Monday, April 8, 2019

The Taking Boy

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a great book.

I don’t like it.

I don’t like it for practical reasons. One harvest of apples from one tree will not create wealth. The branches of one tree are not enough to build a house. The trunk of one tree is not enough to build a boat that you can sail away in. Realistically, the tree is not enough to do the things the boy wants to do as he grows older. Finally, once a tree has become a stump, is it still a tree? I think not.

I don’t like it for thematic reasons. The boy never grows as a person. He gets old, but he is still just as selfish. Nothing resolves in this book. The tree gives and the boy takes. Of course, it didn’t start like that. It started in a pure place, went dark, and is left with the devastation of the dark.

Give me Green Eggs and Ham, where we go from not liking a food we have never eaten to trying it and realizing that we do like it! Give me Thy Friend, Obadiah, with a boy who realizes that the bird is his friend, and he is the bird’s friend, too. Maybe that is why I don’t like The Giving Tree, because I wasn’t raised on it.

I don’t like it for personal reasons. The boy is too much like me. The tree is too much like me.

Like the tree, I have had people in my life that I loved and that I enjoyed being around. At first, we enjoyed one another’s company, but after a while they began to take and to take. They have taken all that I have to offer, and, unlike the boy turned old man, they do not desire to sit awhile. I am left as a stump, and they are either out of my life or texting me wanting me to give them more of what I no longer have.

Like the boy, I have taken from others. There are people in my life from whom I have taken their apples, I have taken their branches, I have taken their trunk, and I have left them as a stump. Maybe I will live out my days sitting on the stumps of old friendships. Maybe I will go away and never return. I dislike the boy; he is so much like me.

The Giving Tree does not resolve, it needs something more, but it does not give it to us.

The only way I know to resolve The Giving Tree is with the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus came to save us from ourselves, from the darkness of the world, from the tyranny of The Giving Tree. Jesus saves us from the consequences of our selfishness, from the consequences of giving beyond ourselves. The Giving Tree is about a relationship destroyed, and Jesus is the one who restores. The Giving Tree needs Jesus, and so do I.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Question of Identity

I started following Jesus Christ in February of 1997. That September, my roommate came in upset over the news that Rich Mullins had passed away in an auto accident. That was the first time I heard about him. He was only a year older than I am now.

Every now and then I will realize that a song living in the recesses of my mind is one of his. They aren't quite the popular sound, but they are good for crying out to God.

I especially like Rich's heart, and have been intrigued by his statements in this video for the past year. I don't know when he performed at Wheaton College's Chapel service, but the post claims it was his final year with us. The comments I am focusing on start at the 32:32 mark, and hopefully the video will begin there:

As Rich says, we often hear the call to be born again, but not so much the call to sell our possessions. I think he is right; the difference between Nicodemus and the rich young ruler was their security - their identity.

I've thought about what it would mean to sell my possessions. Reading about George Muller selling his possessions when they needed money, I think, "How much would I really get for these old books or tools?" I doubt I could feed an orphanage for a day with all my possessions. Books don't seem worth the paper they're printed on these days, and my tools weren't exactly worth much when I bought them. The truth is they have more emotional value to me than any inherent, monetary value.

Maybe that is the really insidious nature of possessions - they form my identity. Possessing these books, DVDs, tools, etc. make me a certain person. To not have my tools, for instance, means I can't perform certain tasks. I may not like performing them, I may not even be skilled to perform them, but at least I have the tools to do it if I need to.

We have so many books, more books than I can read in a year, maybe even in a decade. How many of them will I read again? How many of them have I bought and not yet read? I'm like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory - buying books to feel normal.

To give up my possessions is to give up a part of my identity. What if I didn't have these things, who would I be?

Ultimately, I think the question of identity is the main question we deal with when we come to Jesus. For Nicodemus, it was the identity of being born again. For the rich young ruler, it was the identity of being a penniless follower of a penniless Messiah. For Peter, it was becoming a fisher of men instead of a fisherman.

