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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


We buried a very dear lady last week. The Sunday prior, I was talking to a gentleman from our church who lost his wife, suddenly, many years ago. As he spoke, he shared that he often chided his co-workers that it was better to be a widower than a divorcee, seeing as how he knew where his wife was and that there was no hope of getting together again on this side of eternity. He said that, when you are divorced, it's never really over. You might see your ex on the street somewhere, and you might think to yourself, "maybe I can get her back." Then he said the thing that has got me thinking; he said, "cause people can't handle rejection, and that's what divorce is."

He's right.

Even if it is amicable, and even if you are the one who sought a divorce, it is still rejection. It may be you that is rejecting, not being rejected, but it is still rejection, and the one who is rejected will feel it. Generally, when a spouse dies, it is not rejection but loss. They aren't saying they don't want to be with you, they aren't saying anything. Oftentimes, they don't have a say in it. The few times they do have a say in it, it generally isn't rejection either. There are easier ways to get away from someone you don't like anymore. In those few times when a person has a say in their death, they are generally making a decision, right or wrong, that either has nothing to do with their spouse or everything to do with their spouse in a sacrificial, though misguided, way, even it is doesn't feel like it. But this post isn't about those kind of situations, it isn't really even about divorce, or death. It's about rejection.

Now, there are rejections that don't hurt any. You don't like the look of a person and so you have nothing to do with them; you reject them, but you never really accepted them in the first place, and they probably don't even know or care that you've rejected them. Divorce-style rejection is different. This is a rejection after an acceptance. Two people decided that they wanted to walk along together, they did walk along together for a spell, and now one or both of them is rejecting that arrangement and making dust. That is a painful type of rejection that can leave you wondering what you did wrong and how you might be able to fix it. It might not actually be your fault, and most often it isn't. Maybe they thought they were something they're not, maybe they were hiding something or not being honest about something about their own self, and now it has become too much and they make a break for it. Maybe they thought they liked you, but didn't really know you, and now they decide they can't live with you because you won't stop being you.

(Personally, I think life's more about being yourself and getting along with one another as is than it is changing yourself for one another.)

These thoughts became even more poignant to me that evening, as we gathered at the local funeral home for the visitation. When a person has lived in the same house for 58 years, as this lady has, they make quite the mark in the church and the community. The room was so full, I waited a good 40 minutes in the foyer, greeting with one person or another, before I dared go in - lest we over stuff the room and cause someone to pass out! So many dear people were there: friends, neighbors, family, and church family. The church family group was huge, although I must admit that I couldn't help but view them as two distinct groups: current members and prior members, and the prior members were the greater number.

Each one of those people I met - some of who stopped going to Eagle Mountain years before I came here but many who had left in the last seven years - represented for me a rejection. Each one, at some point, had decided that the church I love and am sacrificing myself for was no longer worth their time and presence. Well, that's not fair. Some of them moved, I suppose, and some experienced God strongly moving them to a new place. But the truth is that most of them can not claim that. Most of those who left did not leave on good terms, but with bills of divorce, and we all know why God permits divorce.

Now, of those who left because of the frailty of humanity and the hardness of our hearts, there were two groups. Several had left before I got there, and I couldn't really feel it was a divorce for me, per se, seeing as how I had not known them. They still represented a rejection to me because they had, at some time, rejected the church I was now a part of, but the divorce was from another. I had not walked with them, so their rejection did not quite sting so much. The others, though, how they hurt.

I don't think they, themselves, hurt, necessarily. The one who does the walking rarely feels the sting. They're on to better things, whether they are or not. No, when I say they hurt, I mean they hurt me. Some of them were on the pastor search team that called my family to visit EMBC in view of a call: they selected me out of so many eligible candidates and made me feel so special, only to rip my heart right out of my chest. Not all at once, now; but each one did it, individually, in their own time, over the course of about five years. Others weren't on that team, but they had either stayed around and started walking with me or had shown up after me and decided to walk along. That last group is probably the one that means the most to a person, because they don't have a ton of friends or a long history to keep them at the church when they aren't happy with you, and so you feel a bit closer to them for those first few years.

