Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ALLEGIANCE

After spending the better part of Sunday afternoon letting the weight of the sermon sink in, my friend decided to give me a call. The tone of his voice revealed the level of frustration he was experiencing. I tried to coax out of him why he was upset, but he remained vague. He maintained that he'd like to meet in person to discuss it further. We decided to meet up for lunch Monday afternoon.

I always hate going into conversations like this--completely blind. They make me anxious! For years I had a boss that was notorious for doing the same thing. He would come into my office to tell me that we needed to talk. Usually this was followed by a request for coffee or lunch later that day. Before I could even press him for details, my boss would be out the door and down the hall. Immediately, my mind would jump to the worst case scenario, thinking I was getting fired. I would work myself up. Worry would set in. My stomach would get in knots. And I'd make myself sick dreading that conversation until it was over. Nine times out of ten, my boss just wanted to reaffirm something I was doing and tell me how much he appreciated me. All things considered, you think I would be used to these kinds of conversations by now. But I'm not! You think I wouldn't get so worked up. But I do!

From the time we hung up until the time we met for lunch, I agonized over what the conversation might entail. I knew he and his wife were going through a rough patch. So, instantly, I thought he was going to tell me they were getting a divorce. I spent hours trying to think of things to say that would offer him some sort of solace. Having been there myself, I knew there were really no words that would do this experience any justice.    

I was the first to arrive and made myself comfortable in the corner booth. A few minutes later he walked in. I grabbed his attention and he made his way to the back of the restaurant. He sat down and initiated small talk. After the waitress took our order, I cut to the chase and asked him what was going on. He was upset about something his pastor said in his sermon the previous morning. Quickly, he gave me a recap of the sermon. I'd be lying if I told you I heard much of what he said. I was too relieved to focus on the words that were flowing. However, he caught my attention when he quoted the pastor as saying: "If you aren't willing to die for this church, it might be time for you to find a new place to worship. We could use the seats."

Apparently, his pastor wasn't messing around. Not only was he challenging the church to take Jesus' call to be "all in" to an entirely different level; but, in fewer words, he told the congregation that he didn't really want some of them there. Maybe the whole statement was taken out of context. Perhaps his pastor got a bit worked up and didn't really mean to say it the way it came out. But then again, I can't entirely dismiss the fact that he meant exactly what he said. I can't help but think this mentality might be infiltrating our churches today. It might surprise you to know that pastor's statement doesn't shock me. Not because those sentiments resonate with me, but because I've seen this attitude present in the church for quite some time. To be honest, it's probably nothing new to my generation either.

While I haven't heard those exact words uttered on a Sunday morning, the same message seems to be popping up more regularly. For a time it seemed to be reserved for debates with "un-believers." But anymore, it seems they aren't the only ones we've gone to war with. Even in our fellowship (or lack there of) with rest of the global church, there is sense of pride. The church seems to be rearing it's smug attitude of superiority all over the place. I hear it in sermons, when pastor's brag about their denominational affiliation. I read it in books, when the author bashes any and every dissenting theological view. I see it posted on social media when my friends confess their love for their church. That's not to say I haven't been guilty of any of this. I have! However, I like to think that I'm now more aware of it and trying to fight against it in my own life.

To think that we have Christianity figured out and to garner a sense of pride in our church or our theology is to lack the humility Jesus so adamantly encouraged. Wasn't this the same pride that was foundational to the attitude Jesus condemned in every encounter with the self-righteous Pharisees? Aren't we the same as them in that regard--that our pride says to others, "My Christianity is superior to yours."? When we propagate this mind-set, we cease to partner with Jesus in the work of reconciliation and restoration. Thusly, we cease to truly be the Church.

There! Now I'll step off my soap box, and offer some insight--the same insight I offered my friend.

Everywhere we turn, someone, or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?

From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the foot steps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.

Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances and denominational commitments (among other things). As if these things take precedence over following Jesus. Paul seems to address this all too common attitude in his letter to the Corinthian Church. To them he writes, "When one of you says, "I am a follower of Paul," and another says, " I follow Apollos," aren't you acting just like the people of the world? after all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God's servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it. but it was God who made it grow. It's not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What's important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work."

Who cares if you follow Wesley? What difference does it make that you are Baptist? Does it matter that you adhere to the teaching of Luther? Are these the distinctive things that make you a disciple of Jesus? Of course not! What's important, according to Paul, is that God is doing something. In spite of our varying beliefs, God continues to cause that seed to grow. But, from time-to-time the church would have you believe something entirely different. They will make it a point, perhaps indirectly, to major on the minors. Various churches will seek to exclude others from the kingdom of God based on a person's preference on worship style, which translation of the Bible they ready, or any other issue in which they don't see eye-to-eye.

Just because someone has a differing view on something doesn't mean we have to bring their allegiance to Jesus into question. This point was so eloquently made by Rob Bell. During an interview, he took a particular stance on a particular issue that lead many to question if he even believes in Jesus. "...You have a particular conviction," he said, "and all of the sudden your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is called into question." This should not be the case. Jesus made room for the Church to be much more inclusive than all of that. According to Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus."