When we accept the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, we take on a new identity. We give up our old identity, whatever it was, and we take on the identity of a person who says they will follow Jesus. Zacchaeus and Levi no longer identify as tax collectors. Saul no longer identifies as a Pharisee.

Some people are unable to accept a new identity, or to reject their old one, and so are unable to follow Jesus. Maybe they see following Jesus as being weak, and are unwilling to accept the identity of being weak. Look at the Pharisees in John 9. The previously blind man asks them why they continue to question him about Jesus, do they want to be his disciples, too? They rebuff such a statement, willing to be Moses' disciples but not Jesus'.

It's a funny thing: how we can accept a new identity in Jesus  - say, being a sinner who needs a savior; but then, as we follow him, we want to give up that identity and get a new one - say, as a successful Christian. We want to have an identity of being righteous, not because Jesus is righteous, but because we are. We want to be well-liked and successful, and so we find ourselves fighting with the identity we have in Jesus.

It can be hard to accept a new identity and to live in it. I think of people who are chronically sick. It is one thing to have a cold or to be sick for a week, it is another to have that become your identity. You live for months, maybe years, maybe the rest of your life with cancer. You become infected with HIV or develop a chronic illness and forever have it affect what you can do and who you can be.

Rich seems to be on to this idea when he talks about how Christianity is spread. It is like a disease, spread by breath and touch. It is like a disease, separating you from other people who do not want to catch it. It limits the activities you can participate in, you start thinking about how environments might affect you because of it.

We become like the lepers and others walking up to the lepers gate to receive the bread - not healthy enough to go through the beautiful gate at the front of the church, but left outside in the hospital, at the lepers' gate they receive grace - in the midst of their identity as those in need. May we never lose our identity in Jesus; and I'm not talking about being Christians in the modern American cultural context, but about being weak, sinful people in need of salvation, who have found it in Jesus.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Adult Church

And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 18:3

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." - Matthew 19:14

Why do we have "Children's Church?"

Why do so many churches today place their children in special classes and never take them to the main worship service?

It seems to me, based on Scripture, that we should have "Adult's Church," not "Children's Church."

My church, until recently, had a special time, called the "Children's Sermon," when all the kids could come forward for a special message for them. Of course, the adults in the room usually enjoyed it more and got more out of it than the kids. Why do we not have a time of "Adult's Sermon," when all the adults come forward for special instruction?

We have this idea that we need to give kids a special space so that they can learn the Gospel stories and so that the adults can have adult messages in the "big service." Jesus, and later Paul, regularly tells us that we are backwards and inverted in our thinking. We think it is best to lead and Jesus says it is best to serve.

We're like the rich young ruler who wants to know what sensible thing we need to do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus says we need to do the insensible thing of selling all our possessions and following him. We say it is time to grow up, get a job and make a living, and Jesus says that God takes care of birds and grass, so of course He'll take care of us as well. You can't preach the literal teaching of Jesus without some "mature" believer explaining all the mystery and simplicity away - and it is often the preacher who does this.

I know my kids are growing up because they are questioning me more and more. It is good for them to question me. I am not God. They need to break out of the mold I am trying to form on them and be their own. It is not the same with God. Instead, we need to stop questioning Him. No, I don't mean that we can't ask God why. What I do mean is that we trust Him and take Him at His word. This is what my children did, and still do for the most part. We need to get back to trusting and obeying.

To get back to the main idea I started with, though: I can't help but think that we may be missing the mark if we aren't talking in such a way that the children can participate. We may be missing the mark if we aren't worshiping in such a way that the children can participate.

Instead of sending kids off to a special place for them so that we can keep a special place for ourselves, I think we need to start making the main space a space for all; and we do that by making it a space for children more than a space for adults.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Cheap Seats in the Church

I earned a Bachelors degree in Emergency Administration and Planning. Think FEMA. Most graduates from the EADP program go on to be Emergency Managers for cities or companies. I didn't. I found a job in an insurance company, then became a pastor. Emergency Administration and Planning was probably good training for being a small church pastor.

