ploy
To put us on the edge, overlooking the ledge
Where there is no room to hedge regarding our actions
Finding safer satisfactions in domesticated reactions’
That never led to a life that’s truly full.
God-fashioned creatures need a challenge to live
That human-authored utopias never could give or
Hope to make real, there’s just no appeal to
Living something that feels true,
But its emptiness revealed though
A self-serving goal rather than a life poured out.
That is the challenge – to live for the least,
Stop feeding the beast of self-serving gain
Where life spirals down the drain
Nothing assuaging the pain of
Knowing that my chance came and I missed it.
But the one I follow says there is grace, and I see
As I catch a glimpse of his face than I retake my place
And then pick up the challenge once again,
Back in the race, knowing to risk is to win.

Friday, October 16, 2009

". . . American Democracy is not my idol."

This is a quote from Cornell West - a very polarizing figure in American political culture with whom I frequently disagree.  His rhetoric is an odd mix of the thoughtful and reasoned, as well as the hyperbolic and inflammatory. Even so, this quote is really interesting to me. It has to do with what it means to be a follower of Jesus as an American citizen. Thanks to Eugene Cho for posting it on his blog. Let me know what you think.

“I speak as a Christian- one whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are deeper. Democracy is not my faith. And American democracy is not my idol. To see the gospel of Jesus Christ bastardized by imperial Christiansand pulverized by Constantinian believers and then exploited by nihilistic elites of the American empire makes my blood boil. To be a Christian- a follower of Jesus Christ- is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom. This is the radical love in Christian freedom and the radical freedom in Christian love that embraces socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope.

If Christians do not exemplify this love and freedom, then we side with the nihilists of the Roman empire (cowardly elite Romans and subjugated Jews) who put Jesus to a humiliating death. Instead of receiving his love in freedom as a life-enhancing gift of grace, we end up believing in the idols of the empire that nailed him to the cross. I do not want to be numbered among those who sold their souls for a mess of pottage- who surrendered their democratic Christian identity for a comfortable place at the table of the American empire while, like Lazarus, the least of these cried out and I was too intoxicated with worldly power and might to hear, beckon, and heed their cries.

To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely- to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away. This is the kind of vision and courage required to enable the renewal of prophetic, democratic Christian identity in the age of the American empire.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Love and Hate in America

So people who care about our country often engage in this kind of debate.

Position A: America is a nation founded on godly principles where freedom and liberty are a way of life supported by Christian virtues derived straight from the Bible. We are God’s shining light to a morally confused and corrupt world. We are a nation destined to bring the truth of God’s word to the nations. America is the greatest country on earth!

Position B: America is so corrupt in its desire for power and love of money that it cannot see it is the most depraved nation of them all. We are a country that wages war to protect the values of those who follow the Prince of Peace? Insanity! We are a country of slavery and oppression and big money, and that is the only truth. America is evil!

The circles I have run in for the past 30 plus years have been more in line with Position A. It’s safe to say I love my country and thank God for the freedoms we have that are denied to others around the world. And I am grateful to our founders for the wisdom they executed in establishing our nation the way they did.

Here’s the thing. As a citizen of this nation, and as a Christian, I have noticed an inconsistency between how I feel it is appropriate to view myself, and how it is appropriate to view my country, according to the circles in which I run.

Evangelical faith has taught me to have a transparent and authentic humility with respect to myself. I am a sinner in need of a Savior. Every day, because of the darkness yet to be rooted out of me, I need the grace of Jesus to forgive me and empower me to live a God-honoring life. Without Jesus, I am hopelessly lost. I know what I am capable of. I know the darkness of my own heart. I know my faults and brokenness and limitations. The Scriptures expose me with a painfully bright light. I need to repent, be radically transformed and live the new kind of life only Jesus can offer.

So what about my country? Are we who are taught to confess and come clean with respect to our own souls somehow un-American for doing the same with respect to our nation? Do we freely confess our sins, but deny and hide the sins of our country?

Why is it America-hating to bring into the light the darkness of our corruption, racism, and economic oppression of others? Can’t Christians, out of love for their country, call it to repentance? Some do it all the time with respect to issues of abortion and the sanctity of marriage. They are seen by many in the church as champions of godly virtue. So why are those who advocate for America’s turning away from racial, social and economic injustice seen as America-hating, socialists? Isn’t calling someone you care about to repent and receive God’s transforming grace precisely what love does?

What if both positions above are true? What if America is blessed and has a special call upon it to bring the values and principles of the Kingdom of God to bear upon the earth? But what if that mission has turned away from its godly intent and become corrupt and self-serving? What if it is true that we still have a great deal of evil in us and are so desperately in need of God’s grace?