Let me be clear on this one thing: we cease to be the church when our divisiveness makes much of theology and little of Jesus. Being the Church has never been about agreeing on every little piece of doctrine. It has been about throwing aside our individual identities, in order to take on a new identity in Christ. One that no longer differentiates between all of this, but validates the work God is doing. It seems to me, that's why Paul specifically admonishes us to "never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Perhaps it's time we again listen to the words of the old hymn that remind us "...[our] hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness."

So, you see, no matter how great, how biblical, or how Christ centered our theology, our church, or our denomination is, they are still fallible. And no matter how we spin it, to make much of them is nothing short of idolatry. These things, in and of themselves, do not make anyone a disciple. Just hear the words of Jesus "I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TRUST, Part 2

To answer that, lets start by addressing the elephant in the room. All of us has baggage that keeps us from trusting God. We equate the way we are treated by the ones we love with how God treats us. To those of us with a stern, abusive father; we see God as a dictator. Anyone with an inattentive mother might view God as someone who is distant and unloving.  If we have an unfaithful spouse, God becomes a heartless cosmic being. The list goes on and on in which our interactions with one another are projected onto God.

Now for a a disclaimer. God is not a Genie! We don’t just come to him whenever we want, rub a lamp, and have our wishes granted. That’s not how faith works. That's not how God works. Scripture is very clear that God will provide for us. It is even pretty clear on what He will provide for us. He will provide us with everything we need, not everything we want. Again, some of our baggage has to do with the fact that a majority of us find it difficult differentiating between our wants and our needs.

Now that we've cleared that up, let's take a look into the story of father Abraham--who had many sons (I can't read this story without that song popping into my head; so, you're welcome).

But before we do, let me give you “The Story of Abraham for Dummies.” God made a covenant--just a fancy word for a pact--with Abraham that He would bless his descendants. However, at the time God made this promise, Abraham and his wife Sarah didn't have any descendants. Actually, they couldn't even have kids. Abraham was past his prime and Sarah was barren, so it makes this promise kind of unbelievable. Being human and becoming overwhelmed by circumstances, Abraham and Sarah did what most people in their situation would do. They took matters into their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her servant Hagar to have a child with, and Abraham wanting to keep the misses happy--my assumption--agrees. Hagar became pregnant, Sarah got ticked off (which always happens when a marriage involves more than 2 people), and 9 ½ months later Ishmael was born. It is here God reiterates the covenant with Abraham, and informs him their son--the one he was going to bless the world through, which isn't Ishmael--would be joining the world in about a year. Abraham and Sarah, at the young ages of 100 and 91 (respectively) welcome Isaac into the world. From here, we will jump ahead to pick up the story in Genesis 22:1-14:

Sometime later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called.

“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”

“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”

The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”

So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

“God will provide a lamb  for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.

When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.

At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!”

“Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.”

Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son.  Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Why did I recount this story from thousands of years ago? For several reasons. One of which, being this story, no matter how archaic, has a lot of lessons for you and me. Namely, it illustrates the apprehension we have with trusting this God.

Before we get to that, I feel it's necessary to address the common misconception that the point of this story is Abraham's great faith. A faith, so extraordinary, that it would allow him to even consider sacrificing his son. In all reality, Abraham did nothing extraordinary. Abraham was a product of the culture in which he lived. A culture where sacrificing children was a pretty common practice to appease the god's. Abraham was only doing what he knew. Through that lens, we see that his faith wasn't that extraordinary afterall. I won't disagree with you that it would take a certain amount of faith to follow through with this act. Neither will I negate that this would be an incredibly painful reality for Abraham to come to grips with. I'm just making the case that's not the point of this story. Making that the point unwittingly gives the starring role of this drama to Abraham; when clearly, it doesn't belong to him. The spotlight is meant to be on God. Not because he is an egotistical being. Not because Abraham is unimportant. Rather, because this God is different from all the other gods.

While God may have asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it's safe to assume he never intended Abraham to actually go through with it. We see this in the details. Don't believe me? Have another look at the story. God gives Abraham the exact coordinates where he should go to perform this sacrifice--a mountain in the land of Moriah. And when Abraham and Isaac finally arrive, God tells them this is the place. And it just so happens there is a ram caught in the brush at this exact spot. Coincidence? Or, divine intervention from a God that has already provided the sacrifice--which is a little foreshadow of what will eventually come. All to make the point abundantly clear that he is not like the other gods. He doesn't require you to sacrifice your only son.

Now, how this story relates to us. If we look hard enough, we can see a lot of ourselves in Abraham.

For starters, Abraham shows us that trust does not come naturally when you have been wounded. Abraham's default setting, especially with this God, was not trust. Up to this point, I think it's safe to say Abraham was a bit skeptical. For years this God has been making promises to him. Promises that, up to this point, have remained unfulfilled. Promises that, given their old age and the fact that Sarah was still barren, seemed even less plausible now. I can't help but think that every time Abraham looked at his wife, he was met with the stark reminder that God hadn't come through. That God hadn't upheld his end of the promise. Not only would Abraham never bless the world or lead a great nation, but he would never even experience the joy of fatherhood. Talk about painful! No wonder Abraham doesn't trust this God. No wonder Abraham responds the way he does. No one who has been wounded that deeply responds with trust. It was that wound, which lead to their lack of trust, that directly resulted in the birth of Ishmael--Abraham and Hagar's son. Although I can't blame them for trying to force God's hand, no matter how you spin it, Ishmael isn't Sarah's son--the blessing won't come through him; that wasn't the promise God made. While it's easy to point the finger, don't you and I do the same thing? When we are wounded and God doesn't come through in a timely manner, our tendency is to put God on the spot and manipulate the situation. I've done it. You've done it. We've all done it. Probably more times than we can even count. If only we could heed the lesson Abraham had to learn the hard way.

