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The sidewalks were cracked and littered with filth and the stench of desperation. People were laying on the ground next to buildings hoping to stay warm in whatever makeshift covering they could find and praying that the refuse they were depending on for life would not be stolen from them by someone while they slept. When you have walked this part of Los Angeles at night a few times you begin to realize that a person sleeping in his own urine is a defense mechanism more than just a person who doesn’t care. We would take groups down here regularly to pass out food and blankets and offer servings of compassion to anyone who had a way to hold on to it. But this night was different.
Each night we go and set up a location where within moments of arrival flocks of people would start standing in line. After a few minutes, another of the leaders and I would step away and scout out some of the even less desirable areas where people who were in even worse shape would be. Our goal was to see if it made sense to take small groups into these parts to hand out food and water or if safety was an issue that night. Fearlessness and foolishness are two sides of the same coin at times. We walked out of sight of the main group and down a side street. We saw an alley off to the side that was dark but about 100 feet in you could see cardboard boxes and signs of life. We brazenly walked in and got about 50 feet in when several men came out to meet us, or more specifically stop us. At the same time several others moved in behind us to make sure we understood they were in charge. From where we were we could see the women and children farther down the alley and the far end was blocked off. This was their home where they protected their families and we just walked in the front door unannounced. The myriad of ways this could have played out were as dark as the street itself but I learned a long time ago that compassion speaks louder than fear. I held out some water and offered some food explaining we were from a church with only a desire to show God’s love. The guy who was obviously in charge silently motioned and the area opened back up. We left food and water with them and took away a lesson in humility.
What we saw as a filthy alley, they saw as a home they could defend. What we saw as people who needed help, they saw as people who needed protection. What we saw as lost, they saw as hope. Perspective changes circumstances, events, and even our understanding of the truth. We see things from our perspective with a mission to communicate the power of God to “the lost” but need to incorporate the perspective that “the lost” don’t always see themselves that way. As a matter of fact, our perspective created by that word sees them in a way that prevents us from seeing the humanity of the person first. The overriding fact is they are a creation of God. Are we seeing that and communicating that in our discussions of “lostness”? Our perspective is one of a clinical understanding of the text. There are two groups. Group A knows God and has “the truth”. Group B does not and needs “the truth”. We keep presenting it in a way that explains the facts as if people will adopt truth just by hearing it. The problem is that Group B understands “the truth” from their perspective which we see as at odds with our perspective so we end up arguing about “the truth” rather than communicating about the Creator who gave life abundantly through his son Christ. What we don’t see is that many times we lose the ability to speak effectively because we don’t understand and respect the perspective of the people we are ministering to.
Maybe it is fear. Maybe it is pride. Maybe it is an exaggerated sense of justice. Whatever it is, we need to change it. I am not advocating we change our practices of communicating within the church. If we are experiencing the love of God and healthy worship in the church, there is no need to change. How we present it to the outside world however needs to change. If the message is more than the words, the message needs to be the focus and not the words. If the perspective is the thing that is blocking us from communicating Christ to the world, we need to stop looking for excuses and change our perspective. The people in the alley were doing the best they could under the circumstances they had to live in. How they got there and the mistakes they made doing so are irrelevant. They still needed help. Maybe by seeing life through another perspective, we might learn that better and become better able to spread the real truth, that God is love and our message should be his love and not our voice.
I had a conversation with some friends a while back that stemmed from a Ted Talk. A speaker had presented that the world was getting better and we were living in the best of times now and can look forward to an even brighter future due to technology, science, and inclusivity. He said that mankind was “better” on many levels including morally due to these advancements. My friends and I discussed the merits of his argument and to my surprise I was the only one who disagreed with the man.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with the base facts that he used that show the average life expectancy of a human has increased, and that we have the ability to travel faster and communicate more quickly, and that we try to include multiple variant perspectives in our dialogue; I just am not sure that signifies a brighter future or better moral perspective. I am not a nihilist or pessimist (or frankly any “ist” I can think of right now) and I don’t think that the progress we have made is bad. My concern with the argument was that it places hope in a bright future based on what we have accomplished as humans. That single point in his argument made the whole thing false in my view.