It's pretty interesting work, emergency planning and administering; pastoral work is too, for that matter. In the emergency stuff, you spend most of your time and energy thinking about what might go wrong, how to mitigate the damage if it does go wrong, and then praying it never does go wrong because you weren't given the budget to bring all of your solutions to life.

One of the big reasons why I never really got into emergency management, apart from the fact that I would have needed to leave the metroplex and with it the young lady I eventually married, was the fact that it seemed like a losing scenario.

You spend all your time getting ready for something that no one wants to happen, and then spend all your time dealing with the fall out when it does happen. Everyone on earth has retrospective ideas how you should have prepared. Who wants the stress of a city or company full of Monday morning quarterbacks?

Yes, becoming a pastor was a much better decision.

Oh, who am I kidding. Being a pastor is probably worse. An Emergency Manager only has to deal with Monday morning quarterbacks after a disaster; a pastor has to deal with them constantly. For all the hours you put into preparing a sermon, there's always ready criticism. For all the struggle of making decisions, trying to get help in the decision-making, and then following through, it's amazing how quickly the criticisms come.

If person A is happy with you today, person B thinks you should have done it differently. When person B thinks you were brilliant, person A has a few choice words for you.

It seems, sometimes, that the church is full of cheap seats. Not the ones getting dirty next to you in the dugout, not even very many behind the dugout supporting you, but plenty that like to jeer at you from afar.

Why do we rip each other apart? Why do we only criticize and not assist?

One of the things I continue to try and instill in our congregation, and also work hard to live out myself, is a spirit of grace. By this, I mean that we nurture an environment where a person's failures, limitations, and even sin may be confessed and forgiven in hope and love.

I know that my personality affects how I preach and the decisions I make. I expect people to accept me along with my preaching. Because of this, I try to extend a similar grace to other people. As we ask different people to be involved in our worship services, we aren't just asking them to fill a hole, but to do a task as they would do it. So, their personality is part of how they do that task.

I know I mess up my sermons regularly and goof up my announcements quite a bit - I say too much or I don't say enough. In those situations, I look to the church to forgive me and to extend me grace for these failures and limitations. In turn, when someone in the church shares too much or blabbers on when we really need to be moving on, I figure we better extend them some grace and forgive them for who they are.

One of the benefits of sitting in the cheap seats in sports is that the players usually can't hear you and what you have to say doesn't really have any bearing on the game. Sadly, the cheap seats are right near the action in churches and families, so we might want to watch what we say from them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Proper Christian Posture

If I were to describe the posture most evangelical Christians take toward their sin, I would say it is defiant. Or, at least, that is the stance they feel they should have: braced, ready with sword, shield, breastplate, and helm to ward off all attacks.
We are taught to fight the sin that acts as a nefarious insurgent in our flesh. I have employed this posture - it was the only way early in my life of faith, when I had been redeemed and therefore needed to purge all of the vestiges of the old life.

After years of fighting sin, can I just say how much I failed? I know too well what the Apostle Paul was saying; for the things I wanted to do, I didn't do, but the things I didn't want to do, these things were the very things that I did do.

How many times did I go to the Lord, apologizing for my failures, knowing that it was my weakness, that I needed the power of His Holy Spirit, and I must not be employing the Holy Spirit properly.

Maybe, maybe I really enjoyed my sin and wasn't willing to let it go. Oh, but I am dead to sin, it no longer reigns in my life! Yet, the evidence was overwhelming, it was still alive and seemed to control me often.

There were times of success as well, but they didn't hold out. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter if you stay sober for five years. Just one drop and you are back to day one. Granted, at least you had those years of sobriety, but the count of how long you've been good starts over. Be good and not cuss for five years, but let one word slip out, it's all over.

What is needed in the Christian's life is constant vigilance!

Or, maybe, a different posture?

Instead of facing our sin, why don't we just turn our backs on it? Instead of a fighting posture of defiance, why not an ignoring posture of indifference?

Ooh, that doesn't sound good, does it? Indifferent about sin? How dare you!

Not indifferent about, but indifferent toward.

Our struggle with sin often comes across as Hercules fighting the Hydra. But, why do we struggle for that which Jesus already conquered? Why do we fight a battle He already won?