The next truth Abraham reveals to us is that our ability to trust is often clouded by our current circumstances. Abraham seems to have become accustomed to the fact that he was going to have to take his own son's life. Look back at the passage and we see that Abraham tells his servant's "we will worship and we will return." This is an indicator that Abraham at least has some level of trust that God is up to something. But then, just beneath the surface, there is something stirring and doubt creeps in. The two of them arrive at the mountain. And here, Abraham gets caught up in all that's about to transpire. He unloads the bundle of wood, begins building the altar, arranges the wood, ties up Isaac, places him on the altar, pulls out the knife, and, with his hand trembling, lowers the blade to Isaac's throat. Blinded by his circumstances, Abraham doesn't even notice the rustling in the bushes off in the distance! He doesn't even stop to discover what that strange noise is! Clouded by doubt, Abraham misses the ques from this God. Which is why this God intervenes with an Angel. When Abraham finally looks up, it is then he is able to see what was there all along--a ram caught in the brush. At this point, it becomes clear to Abraham that this God can be trusted. It's unfortunate that so often we, no different than Abraham, become so self-absorbed that we are blind to what God is actually trying to do around us. If you don't think it's possible to be that oblivious to your surroundings, just try talking to me when I'm watching a good movie. My wife will attest to this fact.

Finally, this story reveals that we don't always have to understand in order to trust. It's safe to say that Abraham was a bit confused by the request to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Let me reiterate the fact that this was to be the son of Abraham's that God would use to fulfill all the promises he had made. And now, Abraham is supposed to off him? In case you were wondering, this is a big problem! At least from the perspective of Abraham. Logically, this makes about as much sense as going to McDonald's for a salad. Not to mention how difficult that would be to explain to his wife. "Hey Sarah, you know how God blessed us with Isaac? Even after we were too old to have children? Even after you were barren? Even after we took matters into our own hands? Great! I'm going to go kill him now, 'cause that's what God said to do." Somehow I don't think that conversation would have ended well for Abraham. But if they had that conversation, Sarah must have trusted her husband enough to take Isaac alone on this journey. And while it appears that Abraham trusted this God enough to make the journey to sacrifice Isaac, I'm certain he had his share of doubts. But seeing as how this God had blessed him with the promised son; there was something stirring in Abraham that made him think this God would still come through on his promises. While he didn't understand why, and he couldn't fathom how, it's clear that in this instance, Abraham had some sort of trust that this God would still fulfill all the promises he had made--he came through once, even when things seemed impossible. Why not again? Maybe God would bring him back to life. So many maybes, yet Abraham was willing to follow through. Perhaps someday, we too, will come to the realization that God, however unbelievable it seems, knows what he is doing.

In the end, Abraham comes to the realization that this God can be trusted and names this place "Yahweh-Yireh" or "the Lord will provide." He even took it one step further and set up a memorial to remind him of that truth. Every time he traveled by Yahweh-Yireh he would see that pile of rocks and be reminded of all that transpired. It would bring back the memory of how in that seemingly lose-lose situation, God came through. God provided exactly what he needed. At exactly the right time. If doubt ever crept in, Abraham could look to that memorial and realize that God could, in fact, be trusted. Which is something we all need to be reminded of today.

To each of us, God says this: "I can fit everything into a pattern of good, but only to the extent that you trust me. Every problem can teach you something, transforming you little by little into the masterpiece I created you to be. The very same problem can become a stumbling block over which you fall, if you react with distrust and defiance. The choice is up to you, and you will have to choose many times each day whether to trust me."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

TRUST, Part 1

Do you love God? I think many of you reading this blog would answer that question with a resounding "Yes!" So let me ask you a more pointed question, do you trust God? Before you answer that, here's a story.

A man was hiking in the mountains, alone. After hours of hiking, he reached the summit. Before making his way back down, he decided to take a few moments to take in the view. Thinking he could get a better view of the scenery below, the man walked right to the edge of the cliff. The closer to the edge he got, the more fragile the ground became. Then it happened! The ground crumbled beneath his feet and he fell down the cliff. It just so happens there was a tree branch jutting out from the face of the rock where he fell. In desperation, he extended his hand and grabbed hold of the branch. As he hung there reviewing his options, he began yelling, “Is anyone up there?” He was surprised to hear a voice respond, “Yes, this is God.” The man was greatly relieved, and quickly stuttered, “God, can you save me?” “Of course I can," responded God. The man, excited now, shouted out, “Great! What should I do?” The answer from above was not what he was expecting: “Let go of the branch.” After a long period of silence, the man replied faintly, “Is there anyone else up there?”

