Friday, September 28, 2012

Agree to Disagree

To the secularist, Christians and hypocrisy go hand-in-hand. The easy dodge is to admit that “all have sinned,” so in God’s eyes we are no different other than the Christian being saved by grace through the blood of Jesus Christ. The risk then, is when Christians become sanctimonious and holier-than-thou on a particular moral issue. Ted Haggard wouldn’t have drawn nearly the media attention for his drug-fueled homosexual dalliance had he not been a conservative evangelical pastor who was outspoken against homosexuality. And it doesn’t even have to be apples-to-apples, is it fair for a minister to preach against homosexuality while having an affair on his wife (sadly so common it's become cliche)? Or let’s not even go fruit-to-fruit, is it right to pontificate against one particular sin while willfully ignoring another? Homosexuality, promiscuity and drug addiction are all well-recognized and easily condemned while gossip, laziness and gluttony are seldom addressed from the pulpit. So the issue isn’t so much hypocrisy as it is a double-standard.

Jesus spoke plainly when he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) If we all humble ourselves before the cross of Christ then we recognize others not by their unique personal sin, but by our collective sin and need of redemption. The stranger next to you on the train needs Jesus just as much as you do. And so we must extend mercy.

That’s looking down at sin. What about looking up at discipleship? Books such as Crazy Love, Radical, Not A Fan and others all hit the same note of calling the reader to a higher bar, a higher standard of Christianity. They are not the first to do so, nor will they be the last. One might argue for “totally committed” or “completely sold-out” or “on-fire with the Holy Spirit” but what do any of those things really mean in a practical relatable sense? Is it fair to expect a single mom scraping by just to feed her kids to go above and beyond in the name of “commitment” by giving more than she can afford to an annual missions contribution? Is it realistic to be “fired up for God” every day, even through all the ups and downs of life? Not to mention one person’s cause-of-the-moment may not be the same as another’s. So can we look down on someone who isn’t fighting to stop sex trafficking but is sacrificing their time to open their home to after-school care? Or what about the person who may not be able to make a church function because they have to work overtime in order to pay the bills, yet happily serves in children’s ministry every Sunday morning? Bottom line, what is important to me in defining my discipleship may not be what is most important to you. I need to beware my plank before I judge.

But what about those who are raising the bar through their books, their podcasts and their conference-headlining performances? Don't get me wrong, I don’t want to accuse them of looking down upon those who do not prescribe to their definition of discipleship. But are we guilty of holding them to a higher standard? After all, are they not also responsible to practice what they preach? Or are we to take their words with a grain of salt to do as they say, not as they do?

Recently someone commented on my blog about one such author who writes about making dramatic financial sacrifices in order to advance the Kingdom (one of many points he makes in his book- if it were the entire theme of the book I might feel differently). Meanwhile, he allegedly lives in a half-million dollar home. Is that fair to judge? How do you or I know how much he is personally sacrificing? And just because visibly it appears as if he could definitely sacrifice more, is it up to me to judge him by a standard that I make up on my own?

This is a difficult subject for me. It seems natural to expect the author, the preacher or the leader to exist on some special spiritual level higher than the average layperson. I’ve certainly been guilty of feeling that way. Several years ago I was part of a committee to reexamine ministry salaries. During one of several open forums where we met with ministry staff, the wife of one minister asked, “you can’t expect me to live on that side of town! I have to think about my family and schools and…” You get the picture. I was appalled. For the longest time I could not look at this person the same way. Another time I was in a meeting with a variety of ministry staff discussing how to address a specific issue and it became clear that no one else shared the same conviction I had. Yet at the same time, I realized that I wasn’t as zealous about the point they were trying to make. This experience forced me to step back and realize that it was not fair for me to expect others to think about things in the exact same way as me. I have since been able to avoid many arguments during our board meetings recognizing not everyone has the same convictions about money that I have.

We don’t all have the same convictions. I share mine here on this blog. You are free to disagree. So I appreciate the comment this person left on the subject, but as I think more about it, it is not my fight to fight. If someone preaches the Gospel in public but is enslaved to sin in private, that does not invalidate the Gospel. Paul didn’t say to follow him, but to follow his example as he followed the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) In other words, even if Paul slipped up somewhere along the way it didn’t change who we are really called to follow. Elsewhere Paul went on to point out that many preach out of sinful motives (is wanting to make money by writing a Christian book selfish or worldly?) but it didn’t matter because the Gospel was still being preached.