What if our souls and our institutions need the grace of God? And what if God is extending that grace to us, calling us to repentance so we can be the kind of people who are a blessing to the world we live in, extending freedom and liberty and justice around the globe?

If this is going to happen, my guess is that the people represented by Positions A and B are going to have to find a way, in humility, to talk to, listen to, and genuinely hear each other.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hearing Voices

I was asked recently about my spiritual growth. Ministers don't often get asked that question. In fact, very few get this question enough. The specific question I was asked was about my greatest challenges in the area of spiritual growth.

Since I cannot recall even a microsecond where I have recently spent time thinking about this, I was surprised at how quickly and easily the answer came to me. The greatest challenges to my spiritual growth are the voices of all the teachings, lessons, books, sermons, lectures, etc, I have heard, studied, absorbed and even created in the past that have shaped so much of my own spiritual growth to this point.

When I am confronted with a question or issue that requires thoughtful reflection and prayer, the easier thing to do is to fall back on what I have already heard and thought on the subject. All of those voices are so accessible to the point, at times, of being deafening. They are all I can hear.

I appreciate those voices and the place to which they have brought me. But I feel that more often than not these days, they are getting in the way of something deeper - something new - something even closer to the heart of God.

Ironically, I find myself, at least to some degree, trying to silence the voices to which I owe so much, so that I can more clearly hear the one to which I owe everything.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maintaining my Amateur Status

While filling out a document recently, I had to reveal my profession. I wrote "Minister" in the blank. For some reason, my mind ran with that until I arrived at a very familiar question. To what degree am I a follower of Jesus because I love Jesus, and to what degree because I am a religious professional?

It's interesting how many people I have heard over the years, when contrasting themselves to me, have used the term "amateur Christian" to refer to themselves. It has not been a great number, but I have heard it about a dozen or more times - just enough so that it has stuck with me. I like that as a title.

The word amateur comes from a Latin word that means "lover." So an Amateur Christian is one one who is a follower of Jesus precisely because they love Jesus.

So if you are feeling like you may not know as much as a professional Christian, or a more seasoned believer who seems to know better why they believe and follow, be encouraged. As an amateur Christian - one following out of love - you are on really, really solid ground.

My challenge is to continue to be a professional clergy person, but to always maintain my amateur status as a follower of Jesus.

May you never see your amateur status as something less than it should be. May you take joy in being one who follows Jesus out of authentic love.  And may you, in that following, come to know more fully the love Jesus has for you.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Art of Overreacting

We have so many who do it for a living that I find the term "art" sadly appropriate. There are hosts of cable news shows that get paid for and draw quite an audience to their overreactions. They invite overreacting pundits to appear on their show to either agree with, or loudly and rudely disagree with some other overreacting pundit.

Valid criticism aside, we saw a lot of overreacting during the Bush administration and now we are seeing it again with Obama. Most recent is the issue; should the President of the United States be "allowed" to speak to school children by way of video broadcast. To some, this is evidently a great horror.

Now I get the parent or teacher who says that they should have the opportunity to preview any content put before students. But we are talking the President here. We are not talking about Rush Limbaugh or his alternate universe twin, Keith Olbermann speaking to our kids.

The overreaction is almost comical. People in complete ideological agreement with each other and against the President are calling him a Nazi and a socialist. That's like saying he is a member of two opposing street gangs. I guess rhetoric is more important than truth in the art of overreacting.

Let me offer a little pastoral counsel here. Lighten up. If he gives a highly partisan speech, he will be skewered in the press for doing so, and his speech will have the opposite of what one might speculate was his desired result. He is the President for crying out loud. If he wants to talk to school kids, he can. When did we all become so fragile and easily offended by what we think might possibly, who knows, could, but might or might not not happen?

For those who don't like the President, be encouraged. Like all recent Presidents, every time he speaks, his poll numbers drop. Why? I guess ideas that don't sync up 100% with our own scare us. And fear is the key ingredient to the art of overreacting.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Naming a Church

Naming a church can be harder than you think. You have to consider the community in which your church will be planted. You have to consider your own DNA for ministry as well as the vision and mission of the church based on the needs and opportunities for ministry in your area.

You don’t want to go to a rural area and call your church “Hippie Chic Community of Enlightenment.” You don’t want to go to an affluent, urban area and name your church “Wildwood Chapel and Shekinah Glory Prayer Tabernacle.” And you don’t want to go to a retirement community and call your church “Fast Forward Future Church.”

Of course, a name also depends on your denominational affiliation. If you are United Methodist like me, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow is probably not a good option. If you are Baptist, Microbrewery Church is out. If you are Episcopalian planting a church in my hometown of Waco, TX, your best choice is probably First Baptist Episcopalian Church. I stole that last one. But playing off of it, if you are inter-denominational, what about First Bapti-Metho-Epsici-Presby-Ssemlby of the Naza-Catho-Luthe-Costals ?

