Monday, October 26, 2009

Hand Up or Handout?

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

I recently brought up my involvement in an addiction recovery ministry. I thank all of you for your encouraging comments. Truth is, I wouldn't be involved in that ministry if I didn't need it myself. Besides my character, I have learned much about the human condition and those things that drive us to our drugs of choice. I've also learned that in order to overcome our addictions and surrender our will to God, we need to "hit bottom". This means we've reached our lowest point and that realization motivates us to change. Recovery "raises" that bottom, so our motivation for sobriety moves from being afraid of the worst that could happen to desiring the best that God has in store for us. The temptation for many is to prevent a loved one from reaching their bottom. We don't want to see them suffer. We want to save them. But suffering is exactly what they need to find the desire for recovery.

This creates a paradox to the Christian. There is no sin so horrible that God can't forgive. "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear" (Isaiah 59:1) And we are commanded to "forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Colossians 3:13b) Likewise we are commanded to "carry each other's burdens" because "in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2)

It's easy to forgive an addict without enabling him. But where do you draw the line when carrying his burdens? On one hand, he needs to suffer the consequences of his decisions. But that does not mean we cannot help. Picking him up from the bar at 2:00 AM because he can't drive home is not carrying his burdens. But "sponsoring" him at a meeting is.

With addiction, that line is more clear than when dealing with other sins. What about a single teenage mother? Is offering to babysit while she searches for a job enabling, or sharing her burden? This is something my wife and I are currently battling. There are a couple of single moms that we've been reaching out to and opening our home to. When we bring them to church, the stares we get say, "why would you help her? It's her fault she's in the situation she's in." Are we preventing them from hitting their bottom? I'd like to think instead we're offering a safe environment in which they can work out their issues. Much like a recovery meeting.

Sadly, this perspective doesn't seem to be shared. To some, we are offering a handout instead of a hand up. I am moved to pray the lyrics to Brandon Heath's song, Give Me Your Eyes,

"All those people going somewhere,
Why have I never cared?

Give me your eyes for just 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 broken hearted
Ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see"

I can then follow up with Leeland and Brandon Heath's Follow You,

"Faith without works is dead
On the cross your blood was shed
So how could we not give it away so freely?"

I only pray others may see the world in the same way.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Won't Somebody Think of the Children, Again!

I've been down this road before regarding 'Octomom' and touched on it with the Gosselins, but there is a steep price to pay by our children in the pursuit of our own celebrity. This scripture bears repeating:
It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. -Luke 17:2

In the past week you were probably glued to your TV when you heard about "balloon boy". As a parent, my heart ached thinking of a 6 year-old 7000 feet in the air, all alone. In case you've been living under a rock, it turns out the whole thing was a hoax. Sadly, the 6 year-old is caught in the middle of it all, spilling the beans (literally and figuratively) on the whole thing on national TV. You know you're putting your kid under too much pressure when he throws up on camera. Sadly, kids are put through the ringer all the time for the sake of 'reality TV'. Jon and Kate, I'm looking at you.

But that's not the only forum where children are the victims of their parent's pride and selfishness. Unfaithfulness not only tears marriages apart, but tears the children apart also. This is no more evident than the recent case of ESPN's Steve Phillips. His affair with an "assistant" led her to confront his wife and his son via Facebook in what the media is comparing to "Fatal Attraction". In Phillips' statement to the police he said, "I have extreme concerns about the health and safety of my kids and myself." If he cared so much for his kids, he should've kept it in his pants. Sorry to be so blunt, but this is his second known affair. The first cost him his job as GM of the Mets. This one is going to cost him his wife. I don't know what will happen with his kids after the divorce, but one thing to be sure of, there will be cameras rolling when that decision is made.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leap of Faith

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. -Hebrews 11:1

I know the theme of this blog carnival is 'trust', but I can't think of trust without thinking about faith. Faith is more than just believing 'in', it also includes believing 'on' (or unto, for you King James fans). The former is intellectual, the second results in action. It's like believing in Santa Claus- you may believe he lives at the North Pole and keeps a list (and is checking it twice!), but you trust that if you're good he'll bring you lots of presents.

