Friday, December 31, 2010

Halt

Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired.

HALT

Signs of weakness, signs of cracks in the facade, don't let these feelings go unnoticed or unchecked. This is a tough time of year but everything begins anew tomorrow. Hang in there. You're not alone.

Has the pressure of the holidays been too much? You're not alone.

Are you afraid of what the coming year may bring or regret the year gone by? You're not alone.

Are you hurting over the recent loss of a loved one or the reminder of those who have passed on before? You're not alone.

Struggling with your family? You're not alone.

If you're feeling these things. Don't try and white-knuckle it alone. Call a friend. Go to a meeting. Put the toast of champagne down. Most of all, remember, you're not alone.

If you need to, check out the following resources:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—
   those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
   from east and west, from north and south.

 
Some wandered in desert wastelands,
   finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
   and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way    to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for men,
for he satisfies the thirsty
   and fills the hungry with good things.

 
Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom,
   prisoners suffering in iron chains,
for they had rebelled against the words of God
   and despised the counsel of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
   they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
   and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom
   and broke away their chains
.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for men,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
   and cuts through bars of iron.

 
Some became fools through their rebellious ways
   and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. 

 They loathed all food
   and drew near the gates of death.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
   and he saved them from their distress.
He sent forth his word and healed them;
   he rescued them from the grave
.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for men.
Let them sacrifice thank offerings
   and tell of his works with songs of joy.

 
Others went out on the sea in ships;
   they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the LORD,
   his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
   that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
   in their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
   they were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
   and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
   the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
   and he guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
   and his wonderful deeds for men.
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
   and praise him in the council of the elders.

 
He turned rivers into a desert,
   flowing springs into thirsty ground,
and fruitful land into a salt waste,
   because of the wickedness of those who lived there.
He turned the desert into pools of water
   and the parched ground into flowing springs;
there he brought the hungry to live,
   and they founded a city where they could settle.
They sowed fields and planted vineyards
   that yielded a fruitful harvest;
he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,
   and he did not let their herds diminish.

 
Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled
   by oppression, calamity and sorrow;
he who pours contempt on nobles
   made them wander in a trackless waste.
But he lifted the needy out of their affliction
   and increased their families like flocks.
The upright see and rejoice,
   but all the wicked shut their mouths.


Whoever is wise, let him heed these things
   and consider the great love of the LORD.
(Psalm 107, emphasis added)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Torn apart

One of the biggest movie hits over the holiday break has been "Little Fockers" the third in a series of movies offering a comedic spin on typical dysfunction. I haven't seen it yet, but if it follows the theme of the first two, it is likely filled with Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) bumbling around making a fool of himself trying to please his in-laws. What makes these movies so funny is that we all relate in some way. Truth is, we all have a little dysfunction.

Our quirks, our pet-peeves, our habits all rub someone the wrong way. Our loved ones have learned to put up with them, strangers may judge us by them. No one is perfect. But we have this nasty habit of focusing on ourselves, so someone else's peccadillo become more pronounced when related to our own. Grudges build. Differences divide. Until suddenly the relationship is considered "irreconcilable" and the relationship ends.

Too many relationships this time of year end in such a way. Two couples close to us are ending their marriages this season, two others are on the verge. This isn't unusual. In fact, the holiday season sees one of two annual peaks in divorces and breakups according to a recent study. I can see why, the stresses of the holiday season, the prospects of the coming year, the romanticized image of ringing in the New Year in slow motion surrounded by music, champagne in hand, and a kiss from a beautiful person you just met.

But the long term effects are devastating. There's the holiday shuffle, where you shuttle between families on Christmas Day to visit each of your divorced parents, in-laws, and new step families as they each fight over who gets the prime times of opening presents first thing in the morning or having dinner in the evening. Kids bounce from home to home on weekends, holidays, and birthdays to the point of not being able to identify which is truly "home".

Another consequence is that the cycle repeats. One of the couples we know getting a divorce right now has parents who are divorced. Single moms beget future single moms. Teenage parents often become grandparents by their 40s.

I'm not intending to cast stones here. But highlight the reality of the world in which we temporarily live. Family struggles, dysfunction and division add another stressor to an already crushing season. It is a reality for many of us, yet we must persevere through into the next season of our lives.

"Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mark 10:9)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Loss

The holidays are hard enough without having to deal with recent loss or the reminder of loved ones lost long ago. My mom lives in a retirement community and one of her friends was celebrating his first Christmas without his wife of many years. If that wasn't bad enough, he received Christmas card after Christmas card addressed to both he and his wife. My father passed away 14 years ago and we'd receive letters addressed to him for quite a few years after his death. Each one reopening a wound.

Others suffer the double-wound of losing someone around the holidays, making a harsh reminder every year. I know some who have given up celebrating holidays or birthdays on account of such loss. It is a painful reminder every year of fond memories that can never again be relived and of our own mortality.

Chances are, you've lost someone dear to you this past year. If not, you certainly know someone else who has. Either way, it is also likely that the holidays remind you of loved ones lost years ago. For me, Christmas the first couple of years we had children were hard because I wished my dad and my grandma could have been around to celebrate with us. Each year I remember on Christmas 15 or 16 years ago when a close friend of the family brought his newborn daughter, Erin, over to my grandma's to show her off. I remember my dad being playful in a way I hadn't seen since I was young as she sat on his lap. I always wished to share the same experience with my own kids, but that was not meant to be. I lost him in September, right before his birthday. No significant holiday reminder of his death, yet the changing season and the turning of the leaves every year reminds me of his passing.

Specific to the holidays, not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don't remember Jenny. She was a couple of years older than me and her little brother was a year behind me in school. But we lived in a small town, so everyone knew everyone else. An annual "tradition"after many of us went off to college would be to gather the Friday after Thanksgiving at one of the local bars to catch up with old friends from school. We'd all gather and figure out where to head next for some big party- either at someone's house, or at one of the many popular hangouts outdoors (I grew up in an agriculture community, so many families had plenty of land on which to find a spot for a party). Cell phones were just beginning to get broad use, so that sped up the process as the time spent at the bar was shared with time on the phone coordinating plans.

That particular year we started at the usual spot and when no one showed, we moved on to another bar. One of my friends was constantly on his cell trying to find where everyone was headed. After a few drinks and a couple of rounds of pool, his phone started to ring. "Have you seen Jenny?" "Do you know where Jenny is?" "We haven't seen her for over an hour." With each subsequent call, the mood shifted away from celebration towards concern. Turns out the popular place to party that night was at a dock by the river. She was there. She wandered off. She disappeared. Her body washed up a couple of days later.

I didn't stick around town to find out the toxicology report. But I recall that she struggled with depression and substance abuse. But most couldn't understand. She graduated top of her class. She was popular and beautiful. But there was something missing. No one knows if it was an accident or suicide, but now every year her family is reminded of her death with every turkey carved. Even though not being particularly close to her, ask myself every Thanksgiving "where's Jenny".

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope." 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Anguish

It's that time of year to look back and wonder where all the time went. My family sent out a collage of pictures for our Christmas card this year, and as we went through our pictures we couldn't believe all that we did this year. No wonder it went so fast. Yet at the same time, I look at my daughter who turned three a couple of months ago and my son, who turns 6 in a week, and I still want to picture them as a newborn and a toddler. Other parents tell me how fast they grow up while they stand beside their teenagers. I guess I was hoping this phase would last longer.

As time has flown on by, it's also time to look back on the resolutions you didn't keep. "I could've done that one if only..." Where did the time, and our goals, go? My job also just had performance reviews. Another chance to look back at opportunities lost or goals not achieved.

Maybe that's not you. Maybe you can look back at your year satisfied at all that happened and in accomplishing all you strove out to do. But chances are, there is still some regret. At least one thing that you didn't do that you wanted to, or did do that you didn't.