Anyway, I think I have settled on a name, although until I get buy-in from all the right folks, I’m keeping it under wraps. Still, that "Perpetual Sorrow" thing has a ring to it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hide and Go Seek

The Game

The one childhood game I think we never outgrow is Hide and Go Seek. Players run and hide while the seeker is hiding his/her eyes . . . theoretically. After an acceptable time is allowed for hiding, the seeker shouts; “Ready of not, here I come.”

When we are little and first introduced to the game, we don’t hide well. I remember my sister hiding behind the pole of a clothes line in our back yard. She was skinny, but not that skinny. As we get older we discover and select better hiding places.

My favorite indoor place was the dirty clothes hamper with a few towels thrown on top of my head in case the seeker thought of looking there. Outdoors was on top of the garage door when it was in the “open” position. This was back in the day of solid, heavy wooden garage doors.

As I look back on those days and good times, it occurs to me that we never get over that game. How we play it has changed and it’s not that much fun anymore. Still, we continue to play. We don’t hide behind poles or on top of garage doors or in clothes hampers anymore.

Grown Up Version
Now we hide behind carefully constructed images we show to others. We hide behind success, portfolios, busy-ness and activity, social involvement, a cause to which we have attached ourselves and even church activity. Some of us even hide behind God. And what we are hiding is the darkness, the bankruptcy, the emptiness in our souls.

Then the seeker shouts, “Ready or not, here I come.” And the seeker does come. And the seeker’s name is Grace. Grace finds us out by pulling down our carefully constructed images. Grace flushes us out of the shadows by creating unbearable discontent with success, portfolios, busy-ness, activity, social involvement, causes and religious activity.

Sometimes, grace even shakes our faith in God. Why? Maybe so that we will stop using belief in God as a reason to feel good about ourselves when everything about us is so broken and unredeemed. Shaking our faith allows us to see that without the ability to profess a sure belief in God, we find there is nothing to us but a self-absorbed, fearful, insecure, sinful and broken human who has been hiding from grace rather than surrendering to it.

A Way to Win
Occasionally, something will happen in my life that makes me question some deeply held belief, either about God and faith, or about the extent of my own transformation as a follower of Jesus. Sometimes, one of my hiding places gets exposed. That exposure is usually some combination of painful and embarrassing.

But it doesn’t frustrate me anymore. I now receive “getting caught” as a gift because it always, always compels me to come out from my hiding, and draw closer to the heart of the God who gave himself for me. So maybe the game can be fun again after all. I just need to remember that the ones who get caught are the ones who win.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A New Spiritual Gift

I went to the gym today. It is a routine I have taken up again since I was sunbathing on the beach a while back and a team of college students and marine biologists tried to drag me back into the ocean to be with my kind. But as the sun came out from behind the clouds, not even their Oakley’s could keep the glare from my excessively white skin from forcing them to give up the struggle.

When I got to the gym, there were four plus-sized women, obviously there together, all on the treadmills facing a wall of tv’s. I got the only one left – treadmill, not plus-sized woman. As they glanced over at me, they began to smile. I think they were grateful that someone even larger and with much more weight to lose was working out next to them. By comparison, I made them look quite svelte.

This reminded me of another beach experience I had one year in Galveston with about seven other friends for Spring Break. I have been and always will be melanin challenged. I don’t tan. My skin, as it turns out, is good at one thing – producing skin cancers. So I stay pretty white all year long in attempt to shut down such production. Now at the beach, on Spring Break, in the days before tanning salons, this was not all that bad. All of the girls who worried that they would look too pasty in their swimsuits for the first time out all season just loved walking down the beach with me. My white skin made them look as though they had been tanning in South America all winter.

But back to the gym. After I left the treadmill (the women who were there before me were still going, by the way), I went to the weights where two high school boys were working out. They did all of the exercises I did, but with considerably more weight, and with considerably greater ease, with one exception. I could still pull a heavier weighted bar down than they could, but I did outweigh them by a good 80 – 100 lbs at least. When they saw how much (or little) I was lifting, they smiled. I was a much bigger guy, but they could work out with far more weight than my much older frame and muscle structure could bear.

So I have found a new spiritual gift. Decrepitude. I can bring joy and encouragement to people by showing up where their images are at risk of being exposed, or where they might feel vulnerable, and just be a less attractive image than the one they see in themselves. Not many people can pull that off.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Rhetorical Surprise

I recently added this as one of my all-time favorite quotes, albeit a partial one. It is not only the spot-on conviction that I so much appreciate, but that it is couched in the form of a rhetorical surprise. Having said that, I know there are some who will read the first part of this and misunderstand, but oh well. God's peace.

"Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

"I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

"However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed."
- Peter Rollins

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Fool's Defense

I make more money while typing this post than most of the world has to live on per day, and I keep and spend 92% of it on myself, but I am a good person.

I live less than 20 minutes from homeless families living on the street, and their condition is not anything I work to change, but I am a good person.

I spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on my kids sports and extra curricular activities each year while children in poverty in my community and around the world are ignored by people like me with means to help, but I am a good person.

My neighbor is confused about spirituality and has been burned by the church in the past, but I don’t dare raise spiritual topics with her because she might think badly of me, and after all, I am a good person.

I live in a neighborhood of people who look like and view the world mostly like me, and avoid areas of town and the people where this is not true, but I am a good person.

Instead of teaching my children to sacrifice for the sake of the least, the last and the lost all around us, I teach them to ignore these so that we can live the same comfortable lifestyle as our neighbors, but I am a good person.

I have interpreted the command of Jesus to “Go make disciples of every nation” and to “love my neighbor as myself” to mean that I should congregate in comfortable chairs on Sundays with others who do the same, and love only those in my holy huddle, but I am a good person.

Even though I know that 2 out of every 3 unchurched people I am friendly with would go to church if I invited them, it has been years since I invited anyone to church, but I am a good person.

The 4 P's of Sharing Your Faith

While Jesus came to win the lost and set the oppressed free, I focus instead on creating space between me and the lost, and hoping some politician or social activist can manage to set the oppressed free, but I am a good person.

While Jesus spent his time connecting his life to people far from God so they might find life in him, I connect my life to those far from God so that I can live the same life they do and not feel deprived like I would if I had to really live like Jesus, but I am a good person.

While I affirm the power of transformation in my words and stated beliefs, I deny the power of transformation when I turn my back on the poor, ignore the oppressed, distance myself from the under-resourced and refuse to share the good news with the spiritually confused or searching, but I am a good person.

While I have made an idol of my beliefs about God, I have ignored the very heart of God and the way of Jesus, but I am a good person.

I do not feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, comfort the afflicted or stand with the oppressed, but I am a good person.

While Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good?” I ask “Why do you not call me good?” You should know by now that I am a good person.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mistaking Jesus for the Horse He Road In On

So I am learning to take delight in all things and in all situations. Last night I was having dinner with David Hunt. He was my Young Life leader when I was in high school, and the one who more than any other, I count as responsible for leading me to Christ. Even so, we had not seen each other in 31 years. Reconnecting and getting caught up was so thoroughly good. One of the things David shared that he has been learning is a lesson that parallels my own growth and journey. That is, learning to take joy or delight in Christ in all things.

Okay, I know that sounds like stock Christian saying #417, but David articulated it in a way that makes it so much more meaningful. He spoke of how he loves to drive through the piny woods of east Texas, which he had done earlier that day. He also loves thinking about being there and enjoying the beauty of places like Davy Crockett National Forest. I have spent significant time in that part of Texas and know exactly what he means.

But there is a big difference between having fond thoughts of or memories of being in a place you love, and actually, actively being there. A lot of us who are followers of Jesus seem to chase one spiritual experience after another. We love moving worship experiences. We are blessed so much by being in community and engaging in Bible study or prayer and just hanging out with good friends. We may even look forward to practicing some spiritual discipline or another that is particularly meaningful to us. Then we remember those things and look forward to our next experience of them.

Just like David driving through east Texas or me riding a lift up to the top of the mountain at Winter Park, Colorado however, there is a big difference between remembering or anticipating those experiences and actually being there to experience them.

So here’s the lesson. This is what David shared that just rings so true for me. With Jesus, there is no need to rely on remembering or anticipating. Jesus is present, right here and right now. He is not waiting in some future experience or designated location. As a bringer of the Kingdom of God, Jesus said that because he was here, the Kingdom of God was among us – a present reality.

I think I have had some sense this for a while. I've known it intellectually for most of my walk with Christ, but for some reason have not very often lived it out. But that is changing.

I was out with friends tonight at Café Express at the Shops at Legacy. As Kelly and I drove away, I thought about how much I am going to miss places like that when we move out to our new mission field. But then I thought about how much I enjoy being in places like the one we are going to. My thoughts then gathered around the idea that I really do know how to find and experience the presence and joy of the Lord in all situations and places, though I do not always do it successfully.

So why do I feel like I am going to miss places and feel regret and loss over having to leave a familiar experience or familiar relationship behind? Why can I not just take joy in what I know will be great experiences ahead? I think it may be because I have not yet learned how to find the very real presence of Christ in the transition. But the truth is, he is there too. He is in that awkward stage between one great reality and another because he is the one all-encompassing reality of realities.