More often than not, we are that man! Or at least I am. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I have asked God for help, only to reject the hand he extends. I seek his counsel, but fail to implement his advice. I turn to him for guidance, but walk away confused. Why? I'm glad you asked. Allow me to be brutally honest. I have a difficult time trusting God!

I know this, because I have a difficult time trusting people. To be quite honest, a lot of the time it's easier for me to place my trust in things. Things do exactly what they were created to do--for the most part. Except technology. I trust technology less and less. And I have this suspicion we are heading toward a world that looks eerily familiar to the world in the movie i-Robot. But that's another discussion altogether. As I sit here, I trust that the chair will continue to support my weight. Pressing the keys on this keyboard, I trust that the computer will display the characters I am typing. I trust that the bottle of water on my desk will quench my thirst. All of these things I do based on trust. All without even giving it a second thought. But people are different.

People don't always do what they were created to do. They lie, they cheat, and they steal (which, in case you were wondering, isn't what they were created to do). That reason, in and of itself, is enough for me to second guess my trust in them. I lend something of value to a colleague and it gets returned in pieces. My trust begins to waver. I confide in a friend, only to discover those personal details are being shared with others, behind my back. My trust diminishes. I give someone my heart and they rip it out of my chest, toss it on the ground, stomp all over it, dig their heel into it, pick it up, and place it back in my hand, smile and walk away. The trust I had left quickly evaporates. The result is that I become jaded and trust no one.

If it's this difficult for me to trust the people around me--the people I see--how much more difficult is it for me to trust a God I cannot see? The answer to that is exponentially. It is exponentially more difficult for me to trust a God I cannot see. A being I have never met in person. Which brings me to an important thing about trust. It has to be earned; which is pretty tough when you can't see someone. Fortunately for us, God knows this. He knows that we will never trust him without proving himself faithful. That is why God doesn't just part the skies, and in a booming voice tell us to trust him. That is why he doesn't lead with the 10 commandments. He knows that won't work. Instead, he earns the trust of his creation. We see this play out in the Old Testament when he walks with Adam and Eve in the garden. He earns the trust of Abraham by making a covenant of blessing with him. God delivers his people from slavery, earning their trust again. All of this leads to the biggest demonstration of God's trustworthiness by offering his only son as an atoning sacrifice, doing away with the bloody sacrificial system once and for all.

Unfortunately, that isn't enough for many of us today. In theory, it's great; but in reality, we want to know if God is still worthy of our trust today. So, we look to him for personal demonstrations in our lives. Since the only tangible experience we have of God is the people created in his image--which just so happens to be everyone--this proves to be quite difficult. Friends and family let us down, and that reflects on God and affects our ability to trust him. The people who claim to follow God sway our trust one way or another by the way they portray him. The institutions that claim to represent him help us decide whether or not he is, in fact, trustworthy. As you see, our trust in God has far less to do with his faithfulness and more to do with our unfortunate perceptions. He's got his work cut out for him.

To think, we haven't even begun to address the fact that our lack of trust is motivated by fear. Fear that brings up questions about my self-preservation. Will God come through? I know he did last time, but what about this time? Can I count on him? Will he provide? Does he have my best interest at heart? Or is he just trying to get me to obey and fall in line? What will all of this mean for me, my loved ones, my hopes, and my dreams?

So, I ask again, do you trust God? And I’m not just talking about when things are going well. Do you trust him when it seems he's not even there? When everything isn't going as planned? When your marriage is falling apart? When your health is failing? When the finances come up short? When life isn't how you pictured it? How we answer this question is very telling. Because, according to Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, “It means more to God when we say I trust you, than when we say I love you; because trust is the preeminent expression of love.”

So, the big question that needs to be answered: Can I trust God?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

CHOICES

It's true what they say--God does work in mysterious ways! If you had asked me just a few years ago where I would be right now, I certainly wouldn't have painted a picture like the one I see today. Scratch that; it's not a picture at all, but an ever-evolving story. While the beginning and end have been written, I get the pleasure of co-creating the plot-line with my Creator. Through the ups-and-downs, the twists-and-turns, the story we are creating is one of adventure and hope. While life may not go as planned, and circumstances aren't always ideal, I have discovered I still have the ability to choose. Above all, I can choose which path my life will take. I can choose to get bitter or get better; I can choose to give up or get up; I can choose to hold on or let go; I can choose to "forget" or forgive. And while I have found the latter of each is always a much better way to live, that doesn't mean it's always my default choice. 

The story I'm about to tell you, as do all stories, begins with a choice.

I just graduated from college and before me were a limitless number of choices. However, the $20,000 in college debt loomed above like a dark cloud ready to release a torrential downpour if I didn't take shelter soon. In this case, soon was a 6 month period of deferment before I had to start repaying the loans. Seeing as how I had no money, and the only things I owned were a Dodge Intrepid inching toward 200,000 miles, a few pieces of dilapidated, dorm room furniture--purchased at Good Will--and a plastic set of drawers containing all my clothes, the number of choices I actually had seemed a bit more limited than I originally thought. 

So, the first choice I made was the same anyone in my shoes would make. I took up rent-free shelter in my parents basement. Considering I was getting married in a few months, it seemed the most prudent choice. Its' not like I had a job or any money that would afford me the ability to make a different choice. Besides, this way I could save money and start planning out my future. At least that's what I told myself.

