Monday, December 31, 2012


Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this 'woe is me' attitude--all the while thinking God has abandoned them. But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences--conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death--other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.

But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience--the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear--and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me. What causes such a drastic change?

After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion--I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God. And I've come to the realization I'm not alone. Just google the phrase 'experiencing God' and you will see what I'm talking about. There are numerous sermons, blogs and books on this topic. In college, I took a worship class in which one of the required readings was dedicated to discussing this issue. The pages within that book laid out principles on creating an environment conducive to experiencing God. That same semester, I wound up discussing this idea with a worship leader. One Sunday evening, after our student led worship service, I questioned why we always seemed to end with an upbeat, joyful, "Jesus Loves Me" type song. I thought, on occasion, it might be appropriate to end the service leaving us in a repentant mood. His very telling response was, "People should leave the service feeling warm and fuzzy inside."

All of this, at least for me, raises some red flags. Not because I believe God cannot be experienced via our five senses like some might argue. Neither is it because I have a hesitancy with an experiential faith. Nor does it bother me that experiencing God can fill us with hope, joy and peace. I also don't take issue to the fact that God comes in displays of grandeur. Rather, it bothers me because I fear that we are unintentionally creating an environment where people come to the church seeking a certain experience. Like Elijah, they have a tendency to put God in a box assuming any experience has to fall within certain parameters.  

Perhaps it seems like I'm just rambling and not making any sense (I don't blame you for thinking that, I kind of feel the same way). Let me try this approach. Every week many of us pray that we would experience God in a powerful way--at this particular place, at this particular time. Hours are put into every Sunday morning worship service to ensure God shows up. The music is arranged in a specific manner. The lights are dimmed just so. The videos evoke certain emotions. The sermon is compelling and has just the right amount of humor.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning any of these things. I'm glad we don't haphazardly throw together our worship services. I think it's important to be intentional and prayerful. And I'm a huge fan of technology--when it works. But I wonder if we are too busy manipulating the various elements, that we miss the fact God is already present?

Sadly, sometimes I have been too blind to realize this. I've left church feeling no different than when I entered. Unmoved, I begin critiquing the music, picking apart the sermon, commenting on how distracting this or that was. I make comments along the lines of: That was a waste of time. The service just didn't do it for me. I didn't experience God today.

God made it clear to Elijah, in the span of a few days, that he can't be nailed down. He isn't confined to mountain tops, tabernacles, worship centers, or prayer rooms. I just don't picture Paul wandering the streets of Jerusalem asking: Who has the best worship music? Where do I go to hear most compelling sermon? Which tech crew is top-rated? Of all the temples, where am I most likely to meet with God? Yet, if I'm honest, I do this very thing.

The reason I don't experience God has very little to do with where I attend church. It has more to do with my perspective and the receptiveness of my heart. God can be experienced in numerous environments--the coffee shop around the corner, the bar down the street, the shelter across town, my cubicle at work, the park by the river--if only I would learn to see. To think otherwise is just another form of idolatry.

I've been doing some soul searching, asking myself some pretty revealing questions. What if I showed up to church and the building had no air conditioning? How would I respond if the worship team wasn't as polished as usual? Would the absence of ambient lighting change the way I viewed the service? What if the sermon didn't strike a chord with me? What if I had to stand because there were no chairs? Given these circumstances would I still find God? Or would I walk away looking for a different place to worship because it offered a better experience?

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Let me tell you what I like about the Bible. To begin with, this book doesn't sweep anything under the rug. No details are spared, no matter how insignificant, terrible, or ridiculous they seem. When a big-time player is caught in the middle of a scandal, there's no cover-up. Unlike any other news source, the Bible really is fair and balanced. Nor does this book pull any punches. It tackles some pretty hefty topics head on. There's no skirting any issues or beating around the bush. The Bible tells you like it is. I can respect that. It also means the Bible is actually relateable. It's not account after account of these super-spiritual people that get it right all the time. Yes, it shows their incredible successes, but it also shows their struggles with doubt, their insecurities, their bouts of depression, and even their blatant failures. Because of that, I am able to catch a glimpse of myself in these individuals. The most recent story I got caught up in is the story of Elijah.

For this story, let me take you back to a time when Kings still ruled the land. During a period of great divide for the Jewish nation, God raised up a prophet named Elijah. He becomes a key player in the midst of some of the most extraordinary oppression the Jews had faced at that point. King Ahab, a push-over of a Jewish man, was married to Jezebel. She pretty much dictated every decision he would make as King. At her beckoning, Ahab began a campaign to eradicate anything Jewish. At the height of this campaign, around 99% of the Jewish population either submitted to Ahab and Jezebel, or was killed. Elijah, the lone surviving prophet, is part of the remaining 1%. Even then, Elijah doesn't back down. He actually makes a prediction about 3 years of drought and famine--the original Hunger Games story--that comes true. Needless to say, this infuriates the royal couple even more. From then on, their sole purpose in life is to hunt down Elijah and kill him.