Unfortunately, for many our faith in God is like our children's faith in Santa Claus. We behave a certain way 'trusting' that we'll get something good in return. Even though "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28), what is 'good' for God isn't necessarily good for us. After all, Jesus still suffered and died, but we insist that was good.

So we have to trust when whatever we're going through, God is in control. Easier said than done.

"As they were walking along the road, a man said to [Jesus], 'I will follow you wherever you go.'

Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'

He said to another man, 'Follow me.'

But the man replied, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.'

Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'

Still another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.'

Jesus replied, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'" (Luke 9:57-62)

Interestingly, right after this passage in Matthew 8, we are told the story of Jesus' disciples being afraid while caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. What was Jesus doing at the time? Sleeping. After they woke him up, his response was simple, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" (Matthew 8:26)

Nowhere is trust and faith more evident than in the addiction ministry in which I serve. The biggest challenge for any addict is to resign control and trust in God. (In AA, the first 3 steps are based on this truth.) Recently we told one young man that he needed to make a very specific, and challenging, lifestyle change. He balked at the suggestion. Instead of beating him over his head with 'why', we simply encouraged him to go home and pray about it. Reminding him that God knows what he needs better than he does or we do.

The brother who leads that ministry likes to use his own personal example. Before he became a disciple of Jesus and committed to carrying his cross daily, he was afraid of the implications of such trust. (In fact, this was when he was struggling with the third step in AA.) He thought, "If I commit to God, he'll send me someplace like China and I don't want to go to China." A few years later, he was in China to adopt his daughter. He says, "not only did I want to go, I was praying to get there sooner!"

Who knows where our next step will take us? Who knows what God has in store? But that's trust. Stepping out on trust requires a leap of faith.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Harassed and Helpless

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

Harassed and helpless is how the Gospel of Matthew describes the crowds, and thus describes us the same. You could replace that with going to 'Hell in a hand basket' for another alliteration that describes us pretty well. No doubt the news is depressing. Maybe it's becoming more so, or the instant access to information that the Internet and 24-hour news brings more of the worst to light. But as has been true for two thousand years, our world acts as sheep without a shepherd.

There's been a string of tragedies that show just how helpless we are without Jesus. You've no doubt heard about the student at Yale who was killed by a 'control freak', or the honor student in Chicago that was killed for only being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But those headlines were followed by a case at UCLA similar to that at Yale, and a group lighting a teen on fire because he stopped some other kids from stealing his dad's bike. Fortunately in the last two cases, the victim survived.

I wrote before about 'hate crimes' and how really any crime can be a hate crime, regardless of race or sexual orientation. In context of Jesus' teachings, hate and anger equate to murder, even if that act isn't carried out. It's easy to look at the above crimes as hate-filled, but that won't qualify them as 'hate crimes'.

Maybe we're wrong to focus on hate. I've heard this before, but Chrystie's post in response to Peter's blog carnival reminded me that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The way I remember hearing it before is that the opposite of love is apathy. Maybe there should be 'apathy crimes' legislation?

I say this because most crimes like those above are completely indifferent to the victim. The motive of the accused range from emotional impulse to territorialism/tribalism. At either extreme is a disregard for the sanctity of human life. Pope John Paul II often preached on overcoming the "Culture of death" with a "Culture of Life". Often that message was narrowed down to abortion and euthanasia. But it extends further to crimes against our fellow man and acts such as abortion and euthanasia are only symptoms of the culture. Why would we bring a child into this world if we can't afford him or if she would be an inconvenience? Obviously that shows a lack of value of life. Why shouldn't I kill this woman because she turned me down or why shouldn't I light this kid on fire because he kept me from taking what I want? Again, the same attitude in the heart.

So what do we do? We need to view the world through Jesus' eyes and see all life as being sacred. No possession, emotion, or political issue is worth another's life. All of us are just sheep. Let's keep from slaughtering each other.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Where's the Line?