I appreciate you stopping by this small corner of the Christian blogosphere. We're not likely to agree on everything. Chances are, I'll probably say something that is completely wrong. Feel free to call me out on it. I only ask that you recognize that our convictions may not be the same. And I'll recognize the same with you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Subjective Presence

It is hard enough to explain to someone why you believe in a God that cannot be seen or proven by science. So how do you explain his trait of omnipresence? If God cannot be seen, if his divine work in your life is a subjective experience, how can one explain or understand that God is everywhere at once; that god is literally with you? In The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer, the author tackles this very issue in chapter 5, "The Universal Presence".

Here in this space, I want to address the subjective experience mentioned above. Please come back next week as I attempt to talk about his omnipresence.

Sunday's lesson at church was about the wise and foolish builders and discussed in the context of marriage and family. We all have experiences with relationships built on shaky ground and of storms we were certain would crumble everything we've built, despite the best foundation. And we have also witnessed the aftermath of some storms in awe of what was still standing.

So I could only attribute it to the Holy Spirit when during the sermon my wife received a text from a friend who needed to talk. Not coincidentally, a major storm was flooding her marriage. This family began building upon the Solid Rock, but over time that foundation began to erode away. But this isn't about them.

My wife listened and gave her input, and after roughly 60 minutes and probably 10 times that many tears, she hung up. As she was describing the situation, the conversation and her response and input I was moved when in tears she exclaimed, "God is alive!" We can put our trust in that eternal truth. All of our other idols, philosophies, and rationalizations are fleeting and cannot be relied upon when the storms of life hit. If there is no faith in a God who is right there with us through it all, where else can we turn?

That is subjective. But I cannot deny my faith that God is with me, present through all my storms. I have no such confidence in self-help, good intentions, or well wishes. Does that prove God exists? Of course not, at least not in a way that I can convince you. But it is enough evidence for me.

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Take My World for Granted

I had my iTunes playlist on random Saturday and some of the songs took me back. One, in particular, caused me to stop my housework in its tracks. Jars of Clay, "Worlds Apart". Like many nostalgic songs, one reminded me of another. Toad the Wet Sprocket, "I Will Not Take These Things for Granted". Not necessarily the same thematically, but musically they blend well. Listen to both. Turn up the volume. And just close your eyes. When I do that, what do I see? I see a boy alone in his college dorm trying to figure life out. Then, I found meaning in song. Later I would find meaning in something greater.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Real and the Unseen

Once upon a time I was a Cub Scout. I never had the patience to learn how to tie a necktie or earn many of the other badges, so I didn’t get very far. I don’t remember a whole lot other than the camping, popcorn sales, and pinewood derbies. But I do remember one time walking through town with my Pack with the assignment to look around and identify what was “created by God” versus what was “made by man”. The example I most remember was a telephone pole, made by man out of the wood created by God. We’d look at buildings and come to the same conclusion of stone and mortar forming man-made structures. And those would contrast with the grass of a lawn (planted by man, not natural habitat) or the river running through town.

"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." (Romans 1:20)

A.W. Tozer writes in Chapter 4 of The Pursuit of God that “for millions of Christians… God is no more real than He is to the non-Christian.” (pg 37) He goes on to describe how human nature defines what is “real” by what we perceive through our five senses while dismissing what can be perceived spiritually as imaginary. Yet the tree, the river, the stone were not created by man and those things can be touched and seen. One could argue that science can explain the placement of a stone, the path of a river, and the home of a tree in opposition to the notion that what is unseen is the cause.

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

But science can also explain the presence of an atom, a proton, a quark, a boson which cannot be seen. So are these scientific discoveries “real” in the same sense as a tree? The scientist argues that the effects of these unseen particles can be observed and measured. But at the same time can not a Christian make the same argument about the effects and influences of God working in and around their life? Of course the difference is objective versus subjective. But once upon a time the smallest particle was considered to be a grain of sand and there was no subjective argument. Then it was impossible to consider anything smaller than an electron. We should be careful to draw a line in the quark (see what I did there?) as definitive, as the final answer with nothing left to discover. We would be foolish to limit our definition of what is real to only that which we can see.