The story reaches a head when Elijah sets out to settle this dispute once and for all. He decides it is time to set Jehovah against Baal. Like a grade school boy, Elijah sets the time and  place for the throw down. Early one morning, on top of Mt. Carmel, the showdown between hundreds of prophets of Baal and Elijah (talk about an unfair fight) takes place. Both sides make an altar for their god to set on fire. Elijah, being such a gentleman, offers the prophets of Baal the first opportunity. After a morning of shouting and dancing around, the altar Baal was to set on fire is still sitting there. So, antagonist Elijah comes out and taunts the prophets (did I mention there are hundreds of them--not too smart) saying "Maybe your god is sleeping. Perhaps he went on a walk. He might be busy or hard of hearing. It's possible he's going to the bathroom. You better shout louder." In desperation, they cut themselves, dance more erratic and shout even louder; all to no avail.

Finally, Elijah steps up and takes center stage. He begins by dousing the altar with several jugs of water, just to show off a little (I can see myself doing something like this). After offering up a quick, little prayer, God sends a bolt of fire and the water dries up, the wood is consumed and the offering is burnt to a crisp. With that, there is a clear winner. Elijah then has all the prophets of Baal detained and he kills each and every last one of them. From here, Ahab heads back home and, as you might guess, tells his wife everything. Upon receiving this news, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that she will kill him by tomorrow. And we read that "When Elijah heard this, he was afraid and ran for his life."

Here, we have Elijah coming off this mountain-top experience, where God showed up in a big way and proved himself more than faithful. On the heel of that we find Elijah running like a frightened little girl (no offense). Are you kidding me? 450 prophets of Baal died at his sword; and here stands Elijah scared of one woman. Come on dude! What happened? Where's your confidence in God now? What happened to that 'bring on the world' attitude? And I can't believe you don't have a sarcastic response to this. This entire time Elijah commanded my respect...until now.

There's a lot we could unpack from this story. But my most recent reading brought one question to the forefront of my mind. Am I seeking God, or just an experience? And honestly, I think it's a question we all need to ask ourselves.

What I mean by that, I will try to flush out in part 2.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I pulled into the parking lot located behind the hundred year old brick building and backed the truck into my designated parking spot. Sluggishly, I gathered my belongings and climbed out of the vehicle to make my way into work. As usual on Monday, I was not looking forward to work. Regardless, I headed toward the fire escape covered in numerous layers of sea-foam green paint. I guess it takes the focus off the fact that the fire escape is probably just as old as the building itself and looks like it might collapse into a heap of rubble with the slightest breeze. Carefully, I ascended the rickety, wooden fire escape attached to the back of our building, my morning coffee in hand. When I came to the first landing, the back door loomed before me. I reached for the handle, let out a sigh and entered the machine room. Making my way through the engraving room, Darci gave me a quick glance and greeted me with a hello. I responded with a similar salutation and continued on to my office and sat down at my desk.

As if on cue, the phone started ringing and the fax machine kicked in spurting out orders. I could already tell this was going to be an long day. Sitting in my chair, I spun myself around to face the computer. Waiting for the computer to boot up, I laid my head on the desk to relax for a few seconds. Just then a customer started shaking the front door, not realizing you actually had to use the handle to release the latch from the strike-plate. "This is a hundred year old building. People are too accustomed to those high-tech automatic doors." I thought to myself. Pulling myself out of my chair, I mustered enough energy to walk to the front and open the door for her. Returning to my desk we started discussing her stamp order. After a few minutes, she turned around and left. My day has officially begun.

Contrary to what I originally thought, the morning seemed to fly by. Just half an hour away from lunch time, I was making great progress on the stack of orders sitting neatly on my desk. However, my stomach began to growl and for the next few minutes, time seemed to stand still as I stared at the clock. Eventually, I turned my attention back to work, typed up a few more orders and answered a few phone calls. Again, I glanced up at the clock just in time to see the minute hand disappear behind the hour hand. It was finally noon! Grabbing my jacket, I raced out the back door and down the fire escape, the entire thing shaking under the weight of my feet pounding against each step.

My 45 minute lunch break was mostly ate up by driving home to feed the dog and let him run off some energy. I then made my way to Taco Bell for a quick bite to eat. You can't go wrong with the $2 meal deal (even though they aren't just $2 anymore). Where else can you get a chicken burrito, some Doritos and a pink lemonade for that price? That's right, nowhere! Running a few minutes behind, I may have exceeded the posted speed limit on my way back to work. Again, I parked in the back and made my way up the fire escape, praying this wouldn't be the time it collapsed. When I got back to my desk a few papers were laying there with stamp orders scribbled on them. With that, I sat down and got back to work.