So even though I had been congratulating myself on being able to take joy and delight in all situations, the truth is I had not really been doing it all that well. At best I had expanded my list of places and experiences where I could take joy in Christ’s presence, but I was still chasing experiences, events and places, even if they were a bit more broadly defined. I was still mistaking Jesus for the horse he so often road in on. (As an aside, a lot of people do this with a particular style of worship or sacred music too. I'm just sayin'.)

The danger now is that I just try to add transitional seasons to the list of places to experience Christ’s presence. But my source of joy and delight is not in the experiences or places I associate with Christ’s presence. It is with Christ’s presence. And that is available all the time and in every place. I do not mean to devalue positive and powerful experiences that serve to connect us to the reality of Christ’s presence. But they should be reminders of his continual presence, not to be mistaken for the exclusive means by which we enter and enjoy his presence. Christ is just as present with me as I type this as he was two weeks ago when I and thousands of others were being led in worship by Joel Houston and Hillsong United.

How incredibly freeing this is. I can now enjoy those special and unique experiences without having to chase them or feel as though I am left high and dry without them. Christ is here, present with me –Jesus our Emmanuel. I do not have to lean on a memory or look forward to the next great experience. Jesus is right here, right now. How could I have spent so much time ignoring that?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Open Delight

Jeff Foxworthy had a joke that said, “If your life has ever been changed by watching an episode of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’ you might be a redneck.”I loved the one about the Latino kid rescued from a gang by Chuck Norris’ “Kick Drugs Out of America” campaign. Sniff, sniff.I laughed when I first heard Foxworthy’s joke and thought how silly some people are for feeling so moved by the most inane or cheesy kinds of things.Chief among these for me are inspirational sayings. You know what I mean.Things like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Just shoot me now.

But this past week at the Arts Conference at Willow Creek (apologies to those who see Willow as the great evil of our day, representing everything wrong with the contemporary church – okay, not really), I heard a single sentence that could be thought of as just another pithy slogan. But it did something to me. Nancy Beach issued a challenge to live with your default setting on “open delight.”

Just take delight in what God has done and is doing all around you. Be delighted to engage in conversation, to take on challenges, to meet new people, to accomplish a task, to go through the trial and error process of creating something new, to be with family and friends. Just delight in all you do and all that makes up your day. Live with your default setting on open delight.

So I came home and tried it out. And it worked so well. No matter what was going on at home in the chaos of my two oldest kids moving out on their own, getting our house ready for sale so the rest of us can move, thinking about all I need to do to start a new church in my new ministry setting, leaving a church I love, taking care of an aging mother who lives 100 miles away, etc…, I managed to be more open and gracious and cooperative and giving than I have in a long time – maybe ever. At least for a couple of days, I managed to live that way.

But then old patterns of thought and behavior started creeping back in. Even after all these years, I had the expectation that if I changed, the world around me would be inspired to change as well. But this time, things are different. I’m not changing my setting. The joy (delight) of the Lord will be my strength. The rest of the world will just have to deal with open delight however it feels it needs to do so. And that has been an incredibly freeing thing for me. Delightful even.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When in Rhome

It is official. After seven very rewarding years, I will be leaving First UMC of Carollton as of July 1. The bishop has appointed me to start a new church in the area of Rhome, Texas. The community at the center of the "mission field" is called Seven Hills. Get it? The Seven Hills of Rome? Or in this case, adding an "h." Let the jokes begin. Will you be appointed Pastor or Caesar? Will you have acolytes or gladiators? Will you build a church or a Colosseum? Where will you keep the lions? Feel free to add some of your own.

While I have a great deal of sadness about leaving First Carrollton, I am incredibly excited about the adventure ahead. According to the best research, the best way to introduce new people into a relationship with Christ is through church planting. On top of that, the open door to being free to create and to be unfettered by institutional memory and expectations is mind-boggling. I just hope I don't have my bubble burst the second week of the new church start by someone saying, "That's not how we did it last week!"

But before the fun begins, there is a house to be sold and a family to move. There is church planting "boot camp" (yes, they actually call it that) to attend. There are good-byes to be said and memories to begin to treasure in an even deeper way.

It won't be easy. But when does God ever call anyone in Scripture to do something easy? I can't find it. Though church planting is anything but a game (although there should be a significant amount of fun to it), in keeping with the spirit of the imagery of Rome - Let the games begin.

(I know, but there were Roman games as well.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Working It Out With Fear and Trembling

I like Rick McKinley’s call to dive into the Beautiful Mess of the world we live in just as Jesus did. That is part of working out our salvation as we are encouraged to do in Philippians 2:12. But I also like the part of resting in God’s grace and trusting that ultimately, it is God who is accomplishes the work of the kingdom through us as it says in the very next verse of Philippians 2. I know so many people who struggle with this as though the two approaches are contradictory. Well, if that is the case, then was the writer of Philippians trying to confuse us? Was he ignorant and missed the contradiction in his own words? Or was he saying exactly what he intended to say knowing very well the implications of juxtaposing what seem to be two divergent thoughts? Maybe he knew that the truth of how to live is found in the intersection of verses 12 and 13.