If we honestly look at what mankind has achieved and built over time and take credit for the achievements, don’t we need to also take the blame for the horrendous things we have done to get here? And if we want to avoid the conversation about the cost of achieving the current potential for good that the speaker was pointing out, how can we claim to be morally superior because we turn a blind eye to the past. That is like sweeping dirt under a rug in order to say that the room is clean. Out of sight is not out of mind and placing hope in or based on a false reality is vacant and empty at best.
Hope is something that exists outside of ourselves. It is that thing we look for when reason, science, technology, and human morality fail us. It is what we use as a parachute when the plane we are in somehow disappears without us having intentionally jumped out of it. It is the thing that comes from free fall when you realize you have no power to stop what is coming. It is placing everything we are into something we are not. It comes from a place of humility, not an expectation based upon previous services rendered. It is utter and complete reliance on the only thing that cannot fail, God. Anything else we rely on utterly removes the possibility of hope.
The people of the world are unified right now in an altogether too real way. They are scared to death, if not for themselves then for a loved one. There is a virus that looks like a flu that spreads voraciously and in the case of more than a few is deadly. The information regarding it is murky at best and ill communicated by those who actually know. That statement is not meant as an indictment on anyone. It is just were we are. It is the place the speaker at the Ted Talk called “better”. The problem is that “better” is nowhere near “good” and can’t hold a candle to God.
I realize I am biased because I am a Pastor and I am in the business of peddling hope and grace but I am also a husband who cares deeply for his wife and a friend who cares deeply for his friends. I can see the fear in this world and don’t see it changing anytime soon. What that should cause us to do is change ourselves from thinking we can find an answer through the things we have created and openly accept that our only way to truly change this world is by properly understanding hope.
I wish I had an easy answer for this problem and a simple way to bring us back from the edge but I don’t. It will only come from one place. That is the heart of a person who recognizes they were never actually in control and seeks the one who was never out of it. We have proven throughout history that the only thing we can truly do is repeat the mistakes of the past in different ways. Maybe it is time to break the cycle and reconcile with the Creator and his Son. I truly hope we do this.
I don’t exactly remember when I noticed it first. Maybe it was when I couldn’t go on an archeological dig in Israel during seminary because I was ill. Maybe it was when I could not pursue my THD because of finances. Maybe it was when my father, mother, or sister died. Maybe it was when I got divorced. Maybe it was something even smaller. I really don’t know, but there had to have been a moment when I first realized I was disappointed with God. I think we all have had that moment, even if we don’t want to admit it.
I am not referring to a crisis of faith or moments of weakness where we just don’t understand the maelstrom of garbage surrounding us. I am not referring to a calculated decision to reject the existence of God because we believe modern science or lore instead. I am referring to an actual mentally conferred moment where we come to a realization we do not like where God has put us. We look straight into the Almighty’s eyes and say, “This isn’t right”.
We spend a great deal of time avoiding that conversation. We look for ways to take the essence of scripture and battle the desire to call out God with sometimes-vain platitudes. “Just have faith” or “Give that up to God” or “Lay it at the foot of the cross” are thrown out casually as if they alone can act as a salve to fix what ails us. Don’t get me wrong; these axioms are valuable to give hope to a person needing direction. But they don’t address the problem of disappointment. That is an outcome of assessment, not a battle still being fought.
Disappointment with God is a real struggle in modern Christendom. In a lot of cases, it is the response to real trials that hit us and leave large scars. It is the reaction to beliefs that are biblically framed but not necessarily biblically founded. It is also the draw of many modern theologies that center on health and wealth. They feed on that angst and use it as fuel to draw people into the merry go round of focusing on getting what you want because God wants you to have it. If you don’t get what you want, you haven’t focused enough or invested enough to get it.
This so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is centered on a reference in John 10:10 where Christ says that he has come so that we have life abundantly. The Greek word used is περισσὸν(perisson) and although there are a few ways to say it in English, the reality is that Christ was telling the people around him that in Him, their lives would be abundant. I have to think though that what abundant meant to him and the people around him was very different than what is being preached by televangelists today. The real question is would a man who was counter cultural, focused on love and acceptance of the disenfranchised, centered on life full of communion with the Creator, for all intent and purpose homeless, sleeping on the ground with rocks for pillows, and being willing to reach out to the most despised people of that time and touch them, really be telling people that God wants to show them his love by giving them a Porsche if they believe enough? I doubt it. Christ attacked the Pharisees because they believed that and at no time ever did he used them as something to look up to.