So we look ahead to next year. What should we resolve? What should we strive to achieve? Where should we plan to go? If you look back at this past year thinking failure, there's added pressure to make up for it next year. If you look back with contentment, you may feel challenged to even come up with any goals for the coming year. For me, it's like a personal Bible study. Once I finish, I struggle coming up with "what's next."

Either way, we place pressure upon ourselves. We may linger in our regret, or we may be afraid of the future. We may feel pressured to improve our health, our finances, our spirituality. We may have a monkey on our back we want to rid ourselves of, but then comes the follow up question of "how?". Maybe we look ahead and see open doors of opportunity, but are afraid of what's on the other side.

Pressure. Regret. Fear. Anguish.

Interestingly, an antonym of anguish is assurance whose synonyms are goals, hope, promise. At this time of year, the future is before us filled with hope and promise. But our reaction is literally the opposite. Why is that? Is it because our faith is weak? Do we lack in prayer? Do we forget our Creator who "satisfies our desires with good things" (Psalm 103:5)? Or maybe it just because we're too focused on ourselves.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." (Philippians 4:6)

This post is part of a Blog Carnival on the topic of Reflection. Visit Peter Pollock's blog to read more.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hangover

The Monday after Christmas and all through the place, not single room was cleaned up, not even two-day old dirty plates. Boxes lay empty with wrapping paper strewn about. Kids play with new toys, while parents over instructions pout....

Saturday night, after spending the day running from family to family, we pull into our driveway exhausted. My wife looks at me and says simply, "that's it?" Christmas day for many just flies on by. Wake up early, open gifts. Help the kids put their toys together. Spend the day visiting friends and family. Eat, eat, and eat some more. The kids get loaded with sugar and new things to play with and are bouncing off the walls. Parents and grandparents toil the day in the kitchen preparing a nice Christmas dinner. Then stuffed to the gills, and with kids still wound up, you try and call it a day as you crawl into bed exhausted.

Ever heard the saying, I need a vacation from my vacation? We make ourselves too busy, wear ourselves out, and wonder why the holidays aren't enjoyable. Where's Jesus in the mad dash? Where is there time to slow down and actually enjoy the family you're taking the time to visit? Maybe it's just me, but every year Christmas gets more and more chaotic and less and less enjoyable.

I need a holiday from my holiday. I feel sorry for you who are working today. I should be, but I couldn't even get out of bed to get a post up in the morning. We have house cleaning, dishes, laundry, and picking up and finding a place for our children's new toys. I'm exhausted, still full, and incredibly impatient. If I actually had anything to drink, I'd say I was hungover.

That's how many get through the holidays actually. In an inebriated haze. The present cultural cliche is that moms slave away in the kitchen while the dads zone out in front of the TV watching the Cowboys and Lakers. Every family has the "drunk uncle". We toast champagne and drink eggnog (usually not the non-alcoholic version). Even the white elephant gift exchange I have at work involves volumes of alcohol. Of course everyone tries to trade for the "good stuff" while the white elephant cheap liquor is the gag gift. One of my co-workers this year got a 12 pack of Hamm's. Everyone laughed while jockeying for the Kahlua or Sam Adams. And at the end of the day after putting up with screaming kids, annoying in-laws and tacky gifts (the curse of the holiday sweater!) we finish the day with a nightcap.

And so we start the week hungover while making plans for staying up all night Friday to wake up feeling the same way New Year's Day.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The Christmas/New Year's week is insane. It shouldn't be.

How are you maintaining your sanity through the holidays?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Season of Reason



I get a kick out of these ads from Acura. I like the play on words. We can all relate to the examples of ridiculous traditions in these ads: gifts, lights on the house, gourmet chestnut roasters (ok, maybe not that one). So we are offered an alternative tradition- the new car wrapped in a bow in the driveway on Christmas morning. I'm sure there are some people out there who actually get a brand new car for Christmas. There must be to justify these ads every year. Most of us though would be lucky to get a brand new bike.

But "season of reason"? What's reasonable about a new car for Christmas? I heard an ad on the radio the other day to lease a Mercedes Benz. Only $3800 down and $639/month for two years. Merry Christmas, honey! I just signed us up to have over $600 withdrawn from our account every month! Aren't you happy? Oh sure, we get a shiny new Mercedes to drive around too that we have to give it back in two years. But only $600! What a bargain!

I wonder how many people go into significant debt just this season just for the sake of buying presents? I can relate. Since I've been married, Christmas has always been a checkbook killer. Sure we try and budget a certain amount for gifts, but we always seem to go over. Then we add holiday travel to our balance and after a few years we were surprised to find ourselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And we haven't even been married that long! (insert shameless plug for Dave Ramsey... but don't want to get off-point)

Here we are to celebrate the birth of our savior, Jesus, the perfect gift from God. And the world encourages us to put ourselves in debt for the sake of things this holiday season. A gift that keeps giving, celebrated by people buying gifts that keep taking. Ironic? Maybe. Reasonable? Certainly not.

If you're like me and have a lot of last-minute shopping still to do, think about the gift we've been given in Christ. Think about how simple, how humble, how full of grace that gift was and continues to be. Then look at your shopping list and ask yourself if the gifts you're giving are as simple and humble. Are they given in grace, with no expectation for any return, or are they given simply because they're what the world tells us is the latest, coolest thing that we continue to pay interest on for the rest of our lives?

'Tis the season for reason.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Flashback Friday: Priorities

***Originally posted December, 2008. I'm reposting because I'm about to scoot to my kids' Christmas program at school, do some more shopping (ok, I still need to start!), and try and squeeze an almost full day of work in at the office. Sound familiar?***

There are only a few shopping days left before Christmas. You're likely going to brave the weekend crowds at the mall, scramble to find something off the shelves that have been picked clean, struggle to come up with what to get your in-laws, and all the while forget why you're doing this to begin with. Then you'll head home, look at the pile of dishes in the sink and think about the family coming over in just a couple of days and all the cleaning and rearranging of furniture that needs to be done before then. And if you're like me, you still need to get that last string of lights up on the house and decorate the tree.

Can you relate? Do you feel hurried, stressed, overwhelmed? Do you wish there was just one more week before Christmas? I do. But then I'm a lot like Martha, who in Luke 10 is described as being "distracted by all the preparations that [have] to be made." (Luke 10:40) But then we forget what we're preparing for. Yes, we want Christmas to be memorable for our children and we want them to have everything they asked Santa for (within reason). We want to be warm and hospitable towards our family and friends. But what about "the reason for the season?" What about Jesus?

Are we reflecting Christ when we lose our patience at the store? Do we show the love of Jesus to our children when we lose our temper as they try to get into every present that's already been wrapped and hunt for the ones that aren't? Are we really being a witness to our families when what's most important to us is getting everything done?

I write this for myself. My wife reminded me this morning that we needed to take time and get into God's word, lean on Him in our stress, and not be overwhelmed with our "to dos". I need to be more like Mary, who knew that "only one thing was needed." (Luke 10:42)

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"


"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To Keep It, Give It Away

Saturday afternoon, roughly 150 people gathered in a nondescript church building in an industrial area of Orange County to celebrate the recovery of 17 individuals who "graduated" our Chemical Recovery program. The setting was appropriate. A building that if you didn't know it, you would never guess a church met inside its walls. The building looked just like all the others in this industrial complex. In the same way, addicts blend in with the rest of the population. Unless an addict is suffering a physical response to their drug of choice, they look just like you or I. Some are powerful executives, some are homeless. Some have perfectly functional families, others have had their families torn apart. Addiction does not discriminate based on age, gender, race, or economic status. Regardless of circumstance, addicts cannot overcome without divine help. (Even AA requires the acknowledgement of a "Power greater than ourselves")

So we rejoice in the Lord when we see others delivered from their addictions. This day was filled with prayer, with song, with the preaching of the word, and with personal testimonies that didn't leave a dry eye in the place. The graduates came from every corner of the LA region (and even a brother from as far away as Bakersfield), represented every race and gender, every age, and every possible drug.