So if our obedience to God isn't about what we do, but why, does that mean I don't have to do anything as long as I have a good heart? That's the same attitude as not having conviction about our sin because Christ's grace covers us. "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6:1-2)

But it's those temptations that lead us to "planting a hedge" around our obedience to God. If you're not familiar with that term (hedging bets, hedge funds, etc) it comes from the practice of the Pharisees in Jesus' time who believed, for illustration, if the Law said they can't walk a mile they would have a religious rule that you couldn't walk a half-mile in order to make sure you were never close enough to be tempted to go the full mile. That's the "hedge". In context of today, we may have a conviction that pornography is wrong, but R-rated movies with explicit sex scenes are ok. Or if you're single, you may have a conviction about premarital sex but that won't stop you from making out. So we come up with hedges in our own little corners of religion to prevent that: no R-movies of any kind, no kissing while dating, no dancing, no gambling, etc.

Likewise, often our exhortations to do good are based on Godly principles and maybe even Biblical commands, but we take them either too far or in a direction that was never intended.

So what should be our standard then? It's not the church, I'll tell you that right now. It should be clear that it's Jesus. "If you love me, you will obey what I commanded." (John 14:15) Sounds simple, right? Chrystie at Path From the Head to the Heart, posted just about what I planned this follow-up post to be. But to dig deeper into Godly, Spiritual, Biblical and most of all, personal obedience I encourage you to check out all the posts from Pastor Peter's "blog carnival" on the word obedience. Some very, very powerful words. What's beautiful in these posts, is that we all have different denominational and doctrinal backgrounds, yet you can see the Holy Spirit moving powerfully and consistently in each of the posts. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Measuring Obedience

You know the routine: a new year begins and there's a big hoorah about your church's plans for the year. You hear moving testimony, an inspiring lesson, likely about Peter walking on water, and a time for confession and personal revival. On that last point, you might even take a "survey" to "take your spiritual temperature". Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10, how did you do last year in: evangelism, giving, serving, prayer, Bible study? And how would you rate your personal battle against sin: anger, language, lust, pride, selfishness?

But we can't quantify such things. Of sin, we know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The illustration goes that if you try and jump the Grand Canyon, even if you fall short by only a foot, you meet the same fate as one who only jumped a foot. But on the spiritual disciplines, we also know that we cannot meet all of the Law. That's why we needed a perfect sacrifice to make up for our own imperfections. "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit." (Romans 8:3-4)

So it's not a matter of some scale, some metric, some quantification of holiness. But that doesn't stop us from trying: how long was your quiet time, how much do you give weekly, how many visitors have you had out to church, how many different ways are you involved? We might even have some checklist to mark off the things we do that we believe we should. But because holiness cannot be quantified, we cannot rely on some to-do list. Our motives need to be from the heart.

We need to remind ourselves of the anointing of David: "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7b) Consider the example of the early church in Acts 2 and compare with your own checklist.

I read my Bible every day

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching..." (v 42)

I go to church every Sunday

" the fellowship" (v 42)

I pray every day

"...and to prayer" (v 42)

I spend time with other believers... sometimes

"All the believers were together..." (v 44)

I tithe

"...and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." (v 44-45)

Did I mention I go to church every Sunday. Sometimes even Wednesdays!

"Every day they continued to meet together" (v 46)

I door knock at least one Saturday a month

"And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

It all starts with that one word at the beginning- being "devoted". That's from the heart. So obedience isn't about what or how much we do as much as how and why we do it.

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved... For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:4-5,10)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Good Samaritan

"Good Samaritan" has worked its way so deeply into our vernacular that we say it often without giving a second thought of what that really means. Ask your average Christian and they'll likely reply, "it's a parable from Jesus about loving your neighbor." But is it? Yes, that was what Jesus instructed before the parable, but the story was in response to the question, "who is my neighbor?" We pick up the answer in Luke 10:30:

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:30-37)

What's important was that the "neighbor" wasn't the religious or the priestly. Rather, it was a member of a different race, from a different country, reviled by the Jews- a Samaritan. "Good Samaritan" has become synonymous with a "Good Neighbor" (Like a Good Samaritan, State Farm is There). But we forget that the one who showed love did so despite cultural, racial, and religious differences.

How many of those in need that we see do we shrug off because of race or looks? Even when sharing our faith it is tempting to only share with those who are just like us. But the parable isn't about helping out someone in need, it's about overcoming our own bias and bigotry to love everyone regardless.