My challenge isn’t so much with that theology. God has a powerful way of dealing with things preached that are contrary to him. He does not need my help. My challenge is the carnage that it causes and leaves in its wake when people try hard, don’t get what they want, become disappointed, and don’t even realize it. My challenge is with the reality of hopelessness that comes when we focus on something that isn’t real and then when we realize it isn’t real, we aim the blame at the one who is. We come to the cosmic crossroads with our disenchantment with the world that we have created and try to hold the Creator of the world that we tried to control responsible.
Circumstances are hard at times, even unfair from a human standpoint. No matter how hard I try, I cannot change that. Equity is not something promised by God. Yet I find it all to easy to expect it from him. My disappointment is a direct correlation to that. It is almost mathematical. My expectations plus His will equals my level of satisfaction. The result will always be the same. My expectations equal zero. He is God, for me to expect him to be anything other than that is the problem. If I remove my expectations from both sides of the equation, then I have His will equals my level of satisfaction. That equation always works but does require me to stop creating expectations and to understand that satisfaction is not something I can base on my desires. Desires are fine and if aligned with delighting in God will be part of His will but do not become part of His will because I want them.
I heard a wise man say once “With the onset of wisdom comes transformation”. I think there is more to that but I really like where he was going. If we cannot recognize the reality of the problem, we cannot change it. If we can recognize it we need to make the change happen. We will never truly know who God created us to be unless we stop trying to control His creative power and instead become who He wants us to be by serving Him and not ourselves. If I honestly look at my life, I have to wonder who I have really been disappointed in.
I think it is an uncontested fact that we hate to be lied to. I think we can say with absolute agreement that when given information about a product we are purchasing, we want accuracy, clarity, and non-interpretable language. In short we want truth and not advertising. We want reality and not fiction. We even pass laws requiring ingredients be listed on products so everyone can be informed. So I have to wonder why moral and social behavior is handled so differently.
New York recently passed a law that expanded abortion rights. The state had followed the guidelines of most of the country, which allowed abortion by choice up to 24 weeks and after that only by exception. That exception was based upon a doctor determining the physical or mental health of the mother was at risk. It did not really change it’s stand on that; it simply put into rule was previously the exception. The new law specifically states that abortion is now restricted to the 24 week window or it is necessary to protect the patients life or health. It removed any checks and balances on that decision to the doctor’s opinion.
I have to admit when reading the law I found it hard not to vomit. I also must admit that it is not only the allowance of this act but the interpretable language and advertising mentality that was the problem. The law appears worded to protect the government by placing the interpretation and thereby the responsibility for the action on the doctor and patient. It starts with a comment that is abhorrent at best. It reads “Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States”. I can safely say that can only be accurate for at most 50% of the patients involved because by virtue of the “procedure” at least 50% of the living beings die.
It is hard not to notice the immediate hypocrisy of this. New York has found capital punishment to be unconstitutional as it violates the rights of the criminal but has made it constitutional to kill an unborn child with the loophole of opinion. I guess the infants rights take a back seat to the criminals rights.
For many years the arguments about abortion centered on the definition of life. Originally they claimed the fetus was not living until it left the womb. It then moved back to a point where it was determined to be viable. The arguments changed at that point to individual rights and whether the state or for that matter any being or entity should have control over a woman’s body.
I honestly believe the most sickening part about this is the rhetoric involved that obfuscates the tragedy of the action. We have gone from discussing the value of life and are now hearing arguments about rights and freedoms and the perseverance through inner turmoil on a tough decision to have an abortion. Really? I am supposed to respect a person because they chose to kill a baby? We are being encouraged to celebrate free speech when people shout their abortion. Again, really? If a person wore a t-shirt shouting they had killed a baby, it would be considered a confession and an arrest-able offense. However if the optics change because we desensitize the world through logos, ad agency lingo, and rebranding, I am supposed to accept it? I think I need to vomit again.
I am doing my best not to be glib because the real conversation is truly about life and death. At the same time, I need to understand the Christian response. Many Christians raise their voice vilifying those who have had an abortion rather than doing anything to help. We focus on political candidates who can overturn laws as if that will stop the problem. We don’t want to address the real problem, which is that we argue against from the outside without ever considering what the problem looks like from the inside.