I want to share a couple of their stories.

One brother first used Meth at the age of 14. Just three years later he was arrested for am armed home invasion robbery, where he tied up an entire family with duct tape. He spent 8 years in jail. While in jail his brother sent him the book, Some Sat in Darkness, and his life was changed. "Finally I could explain what was wrong with me," he exclaimed. Out of jail and 10 years sober (8 in prison), he wants to start a Spanish-speaking recovery ministry.

Another brother is a successful Korean businessman. His career required him to base himself in Korea, leaving behind his family in LA. His addiction alienated himself from his family and eventually he saw that he could not maintain his lifestyle. He returned to the US to reconcile with his family. They wouldn't. His minister recommended he go to this recovery group. He didn't want to, but did anyway. He didn't want to follow the directions given him, but he did anyway. He didn't want to be open, but he was anyway. Eventually, he broke free from the slavery of his addiction, became reconciled with his family, and wants to start a Korean-speaking recovery ministry. (I chuckled inside at the consistent theme) Not only that, but he wants to go back to Korea and start this ministry there.

The Twelfth Step of AA is to "...carry this message to alcoholics." To spread the word of recovery. In other words, to keep it you have to give it away. Paul was thinking along those lines when he instructed to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15) In sharing with others' joys and sufferings, we do more than sympathize or empathize, we spread the love of Christ and participate in the rejoicing in heaven where "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:7)


This post is one of many, part of a Blog Carnival being hosted by Peter Pollock. This week's theme is "Rejoice". Be sure to visit others' entries to appreciate the diversity of thoughts and opinions present in the Body of Christ.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where to Now?

Continuing our discussion on Michael Spencer's Mere Churchianity with Glynn Young and Nancy Rosback. Melissa at In Silence, Humming Softly has also joined the discussion so be sure to check out her thoughts as well. This week we're on Chapter 18, the final chapter of the book. You can check out Glynn's thoughts here and Nancy's will coming later here.

I'm struggling to come up with a reaction to this final chapter of Mere Churchianity that would also be a standalone post. Maybe I'm being sentimental, now that this discussion is drawing to a close, though I have some follow-up thoughts that will come later. I guess I just don't feel resolved. Sadly, Michael Spencer's life was cut tragically short. In fact, he didn't even live to see his book on the shelves. He was struggling with his health as he was making the final touches on this book with his editor (as described in the epilogue). Maybe he knew his time was short, so he got in what he could. The last chapter does seem like a compilation of "these are the other topics I wanted to cover, but ran out of time" as he listed out a series of questions or objections one might have in response to his book. Personally, after spending chapter after chapter describing (very well, I might add) what is wrong with the Church, I don't see much offered as solutions. And my nature is to want a quick-fix, five-part plan with vision statements and mission goals- the very things Michael pontificated against.

But maybe the story is meant to be left unfinished. Our walks with Christ and our eternal destiny are known only by one, and it not us. We look for answers in this world, hoping that everything will wrap up nicely in a bow. But from our mortal perspective our life, our faith, and our eternal purpose are uncertain. I'm not comfortable with that. And if I take away anything from this book, maybe it should be that I can't control everything (or anything for that matter). I cannot control my church. I cannot control other brothers and sisters in Christ. I cannot control whether someone I am reaching out to accepts or rejects the message of the Gospel. I cannot control whether mainstream Christianity will ever mold into "Jesus-shaped spirituality". I cannot control the reactions of the readers of this blog. I cannot control...

But I can control my relationship with Jesus. I can control my thoughts and attitudes to be Jesus-focused. I can control my prayers and with whom I choose to share in fellowship. In other words, I can control my own spirituality to be Jesus-shaped and strive to surround myself with others who share the same passion.

Hah, I guess I have post for this chapter after all.

*************** 

I also want to share some excerpts from this chapter that I think are worth reflecting on:

First, it is worth noting that Jesus' condemnations of the Seven Churches in Asia found in Revelation came only a generation after Jesus' death. In other words, it didn't take long for these early churches to become "church-shaped" instead of Jesus-shaped. Michael reminds us of Revelation 3:20, "I stand at the door and knock..." The implication is that for our churches to return to being Jesus-shaped, we need to invite Jesus back in as the focus of our church. Ironically, Michael follows up with the admonition to "pursue Jesus-shaped spirituality [that] won't take you to a building with a sign out front." (pg 210) In other words, "go and do" to seek Jesus-shaped spirituality. However, I think the lesson we can draw from Revelation is instead to "stay and invite" Jesus in to where we are. That may be too passive, and I see Michael's point, but I think Jesus-shaped spirituality is not a matter of going to find Jesus, but of inviting Jesus in. You could argue that the former is divisive and rebellious in the context of organized religion while the latter is individualized and subjective.

Second, Michael's response to the question, "Are you antichurch or antidenominations?" Is worth its own post. And I may go there at some point. But I want to at least quote part of his response. "It doesn't take a scholar to understand what the New Testament says the church is supposed to be doing. If a church isn't supporting and growing disciples, isn't crossing cultures with the gospel, and isn't encouraging and producing Jesus-followers, I believe you're entitled to look for a different form of community that is doing these things... Denominational labels will tell you very little about whether the people in a congregation are all about Jesus or are blissfully disconnected from him... I want every Christian to find a Jesus-shaped community that is doing what the New Testament says a church should do... Christians follow Jesus into the world as disciples on the mission Jesus gave us. The best churches facilitate the mission of Jesus and grow Jesus-followers who pursue that mission." (pgs 212-213, emphasis added)

Finally, Michael closes with a terrific description of Jesus-shaped spirituality accomplishing the above. First, a warning from earlier in the chapter, "You may find yourself far outside the doors of many churches and thrown in with whomever the scapegoats of the hour happen to be. (interesting choice of words since Jesus is literally the ultimate scapegoat) You should expect to be called liberal, emerging, naive, rebellious, and unsaved...Your faith will likely be questioned, and you may experience moments of suffocating doubt and discouragement." (pgs 210-211) So what do we do? "The Jesus-shaped life is found where Jesus would be found... talking to a single mom... going to India... working in an inner city... leading a worship service...taking in foster kids... counseling... pray[ing] with anyone who asks... starting a church... volunteering to teach... Stretching the influence of the gospel outside the comfort zone of the usual. Being a witness to the church of what Jesus would be doing... And finally, when we come home, we will find that Jesus has made us like himself, and yet, amazingly, we will have remained in every way ourselves." (pgs 219-221)

I pray that each of us, through our own unique experiences, may one day stand before our Lord Jesus-shaped, shaped by Jesus.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Flashback Friday: What was Old is New Again

***Originally posted December 17, 2009. Reposted because A Charlie Brown Christmas aired this week. I'm a sucker for Charlie Brown holiday specials, but especially this one. You think the "war on Christmas" is bad now? You should've been around when this special was first aired. And there's a link buried at the end of this post that is worth clicking on as well. The outrage wasn't limited to Charlie Brown, it also extended all the way to space with the Apollo Program.***



"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

We're at the heart of the Christmas season, which means we're in the thick of the "War on Christmas" and are inundated by the overreaction to this "war". For some reason we think our circumstances are unique. We look around and think our culture's morals are worse than they have ever been. And we are hyper-sensitive to criticism or even just contrary opinions. And for some reason, the image we often portray is that of the 1950's white picket fence America where 'Christians were Christians, and non-Christians were too." But not long after this utopia was the upheaval of the 1960's. Darn hippies.