Around 2:30 everyone, with the exception of me, decided it was quitting time. My co-worker had an appointment, so she was ducking out an hour earlier than usual. The other guy, who happens to be my boss, needed to run some errands. He informed me it would take a few hours and I needed to lock up this evening. For the next few minutes, I sat there enjoying the silence, basking in the fact that all my work was done. Just as I turned around to my computer screen to kill some time searching for new music a woman outside the window caught my attention. I watched as she paced back and forth on the sidewalk right in front of the store. She must have been working up the courage to walk in the front door, ordering stamps is a pretty intimidating task.

As the door slowly opened, with a squeak, the woman stepped into the building. She took a few steps toward my desk when I noticed that her gaze was glued to the ground just in front of her feet. I greeted the woman and asked if I could be of any assistance to her. There was no response. During the moment of silence that followed I noticed her ratty shoes. And upon closer inspection I could see her jeans were a bit dirty. Beneath her dark blue hoodie, which was half zipped, I could also see a grungy looking t-shirt. Atop her head was a brown, knitted stocking cap that had seen better days. Again, I asked if there was anything I could do for her. Finally, she titled her head up just slightly and began to speak. In a quiet, shaky voice the woman informed me she wasn't from here. She went on, explaining that she had no family here, was homeless and hungry. I was taken aback. It's not everyday someone wanders into your place of business with this story.

"I don't have any cash" I told her, "but let me go in back and see what we have." Immediately, I turned around and walked towards our break room. On the shelf, next to the microwave, in a bag were a few leftover blueberry bagels. I grabbed the bag and made my way back to the front. The woman seemed a little more upbeat as I strolled up to her. I handed her the remaining bagels and apologized I didn't have any cream cheese to go with them. As she reached out her hand, I extended the bag in her direction. Grabbing the bag, she turned around and took two steps toward the front door. After a brief pause, the woman turned around, placed the bag of bagels on my desk and said "No thanks." With that, she turned around and walked out the door.

A bit bewildered, I stood there as she made her way across the street. She reached the sidewalk and stood there, contemplating which direction to head next. The woman then proceeded straight ahead to the driveway of the bank. A car turned into the driveway and drove up to her walking right down the middle of the lane. Both her and the car stopped as if preparing to face-off. The car remained motionless as this strange woman walked straight toward the vehicle. She came within a foot or two of the car's grill when the driver backed up and drove around. Unfazed, the woman again stood there, looking confused. Another car made it's way through the driveway in her direction. This time she made a B-line toward the vehicle, without any regard to her safety. Again, the driver of this vehicle stopped, waited for just a moment before eventually driving around her. With that, she took off across the remaining few feet of the driveway and disappeared around the corner.

I replayed the whole encounter over in my mind a few times. At first I came to the possible conclusion that she had a gluten allergy. Why else would you pass on a few perfectly good blueberry bagels? Then it got me wondering, "What did people with a gluten allergy eat just a few years ago, before it became such a booming business?" I redirected my focus back to the situation. More options to respond raced through my mind, "What could I have done differently? Should I have sent her to the church? Could I have closed the store and taken her to get something else? If I had any cash, would I have given it to her? It's not like it would break me. How would I have done things differently if given the opportunity?"

Upon pondering these ideas for the remaining few hours of work a story Jesus told kept popping up. The lesson he gives at the end goes like this, "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!"
I then came to a few conclusions. In society, individuals like this woman definitely fall into the category of "the least of these." They are the ones we turn a blind eye to. The ones we ignore and write off, deeming them someone else's "problem." In situations like this, my only responsibility is help them. Ignoring them is not an option. I can definitely meet their need in a tangible way by giving them something to eat. I can even cough up a few dollars. I don't think it's really going to perpetuate their poverty, homelessness or addiction. The bottom line is this, I should respond in whatever way God impresses on my heart--which, by the way is always with grace. It's not like God offers us forgiveness only if we promise to never, ever do something again. How they respond and what they do with my offering is ultimately their decision.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I have a friend that has become uncomfortable about his spiritual life.* He's adamant about the fact that he wholeheartedly believes in God. While his prayer life could use some improvement, I have to admit he does better than some. Almost religiously, he attends the services at his Church. He intently listens to the preacher and even manages to jot down a few key notes about the message every week. As far as the music goes, he can sing most of the songs verbatim without even looking at the screen up front; but even he will admit, his worship is sometimes mechanical. Come payday, my friend even places a check in the offering for no less than ten percent of his income. Yet he still feels somethings awry. He has this impression that he's missing something important. All the worry and uneasiness tends to keep his stomach in knots. "What if all of this isn't enough?" he asks himself.