Then came the choice to get a job. Due to the fact that church jobs I was qualified for were few and far between, I made the next best choice. With the help of my brother, I landed a job at the telecommunication company he was working for. While there wasn't necessarily anything wrong with the job, working at the help desk, doing Internet tech support wasn't part of my 5 year plan. The hours weren't that great, and most mornings I dreaded waking up and heading off to work. I'm sure being at my desk in the call center by 5 in the morning had something to do with it. Even the sun had enough sense not be up by then. But the paycheck made up for all that. Which was good since I wanted my choices to prove that I was financially stable.

Which lead to the next choice I made--to marry the woman I had been dating. Although you could argue this choice came almost seven months ago when I bought the ring and planned the details of my proposal over Christmas break. Either way, the wedding was soon and I would no longer be taking care of one, but two. Which meant there were many more choices I would have to make. Like trying to start a family. Buying a house. And eventually getting a divorce.

The problem with all of this is that I was unsure. I was unsure about what to do with my life or how I even wanted it to look. And when you're unsure, you don't normally make the best choices. However, due to the ever increasing responsibility, the choices I had to make seemed to become more and more urgent. For that reason, most of the choices I made were uninformed and haphazard, without any regard to the effects they would have years to come. In other words, the choices I made lacked a sense of desire and had little direction.

Over the years I had become accustomed to the belief that this is how life was meant to beThat pursuing my dreams was no longer an option. That my wants and desires were required to take the back seat to responsibility. That somehow, being an adult meant joy and fulfillment always had to be secondary. That growing up meant I had to choose between living a life and living a life of significance.

Looking back, I see that many of the choices I made were for the wrong reason. I can't begin to tell you how many choices I made out of necessity. Moving in with my parents. Settling for a job I didn't particularly care for--not just once, but three times (that I can currently remember). Then there were the choices I made out of obligation. The choice to get married--because that's what you do when you've been dating someone for an extended period of time; especially right out of college. The choice to try to start a family. The choice to purchase a house. Each of these choices I made required other things to be put on hold. Things I wasn't ready to let go of.

Inevitably, all these choices lead to resentment. I didn't like where my life was headed. Every morning consisted of a Starbucks run--where uttering a word was no longer necessary for my grande white-chocolate mocha with an extra shot of espresso to be made. Pulling out of the Starbucks parking lot, I finished my 3 minute commute to work where I would spend the next 8 hours, my fingers mindlessly pecking the keyboard while my glossy eyes stared at the screen in front of me. From there I would go home, eat dinner and sit in front of the television to unwind before heading off to bed. Just so I could get up and do it all over the next day. Because I now had to pay for all the wrong choices that had enslaved me.

I felt trapped. Trapped at my job. To quit would spell financial ruin. The loss of income would result in the loss of the house, the car and my excellent credit score. To take that new job was risky. Packing up and moving was irresponsible--even though it was my dream job. At least that's what I was lead to believe since it came with a much smaller paycheck and required moving across the country. Then there was my marriage. If I'm at all honest with myself, I had some doubts about this marriage. Nobody knows this, but I almost broke it off after we were engaged. I was unsure marriage was the right choice at the time, but I chalked it up to a case of 'cold feet' and trudged forward. From the beginning, there were indications it wasn't going to work out; I was just too blind and too stubborn to see them. But again, I made the choice, so I lived with the consequences--good and bad. Which eventually lead to the choice to get divorced. While it was a tough choice, it was a choice that, according to her, needed to be made to 'right the wrong we made five years ago.' Then there was the house. It walled me in--literally and figuratively. To sell after the market went south would be a financial disaster. And uprooting myself in the middle of the divorce would essentially be giving up and she would win. So, I continued to make choices I didn't want to make, but felt I had to.

I have a feeling that's where most of us find ourselves. Feeling trapped. Trying to make ourselves believe this is what life is all about. That these are the responsible choices to make. Please understand, I'm not saying every choice I made was wrong. I'm not suggesting that getting married right out of college is a terrible idea (but it might be). I don't think buying a house because it's cheaper than rent is a bad choice. Neither am I advocating for skipping out on responsibility. Sometimes taking any job is the best choice because bills have to be paid. But that choice starts long before the bills are even due; and begins with choosing not to incur that debt in the first place. All I'm saying is those weren't the choices I was ready to make. And they weren't the right choices for me at the time. For where I was at in life. For where I wanted to go. And for what I wanted to do. 

I believe there is a different way. That life can be much more. That we can find joy and fulfillment. If only we would have the courage to make different choices. To take our time, assess the outcome, and make good, informed choices. To stop allowing others to dictate the way our lives need to be lived. Because, in the end, the choice is ours. We can continue to make choices out of necessity. We can keep letting society dictate the trajectory of our life. We can continue to buy into the lies the media tells us. We can always settle. Or we make the difficult choice to do what is right--for us. Where we have been. Where we are. And where we want to go. That's what I'm doing. And I have to tell you, it's much more enjoyable making these kinds of choices.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THEY'RE ALL HYPOCRITES, Part 2

Obviously, Jesus has a great disdain for hypocrites. Reading between the lines isn't necessary, because he makes his angst for them quite apparent. He says things like: "You hypocrites!" "You whitewashed tombs!" And my personal favorite, "You brood of Vipers!" And just in case you are wondering, that's not a term of endearment. I'm certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I'd be sleeping on the couch (at the very least) if I referred to my wife in that manner.