May I learn to walk in this life and see/
To be/ a person free to grasp eternity
And not flee/ holy responsibility/ without
Making it seem like it all depends on me.

May I learn to rest in this life and know/
The One who runs the show/ is good to go/
And not strive so/ trust the Spirit flow/
Not hide my eyes or refuse to stretch and grow.

Truth is where these thoughts collide/
I can no longer hide/ from either side/
But embrace the ride/ taking me where
Contradictions reveal/ and no longer conceal.

Strong, strong appeal.

But more than appealing/ it brings me to kneeling/
Before the God who brings healing/ to
The minds of those who/ have hearts that care to/
Even who dare to/ ones fully aware who/

Embrace mystery and depth and completeness/
Remove the ceiling.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Emerging or Emergent?

My friend Dane Daniels directed me to this description on the website of The Grove Church in Fayetteville. What do you think of this description?

Some people ask us whether the Grove identifies itself as "Emergent". The answer is No. Here's why.

Emergent is a certain group of folks who want to lead the church to engage our increasingly post-Christian culture with the Gospel, but they want to do this, in part, through changing the message of the Gospel--that is, through down-playing (or in some cases denying altogether) central doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement, the exclusivity of Christ, and hell.

Emergent should be viewed as the liberal wing of the so-called "emerging church".

That designation--the "emerging church"--refers to a broad range of churches, most of them evangelical, which are seeking to be "on mission" to America by actively engaging the culture rather than retreating from it.

We certainly identify with the calling to join God in his mission to post-Christian America. However, we find the label "emerging church" unhelpful, since so many people confuse that label with the distinctly more liberal group calling themselves Emergent.

So, we don't call ourselves an emerging church. We don't see why it's necessary to do so. Instead, we're content to call ourselves an evangelical Protestant church . . .

The Emergent folks (along with many others) stress many important things, like living simply and serving the poor, doing justice, practicing authentic community, being honest about our doubts, learning from Christian traditions different from our own, pursuing character transformation in this life and not just rescue from hell in the next life, doing evangelism with respect and sincerity, and so on. These are indeed valid concerns--biblical concerns.

However, one can embrace all these without becoming Emergent. These concerns are not the exclusive province of Emergent--or of the Emerging church, for that matter.

Most importantly, we need not and we must not abandon the Gospel in order to adopt these concerns. All these concerns actually flow from the glorious Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead. Hopefully, our church, along with many others, will show that this is the case, as we live lives deeply transformed by the Gospel.

Kent Hodskins

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Way of Life Do I Beleive In?

The messages and sermons that most resonate with my spirit these days are those about sacrificial living and embracing a lifestyle that seeks to spend less, acquire less, and give more of all we have - time, energy and money - to reach the poor, the oppresses, the marginalized and under-resourced.

Trouble is, as U2 says, "I don't believe in riches but you should see where I live." I would like to think that I am conflicted, but I think that may be a cop-out.

I listened to a message by John Ortberg not long ago that quoted Michael Novak who says that humans hold to 3 kinds of beliefs: Public, Private and Core. Public beliefs are those things we want others to believe about us whether true or not. We see a lot of this in politics. Private beliefs are those things we want to believe, or think we believe. But when they are tested, they are abandoned and we discover we did not really believe them at all. Core beliefs are those we operate as though are true without even giving them much or any thought at all. Of course, Jesus came to change our core beliefs.

What I wonder is how many of the people who are like me and say that we believe in committing ourselves to reaching the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and under-resourced, actually live a lifestyle that demonstrates that commitment? Or, when I say that I am conflicted between caring for the poor, and living a lifestyle of affluence, am I really conflicted, or is the truth that I just really do not believe that the way of Jesus is better? If I have to say, "I don't believe in riches but you should see where I live," maybe I really do believe in riches, and not much else.

Just a note; I am not taking the U2 song as Gospel and saying that riches are bad. It is the misuse of riches that is bad. So how do those of us who have riches come our way, use them? Do they pass through our hands or do we hold on to them and use them for personal gain, pleasure and comfort?

I'd like to think that Jesus is changing my core and that my movement toward a more sacrificial and open-handed way of life is part of that.

If you want to see some folks who do get this talking about how God is moving in them to reach victims of severe poverty and genocide, check out http://www.ccn.tv/darfur/. Peace.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

All is Not Vanity

Last night the Small Group I attend started walking through Ecclesiastes. Right up front I was struck by the reality that I have been in a kind of “vanity of vanities” syndrome all week long. It may be the mood of a lot more people than I am aware these days. But it certainly hit me.