Consider the scriptures above: God’s invisible qualities… have clearly been seen… faith is… certain of what we do not see. How easily we dismiss the spiritual all around us just because we cannot see it. And as Tozer rightly notes, this arrogance prevents us from truly knowing God. Yet to know God, all we have to do is look around!

“For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.”
(Psalm 95:3-5)

Do not close your eyes to what God has revealed through his creation. Do not close your ears to what God speaks to you through his Word. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!”

 This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tips for a Faithful College Life

This Saturday the teen I’ve been mentoring for the past few years is heading off to college. As a last blast before he left, I put together a series of studies to prepare him for the collegiate life. I based these on personal experience, having been converted in campus ministry and honestly, never wanting to leave. I figure some of you might find this useful.Consider it cramming, spiritually.

Time Management (Ephesians 5:15-16)

College is the first time many are living on their own. You don’t have anyone to hold you accountable for your time. Classes aren’t a set 8:00-3:00 schedule. One of the greatest blessings of college life is time. But like many other blessings, it can also be a curse if you do not manage it well. Success academically and spiritually on campus relies on your ability to manage time.

Homework: build your schedule, including all your classes, meals, and sleep. Don’t forget to plan out your weekends too.Compare with how time is spent now

Sleep (Proverbs 6:9-11)

Review: review your schedule from before. Did you plan for approximately 3 hours of study per hour in the classroom? Did you schedule time to eat, sleep, have a quiet time? When are you going to do your laundry? Even if you have every hour accounted for, things come up. The campus ministry wants to play volleyball on the quad Friday afternoon. There’s an all-night devotional Saturday night. Part of managing your time well is being flexible so that you’re not bit by putting things off until the last minute. I missed a community outreach/devotional one Saturday because I put off doing my homework too long and was behind in one of my classes. It happens.

All-night study crams, the exhaustion of long lectures, and just being on the go 24/7 introduces you to one of the benefits of your flexible schedule in college- the nap. It is an art that must be perfected. Because if not... well if Proverbs 6 didn’t convince you, read Proverbs 24:32-34 a point so important the Bible repeats it.

This scripture became a running joke in my campus ministry. Yes, it’s ok to rest when you need to, but don’t let it become a habit. The afternoon nap takes time away from sharing your faith, serving in the community, studying your Bible, and doing your homework.

Yet rest is critical to success. How many flame-out after the all-nighter? One time when cramming for a final, one of my friends stayed up all night by taking No-Doz (replace with 5 hour energy, Monster, or Red Bull these days). He crashed and slept through the final. When you are well-rested, you are more receptive and you stay healthy.

Homework: if you’re not doing it already (and this assumes school hasn’t started yet), start imitating the same sleep schedule you plan on following at college to get your body used to going to bed and waking up at the same time.

Responsibilities (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Chances are when you go off to college you will be living with strangers, either in dorms or in an apartment or household. Even if you pick your dorm-mate, you will still have to build new relationships with neighbors and classmates. Ideally, your future roommate is another believer, but there are no guarantees. To minimize stress in those relationships, it is important to establish responsibilities in the house, apartment, or dorm. Delegate and assign. Accept responsibilities. Learn to do laundry, wash dishes, make dinner. Share the load. Nobody likes a freeloader. Make sure “each part does its work”

If possible, contact your future roommate in advance and find out who owns what. Who has a microwave, who has a coffeemaker, who has a DVD player. Share, and expect to lose DVDs, break dishes, ruin furniture. It’s part of being young and irresponsible. But you don’t have to be completely irresponsible.

Homework: Make a list of what you’re good at around the house. What is your favorite meal to fix? Are you good at cleaning the sink, but hate cleaning the toilet? List it out, let your roommate know. That way you can work to a middle ground.

Relationships (1 Corinthians 15:33)

College is a great opportunity to meet new people, but be warned that those influences rob off. Never again will you have the same opportunity to stay up late and muse life. I remember studying the Bible with a Wiccan, trying food I’ve never heard of at the multicultural center, being introduced to new music, and so on. While you’re making new friends, keep your closest relationships with those who share your values. It is important to keep an open mind, that is how we learn new things and learn to relate to others, but you need to be on your guard against allowing relationships to define who you are.

Homework: Before you leave, be sure to get the contact information (cell, email) of your closest friends. It is unlikely you're all going to the same place for college. but stay in touch. Facebook, smartphones, Skype, etc make it that much easier to stay in touch.