Tuesday night ABC aired A Charlie Brown Christmas, the second-longest running Christmas special on Network Television (beat out by only a year by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) which first aired in 1965. I'm not ashamed to admit we bought the box set of Charlie Brown holiday specials a year ago and we've already practically worn them out. My children are quick to run up and press play after any movie finishes, but sometime the menu screen isn't the 'top menu' but is the menu for Special Features. These Charlie Brown DVDs are an example of this. So they come running in wanting me to fix it, because what 4 and 2 year old wants to watch a "making of..."?

The first time this happened I was surprised as they were talking about the negative backlash they received for having the nerve to quote scripture (Linus' famous reading of Luke 2). Producer/director/and snoopy actor Bill Melendez tried to talk Peanuts creator Charles Schulz out of including the scripture. CBS executives were hesitant to air it. And the public response was as expected.

This was in 1965. It could be argued we have much greater freedom today when we televangelists can be found on multiple channels, political pundits on both sides of the aisle who aren't afraid to reference their religion, and movies such as The Passion of the Christ being commercial successes. Yet we still feel this insecurity whenever anyone has a different opinion than what we consider "mainstream Christianity" which some of us believe should dominate our culture and every facet of society.

For those of you fighting in the latest go-around of the War on Christmas, hearken back to 1965 (or 1968) and remember than "nothing is new under the sun."

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

One of These Kids is not Like the Others

From the latest Family Christian mailer:


Sarah Palin, present poster-child of the politicized American Christianity (TM) persecution complex. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps the 20th Century's best example of faith under persecution who was imprisoned and later hung for his convictions. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around how Sarah Palin is an example of "faithful perseverance")

On the surface, they are both very similar. Both are tied to movements that insist Christianity should oppose cultural and governmental moral decay. However, that's where the similarities end, unless you liken our current administration to Nazi Germany (and those who do, really, really need to brush up on their history). Christians in America are under no threat of imprisonment or death for our beliefs. Our government is not conducting a systematic slaughter of a specific segment of our population, which would be worthy of opposition. And no, I'm not going to relate abortion to the Holocaust; a person's choice, whether we agree with the laws allowing it or not, is still the decision of the individual, independent of the government. And no political leader is elevating themselves as a leader of the church, which would also be worthy of opposition.

Wait. That is happening, albeit subtly. This advertisement demonstrates it. Here is a potential presidential candidate being promoted by a Christian bookstore. She's not the first. I've seen books by Gingrich, Bush (Sr and Jr), and Huckabee displayed right in front next to Joel Osteen (if that's not a clue, I don't know what is). Yet I've never seen any books by Jimmy Carter, President Obama, or others from the Left side of the aisle promoted in such a way. No, they're not leading any church, but they are leading public opinion, especially those on the religious right.

I strongly believe our convictions should guide our politics, whether it's Left-leaning Social Gospel or Right-leaning Family Values. However, our politics should not shape our convictions. While the secular world argues to keep faith out of politics, I argue we need to keep politics out of faith. And that includes bookstores.

"Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'" (John 18:36)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Who Shapes You?

Continuing our discussion on Michael Spencer's Mere Churchianity with Glynn Young and Nancy Rosback. Melissa at In Silence, Humming Softly has also joined the discussion so be sure to check out her thoughts as well. This week we're on Chapter 17, the penultimate chapter of the book. You can check out Glynn's thoughts here and Nancy's here.

This is it, this is the home stretch. Only one chapter to go. For the past 16 chapters of Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer has described symptom after symptom of what is wrong with the Church in America today. Now we're getting into the nitty-gritty of what to do about it. I've been worried while going through this book by an undercurrent of go-at-it-alone Christianity since the target audience are those who have left the Church physically or spiritually. I'm grateful for this chapter to put those worries to rest. In this chapter, Michael gives a simple description of what Jesus-shaped spirituality is: it is personal and communal, it is mentored, it is saturated in the Scriptures, it grows in the context of service and the Gospel, it is found in relationships.

As I was reading through this chapter and pondering what to write about this week, I couldn't help but think of those in my life who have shaped my spirituality (hopefully to some degree to be Jesus-shaped). I felt it appropriate to lift them up before the Lord in thanksgiving. Most of these names will not likely mean anything to you, but that's ok. Some are heroes in the faith. Others are brothers and sisters I fought beside through different spiritual battles. Still others are those whose subtle influence have directed my spiritual course. Off the top of my head, I'm certain this isn't an exhaustive list. Collectively, they have brought me to where I am today.

Obviously my family, especially my dad and grandpa for their tired service to the church, my sister's example of "live to serve", my mom's patience, and my grandma for being the most loving person I've ever known. Fr. Bauer, Mike and Matt, Justin and Bart, Ryan and Kevin, Fr. Roger and Fr. Carl, Joe, Rob, Matt, Jesus, Justin (again, just at a different stage in life) and Justin, Jeff, Jeremy and Paul, David, Jim(!), Steve, John, Flavian, Roel, Rama, Brandon, Sam, Brent, Rob, Steve, Wes, Amy, Alyson, Glenn, Tim, Morris, Shawn, Josh, Bob, Fred, Steve, Neil, Luke, Dave, Jon, Todd, Lathan, Chris, Lorenzo, Marion and Tommy, Fred, Ivan, Kenny, Fabian, Glynn, Jay, Duane, Kevin, Bridget, Ryan, Dusty, Peter, Michael, Jason, and of course, my wife.

My spirituality would look differently if not for these people inspiring me, challenging me, and/or simply befriending me. I could not have ever had a relationship with Jesus alone. I cannot continue to have a relationship with Jesus on my own. These friends, family, and brothers and sisters in Christ have helped me to "Follow Jesus in the Life I Have".

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Are you a fan of Jesus?

Playing catchup on our Mere Churchianity discussion group with Glynn Young and Nancy Rosback. I'm a week behind but am catching up on Chapter 16, "The Evangelical Sellout". Be sure to check out Glynn and Nancy's thoughts on the latest chapter here and hereMelissa at In Silence, Humming Softly has also joined the discussion so be sure to check out her thoughts as well.

 
I want to throw some numbers out there to set the tone. From Chip Ingram's book, Living on the Edge referencing a Barna study he commissioned:
  • 81% of those calling themselves Christians said spiritual maturity is "following all the rules"
  • Half of churchgoers don't know how their own church defines a "healthy spiritually mature follower of Jesus."
  • Only 21% of Christians described their relationship with Jesus as a sign of their own personal spiritual maturity, 14% living a moral lifestyle, 13% being involved in spiritual disciplines.
  • A minority of churches have a written statement outlining the expectations of spiritual maturity and they often define this by what people do, not what they believe
  • Outside of this Barna study, Chip gives the anecdotal case where he asked 50 pastors what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and only one was able to give a coherent answer. Everyone else gave a vague version of "a follower of Jesus". When asked further what that looks like, answers varied as described above.

From an interview I heard a couple of weeks ago with Phil Vischer, writer of Veggie Tales:
  • 50% of adult Protestants cannot define the word grace
  • 60% of high schoolers in youth ministry drop out after graduation
We know the symptoms. In Chapter 16 of Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer defines the disease: we are fans of Jesus, not disciples of Jesus. He gives the comparison between a baseball player and a fan of baseball. I like the joke of "eating at McDonald's every Sunday doesn't make you a hamburger."

When I became a disciple of Christ, the visible evidence of the numbers above drove me to the fellowship I am in now. I was converted in a campus ministry after being part of another campus ministry that prayed hard Sunday nights after partying hard Saturday night. And the fellowship was more about who was sleeping with who than how were our own personal walks with Christ. I knew there had to be something more than this, and I thank God for leading me to where he did.