The hardest thing about getting together in the community, whether it is funerals, weddings, or some other event, is seeing those people who walked with you at one time but then filed divorce papers against you. Every single ex-member of Eagle Mountain Baptist Church who left in the past seven years feels like a personal divorce. Sure, there are some that, from time to time, I'm probably thankful to be free from, but I'd rather still be bound. I'd rather we figured out how to walk together, and I was willing to keep trying when they decided to leave me flat. (And yes, they left me. Most still have friends in the church and express their undying love for the church and community. I think that maybe makes it worse. They basically said, "We love you and we love this church, but not enough to put up with this guy!") There isn't one person I've told to scram, although there is a person or two I've considered rejecting outright. I don't get that prerogative, not unless I reject the whole group, and I don't.

Standing there, visiting with people who, at one time or another, decided I was not the pastor for them, made me remember those words from that morning. "People can not handle rejection." I know I can't. Rejection of this very sort is what threw me into a spiraling depression four years ago, and I'm not sure I'm over it yet. Others have added to what a few began. It has just about destroyed me. I don't know how pastors deal with it, other than the cliché Sunday school answers I refuse to give right now. My predecessor pastored EMBC for 17 years. He saw people leave and return, but he saw a whole lot more decide to walk with him for awhile and then leave. He seems a more friendly guy than I am; how did he handle it? Maybe it is easier when enough people are joining you to make up for those who are leaving you, but I doubt it. (I'm willing to test this hypothesis, though, God!)

Well, okay, I guess I'll give you a Sunday school answer. Jesus experienced everything that we do and more. He experienced rejection. He experienced the rejection of the people, the rejection of the leaders, and the rejection of his own followers. One of his followers betrayed him, another denied him, and all ran from him. No matter how bad we mess up, or how many people tell us we aren't worth their time and effort, Jesus doesn't reject us. So, we hold on to him and keep going. Sometimes, we go just enough for that day, trusting that he'll be there for us again tomorrow.

For my part, I try to focus on those who haven't rejected me, yet, and who I hope never will. I am thankful for the voices that are speaking to me today, and for the people who have filled those spaces others vacated. I find it interesting that some voices, who have said hello to me every week for seven years, are all of a sudden speaking more words to me, and words of wisdom, no less. Why weren't they speaking earlier? Was it because I wasn't listening? Maybe there were others in the way.

This is the Lepers' Gate. Like my church, it is a place for those who are rejected, who are unclean, who aren't good enough for the front door. We're here on the side, huddled in the cold, looking for a scrap of the body to be handed through the door. Just a scrap of Jesus is enough, he is grace enough for all of us. If you're tired of being rejected, I know a place where you won't be - Eagle Mountain Baptist Church. The church, like this blog, isn't cool or cutting edge, as you can see by our website, but it is good and honest and full of Jesus. I hope the Lepers' Gate is, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

To See the World Inverted

When I was a child, my family watched the miniseries Anno Domini on television. I don’t recall actually watching it myself, but I must have been around it at times because I remember a few things from it, flashes really – different scenes and situations. There is one particular scene that I do not remember seeing, but the dialogue has always been with me. It is from the scene when Peter is being sentenced to death, and he requests to die “seeing the world the way the rest of sinning humanity sees it: wrong, twisted, … inverted.” It is Christian tradition that Peter was crucified upside down, and several versions on the story have it that Peter felt himself unworthy to die as Jesus did, but my understanding of his reasoning comes from this television drama from 1985. (Strange, isn’t it? That such a thing would lodge in my memory and have some profound effect on my understanding. Anyway…)

I have often thought of that phrasing: to see the world as the rest of humanity sees it, inverted. We spend so much time trying to explain God’s ways, whys and hows. We labor to justify his value system, like when He chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; or when He declares that the poor are actually blessed, that the rich are the ones who are in trouble. As we attempt to explain it to ourselves and others, we generally begin with our own perspective and describe God’s ways as putting it on its head. Is this true, is God the one who inverts, or are we?