Just as obvious, is the world's belief that all Christians are hypocrites. Like Jesus, they don't pull any punches. They confront us. And they call us out. I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard the term thrown around in a discussion about Christian morality. I know for a fact a number of individuals have accused me of being a hypocrite. And I'm certain I've even made the same accusation about some of my fellow believers.

But this raises some important questions.

How do we define hypocrisy? Is this the same manner Jesus defines it? Or, when Jesus uses the term, to address the religious elite, is there a nuance we don't quite see? And of course, the question that begs to be answered, are all Christians really hypocrites?

Let's begin by clarifying what we mean by the term hypocrite. But, before we do that, allow me to tell you a story. A story about an individual whose hypocrisy was blatantly obvious.

After hours of studying for my upcoming finals, I decided a study break was in order. I made my way across the parking lot, got into my car, started her up and began the short trip to Quik Trip. I took a right turn to pull off campus--I tell you that so you know I had the right-of-way. At the same time, across the street, making a left-hand turn was a blue Ford Taurus. Of course, the driver was in a hurry. I know this because he rolled through the stop sign, made a left-hand turn and cut me off. Being a ministry major, I reacted appropriately by tailgating him. By the end of the first block, I was so close that I could read all the bumper stickers adorning the rear end of the beat up Taurus. My eyes were quickly drawn to the bottom right corner of the trunk. It was there I couldn't help but notice the plain black sticker with white, block letters stating "I would rather push a Chevy than drive a Ford." The irony was too great. I burst into laughter, let off the gas and let him pull away.

Somewhere along the line, this guy made a decision that contradicted his belief--which just so happened to be there for all to see, on the back of his rusty, blue Ford Taurus. Apparently, it was more important to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, than to push his Chevy Cavalier numerous miles. Undoubtedly, this is the way we define hypocrisy in this culture, in this time--to act in contradiction to your stated beliefs or feelings.

When someone makes the statement that "All Christians are hypocrites!" they are claiming that they have witnessed Christians acting contrary to the teachings of Jesus. And if this is the hypocrisy they speak of, they are absolutely correct--all Christians really are hypocrites! I won't deny that fact. We stumble. We fall. None of us has upheld all the commandments. None of us has perfectly embodied the teachings of the rabbi Jesus. All of us do things contrary to not only what he taught, but even what we believe. All of us fail to love our neighbor. All of us struggle to forgive those who have wronged us. All of us fall short of the standard Jesus lived out. You get the picture--we all act contrary to the standards Jesus calls us to uphold. We make mistakes. That’s, in part, what it means to be human.

This is something we should embrace rather than avoid. By embrace, I mean own up to it. Admit that we are powerless over our flesh in and of ourselves. Recognize that the only way we will truly live as Jesus lived is by continually falling forward through effort and grace. Perhaps then the world would stop viewing us as hypocrites. Maybe we should take a note from Paul's book--literally. If anyone had a past to shy away from it was this guy. Even with his colorful past and his continual shortcomings, he displayed honesty and vulnerability. Not once did he shy away from the truth of who he had been and who he was. He accounted for all the hypocrisy in his own life, not because he was proud of it, but because there was power in the humility of owning it. Admitting his hypocrisy, Paul, in Romans chapter seven, said: “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things.”

I would make the case that doing what we don't want to do doesn't make us, or Paul, a hypocrite. It makes us sinners! Sinners in need of a savior. And therein lies the confusion. We have blurred the lines between the two. They are not entirely synonymous. And it is of utmost importance we make a clear distinction between a sinner and a hypocrite. Afterall, Jesus didn't necessarily equate sinning with hypocrisy; because he knew all of us would sin. But he clarified that we don't all have to be hypocrites!

You see, a sinner is a person who falls short from time-to-time, all the while striving to be more Christ-like. On occasion, we all act in contradiction to what we truly believe. None of us will ever perfectly live out each and every one of our beliefs, on a consistent basis, in any arena of life; especially when it comes to issues of faith. Let me reiterate that none of us will perfectly imitate Jesus 100% of the time. I'm not condoning that fact, nor am I condemning it. Accepting the forgiveness he has offered, does not make us perfect; it just makes us sinners who have accepted his grace. And just because we fail to consistently follow the example Christ has given us does not make us hypocrites. Nor does it invalidate the truths his life put on display. I know many individuals seeking to genuinely follow in the footsteps of Jesus, all the while failing miserably. Yet each and every time they pick themselves up, admit their shortcomings and continue right where they left off. They trust in the Holy Spirit to convict, change, and empower them to grow. They believe, by grace, that tomorrow they will be closer to living like Jesus than they have been today.