Prioritize your relationship with God (Psalm 143:8, Mark 1:35)

Make sure you plan consistent time with God.Even though I mentioned before that you will be blessed on campus with free time you never knew you had, that time fills up quickly. Homework, ministry events, just having fun will fill your days. Make sure you keep your relationship with God a priority. Wake up early. Pray. Study your Bible. (Want to know an easy campus evangelism tip? Open up your Bible and read during lunch at the food court of your Student Union. And watch people come to you!)

This also relates back to relationships. You will never be closer to a friend as you will be when you are in the battle together. There's just something about getting together with friends to pray while watching the sun rise that bonds. Funny story, that I admit didn't happen to me: a couple of people in my campus ministry were out early one morning and a cop stopped them because they were acting suspiciously. Seeing people out running before dawn was no big deal. But two people walking back and forth on a sidewalk praying looked funny.

And these times are the ones you'll be able to share when you've grown old and crusty and have your own blog (or whatever they'll have then)!

Make opportunities for evangelism (Luke 10:2, Acts 8:4)

This is a time in people’s lives when they are looking for meaning, for significance. They also have a lot of free time. There will be endless opportunities to share: on the way to/from class, lunch at food courts/student union, dorms, quads, intermurals, etc. Don't turn down the opportunities for the late-night talk, the diversions on you way across campus, and so on.

Also take advantage of on-campus activities and organizations. Those are perfect opportunities to meet new people, try new things, and get more out of your college experience. Activities like student-government, intermurals, community service, and on and on, there is literally something for everybody. (spoken by someone who used to be a campus activities director)

Put Romans 12 into practice

Br transformed, but not conformed by the world. Be humble, exercise your gifts (and discover new ones). Love, rejoice, share, practice hospitality. Endure persecution. Love your enemies.

Remember, you will never have a time in your life such as this. Make every moment count. Cherish the memories you'll make. Make new friends. Try something new. Above all, glorify God in all you do (1 Cor 10:31)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

An Altar to Me

When Jesus died, the curtain separating the people from the Presence of God was torn, symbolizing that by the blood of Christ we could now enter into God's presence without the need for intercessors or any further sacrifice. The blood-debt of our sins has been paid in full; the final sacrifice has been made. Yet A.W. Tozer writes that despite that "God wills that we should push into His Presence and live our whole life there," (pg 26) we are content to remain outside the veil. Tozer asks, "why do we consent to abide all our days just outside the Holy of Holies and never enter at all to look upon God?" (pg 31) He concludes that there must be a veil inside of our own hearts that separates us from the divine presence of God.

So what is that veil? Is it things, or a lack of knowledge of God? I could go on and on and speculate, but something hit me as I was praying yesterday. In the Temple, before the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was an altar on which incense was burned as an act of perpetual worship. What hit me as I was praying was that it is this altar that is keeping me from entering in to God's presence.

Perpetual worship is keeping me from intimacy with God. That doesn't sound right, does it? The problem isn't the worship, but to whom I am worshipping. I realized that I worship myself. This isn't really any new revelation, but the perpetual nature of incense burning before the veil is what convicted me. It is not just that I worship myself- we all do at times- but that this worship is perpetual and all-consuming.

To whom do I turn when things are hard? Me. Who do I talk to during those quiet and still times in my mind? Myself. Who do I seek to satisfy? I. Me, myself, and I. My own holy trinity. I pay God lip service in prayer and I do lift up my voice in praise on Sunday mornings. I reflect on his word daily, but most of the time only to the extent of how I would teach about a particular passage. (I am even guilty of this on Sundays; listening to a sermon I think of the point I would make instead of the actual point being made) My worship is centered around me: what I want, what I think, what I like. And so I perpetually burn incense to myself.

In order to enter in to where God longs for me to be, I need to snuff out the incense and stop worshipping myself. With respect to our own veils that keep us from God Tozer writes, "In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue... To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed." (pg 32)

I need to tear down the altar I have build to myself. I need to tear away my own veil that keeps me from God. This is going to hurt. I cannot do this alone. Praise be to God who sent his only Son to go ahead of me, shedding his blood for my sake. "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:14)

This blog is part of a book club reading The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. Please join the discussion here and at our hosts, Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. Need a copy of the book? You can get it for free on Kindle.