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” 1 Corinthians 1:21

When we say, “He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” we do not necessarily mean that He is retroactively undoing the wisdom of the world, as it sounds in 1 Corinthians. God undoes our wisdom about as much as the Sun revolves around the Earth. From our perspective, we say the Sun rises and the Sun sets. Similarly, we say that God turns things on their head or “makes them foolish.” The truth is the Sun is stationary, and the world revolves around its axis as it revolves around the Sun. In the same way, our wisdom is never truly wisdom, but a rejection of God’s wisdom. His wisdom is first, and we rejected it; having rejected it, we created our own wisdom. As we are sitting around congratulating ourselves on our wisdom, God now comes in and demonstrates His wisdom that has been since the beginning, showing us just how foolish our wisdom actually is.

Think of all our value systems: we value the strong, the quick, the smart, the brave, the beautiful, the young, the well, the whole, the successful, etc., etc., etc. In short, we generally value anyone or anything that appears to be self-reliant. Beautiful people are sufficient in their beauty, the young are indestructible, the smart are full of answers, the strong can handle any challenge. How dare anyone suggest that we need something or someone else? Are we not sufficient in ourselves, are we not the source for any answers we might need? How dare someone try to lay their values on us, their judgments against our wishes? It is a crime against humanity, I tell you.

It is not much different in the church. We honor the successful, the beautiful, the good speakers, the cool spaces; then we struggle to explain the failures of our celebrity pastors as they misuse their positions or as their families fall apart. We say it is the meek who inherit the earth, but our actions say it is the bold! Our actions say that the popular are blessed, those who are on the cutting edge! In the Marine Corps, on our forced marches, we would shout out chanties:

“Let the weak”
“Fall by the wayside!”
“Only the strong”

And we would, too. We let those who could not keep up slide to the back, where they would straggle along, left behind by the main body.

That made sense in the Marine Corps; it does not make sense in the church. Yet, that is what I see and hear on a regular basis. When people leave one church to go somewhere that “feeds them,” in essence they are making an argument for abandoning a weaker vessel for what is perceived to be a stronger vessel. When a church feels that they need to establish a satellite of themselves in another community, or they desire to “reproduce” themselves in another community, they are basically saying that only they possess the “right stuff.” Look at the “leaders” of America’s evangelical church today. Do they say, “I am weak” or do they say, “I am strong?” The leading ethos within the church is one of strength, of confidence, of ego. There is nothing meek about the attitudes of the “winning” churches these days.

Now, it’s true that not all churches do this. There are some who serve under bridges and in slums; many who labor quietly in obscurity. And while they may be admired, they are rarely honored as being the standard by which we judge our own efforts. That is retained by the large, “successful” churches. Yet, in Scripture, it is the meek who inherit the earth; it is the sick who are well. Those who need no physician are in trouble, those who say they see are actually blind.

I think our inverted reality goes much further. For centuries, God provided the sun to light the day, the moon and stars to light the night; and they largely dictated the times of rising and sleeping for humanity. Then we created gaslight, followed by electricity, and you never have to sleep again. Have you ever been around a person who has not bathed in a while? Isn’t it revolting how smelly they are? But, God created us this way. What He did not create is clean-shaven men – clean-shaven women for that matter, nor hair that smells of strawberries or all these soaps and perfumes we use to mask our stench. I wonder, does the natural odor of our bodies make God gag, or does all the work we do to make ourselves better?

By following Jesus in faith, His disciples proclaim that they make God gag and need His forgiveness, not their own perfume. By repenting of our sins, we proclaim that we are the ones who are upside down, and we want to start living right side up. It is hard, though, isn’t it? Even as we declare we want to live by Christ, we still struggle to let go of our worldly perspective. So many things He calls us to do seem wrong or ill-conceived, almost backwards or upside down in its ways. When confronted with such a situation, maybe we should consider: “who is upside down, us or God?”