A hypocrite, on the other hand is a person who purposely deceives others. A person who attempts to live two lives simultaneously--one in public and one in private. They practice sins on a routine basis and when confronted lie about them and remain unrepentant. They appear holy, all the while disregarding the reality of their own sinfulness. They put on their Sunday mask, only to remove it the moment they get in their car and leave the church premises. They point out the faults of others, and yet fail to see their own. In order to elevate themselves, they deprecate those around them. They deny the grace that has been extended them to those they encounter. They, according to Jesus, take meticulous care of their outer appearance while ignoring the rotting mess that is their soul. This, it seems to me, is the way Jesus defines hypocrisy. Which is clearly different than the way we define it.

The moment we, as sinners, downplay our own sinfulness, in order to emphasize our own righteousness is the moment we become hypocrites.

It is these types of individuals, Jesus tells us, aren't really his followers. In Matthew 7, he makes an important clarification: “Not all people who sound religious are really godly. They may refer to me as ‘Lord,’ but they still won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The decisive issue is whether they obey my Father in heaven.” Their failure to recognize their own inadequacy to save themselves through outward obedience, sets themselves against true followers of his and exempts them from the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Understand that I didn't write this to excuse all our failings as Christians. Know that I don't condone all of our behavior; nor do I expect you to. By all means, hold us accountable. Call us out. But offer us the chance to own our faults and seek out forgiveness. On behalf of those of us that have failed to exemplify the life of Jesus, I apologize. For the times our actions and attitudes have turned you away from God, I am sorry. We will stumble. And we will fall. Sometimes flat on our faces. But to label all of us hypocrites isn't entirely accurate. Even Jesus didn't hold his disciples to that standard of perfection. It is my hope that you will no longer take the actions of a few to judge the whole. Furthermore, I hope you have gained some insight into the difficulty it is to follow the only man to have walked this Earth without sinning. 


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THEY'RE ALL HYPOCRITES, Part 1

According to one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, "The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." Which is just a much more eloquent way of saying that the world thinks we’re a bunch of hypocrites. Chances are, if you have attended Church for any period of time, associated with anyone who claims to be religious, or lived on planet Earth, you have heard this accusation thrown around. Maybe you've even made the claim yourself. Truth be told, it’s an all too common accusation thrown at Christians.

To be quite honest, most of the time, the claim is warranted. I have a friend who wants nothing to do with Jesus because his father, a very religious man, was active in the local church but behind closed doors was abusive. Another friend continues to distance herself from anyone associated with the church because of their judgmental glares about her lifestyle choices. Bombarded, by the media, with news of scandal after scandal surrounding church leaders has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some of my closest friends. I have relatives that label Christians as hypocrites because time-after-time their trust has been broken and their feelings were hurt by the arrogance of a pastor. And I can list countless individuals I know (some former pastors), who despise the Christian faith because, to them, it seems to be the most unforgiving, judgmental religion on the planet. So, the label 'hypocrite' may not be too far off.

Whatever their reasoning, I understand. I, too, have personally encountered the hypocrisy they see in our communities of faith. And if I'm at all honest, the number of times I have been the hypocrite who has turned others away are too numerous to count. I lead a small group at my church where I talk about the importance of community, and yet I find myself too busy to make time for others, bear their burdens, or enjoy their company. I am part of accountability groups, stressing the importance of authenticity, all the while keeping my own secrets tucked away in the darkest corners of my heart. I preach sermons about denying yourself to follow Christ, yet I own two vehicles--one of which is a BMW, have multiple televisions and a closet full of clothes. I stress the importance of being a good steward (with everything, not just money), yet I have been known to enjoy a $5 cup of coffee. Many Sundays I haphazardly recite the lyrics to numerous worship songs about giving God my all, while simultaneously creating a mental check-list of everything I need to accomplish once service is over.

Does that make my a hypocrite?

According to this individual, it does. "The problem with [Christians] lies not only in an oft-noted failure to practice what they preach, but an equally pronounced tendency to ignore what the Bible itself, preaches. Christians practice what can only be described as ‘selective morality.’ What they like, they cling to and shove down other’s throats; what they don’t like, they ignore vehemently. That which is palatable and acceptable is supposedly applicable to all; while that which is obnoxious, inconvenient, or self-denying is only applicable to those addressed 2,000 years ago. Their hypocrisy is so rampant that even the validity of calling oneself ‘Christian’ is in question.”

By these standards, all Christians are hypocrites! Every last one of us has ignored parts of the Bible that seem a bit too difficult, too inconvenient, too extreme. We, like the experts in the law of Jesus' day, constantly rationalize our own interpretations of his words. In order to justify our actions (or in-actions), we tirelessly search for even the smallest loophole--surely that man isn't my neighbor, giving to the poor would only enable them, evangelism isn't my responsibility as an introvert, as long as I don't idolize this it's okay, or Jesus was speaking metaphorically, he doesn't expect me to do that.

But I’m going to pause for a second here. Just in case you feel that you have managed to meticulously uphold the teachings of Jesus, I offer you an out. If you, like the rich young ruler, honestly believe "I've obeyed all these commands since I was young," then by all means stop reading. Go about the rest of your day. Listening to another hypocrite would only prove to be a waste of your time.

Now, for the rest of us. I think there is more to this whole hypocrisy thing than meets the eye. Perhaps our view of hypocrisy isn't the same as Jesus' view. Maybe the way we define hypocrisy, is not the way Jesus defines hypocrisy. Perhaps the lines have been blurred between being a sinner in need of a savior and being a hypocrite.