I believe we should acknowledge that Jesus already defeated our sin. In our faith, we are alive to Christ but dead to sin.

If we are dead to sin, why do we spend so much time thinking about it and fighting it? I'm not suggesting we sin with impunity - oh, wait, yes I am.

Well, no, not exactly. I'm not saying we sin (actively) with impunity; but I am saying that we should sin (reflexively) with impunity. What I mean is that we stop fighting and start living.

Paul suggests this very thing in Romans 8 when he says that "those who are according to the Spirit (set their minds) on the things of the Spirit." (Romans 8:5)

The general evangelical posture, the one that is ready to fight, is closer in description to the "mind set on the flesh." (Romans 8:6)

When we struggle with sin, when we try to fight it in our own abilities, we are working in the flesh, and our minds are set on the flesh. It is not about what God has done or is doing, it is about what I am doing or have not done.

Rightly do we need to "let go and let God." The victorious life we find in Jesus is not victory in our own abilities, but security in His victory. Go in your own power at the main gate if you want to, but I'll take the grace at the lepers' gate.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Fluffy a Foundation

What is the foundation of the Christian life? Jesus, right? Or, at least, our confession of faith in Him and His sacrifice on the cross.

Yes, all and good. But I am thinking about something different. I am talking about how the Christian life is pulled off, how it is lived. Upon what is it founded - what principle? I would like to suggest that forgiveness is that principle that serves as the foundation of the Christian life.

Forgiveness is a major theme throughout Scripture, beginning from about Genesis 3, but I’ll begin at the cross. Luke 23:43 records Jesus’ plea: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He spoke about the people crucifying Him at that moment, but it applies to all of us who put Christ on that cross. Father forgive us.

How does one begin the walk with Jesus without first being forgiven? We confess Jesus as Christ with our mouth and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, but for what purpose? We seek Him because we need forgiveness, we confess Him because we have experienced forgiveness.

I have performed a few baptisms. Those who confess Jesus as Lord in the baptismal waters speak the words with a lilt of joy in their voice. That joy comes from the knowledge and experience of forgiveness. We are not sure about this life of faith. Will we have what it takes to continue for the rest of our lives? What will this mean? We don’t know. But we know where we were, we know how awful it was to be without Jesus, and we are so glad to have been forgiven and to be His now. That is the joy.

Forgiveness is not just the foundation in the sense of being the starting point, but also in the sense that it is how the Christian life is lived.

Have you ever noticed how a person can come to Jesus, proclaim their need for forgiveness, receive forgiveness, and then live the rest of their life as if there is a way to navigate it without forgiveness? Another way this manifests itself is in how we treat one another. We expect the other person to do the right thing at the right time - to behave without sin. And why not? After all, we have the Holy Spirit living in us. Shouldn’t we have the ability to do the right things?

Except, it’s not that way. In Romans 7, Paul confesses that he has “the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  Try as he might, even indwelt with the Holy Spirit, Paul failed to live perfectly. He needed forgiveness in his life.

We don’t just see this in Paul. Did you ever notice how many times Jesus spoke about forgiveness? What is His answer for dealing with a brother who sins against us? Forgive him. How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times before I can finally get fed up with him and his lack of Christian behavior? No. Seventy times seven times.

How about the parable of the servant who was forgiven an insurmountable debt, only to withhold forgiveness of a manageable debt? From this parable, we are instructed to forgive our brothers from our hearts because of the great forgiveness we have received.

Ephesians 4:32 puts a cap on it, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We enter the Christian life through forgiveness, acknowledging that we are sinners in need of salvation through Jesus. Once entered into, we live it out through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the answer for the troubles between us; forgiveness is the answer for when we don’t measure up.

Forgiveness is the foundation of this way of life.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Autobiographically Annoying

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, … When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
John 20:20-22

Perusing my posts, from this year and years past, I see that they are more self-focused than I’d like them to be. They become a bit whiny at times; or, at least, I feel they might come across that way. I judge this to be negative because most of the blogs I read are more instructional. I compare myself to these other blogs, say to myself, “do this,” and then find myself missing a deadline.