Watching the world news, it’s the same kind of thing I have heard all of my life. There are twists and turns in the news that are unique to our time and place in history, but overall, there really is nothing new under the sun.

I wrote 3 blogs earlier in the week and posted none of them. I didn’t even save a copy. One was on the economic mess we are in and the attempts to get us out on the part of the government. But the more I read about the approaches to a solution, I discovered that they were simple modifications of already existing strategies with already known benefits and flaws. All of these have been commented on ad nauseum.

Another abandoned post was about how the church is no friend to the Kingdom of God when it preaches a message that is married to a more-is-better ideology if “more” does also include qualities like humility, generosity, sacrifice, open-handedness and selfless giving.

I can’t even remember the third post.

All of the above are important things. And a lot of faithful people are involved in bringing about just economic solutions that also honor and reward hard work and creative enterprise. And a lot of faithful people are working to refocus the church back on the things Jesus cared about and get our eyes off the false prize of a consumer-driven gospel. These are struggles I believe in too. This is not just striving after the wind.

Maybe my struggle is that I don’t always feel as connected to the purposes of God and the mission of Jesus as I should. Solomon concluded that only what one does as part of a life lived in the faithful following of God really matters. Although the days of my youth are just a combination of fond and embarrassing memories, maybe it is not too late to remember my Creator.

Thanks Omar.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Word of God, Speak

How can I tame the God of the flame
The name of fame who will not be framed,
Constrained in a way that I might hear his voice

How am I to take the God of the quake
Who will not himself shake for my sake
Or partake of my challenge, a fake to make his voice heard,
No mistake.

How will I snare the God of the air
Unfair, blowing harder than I can bear but
Despair to know his voice is not there in spite of my dare
So where?

Not in the flame. Assumption wrong. I stand ashamed.
Not in the quake as I thought for so long. I am to blame.
Not in the air no matter how strong. God’s voice is renamed.

A whisper. Still and small though not at all weak
There for those who seek not the dramatic but meek.
And so I listen, quietly. Word of God, speak.

Inspired by 1 Kings 19:11-13

Thursday, February 5, 2009

iPod shuffle and the voice of God

I have an iPod video with a shuffle feature. It’s not unique to my player of course. They all have them. But I just started using it. And I’m really caught off guard at how long it took me to do so. I like to play with gadgets and see what they can do. I never read the instructions though. What fun would that be? I might learn something if I did that and the joy of discovery and feeling like I was smarter than the device I was operating would be lost? So I just play with things like iPods until I figure them out. But the discovery of the shuffle feature did not make me feel smart. It made me feel something else.

I was getting bored with my iPod to tell the truth. No matter which playlist or artist or genre I chose, I would get tired of the music coming over the stereo in my car (really the only place I listen to my iPod with regularity) very quickly. But when I use the shuffle feature, something is different. I find myself listening to music that I never would have chosen otherwise, and actually enjoying it – even smiling and singing along as I drive.

And the mix of songs makes me laugh. Today, in this order, I listened to Good Morning Starshine by Oliver, What I Want by Daughtry, Low Ride by Earl Klugh, Summertime Blues by Alan Jackson, A Day in the Life by The Beatles, and Revelation Song by Tom Braxton. It was an auditory blast! Everything was a surprise and I got to just sit back and enjoy what came next.

Here is what I think was going on with my previous boredom over my iPod listening experience. When I was selecting the genres and playlists and artists, I was in control. I knew what was coming next every time. There was no surprise or sense of not knowing to create any kind of anticipation in me. God spoke to me in the processing of those thoughts – not in an audible voice over my car stereo – but you get the idea.

In way too many areas of my life, I have not learned to let go of the controls. I want to program what makes up the content of all my playlists. I want work to go like this, and family to go like that, and recreation to be made up of something else, and so on, and so on. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s boring! It’s death!!!

I don't think God ever meant life to be so predictable and programmed.

Lamentations 3:22-24 says (the emphasis is mine):

22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!

His mercies never cease.

23 Great is his faithfulness;

his mercies begin afresh each morning.

24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;

therefore, I will hope in him!”

No two days are alike with God or for those who follow God. Our days are not part of a playlist, and we should not try to make them fit into one. Funny how a silly little feature on a music player can teach me something about how God has made me to live out the days I’m given. Funny. But praise God!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Post-Inaugural "You did NOT just go there!"

We have a new president. More than that, history has been made as we have our first African-American president. That alone is worth being excited about, and if you happen to be a supporter of his party and progressive values, you are probably walking on air this week. Even many of those who did not support President Obama in the election are now hopeful and optimistic about his administration, because those are the qualities he seems to carry with him, and there is no arguing they have been contagious.