If I am not willing to find a way to truly help, should I be vocal about the problem at all? We should be sickened by this epidemic. We should see how it cries out against God and celebrates the hubris of mankind. But anytime I have ever recognized something like that, God is not asking me to re-tweet or re-share a meme. He is asking me to get involved with the tools that I have been given. I do not believe the bible teaches us to build a Christian utopia here on earth and call it God’s Kingdom. I have read the book and it doesn’t end that way. I do believe God is calling us to minister to the broken. And this circumstance is truly broken. I am reasonably certain the world knows we do not accept or approve of abortion. We can stop over sharing that. Now lets use the gifts God has given us to find a better answer. But beware, the devil is in the details.
His last words before stepping into the darkness were “So much wasted time”. He was an actor and family man but life had not been easy for him. It is neither my place nor my desire to evaluate the validity of those words in his life but I can respect them and even resonate with them in my own. I think it probably resonates with many people.
Time is an elusive beast that somehow becomes the most dangerous when I think I have it the most controlled. It taunts me with an ever-present dread of running out, yet there are more things I want to fit in. It is ever full and never satisfied. There is something beautifully tragic in the perpetual nature of its motion yet there seems to be no way to understand the impact of it’s drive until it has run it’s course.
If I look back in earnest at the life I have lived, I cannot help but see the vigilant graceful and loving hand of the Creator guiding me to things some have never seen or felt. I have been afforded opportunities in the world that are priceless, still I feel somehow empty at times. I have seen wonders up close that even angels long to see, but I still want more. I have held life and watched it slide away and never seen the impact until it was gone. Somehow the power of the event or even the shear majesty of it is not enough to help me see the fleeting nature of its existence. Or, more realistically, I allow my stubborn nature and self-will to focus more upon the amount than the value.
There must have been a moment where I could have said “enough”. There must have been a moment when I could have called out into the ether itself, with all the rage of life’s disappointments and empty dreams, and with a word stopped the madness of my self imposed regret cycle that keeps me looking for more and yet missing what I have. There must have been a moment. Maybe it passed long ago. Or maybe, that moment is now. Maybe it is every moment. Maybe the problem isn’t in the moment itself but in what I do with it.
Is it wrong to want more? I think the obvious answer is that if wanting more causes us to waste what we have, than the answer is yes. What if it didn’t though? What if there was a way to act and to experience life to its fullest without missing opportunities or wasting moments with those around us that mean something to us? That sounds great on paper, but how do you actually do that and know the difference?
I suppose I should have more answers than questions, but I am not sure I do. More realistically I guess I don’t like the answers I have. They require I make changes to my mindset and actions. That opens a whole new problem. I have to become more responsible. That is not pleasant. I want action without responsibility. I want change without work. I want my cake and I want the car it was delivered in too. In reality, I want more, I just want it on my terms, which I guess is why I become unhappy with the outcome.
I think the eye of the storm in this conversation is satisfaction. If my choices for my life bring satisfaction then what I have wanted has led me to what I have found and therefore what I have become. Simply put, choices reveal character; character creates satisfaction; and satisfaction soothes the soul. Wasted time does not equal wasted life. Time is a measurement and life is gift. Living it well is the best way to connect to the Creator and his Son. We just need to be willing to accept that our definition of “well” may be different than his and frankly his is right. Aligning with that definition is what the actor truly needed. I know that because that is what we all need.
Sometimes I will sit and wonder at the palace I have created. Not the workmanship or innate beauty of its architecture or engineering skill, but moreover the fact that it has stood standing as long as it has. I am by nature a deconstructionist where metaphysics and ontology collide. Words written about God have 2 dimensions and try to describe God in 3 dimensions. Theos Logos (theology) or Words of/on God are only truly effective if they embrace God in all 11 dimensions (I apologize to string theorists for co-opting the concept) and for me to truly know him to the fullest extent I can I need to break down those dimensional structures to understand how they hold together so I can get the clearest image of God possible for my 3 pound fallen brain. Sometimes that works very well and sometimes that creates a house of cards afraid of the slightest breeze.
Most of the time after careful work removing structural parts and replacing them with other pieces I am left with questions. What does it mean to be a man of God, a pastor, a man after Gods own heart? The Westminster Catechism says the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Does that even have meaning today? In 1647 it was intended to bring people together around a central belief while adding value to their lives. I am not sure it really worked then, at least not to the extent they wanted, but does that have any real meaning today? If the chief purpose of my life is to be a venue or example of God’s handiwork and thereby glorify him, then what is my part in it?