Which we will get to soon.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

THE BUSINESS OF CHURCH

If I'm at all honest, I was less than excited for the gathering that was about to take place. I got the sense it was going to turn into more of a business meeting than anything else. Which is part of the reason I still hadn't committed to attend. To top it off, I had other important things to check off my to-do-list. The lawn needed to be mowed. My laundry had been sitting unfolded, in the dryer for the past three days. And I hadn't read the book sitting on my night-stand in almost a week. Now seemed like as good a time as any to knock those things out. But, there was the whole matter of dinner. I had to eat sometime and my fridge was full of condiments...just condiments. For that reason, the offer of a free meal was enough to rope me in to the meeting. So, I obliged. I drove myself to the restaurant, pulled into the parking lot, made my way to the door and let out a deep sigh.

Just inside the front door, I joined seven other guys waiting for our table. Eventually, we were ushered to a room separated from the rest of the diners by a barn-style door. Each of us took a seat around a large, round table. We placed our orders and the sound of chatter filled the room. It wasn't long before our meals were placed before us and the silence set in. Once we had cleaned our plates, the silence was broken with a "this is why I brought you all here" speech. Over the next twenty minutes, the discussion focused on some big decisions facing the church--decisions that could make or break it's momentum. The biggest decision being how to embrace the rapid numerical growth we had been experiencing, while staying community oriented.

But then it happened. Just as I thought, the discussion transitioned into more of a lecture on how the church was intended to function--like an organization. Permit me to vent for a minute, but this view of church doesn't sit well with me. It makes me defensive. It sets me on edge. This sort of discussion makes my stomach churn. And that is why I can empathize with those who have such disdain for "organized religion." When we talk about the church as an organization, I can see why so many people become disenchanted. It doesn't come as a surprise, then, that they get the idea church is all about numbers and money. Of course, when this is the picture we paint, they are lead to believe the church is just another business that needs to be lead and managed. Another entity solely governed by democratic procedures and committees bound by capitalist tendencies.

Without even stepping foot in the church we can see that some churches concern themselves, far too much, with self-promotion and growth. We see that they exist to compete with every other church--vying for a bigger share of the market. Their focus has shifted from people to programs, projects and budgets. Which, it seems to me, is why numerous churches have become content stealing sheep instead of finding the ones they have actually lost.

There are also the churches that seem to milk every dollar they can out of their constituents. Passing around the offering plate every time the doors are opened. Churches that charge to use their building--not God's. Churches that nickle and dime the people who's tithes and offerings have purchased each and every brick. Churches claiming that by donating a certain amount of money to purchase new blades for the aviation department's helicopter, will result in the outpouring of God's blessing in your life. While I wish I was exaggerating that example, I'm not! Churches that chain off the entrance to their parking lot because of events taking place nearby. A gesture made worse by the fact that they post sings informing event attenders that use of their parking lot will cost $5 a vehicle. Churches that would rather make a few extra bucks than graciously extend the use of their facilities because they are simply tools for ministry. Luther took offense to similar tactics used by the church--selling indulgences--because he saw it as exploitation of both church goers and the poor. All this money talk gets me wondering. If Jesus proposed the same challenge to churches today as he did to the rich young ruler--sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor--would they oblige, or would they too walk away downtrodden because of their great wealth?

While I don't want to come across as judgmental, these tactics don't belong in the church. With these kind of experiences in mind, it's easy to see why people view the church as just a big box store pedaling religion. And to be honest, I can't really blame them. The unfortunate thing is that this has resulted in droves of people turning their back on Jesus because they don't realize that's not the church he came to build--a church like the one we find in Acts.

In the stories of that early church I see a community united in love. A body that is vibrant and full of life. A gathering where the Gospel was unabashedly proclaimed--not easy to swallow self-help advice. A community where Jesus really was Lord--not a governing hierarchy. A people who gave the Holy Spirit room to move because they weren't constrained by traditions, set lists, transitions, and schedules. A church that, according to Scripture, was adding thousands daily (which in a culture that didn't count women, translated to many more). A church that collected money not to build their own kingdom, but to build the kingdom of God by meeting the needs of the community--understanding everything was a gift to be shared.

I get the feeling Jesus wouldn't care much for the "organized religion" of today--afterall, he didn't think too highly of it in his day. I'm certain his goal was never to establish a non-profit organization. I doubt he was concerned with building a well-oiled institution. And I don't think his focus was to create a smooth running ecclesiastical machine. Numbers didn't impress him. Money wasn't a motivating factor. Bricks and mortar didn't constrain him.

Jesus came to turn our understanding of church--and pretty much life in general--upside down. He came to establish a church that was to be a beacon of hope for the underprivileged, the abused, the burnt out, the lost, and the religiously bankrupt. A church that would be a catalyst to save us from ourselves. A church called to turn the world upside down. A church where the last were first and the first were last. A church that came not to be served, but to serve.

Perhaps the church isn't an organization. Maybe it isn't even an organism. I wonder if the church is just...the church. And maybe the church, like Jesus, defies any label we try to impose upon her. When functioning in all her beauty and grandeur, there has never been and will never be anything quite like the church. But that can't take place as long as we think Jesus came to establish some sort of organization.