I remember when one guy started coming around our campus ministry. He was active in his home church, a few hours down the road, and wanted a local fellowship. He participated in our worship, we studied the Bible, we prayed together, and when he looked at the lives we were striving to lead he told us, "this is just like my church back home. But only for those in leadership." Michael gives a similar story of a brother who was taking a course on discipleship who dropped out because, "This is for preachers, not me." (Mere Churchianity, pg 189)

I look around the current Christian climate and I see a malaise that is contagious. I read book after book and follow blog after blog to try and find the magic formula for what is wrong and how to fix it. But I've forgotten my own conversion and what brought me to the foot of the Cross. I've forgotten the stories of those like my friend above, to whom it never occurred that the lifestyle of a disciple is the expectation of all Christians, not just those in arbitrary positions of leadership. And so I've fallen into the Christian consumerism trap that Michael describes. He gives a great outline of the catalogue of endless "Christian" products that would be worth a post of its own, but instead I'll give my own checklist:
  • I write a blog, tweet about my convictions, and follow several others who do the same as we all preach to the same choir.
  • I've taken classes on Christian marriages and Christ-honoring finances.
  • I've attended countless conferences, seminars, and workshops.
  • I've taken classes on Biblical survey and apologetics.
  • I listen to Christian radio and buy some of the CDs.
  • My kids watch Veggie Tales and we own several DVDs.
  • And I can't even begin to count the number of books I've read, most on how to be a "better fill-in-the-blank Christian".
And truthfully, not a single one of these has changed my walk with Christ. Sure, they motivate behavioral and attitudinal changes and feed my knowledge as well as my ego. But at the beginning and end of the day, it is only me and Jesus that matter and there's not one silver bullet program, book, study series, conference, song, et cetera that is as important as that. I am a disciple of Jesus, not just a fan who wears some officially licensed jersey with his name on it and has his poster on my wall. I thank Michael for that reminder.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Eyes and Hands

Playing catchup on our Mere Churchianity discussion group with Glynn Young and Nancy Rosback. I'm a week behind and hope to catch up with another post either this evening or tomorrow. For the discussion on Chapter 15, "The Good and Bad of Being Alone," be sure to visit (or re-visit) Faith, Fiction, Friends and NancieMarie. Meanwhile you can check out their thoughts on the latest chapter here and here (but don't spoil it for me!),  Melissa at In Silence, Humming Softly has also joined the discussion so be sure to check out her thoughts as well.

"The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don’t need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don’t need you!'" (1 Corinthians 12:21)

Unity but not uniformity. Community but not conformity. Sounds nice, but sadly is rarely seen. Authentic Christian community offers an uncomfortable paradox: one one hand, we are all parts of one body commanded through dozens of 'one another' passages in the Bible; on the other hand, we are all given unique gifts and talents to be used to advance the Church. We are expected in Christ to be part of a collective while forging our own path of faith. Oftentimes, churches do not know how to handle this delicate balance, so they err to the side of homogeneity. And free-thinkers, as Michael Spencer describes, are often forced out.

I don't agree with Michael's depiction of Jesus in this chapter, but I do see his point. I don't believe Jesus was a solitary man. Yes, he often sought solace, but that was for recharging himself spiritually. He poured himself into those closest to him, yet he intentionally kept that number small. A theme I continue to oppose in this book is the notion of Christianity without community. I just don't think you can survive spiritually that way and I think the instructions to the Church we read in the Bible bare that out.

But, we also cannot fall into the temptation to be a conformist or a yes-man and identify our spirituality by our fellowship rather than our own faith. The Body of Christ is not made of only feet or hands as 1 Corinthians 12 describes. We need our own faith, our own relationship with Christ, our own struggles with God in prayer. And sometimes that might mean walking away from the structure, the system.

It's a delicate balance, as I said, and I'm sure we all have stories of how we've had to "fight the power" so to speak. I won't belabor this point, but do encourage you to read Glynn Young's post on this subject linked above. His story is too close to mine for it to be worth sharing again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How are you doing...?

(forgive the typos, I'm thumbing this in on my mobile)

How are you doing? That's a question that sets us right up to be fake.

How are you doing? With a hammer and nails.
How's it going? Forward.

My dad would get on his soapbox on this all the time in a kids-these-days kind of way. I don't blame him, the question is too vague and open ended, leaving limitless possibilities of vague, fake, answers. It is this fakeness that Michael Spencer addresses in chapter 14 of Mere Churchianity, the man who wouldn't smile.

Christians are almost pre-conditioned on giving the right answer. Just as outside of the church, inside we know better than to answer honestly. Most of the time, we really don't want to know the truth in someone's life- their pains or their sins. And when we do sincerely want to know, we don't know how to ask. We default to the standard "what's up?" I hate being asked because I am often so in-the-moment to answer
truthfully. How am I that moment? My answer is independent of whether I committed mass-murder the day before, if I'm tip-toeing through the tulips at that moment I'll answer as though nothing happened.

We put on other masks as well. I was recently in a Christian book store (please don't hold it against me) to stock up on books and music for a long business trip. The store was semi-busy, and I felt awkward with every other shopper I saw. I assumed they were Christians, so should I have greeted them in a special way as if there's a secret handshake? If they ask how I am, am I expected to answer, "blessed" or openly confess my sins? So I intentionally kept to myself and didn't dare look anyone in the eye. But I would sneak a peek or two and I noticed I wasn't the only one feeling and acting I'm this way.

It is tragic that the Church has developed such a country-club mentality that real vulnerability is rare and awkward, almost unwelcomed. When we are commanded to "bear with one another" and "carry one another's burdens" such an environment is contrary to Jesus' expectations of others knowing we are His disciples by our love for one another.

I posted similar thoughts here (http://theoppositepc.blogspot.com/2010/02/love-without-hypocrisy.html) and here (http://theoppositepc.blogspot.com/2010/02/love-must-be-sincere.html). Also check out the discussions by Glynn Young and Nany Rosback at http://faithfictionfriends.blogspot.com and http://nancemarie.blogspot.com/.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Weekend Reading, 13 November

Not a lot of time spent online this week, but a common thread ran through most of what I read. I don't think that's unintentional. The following posts challenged my faith, my hope, and my joy. It was exactly what I needed this week.

Of course any challenge in life can be related to by someone's experience in the Bible. There is no shortage of examples to follow and lessons to be learned.
  • Rick Lancaster wonders what we think is too hard for God, then reminds us of Abraham and Sarah.
  • Colleen Foshee gives some driving tips for our faith and encourages us to not slam on the brakes when the road gets rough by reminding us of Joshua.
  • Michael Perkins reminds us of Peter and how he got distracted by the wind and dedicates himself to focusing on what's important.
  • Jay Cookingham looks towards the example of Bezaleel who used his talents to worship God.
  • Herb Halstead sees Moses being given the promise of seeing his reward after he obeyed God, not before.
  • Kely Braswell thinks of a young David as a small young man in a small backwater town. But God saw something more. Like David, we are not too small or too remote for God to see us.
  • Tullian Tchividjian uses the example of Job to see that our joy is robbed not by suffering but by idolatry.
But we have personal stories and anecdotal parables to draw from.
  • Ryan Tate asks us where we are going. The challenge is do we really have an answer?
  • Chuck Salser thinks when we get stagnate and stale in our faith, we become like a smelly locker room. Yeah, that sounds about right.
  • Trevor Lund introduces a series of lessons on faith by asking how big is your but?
  • Justin Davis wants a new story to tell.