It is just not in me. Some would say, "Get better at it!" Ok, fair point. Except that I am not sure this is actually a shortcoming. It is a personality; a style of mine. I can continue to try and be a person I am not; or, I can accept that I am who I am, that I work the way I work, and that God would rather I stop focusing on what that other fellow is doing and FOLLOW HIM as ME.

What does it mean to follow Jesus as me? Well, for starters, it means to live by the autobiographical account and to die by the autobiographical account. It means to live by extemporaneous speaking/writing and to die by it! Yes, it will get old, and there are those who don’t like it. On the other hand, I’d be really bad without it, and it is the method of communicating I have naturally fostered ever since I became a believer. Probably even before that. I tell my story. I hope others will tell theirs.

The focus of my writing and my preaching is on what I might call the human condition. I’m not so interested in giving instructional “how to” messages as I am in considering who God is, who we are, and what God has done and is willing to do in our lives. I want to examine why there is a problem more than I want to tell you how to solve the problem.

Beyond this focus, I find that I gravitate to stories. I like to tell stories and I like to hear them, but I also think in the context of stories. When someone tells me an experience or struggle they are facing, I often have different stories pop into my head that seem similar or that might shed some light on things. I can’t help but think people must tire of me relating a movie plot or scene to their lives because of some lesson or connection that I feel can be drawn out of it for them. Well, so be it! To me, stories are a great way to convey instruction, to get at the heart of the matter in our hearts.

Maybe the best way to understand both my focus and my mode is that I am thinking more about why than how. Sure, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but why are we skinning it? An instruction manual will tell you how to use the knife and how to pull the hide down; but a story about the cat and the person with the knife will tell you why.

Stories are all about motivation. Even a story that is focused on the how of a situation is driven by the why. Take “Remember the Titans” for example. Here you have the story of a football team that had a perfect season in the 70s. The how of the story is so anticlimactic that the moviemakers had to create false storylines for drama and rearrange the season to make the final game actually suspenseful.

In the best scene, the assistant coach is watching the refs call the game so that the Titans will lose, thereby getting rid of the head coach and putting him back in charge. He tells the refs to stop, and then goes into action when they rebuff him. In a rousing speech, he tells his defense to not give up one more yard.

The rest of the game is a montage of hits. How the Titans defeated their opponent and the refs doesn’t matter; why they did has already been settled. His decision, his change, his attitude makes every one of those hits mean something. Especially by the end, when the Titans have won but he is informed that he won’t be voted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame (something that didn’t even exist back then).

We all need instruction manuals and we need someone to tell us the best way to do a task from time to time. I’ve got nothing against instruction manuals, and even own a few on the shelves of my home and office. But they don’t do the same job as a story. Even the ones written as if to be stories, like Who Moved My Cheese, come off as awful because they are really instruction manuals at heart. But, I’ve also got some good stories that happen to have a lot of instruction for life. Good stories can do that.

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” -  C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy.

When it comes to stories, there is a question about which stories we can share. Personally, I don’t feel that I have a right to tell another person’s story. I suppose I can tell a public story, like sharing about “Remember the Titans,” but it still comes through my lense or filter. Most of my sermons are God’s word filtered through the lens of my heart, mind, and gut. It is filtered through my personality, my day, my current attitude. The same is true for every pastor or writer, I believe. By filtering it through me, it becomes my story to a certain degree. I can tell my story.

I don’t have anyone else’s filter, and it wouldn’t be honest to use their filter anyway. Now, I do know parts of other people’s stories, and I’m free to share some of them because the owner has given me that freedom. Most, though, are not mine to share. They are great stories, stories that could benefit other people, but they are not mine. I don’t have a right to tell them. The only stories I have a right to tell are my own.

So, I go on giving autobiographical stories. It is fitting; it is the way I work best. There are many times I wish I was different, but the truth is that I don’t. Not really. I don’t want to tell a group of people to do A, B, C. I want to share my story and to let the story have its effect in each person as is appropriate for them. That is what I desire to achieve.

I just hope I don’t do it in a whiny voice.