Unfortunately, for my friend, it's not enough. All that 'doing' makes it appear the sole purpose of the Church is to be a conduit for self-help; which only results in apathy and passivity. And for that, the crucifixion of Jesus was a bit overkill. If that was God's only desire, he could have just given us the Bible and called it good. But he didn't! He sent his Son to show us how to live. To help us understand what the Church was all about. For that reason alone, I can't help but think God intended the Church to be far greater.

Sadly, my friend is not alone. There may be thousands or even millions of Christians who find themselves in the same predicament--passive spectators of irrelevant ritual. Their life of faith has been plagued with complacency and passivity. All because Church has been narrowed down to a Sunday ritual. It has been become about the building, a religion, a doctrine, or a denomination. This shift has resulted in a people that have become content with playing Church.
Dwight Robertson, the founder of KBM, illustrates this point quite well; “Unfortunately, much of what we’ve seen portrayed as Christianity in the past century has been a fireless counterfeit of what Jesus spoke of in the First Century. Christian faith has often been reduced to church attendance. And our concept of ‘church’ has often been reduced to fireless religious institution.”

It amazes me how the most exciting message known to man has been presented as one of the most boring messages ever heard on a Sunday morning! How have we idly stood by while the message of Jesus has been hijacked? We have narrowed the Gospel to a message of sin management and a personal relationship. The early Church saw the Gospel in a much different light. They knew that eternity hung in the balance! They understood that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. They recognized that it's implications stretched far beyond themselves. They saw it as a movement, if you will, that had the power to change the course of human history.

So, what happened? I think an obscure passage of Scripture might offer some insight.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

The problem has been our passivity. When it comes to matters of Church, I wouldn't exactly use the term forceful. Unless of course you are talking about bull-horn guy. You know who I'm talking about. The guy that's always asking you pointed questions. Making awkward transitions in conversation to bring up matters of God, faith, and salvation. Asking where you will go if you die tonight. Things like that. I think now is as good a time as any to clear up a few things. This passage of Scripture isn't conveying that kind of force. It's not condoning a Crusade-type attitude; it's not talking about turn-or-burn evangelism; and it isn't referencing smacking anyone upside the head with the Bible or forcing Jesus on anyone. The Greek word for forceful means “sought with burning zeal; to make a way with triumphant force.” Here, forceful is a reference to our purpose and our passion.

Why do you do what you do? Going to church isn't really advancing the kingdom anymore than drinking diet pop drops the pounds. Taking notes on the sermon doesn't do much good unless they are reviewed and put into practice. The same prayer before every meal isn't really praying ceaselessly, is it? Jesus even seems to make an off handed remark to the Pharisees about how they tithe, but overlook matters of justice, mercy and faith. And when it comes to those songs, are we actually engaging and worshiping in spirit and truth? The way we answer these questions will determine if we are being passive or forceful. And Jesus isn't looking for the passive! "Deny yourself and take up your cross." he says. There is nothing passive about that. The bottom line is this, do we want Jesus--and nothing else--or nothing at all?

There can be no more living defensively, trying to distance ourselves from the secular world. That won't keep anything at bay. Instead, we must live offensively. We should be leading the charge. It is our duty, as followers of Jesus, to fearlessly pave the way for the kingdom. Just as John paved the way for Christ’s ministry, we must pave the way for Christ's second coming. That's the only way we will ever overcome that which stands opposed to the message of Jesus.

“You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church.  And not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it.” The sick are being healed, lepers are cleansed, the dead raised, the blind see, the lame walk and sinners are raised to a new life. That's the picture of the Church Jesus gives us. The kingdom of heaven isn't for the faint at heart, the weak, or the passive. Nor is it for the indecisive. It's for the vigorous and forceful. It's for those who are working out their own salvation in fear and trembling, all the while not compromising with the world. The kingdom of heaven is only for those who are prepared to follow the whole counsel of God, no matter the cost. It is these individuals who are forcefully taking possession of the kingdom of heaven. And they are the ones helping others get there through a fearless proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Until we understand this, we will continue to wonder if this is enough.

The Bible is full of men and women, who perceived this call, surrendered all, and forcefully pursued the kingdom of heaven. The "Faith Hall of Fame" lays it out very clearly for us in the book of Hebrews.“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and even in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, and yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” These are not passive people. Last time I checked, the passive don't conquer kingdoms. The passive are more likely to avoid confrontation at all cost. So, it is highly unlikely they would be shutting the mouths of lions, quenching the fury of the flames, escaping the edge of the sword, or anything else along these lines. Nor do I recall the passive, being flogged, chained, and thrown in prison. Please understand I don't want to downplay the importance of attending church, or tithing, or anything like that. Nor am I intending to negate the fact that the Gospel saves. But, if that's all it does, it's not the whole message of Jesus. It should also move, motivate, stimulate, instigate, inspire, encourage, arouse and stir us! That is all.

*This hypothetical friend is sometimes me.