And to add to all this, I received the following email, forwarded from a sister in Christ who just lost her husband.
A man was sleeping one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light, and God appeared. The Lord told the man he had work for him to do, and showed him a large rock in front of his cabin. The Lord explained that the man was to push against the rock with all his might.

So, this the man did, day after day. For many years he toiled from sunup to sundown, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all his might!

Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain. Since the man was showing discouragement, the Adversary (Satan) decided to enter the picture by placing thoughts into the weary mind: (He will do it every time)!

You have been pushing against that rock for a long time and it hasn't moved" Thus, he gave the man the impression that the task was impossible and that he was a failure. These thoughts discouraged and disheartened the man.

Satan said, "Why kill yourself over this? Just put in your time, giving just the minimum effort; and that will be good enough."

That's what the weary man planned to do, but decided to make it a matter of prayer and to take his troubled thoughts to the Lord.

"Lord," he said, "I have labored long and hard in Your Service, putting all my strength to do that which you have asked. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock by half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?"

The Lord responded compassionately, "My friend, when I asked you to serve Me and you accepted, I told you that your task was to push against the rock with all of your strength, which you have done.

Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. Your task was to push. And now you come to Me with your strength spent, thinking that you have failed.

But, is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back shiny and brown; your hands are callused from constant pressure, your legs have become massive and hard.

Through opposition you have grown much, and your abilities now surpass that which you used to have. True, you haven't moved the rock. But your calling was to be obedient and to push and to exercise your faith and trust in My wisdom. That you have done. Now I, my friend, will move the rock."

At times, when we hear a word from God, we tend to use our own intellect to decipher what He wants, when actually what God wants is just simple obedience and faith in Him.

By all means, exercise the faith that moves mountains, but know that it is still God Who moves the mountains.

When everything seems to go wrong....... ......... ......... .Just P.U.S.H.

When the job gets you down........ ......... ......... ...........Just P.U.S.H.

When people don't do as you think they should............. Just P.U.S.H.

W hen your money is "gone" and the bills are due...........Just P.U.S.H.

When people just don't understand you.........................Just P.U.S.H.

P = Pray
U = Until
S = Something
H = Happens
And if that isn't enough, check out Kevin Martineau's Favourite Links Friday, Jason Stasyszen's Light Friday Hit List, Glynn Young's Saturday Good Reads, Ryan Tate's Five to Check Out, and Tyler Braun's Fortuitous Bouncing.


Have a blessed weekend.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Flashback Friday: Armistice

***Originally posted for Veteran's Day last year. Although the holiday has passed, the message still applies today. Wars are still being fought, physical and spiritual. There are victors and victims in both. One day is not enough to remember this. I also added the clip from one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen, To End All Wars. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.***

[Yesterday was] Veterans' Day, where we honor and remember those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces. My wife asked me why this holiday falls on November 11. At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) armistice (or truce) was signed between the Western Allies and Germany ending hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. World War I was called "The War to End All Wars". We know how that turned out. But the holiday remained and is still celebrated throughout Europe as well as here in the United States.

Pause and think of that for a moment- The War to End All Wars. How we wish that were true. So we honor those who serve in battles across the globe while we enjoy the comfort of our home, hoping that the next battle will be the last.

Now think about Jesus. His sacrifice was The Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices so to speak (ref: Hebrews 10). He fought our sins for us so that we wouldn't have to fight on our own, and ultimately someday to never have to fight again. But like The War to End All Wars, it was not the end and battles continue. So we honor Christ, who fought and still fights for us, while we enjoy the comfort of our own lives.

While we remember the physical conflicts our Armed Forces are engaged in worldwide, let us not forget the spiritual conflicts that continue in our own lives and the soldier, Christ, who fights alongside us.

"For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Of Sandlots and Cathedrals

This post continues the conversation Glynn Young, Nancy Rosback and I are having over the book Mere Churchianity. They always have a head start on me, so be sure check out their thoughts on Chapter 13, "Leaving Behind the Church-Shaped Life" over at Faith, Fiction, Friends and Bend the Page. Melissa at In Silence, Humming Softly has also joined the discussion so be sure to check out her thoughts as well.

Michael Spencer, being a baseball fan, uses the analogy of Big League ball versus his childhood playing in empty lots. He notes that despite all the scandals (steroids, salaries, sex), it is the kid's game that captures our imagination and fanhood. As soon as the game under the lights and in the cathedrals to the game forget this, then interest will wane and seats will empty. The same is true of the Church, that it is the Jesus-shaped Spirituality that exists inside each of us, outside of the "big-time" walls, that drives us to the Church. And like Major League baseball, churches who forget this may fill the pews for a time, but will find many leaving for the purity of the sandlot.

To keep myself out of trouble, and being a huge baseball fan myself, I'm going to continue with the analogy. I grew up watching Minor League baseball. Rookie level as a matter of fact, where "kids" fresh out of high school would try and show of their talents, earning measly pay, and hoping to someday earn their "cup of coffee". I lived far from any major market team so I relied on TBS and WGN to watch the Braves and Cubs, respectively, and the network Game of the Week. I would follow my favorite players through the box score in the local paper. When traveling to visit family, we would catch a big-league game if we could and the enormity of "the Show" was magical compared with the rookie league I was used to watching. The players were faster, their moves more crisp and polished, their talents far surpassing the kids scraping by at the lower level.

I had my favorite players, enshrined with posters, jerseys, and baseball cards. I didn't care about the value of cards, I would trade away a valuable rookie for a card of my hero (but I at least knew not to put them in my bicycle spokes). The first World Series I remember watching, I laid out all my cards from each team and I followed the game using the cards to keep score.

Times changed and I grew up. I realized that none of the players I watched in the minors made it to the majors. An expansion team came to my region. Still not close, but drivable. TV expanded, ESPN gained in viewership, and I could catch a game every night. The Internet came and instead of following my favorite players through the "simple" box score, I now could follow their "splits" and "advanced metrics". The Internet and Cable TV enabled the 24-hour news cycle and sports followed suit. I could find out what my favorite player was doing at almost any moment. They would soon become unable to hide from the public eye, so every misstep, every harsh word, every bad decision would be highlighted for the world to see. And the magic of the game, the childhood awe, waned.

Today I live walking distance to a high-A club and I love taking my son to watch the game at this level. I go to Major League games on occasion, but the price and the publicity for the most part has discouraged it. There's something about watching these kids trying to make their way that maintains the childhood purity I remember.

So what does this have to do with the church? The megachurch, the spiritual superstars the big crowds can drown out the child-like awe we should have before Jesus for the sake of the show. Just as the Internet as created instant experts out of every fan who voices an opinion, so it has for Christians and the blogosphere  who have no expertise other than their opinion (myself included). And I think myself, like many who relate to Michael Spencer in this book, are longing for Jesus-shaped Spirituality that can be found in the sandlots, being played by kids, free from all the trappings, glitz, and glam. When Michael was sharing this analogy, I was thinking about how the game is the same, whether played in the Major League cathedrals or at a beat up Little League field. Jesus is the same, whether worshiped within walls filled with thousands, or in a beat up old church filled with a dozen. And in both places, Jesus is found by the awestruck child who just loves the game.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Flashback Friday: Movements and Messiahs

***Originally posted February 20,2010, as the Tea Party started to gain momentum. Reposting this week after the elections on Tuesday that the Tea Party is either getting too much or not enough credit, depending on your point of view. Regardless, Christians need to be wary against putting too much faith in any political movement.***

The Tea Party movement has gotten a lot of press recently, from being credited for Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts to CNN doing a week-long look into the movement prior to its first "national conference" to the recent article in the New York Times. The biggest questions being asked are will this amount to a third party and/or how much influence will this group have on the Republican Party?