What am I doing and how can I tell if I am doing it well? I experience life at what seems like a hundred miles an hour and yet the things I remember most or at least most often are the moments of pain and regret for things I have lost along the way. Vivid recollections of soul wrenching agony over the loss of a loved one or horrendous acts I can neither take back or otherwise remove from my memories. Some days I am lost in a maelstrom of tasks to complete and the desire to shut down. I fight the urge to remember the good I have done to compete with the darkness for the simple reason that if it was truly good, it can not be used as a bargaining chip to assuage guilt or shame or loss.
But wait a minute, what about grace? The central idea of Christianity that binds all things together with the power of the love of God and yet I seem to let the idea slip my mind when I am thinking about myself. Don’t get me wrong, part of the job, part of the essence of being a voice for the Creator is that I will fight (metaphorically) vehemently for others to see that and never believe the voices in their heads that say they can’t. I will travel long distances and struggles to help people see that God’s grace is real and life changing. It is not something that exists because we believe, we believe because it exists. Yet somehow in the midst of the struggle, I seem to forget that the message so crucial to the lives of others is for me as well. The simpleness of the problem is almost laughable, yet somehow still seems to haunt me.
Is it a lack of faith? Is it pride? Is it just a lack of knowledge? Simply put, maybe, could be, and I doubt it would be that easy. Faith is a construct of hope and trust held together by real world applicable experience. I have plenty of that for this purpose. Pride is a trait easy to put down when you compare yourself to the Divine but somehow it follows you like a stalking cat waiting to pounce when you least expect it only nowhere near as playful and cute. The trick is to do that comparison daily to keep it in check. Knowledge is just the applicable connection of facts to be remembered, or is it? To truly know God, we need to experience God. Not just the earth shattering sea parting salvation from our worst nightmare but the connection to our daily sustenance and air itself. True knowledge is that God is in and with us each moment, even when we are lost in the malaise.
So the increased faith through the rejection of pride and experiencing God daily for all that he does seems to be the candlelight in the darkness that lets us navigate our way home. Could it be that easy? Well, I am not sure easy is the right word for it, but it is that real, that sure, and that comforting. I think I will give that a try.
I don’t remember the flight but I look back on it now and wish I had it on film. The numbers have gotten fuzzy with time but it seems to me that I flew about 100 feet. Ok so I wasn’t challenging the Wright brothers record but in the spirit of accurate comparison, they did have a plane. I was just launched through a bus window doing 60ish mph down a cliff. The bus followed closely and may have overtaken me if it had not been for the very large rock we both stopped at. I stopped at the foot of the rock in a crumpled pile and the bus stopped at the high point of the rock leaning directly over me. I was nonsensically babbling and speaking more incoherently than normal up until the time they placed me on the helicopter to go to the hospital. My head was banged up, my ribs were in bad shape, my shoulder felt like it was no longer attached, and there was a gaping hole in my arm. Beyond that I was ok.
Years later I was reflecting on the scars that were still visible. I have two small lines on my right cheek just below my mustache that I see each day I shave and my right arm has a healthy divot drawing an L around my elbow. They have served as a reminder and sometimes a painful one at that. But one thing is utterly true; they are not something that happened to me, they are a part of me.
I had a history professor in college who said “We are the sum total of our experiences”. At the time I was wondering if the experience in that class would ever be useful but thinking back, I learned far more in the class then just facts about the Maginot Line and Germanys driving tactics. I learned that the scars on my face and arms are not just visual markers; they describe part of who I am.
It is far too easy to deflect pain and sublimate bad experiences into the darkest recesses of our minds but if we do that, we run the risk of letting it shape us without our even recognizing it. We kid ourselves sometimes in the deflection by saying that other people have it worse so we are just not going to let things bother us. Simply put that is scary.
I was in a Pavilions parking lot today and saw a homeless man trying to light half a cigarette that he picked up off the ground in the rain. He definitely has it worse than I do right now. I would be a fool to think anything else. But there is no comfort in that thought. His discomfort in no way elevates my comfort. Knowing that somebody else is in pain does not decrease mine one iota. If we follow this logic that recognizing others have it worse, we also need to recognize that still others have it better. If my load becomes lighter recognizing that someone else has it worse then my load should also get heavier when I see someone else who has it better. The relativity of our position to another person in discomfort has no bearing on how we should feel or the problems we have.