Now some folks are not so excited. I understand that. I also understand some of their concerns since I share many of the values of those who supported Sen McCain. But here is what I have found so disappointing. The negative comments I have heard from some of my Christian brothers and sisters have gone beyond civil political dissent and have bordered on, and in some cases in refernce to President Obama, have crossed the line entirely on being racist. Seriously? Are you kidding me?

I am just incredulous that among the very people who ought to be on the front lines of battling all kinds of prejudice and racism and arrogant bigotry, I find the heartbeat of such evil alive and well within some of them. How grieved the heart of God must be!

All those years of walking in grace and they are still so ruled by fear, ignorance, bigotry, insecurity, and pride. Oh, they wear a very convincing mask to cover this sin and its corroding effects most of the time. And in their mostly-all-white world, the mask is just thick enough for them to fool themselves and each other. Those outside of their world can smell the deceit, but within the upper middle-class white Christian bubble, we only need to deceive ourselves. But when the mask is put to the test (as in having to accept an African-American president from the opposing party), it cracks and exposes the ugliness underneath.

And these are the same ones who pray fervently for revival within our nation, imploring God to bring the spiritual cynics and skeptics to a place of faith. Well maybe the problem is not God's lack of action. Maybe the problem is that we reflect a heart and mind so repugnant that spiritually curious people want nothing to do with it. From what I have heard recently, I can't blame them.

This breaks my heart because I am so oriented to reaching out to people with grace and trying to understand their point of view. But this requires so much more from those who value the principles of God's kingdom. At times, even Jesus had to say words like this:

Matthew 23: 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

5 “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels.6 And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’

. . .12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

15 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

16 “Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! . . . 23 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

. . . 27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

No wonder people write books with titles like, "Jesus, Rescue Me From Your Followers," and "They Like Jesus But Not the Church" and "Jesus Wants to Save Christians."

May God forgive me for being so blind that I have been able to move through this world without noticing that not as much has changed as I had imagined. Again, Lord Jesus, give me your eyes.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pastors Talking Too Much

A few years ago, I was working on staff at a local church. A woman at the church had started a ministry to people living in section 8 apartment communities in our area. It became wildly successful and our denomination became interested in both her and the ministry. Through a long process, she decided to seek ordination as a pastor.

The time came when she had to attend her first event that was almost exclusively for pastors. Terrified, she came to me and confessed, "I have no idea what to talk to these people about? They are all more educated than me and have been doing this for a long time. How do I talk to these pastors?"

As unlikely as it seemed, I was able to pass along some wisdom to a new pastor. I told her, "This is the easiest thing you will ever have to do. All you do is walk up to another pastor - one that looks friendly and preferably male. Shake his hand, introduce yourself and ask "How are things going with your church?' It is the last thing you will have to say for forty-five minutes."

After the event, she came back very amused and excited and said, "You were so right. I did just what you said and this guy started in on their new building and hiring a new director of their children's ministry. Then another pastor joined the conversation and it turned into a competition of these guys trying to outdo each other in listing their accomplishments. It was hysterical! I didn't have to say a word all day." Then she hugged me.

Now I am not saying we are all like this, and there are some good reasons why some of us go on and on about ourselves. We need a place where we can talk about what we do with others who can understand and appreciate our work. My problem is that I too often seem to want to be appreciated more than I want to appreciate others. Conviction stinks.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Grace or Justice

On December 27 I was coming home from Waco where my family had a late Christmas at my Mom's house. I came back alone because I was preaching the next morning, but my kids wanted more time with Gran-Gran, Aunt Mary, Uncle Jaral and cousin Nicholas. It was an uneventful drive until I got into Addison on the North Dallas Tollway. In moderately heavy traffic, a motorcycle came whizzing past me traveling 90-100 mph easy. It scared me to death especially as he cut across my front bumper, missing me by inches.

In that moment, the anger and almost irrational rage I felt was overpowering. It's embarrassing to think about now. But I was mad. I wanted to drive down the road and see that guy pulled over by the cops. I wanted Justice to smack him in the face. I wanted to see him in handcuffs and stuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser. I wanted him hauled off to jail and his bike sold at auction. I wanted JUSTICE!.

Of course, two months eariler when I saw blue flashing lights in my own rearview mirror becasue I was speeding in a construction zone, I had a different attitude. When the cop came to my window, do you think I asked for jsutice or grace? I asked for grace. I did not get it, but I asked for it.

The truth is we all have something in us that wants justice for others but grace for ourselves. I am so glad that God does not treat me like I think others deserve to be treated. So my prayer is the prayer written by Brandon Heath in his song, "Give Me Your Eyes."

Give me your eyes for jsut one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the brokenhearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see.

Then maybe I will begin to see people more and more through the eyes of grace.