Sounds a lot like what was being asked about the fledgling Christian Coalition thirty years ago. Like the Tea Party, the Christian Coalition was initially focused on local involvement from people with little or no prior involvement in politics (at the time conservative Christians). Eventually their influence grew to such an extent that they are now blamed for everything wrong with the Republican Party. Egos, internal politics, and the idol-worship of fame eventually led to this movement's downfall.

Another similarity is the lack of unity or homogeneity among the grass-roots supporters. There is no definition of a "Christian voter" that applies to all Christians as Jim Wallis so accurately pointed out in his book, God's Politics, Why the Right Gets it Wrong and Why the Left Doesn't Get It (the subtitle sums this up the best). At the same time, the media has been unable to nail down a universal platform that applies to each Tea Party other than the expected discontent with the current administration. Some want a new party, some want an overhaul of the Republican Party. All want a smaller government, but there is disagreement how. Again, sounds a lot like the "value voter" broad-brush the media tried to invent after the 2000 election.

Tea Party organizers would be wise to study the history of this group as it appears they are going down the same road. We, as Christians, would also be wise to remember our folly with the Christian Coalition and not be enticed by the promise of any political Messiah as there is only one true Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer. (2 Timothy 2:4)

Our commanding officer is God, not country nor political party. And our battle is not political but moral and the prizes are not votes but souls. We will never be the salt that Jesus calls us to be as long as we are only striving to score political points.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Savior, Healer, Both?

"While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'


On hearing this, Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.'" (Matthew 9:10-12)

"'Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.' So he said to the paralyzed man, 'Get up, take your mat and go home.' Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man." (Matthew 9:5-8)

"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6:1-2)

"...'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

When the Chilean miners were rescued last month, the whole world watched. Christians praised God as they heard the news and the credit the miners gave to their Lord. The miners become not only pop-culture celebrities, but also anecdotal heroes of the faith. But this religious fervor raises an important question. What if they weren't rescued? Would God have been there then? Just how much did God have to do with saving those miners? Besides the Evangelical response, was the ecumenical response, and the skeptic response. Which is right? Is it possible they all are?

Michael Spencer, in the twelfth chapter of Mere Churchianity, questions the "perfection" demonstrated by many Christians under the guise of Jesus being both healer and savior. The premise goes that since they are saved, they are therefore healed. Healed of malady, financial hardships, depression, addiction, their own sinful nature. Paul, in the passages above would counter that claim, praising God for his weaknesses in one breath while reminding us that we are dead to our sin in the next. In the miracle above, Jesus' acts of healing and forgiveness were not the same. They were two different events.

I've found there are two extremes to this theological and philosophical dilemma. On one side are those who praise God for being healed of everything under the sun. On the other are those who mope around acknowledging that they are sinners, always have been and always will be, who are just saved by God's grace. On the one hand are those who believe so strongly that God heals completely through salvation that any sin or weakness must be the consequence of hidden sin or a lack of faith. Then there's the temptation to over-rely on God's grace for forgiveness without accepting our part to die to our sins (Romans 6, above). At the same time many Christians feel defeated by their sin, looking at Paul's "thorn in the flesh" example from 2 Corinthians and just accept their sinful nature while not doing anything about it.  Each is dangerous because they lead to using their present condition to judge others. Michael seems to fall towards the latter extreme. I admire admitting weakness, but he seems to dismiss any healing or providence from God.
But it begs the question of just how involved is God in our day-to-day struggles? Is he only around in the big things (Chilean miners) or in every little thing? And if He is involved in everything, then why doesn't everything "work for the good"? Why do we still struggle with sin? Why does he have cancer, why did she lose her job, and why are they so "blessed"?

I don't have the answers. I wish I did. But I know from experience being and working with addicts, that God can overcome our sinful natures. I also know that when he does so, "blessings" pour out in abundance. And I also recognize that this is completely different than salvation and grace. We joke in my recovery group that if you show up single, you'll leave married. That's been the case for four now-married couples. One brother just celebrated one year of sobriety. In that year, he's returned to church, gotten married, and is now expecting a child. I would not be married to my wife if not for both of our recoveries. I've also seen the same number of marriages saved from the brink of divorce through recovery. Yet there are defeats as well. One couple separated as they both went through recovery and have had limited and mixed success in their sobriety. His heart is broken because a judge just ruled that she can move two states away and take their kids. He has since left church while she has stuck around. After the judge's ruling, she posted on Facebook, "praise God..." He posted, "please pray for me..."

God is still there, still involved, and still active. How things will ultimately work out, I do not know. But I also do not know if God will grant me another day of sobriety, another day with my kids and my wife, another day employed. What happens next I just have to trust in Him.

(And iteresting dichotomy considering God's providence: Michael Spencer died from a brain tumor before this book was released. Why him and why then? Yesterday was posted an interview with Matt Chandler, who one year ago was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Why him, why has he been spared? The interview is worth checking out.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Tricks (and Treats) are for Kids!

With one major Fall holiday down, there's one to go before Christmas, which means stores should already be stocked with Christmas decorations, parents are beginning to stock up and hide away presents for their little ones, and the "Keep Christ in Christmas" crowd is ramping up to full speed.

'Tis officially the holiday season. Holiday, derived from Holy Day. Can't really tell anymore looking at our consumer cultural landscape. Prior to having children, I was much more cynical towards the holidays, seeing them as nothing more than an attempt by the greeting card, toy, costume, and decoration industries to end their year in the black. Case in point, it is estimated up to $5 Billion (yes, with a B) was spent on Halloween this year (down from last, believe it or not). But going out with my young Iron Man and Minnie Mouse Princess last night and watching the joy in their faces as they went door-to-door, I've softened up my stance. Christmas and Easter I approach the same way- the kids don't care about the etymology of holiday or how the Church blended pagan influences with their own doctrine to be relatable and supersede existing holidays- they just want to have fun (and eat candy, lots and lots of candy).

Yet of the three major holidays (leaving out Thanksgiving which exists for me on a whole other level), Halloween has always been a personal favorite. I love the effort put into costumes, carving pumpkins, and decorating. Maybe it's the engineer in me. But as a Christian, there seem to be two approaches towards this holiday. Either participate but forbid costumes and themes that hint of the occult, or not participate at all. I'm honestly not sure which is better. As my son grows older, if he's anything like me, he will look for the scariest costume he can find and run with it. I'm not sure how to cross that bridge when I get there. For now though, I'll settle with Iron Man and Minne Mouse. And just from observation last night, superheroes and princesses outnumbered ghouls and goblins 2-to-1.

My question(s) of the week:

Did you celebrate Halloween last night? If so, how (basic door-to-door, haunted houses, fall festival, etc)?

Did you (or your kids) dress up? As what?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Flashback Friday: Mud Slinging

***Originally posted October 31, 2008 prior to the last major election. Reposted as we have the mid-terms right around the corner as a reminder that no matter how much things change, things stay the same. You might as well replace Kay Hagan in this post with Christine O'Donnell and "godless" with "witchcraft". Two years ago it was a "godless" Hagan, this year is the "witch" O'Donnell, I shudder to think who the target will be next year as some corners of the religious establishment continue to try to seize power politically. Personally, this isn't about any particular political stripe, but we need to seriously examine the level our politics, and our religion, have stooped down to.***

The North Carolina Senate race is a tight one, and like most races this season no one wants to talk issues but everyone wants to sling mud. In this case it's Liz Dole, who I just lost all respect for, putting out an ad against her opponent, Kay Hagan, accusing her of being "godless." This article includes a link to the videos and hers is definitely over the line. If I didn't know better (and most voters don't) I'd think the voice that says repeatedly "there is no God" was hers. But then I read the article and find out that she's an elder in her church and teaches Sunday school. Hagan responds with an add of her own calling out Dole for "bearing false witness" and follows that up with a lawsuit against Dole.