The only way to grow as a person is to allow the problems you have to shape you into a better version of yourself instead of lesser version. This sounds overly trite and almost insensitive but truth is usually blatant, we sometimes just learn to ignore it. We need to become the person we want to be. It is not just going to happen. George Saunders said that character is the total of moments in life that we cannot explain. I love that line. I am not sure I agree with it completely though. Character in and of itself is the thing that comes out of the fire. I cannot explain how it is formed but I am pretty sure I know the ingredients that went in. Character has a direct correlation to scars. The things that form the scars typically form character as well.
When I look at the life of Christ I see scar making throughout it. As a child his parents did not understand him. The educational system at the time was sorely lacking to the point that he was teaching others at age 12. When he started his own ministry, many including the social and religious elite of the time rejected him. He was next to homeless for years and found comfort in having a rock for a pillow. His closest followers whom he called friends ran off the moment things got real. He was a walking scar map in many ways. His scars were just a real as mine. I think he handled them differently though. Somehow by the very thing that caused him pain, he was able to show compassion. By the very things that created scars he healed me. I am not sure I understand the logic but I am grateful that his scars tell a very different story than a lot of mine do. Maybe I should do something about that.
I remember being lead to the room he was in. The sterile antiseptic environment was almost chilling and the forced condolences by those around were providing the absolute opposite of what they were intended to do. I was hung-over and had not eaten and had been forcefully awakened to the news that my father was gone. I had dressed quickly and arrived at the hospital in what seemed like moments and had to force myself up to the floor he was on. My fists were clinched so hard my knuckles were screaming and the skin covering them was about to split. That was the best I could do. That was all I could do. There was no magic pill or easy answer. There was pain, and a great deal of that. No matter what was said to me or offered I couldn’t get past that.
We wish life was simple and that difficult moments were passable by taking the platitudes given during them to heart. The reality however is that pain is part of life and does not go away with an attempt at a kind word. Simply put pain sucks and getting through it is a process.
It has been over 30 years and that memory and pain are still very real at times. I don’t wear it on my sleeve or try to carry it with me, I do what many do and file it away with the other moments in life I have “white knuckled” through. I was reminded recently that this moment and the rest of my mental filing cabinet should have been dealt with differently. As a Christ follower, I should have just given them all to God.
With all the seriousness and honesty I can muster, I have to ask: “What does that even mean?”. I get the concept. “Cast your burdens on the Lord” in Psalms and “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden” in Matthew. But I am not looking for conceptual support as much as practical method. How am I supposed to do that? How can I cast an overwhelming sorrow onto God?
Don’t get me wrong I have tried. At this point in my life I have come to the conclusion that either my aim or my strength are sorely lacking when it comes to this. Also, I should take a moment to apologize to anyone who was standing near me when I did this. Casting and handing off are apparently not my spiritual gifts and I must have skipped that class in Seminary.
I think part of the problem is that we are looking for something that isn’t promised in these passages. God is saying he will bear the burden but that doesn’t mean we wont feel the struggle or the pain that comes with it. Pain has a purpose. Physically it typically lets us know we are approaching the limits of our abilities. I think that works mentally too. I look to be invincible and superhuman in how I deal with things and address issues but maybe the pain is just showing my limitations and giving me a hint to tap out so to speak.
Another part of the problem is the root of the pain itself. Problems have either internal or external causes. If we are the ones causing the problem, stopping what we are doing to cause it is the best way to stop it. If the problem is external it is not always that simple. External crises can be overwhelming, daunting, and frankly impossible to get through. Most problems facing the church today fit that statement. We learn Gods word as black and white but the world lives in the grey. If we just apply Gods word without understanding the context of the situation we may very well be right, but we will also miss the point and cause ourselves or others to carry there own burdens. I have a hard time thinking God will be happy with my ability to regurgitate his word if in doing so I am making people “white knuckle” through life.
When God takes our burdens, he is not just trying to alleviate our circumstance; he is paving the way for us to be light enough to carry someone else’s. I have to wonder if we do that enough. Mike Pence has been very clear in his career about how he feels on LGBTQ issues. He also makes it clear that his feelings are based upon his belief in God and the bible. I can’t imagine the amount of “white knuckling” this has caused.
