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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.