Have we sunk so low that this is the substance of our political debates? Do you base your vote on who is most religious, has the most faith, is the most righteous? If so, you might as well stay home because we are all sinners and Jesus reminds us that "no one is good but God alone." (Mk 10:18) That's not all we need to be reminded of.

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers!


The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs..." (2 Tim 2:3-4)
They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the same way political power corrupts politically and drives out whatever spirituality was there to begin with.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Label Me, I'll Label You

This post continues the conversation Glynn Young, Nancy Rosback and I are having over the book Mere Churchianity. They always have a head start on me, so be sure check out their thoughts on Chapter 11, "It's a Bad Idea to be a Good Christian" over at Faith, Fiction, Friends and Bend the Page.

Soren Kierkegaard said “once you label me, you negate me.” The idea was that labels strip us of our humanity, reduces us to nothing more than that label, and denies what makes each of us unique. If you label everything, then nothing has meaning. Michael Spencer observed this in our churches and came to the same conclusion: these labels have no meaning. "Dynamic" worship. "Seeker Sensitive" church. "Good Christian". My favorites are "missional" and "purpose driven" as if the church leaders just read a book and suddenly they're a new church.

This should come as no surprise. Our consumer-driven culture requires everything to be marketed, even churches. And because of this, churches are constantly on the lookout for a niche, a buzzword, a marketing strategy that makes them stand out above the rest. I was on a business trip in Utah where I saw a billboard advertising a church. Their motto was, "church. caffeinated." (To get the in-joke, you have to understand that Utah is 90-ish percent Mormon and they do not drink coffee.) Sadly, we seldom see churches advertised as God-centered, Jesus-focused, or Christ-like. If you didn't know the label, you wouldn't know these churches are even Christian.

When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone began the Restoration Movement during the Second Great Awakening, they wanted to strip all the labels that described people more than their beliefs. One of my favorite movies is A River Runs Through It. The patriarch of the family is a preacher and the movie has this line, "My family is Presbyterian, which my dad likes to say is like Methodists who can read." Ask a stranger on the street if they are Christian and they are just as likely to answer their specific tradition as to just simply answer "yes". Stone and Campbell desired a church free from from labels so these churches adopted the simple name "churches of Christ." Of course, a hundred-plus years later many might as well be called churches of Tradition, churches of Legalism, or a capella churches. (Oh wait, some already call themselves by the last one. Sigh.)

If there is to be a movement back towards Jesus-shaped Churches, preaching and living Jesus-shaped spirituality (which even Michael admits is just another label), we need to strip ourselves of the labels that divide and instead embrace Christ alone as the "author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). This is his premise of what so many who have left the Church are looking for. It is sad they have been unable to find it. I believe these churches are out there (see some of my previous posts from this book). I pray that we find these churches more and more out in the religious marketplace.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Inner Voice

I have to admire marathon runners. I honestly don't know how they do it. Despite the physical strength required to run 26.2 miles, mental strength is also required. I can't seem to concentrate on a single thing for more than a few minutes. Imagine having to focus your thoughts for anywhere from 3-6 hours? Sure, you can plug in your iPod, but that's a lot of time alone with your thoughts. They say 80-90 percent of "self-talk" is negative. In other words, thoughts like "you can't do that" or "if only I was like him/her" or "I'll never..." A weak mind over the course of a race can be bombarded with such thoughts.

When I was younger and actually ran a little (and by little, I mean I sprinted. 400m was "long distance" for me) I read an article in Runner's World called the "Nine Golden Cheetahs" that has always stuck with me. The story was of an African runner who would run for miles and miles. At some point, he would reach his "wall" where he strength could no longer sustain him, but only by sheer will-power could he reach his destination. He also hit a mental wall where his thoughts failed him. Delirium would set in. It was at this point that he saw nine golden cheetahs staring at him. As he approached, the cheetahs began to run away towards his destination. He was compelled to follow them. The will to follow those cheetahs overcame his pain, his exhaustion until he reached his goal and the cheetahs were gone.

Paul, when describing our adopted relationship with our Lord in heaven, said we received a Spirit that allows us to call Him 'Abba'. (Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15). Abba is an informal term and would have sounded shocking to his Jewish audience. The message being that we have such a close relationship that we can be informal with God. I've heard others pray to "Papa" in that same vein.

Yesterday my wife ran a half-marathon. Her second, to add to 6 full. I admire her deeply for the commitment she makes and the strength it takes. She's found that her "wall" hits right around the maximum distance run during training. But the mental wall can happen at any time. Her mental wall hit with a little over a mile to go. She knew she was close and was making good time. But she saw something out of the ordinary out of the corner of her eye that tripped her concentration. When she tried to regain focus, she heard the words, "you can do it, mija!" coming from somewhere deep inside of her.

Mija is a term much like Abba. It is informal and endearing. But it's not a word used casually, it is loaded with too much affection. My wife is Latina but she hasn't been called mija since her grandmother would call her that as a child. That voice was out of the blue and unexpected. But she could feel herself somewhat carried the last mile.

We had a long conversation last night about where this voice could have come from. A distant memory? Did she overhear someone else? Was it God reaching out and giving her a hug? We settled on the latter. We recognize that sometimes God reaches out to us and whispers in our ear. I've heard such voices when facing hard decisions. But I have to admit I've never had an example so personal, so endearing.

My question this week: Has God ever audibly spoken to you? What did He say?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Weekend Reading, 23 October

As par for the course, there was a lot of good goin' on across the Christian blogosphere. I don't catch everything so I encourage you to visit Jason Stasyszen's Light Friday Hit List, Kevin Martineau's Favorite Links Friday, and Glynn Young's Saturday Good Reads. Now on with the show...

I include the brothers above because not just because they're cool guys, but because there's simply too much out over the interwebs to cover. Web 2.0 and social media has changed how we communicate with one another and I believe has created a virtual church without walls in which we can find encouragement, challenge, and inspiration through a limitless number of writers, bloggers, and free-thinkers. Of course, we need to balance the bottomless rabbit-hole of virtual relationships with the need to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who are right beside us. We also need to balance the time-suck that the Internet provides. With that in mind, there were several posts on ministry and social media.
  • Tony Alicea writes over at Geek For Him about the dangers of "soulless social media" when we'd rather update or status than have a conversation with the person right in front of us.
  • Shawn Smucker is consider taking a break to focus on what's most important.
  • On the opposite side, Cassandra Frear lists the advantages of blogging and how it can make us better people.

Regrettably, our churches aren't perfect. People leave. Racism is still present. But yet Jesus is still Lord and we are still His body.
  • There was an article on CNN this week about segregation in our churches. I tweeted that the most segregated part of America is Sunday mornings. I still believe that to be the case.
  • Ron Edmondson asks us to consider why.
  • An article in the LA Times wonders if the uncomfortable marriage between religion and politics has caused many to leave the church.
  • While Stephen Lamb continues his series over at Jesus Needs New PR on why he left the church. This time he challenges us to consider that we may be too narcissistic when we think we have our own "personal Jesus".
  • Ryan Tate asks what signs do your church give that it is thriving?
  • And Jonathan Pearson reminds us why the Church is still alive.

With our own personal walk our will is always challenged by God's, be it through our jobs, our families, our ministries, or our sins.
  • Jonathan Keck challenges us in the lost art of being open and honest while being painfully open himself.
  • Bill Grandi gives us a personal story of things not going his way.
  • Scott Couchenour gives several helpful tips for facing burnout in ministry.
  • Jason Stayszsen gives us parents tips on praying for our children over at Make a Difference To One.
  • And Chuck Salser is challenged to plant a church.

Hope you enjoy all of these posts. They should keep you plenty busy this weekend!