I really wonder when we will stop making the focus of our family (pun intended) to be telling everyone what we disagree with and start making it about whom we believe in. Christ’s message of grace did not start with “Change and I will love you”. It started with love so powerful that people wanted to change. Why do we forget that so easily? This world is turning into a very dark place. It really doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, we are nowhere near the garden where we started and I don’t see returning there in my lifetime. Making the focus something other than what it should be is greater sin than what we argue about in my view, mainly because we should know better.
John Oliver took a shot at Mike Pence in a very tangible way. He released a children’s book on the same day Pence did mimicking his with a message aimed at kids about acceptance and the LGBTQ community. All proceeds from his book are going to the Trevor Project and Aids America. I have to think that showing love in a tangible way is a far more powerful message than just telling people we disagree. As a matter of fact, I think that in the long run when God looks at how we are handling his message, he might be the one “white knuckling”.
Last Thanksgiving was one to remember. Somewhere in-between the compliments on my mashed potatoes and questions about whether dessert should be both pumpkin and pecan pie, I was told by a fellow Christ follower that I was accursed and going to hell. The conversation had turned from culinary choices to Christian responsibility in discussion of things like same sex marriage, security at church, and evolution versus creation. I felt comfortable around my fellow believers to speak openly about the bible and how it is used in our modern churches. I think that may have been my mistake. Honestly it probably was one of the better thanksgiving meals I have had. It was enlightening.
The specifics of the conversation are less important but the overall context speaks volumes to how we understand God and how the world actually sees us. The modern church seems to have adopted a unique view of biblical understanding. We mash verses like James 1:5 explaining where we should seek wisdom together with Colossians 2:8 about reliance on Christ and not human acumen and we end up with the ability to blame the Holy Spirit for our willingness to argue with the world about what we don’t like. Do we really think that is honoring God?
It seems like our desire for expedience and frankly our fears that we might agree with something we shouldn’t causes us to jump to conclusions about things we probably should chew on and struggle with more. Paul preached in a town called Berea and their response in Acts 17 was to examine the scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true. The word used (anakrino) is one of active and diligent searching. We seem to have sacrificed that today with a rote memorization of lists of things we are suppose to oppose. One offers the ability to swim in the words of the Creator himself and see how they change us to be more like him. The other affords us the ability to regurgitate on command. How can this truly honor God?
This is not a dark plot to squelch the words of the Spirit or a plan to usurp the throne of God with a conservative agenda of monotone “churchspeak”, it is more realistically a direction adopted from society itself to ease the burden of actually performing anakrino. With the information superhighway linked to everyone’s phones and the focus of modern communication, we are inundated with so many factoids that the only possibility to absorb them is to respond with “like” or “dislike”. We have exchanged the idea of a well-rounded and thorough education with a strong web presence. This does not honor God.
Don’t get me wrong, technology is not to blame, it is just a tool. Our use of it though will determine our efficacy in preaching the true gospel. I met a young man who was pursuing an online theology degree through a major Christian University. He explained it was faster and would get him into ministry sooner with the same educational value. He had been studying for a while so I asked who his favorite theologians were and his answer was that he couldn’t remember the names but he was willing to let me review his textbooks. If the quality of theological education being pursued by ministers today reduces the need to understand the history that brought us where we are and replaces that need with the requirement to offer an opinion in a class discussion post then we are breeding future ministers that will have no real ability to speak for the God they serve. Frankly this dishonors God.
If the some total of biblical examination that we are fostering in our church bodies is to look at an abridged online commentary or for that matter listen to a person who has done that and accept their version of truth, than how are we actually pursuing the call that was given? We are no longer preaching the gospel. We are preaching modern “churchspeak”. One of the clearest directives given in the text is from the prophet Micah. He tells us to pursue justice and mercy and walk humbly before our God. Humility starts with recognizing that our words about God are steeped in the tension of the fact we are speaking about something we have no possibility of understanding fully. If we present it as if it is simple and can be verified through a checklist, if we address the world’s concerns as if they are either on that list or not and therefore some type of abomination, if we stop examining the scripture and just read it to find agreement with our preconceived notions, than our ability to honor God has left the building. I have a large concern that God will follow shortly.