So with that in mind, I lift up Billy Cretan who is enjoying a bit of celebrity for being exactly what a Good Samaritan is by saving the life of a boy trapped in a fire. If you just read the article, there's no indication of race or culture of Cretan, but you can immediately guess that the boy saved, Christopher Ramcharran, was from a different background. Now the article has been updated to note that Billy proposed to his girlfriend Desiree Guzman giving further evidence of Cretan's race. Watching the video shows explicitly the differences in culture and race.

But that didn't stop him from helping. If you've seen Crash or Falling Down, you might think such an act is impossible. In an urban melting pot, minority groups are often portrayed as minding their own business, keeping to their own. But here was a man who overcame any cultural boundaries because a boy's life was more important than his race or religion. Good Samaritan indeed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Emo-ification of Christian Music

I just wrote about Air1's pledge drive and how I consider their music to personally minister to me. I've also written in the past about how I view myself as a Christian consumer. I mention this to say that I'm coming around. I'm much more open to Christian music than I used to be and find myself listening to Air1 almost exclusively over the local rock or Top 40 stations. I credit this to the quality of music being put out. I admit, I've never been a fan of the Christian music sub-genre of 'Praise Music' and am more a 'Positive Alternative' fan. Besides the musical style, I'm struck by the honesty and vulnerability found in many popular Christian songs. I call this the emo-ification of Christian music. Emo, being short for emotional, was coined to describe alternative rock that was more emotional than the usual guy-falls-for-a-girl or rebel-without-a-cause lyrics. However, these lyrics and the requisite fashion are depressing and self-loathing. To the contrary, Christian alternative music is emotionally honest about personal struggles in faith, desire to impact the world around them, and passion to be close to God. Just some examples pulled from listening to the radio today:

I was too scared to start,
now I'm too scared to let go
-Take Me As I Am, FM Static

I'm falling apart, I'm barely breathing
With a broken heart that's still beating
In the pain is there is healing
In your name I find meaning
-Broken, Lifehouse

This might hurt
It’s not safe
But I know that I’ve gotta make a change

I don’t care
If I break
At least I’ll be feeling something

‘Cause just ok
Is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life

I don’t wanna go through the motions
I don’t wanna go one more day
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me
I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking
What if I had given everything?
Instead of going through the motions

-Motions, Matthew West

A thousand times I've failed
Still your mercy remains
Should I stumble again
Still I'm caught in your grace
-From the Inside Out, Seventh Day Slumber

So expect to see more posts like this in the future as I find music and lyrics that minister to me personally and I pray would encourage you as well.

Support Your Local Gunfighter

Right now is the Fall version of Air1's drive to cover their operating costs. Air1 is listener supported radio, so it runs ad-free. I've written before about how expensive it is to operate Christian Radio and strongly encouraged supporting stations and programs that minister to you.

But there's another side that in my cynicism I often neglect. These stations may encourage and minister to you, but it's just as likely they're encouraging and ministering to someone else. If you listen to Air1 you've heard the testimonies: people overcoming struggles in their marriage, people coming to Christ, et cetera. I'm admittedly cynical against someone listening to a song by Matt Kearney and suddenly accepting Jesus as their savior. But it cannot be denied that this music encourages those who listen to it.

My wife and I have our own testimony- listening to Christian music has re-sensitized us to worldly music. I'm a big fan of classic, hard, and alternative rock. Most of what I enjoy listening to is mildly encouraging (i.e. not down, depressing, nihilistic) but still worldly on the subjects of life, love, and sex. It's hard for us to listen to mainstream radio now because the worldliness is made more clear.

I also have another standard when pledging my support. Besides ministering to me, I strongly encourage support when a ministry is calling Christians to a higher standard. This relates to my cynicism against the evangelistic value of Christian Radio but also consistent with the theme of this blog. That's why I support Living On The Edge even though I don't necessarily agree with all their doctrine. Air1 not only calls us higher through the lyrics of specific songs but also through ministries that "advertise" between sets. Groundwire, Walk The Way, and Teen Challenge are all examples of this.

Moral of the story, if you're a fan of this station, give. Support their supporting ministries. Pray for those who are listening. Allow the Holy Spirit at work through this style and genre of music to work in you as its worked in many others.

"Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:19-20)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)