The message of the modern church is being obscured by our own voice. We are reaching some people, but I have to wonder if we are doing justice to them or the ones we are not reaching if we are encouraging compliance instead of diligent scripture searching. This does open up doors for possible misunderstanding and even not addressing sins in peoples lives. I am just not certain that is a bad thing. If we are truly seeking to honor God, then the most important thing to remember is we cannot bind his power to work in people’s lives by the insecurities of our own beliefs. The alternative is simply not working and I fear is an offense to the one we serve.
Somewhere between loss and recovery is a four letter word that both screams into the darkness and relishes in the light. It lays down beside our broken bodies at the worst points of our lives and comforts us. It reaches deep into our souls and pushes us toward rehabilitation and restoration and yet seems to cling to us when we think we no longer need it. It is a universal need and true universal constant that connects all living beings in a way that breaks the bonds of even death itself. It heals like no medicine can and without it no medicine can truly work. It provides the ability to stand against the worst of the world with resolve. It gives us the ability to lay our heads down and find true rest when needed. It’s echo lingers long after the word is spoken and it’s effect has changed the course of history. That word is hope.
Everyone needs it and yet you can so easily see when someone no longer has it. I saw a man in local parking lot recently. His beard was rough, untrimmed, and dirty. His clothes were similar in condition and somehow expressed his outlook but not his character. He struggled in the corner of a parking lot to cover his cart with a tarp to protect it from the rain. Moments earlier the tarp was his blanket but as the day began and people came around he needed to move so he would not draw too much attention to himself. He needed to protect his things. In his mind, that was all that mattered. In his mind, that was all he had. He was broken, whether by the world around him or by his own choice is a philosophical discussion he really didn’t care about. How he got there was academic in relation to where he was was. Each moment hung in the balance between fear and loss. They were his constant companions but offered no solace in their company. He was a man clinging to a rope over a deep pit whose life expectancy was measured in how long he could hold on. He had lost hope and he was merely waiting for his fingers to give way.
Christianity is supposed to be the embodiment of hope. In the first century the biblical writers cultivated the idea and focus around a term that in and of itself was rather mundane and simple. The word was gospel. It simply meant good news. It was the kind of thing that was said about a birth announcement or a wedding. You would send a message of good news to people to let them know there was a reason to celebrate. The early writers captured this term and used it to describe the message of Christ because it was the ultimate reason to celebrate. It was the pivotal point in time where all that was evil collided with all that was good and was obliterated. This meant the chains that held us to death, destruction, and separation from God were now gone. The idea was that we who were lost were now found in such a powerful and overwhelming way that the very core of existence has changed and our souls are now free to be with God forever. This is the truest possible good news. So I have to ask if we have made it something that is less than good?
Today’s message from the global church seems one saturated with political and social opinion. It is one of recognizing so called true strength by becoming enlightened through knowing the way. This “way” includes a structured method of achieving ones goals and desires through naming and claiming. It includes the power to devastate the opponents arguments through use of scripture (whether or not that use is contextual, synchronous with the rest of the church’s teachings, or even aptly applied to the circumstance). It involves social gatherings around music and light shows. Lastly (though I am sure not completely) it involves totems and spiritual symbols that are carried around and venerated at yearly festivals. In other words, it looks a great deal like paganism, idol worship, and gnosticism rolled together and tied in a bow made of new ageism.
Churches even within denominational structures are becoming brands and franchises seeking to be the center rather than reflect the center. They argue within themselves who is better, more accurate, more scripturally relevant, or more seeker sensitive. Or they go the other direction and work so hard to stay out of the arguments they miss the need to unite as one movement. This is truly a harsh message but one that if not heeded will cause us to not only close our doors but to close our hearts as well.
Please understand I know how cynical this sounds. I am not saying it lightly. I am however saying it because it needs to be heard. If our goal is to communicate the good news and have others join us in our relationship with the Creator, we are focusing on all the wrong things. We need to stop focusing on trying to get something out of the gospel message for us and start explaining why it is good news to others. We have built structured self-ology for far too long and need to get back to our theology that God is the reason we are here. We need to stop trying to build castles and monuments to him and start building his kingdom.
The message being heard today is one of control. We need to make it one of sacrifice. It is one of self. We need to make it one of others. It is one of piety, we need to make it one of righteousness. It is one of security, we need to make it one of justice. Simply put, we need to make it one of hope.