Thursday, December 31, 2009

Release

This morning I imagine God looking down on me and the rest of humanity; in some places lives are out of control and in some, there is complete order. More often, lives are found somewhere in the middle. God observes. The owner of a large fish tank of sorts. Some fish swim in schools and yield to the environment around them, while others thrust back and forth hoping for escape. Chaos and peace in union with one another. And as I contemplate on God looking down on creation, I feel as if I get a very small glimpse of how He sees us.

I’m realizing that our relationship with God is much of the time in complete opposition to the culture around us. While we strive to gain just a hint of control in our lives, God subtly whispers for us release any semblance of control to Him. Maybe stability will only be found through instability. Maybe peace will only be found through chaos. Contentment will only be found through our souls being discontent. For only at that point do we realize our true dependence on God. A child can only throw so many temper tantrums before he releases all that pent up anger and frustration, and falls limp into his father’s arms and submits to what he knew was right in the first place. But with that release comes peace; a “peace that transcends all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” This is one of those verses that seems to tie everything together. It makes complete sense and yet for some reason, it comes so difficult to all of us. Whether from our parents or culture, we are taught from a very early age to trust in ourselves. To be in control of your own emotions is the ultimate goal because if it feels good, do it. Maybe the answer lies in sometimes doing what doesn’t “feel” right. Maybe it’s somewhere in between.

Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld, where frustrated with failure, George comes to the conclusion that the answer to his success might come from doing the complete “opposite” of what he had always done? As with most concepts in Seinfeld, it was ridiculous, pointless and revolved around “nothing”. But I found that there was actually a grain of truth in George’s thought process. As George threw caution to the wind, in a somewhat helpless attempt to find success, he finally became honest about who he was in many aspects.

I wonder if there might be a hint of theology in this as well. The gospel according to George? Do we throw caution to the wind and do everything opposite of what we have always done? Well, if you remember correctly, in subsequent episodes, George finds that failure still finds him, even in doing the opposite of what his instincts have led him to do. But maybe in some areas of life, our first instinct is not always the best choice to make. Maybe trusting our emotions and feelings is not always what guides us in the right direction.

Scripture tells us that there is a way that seems right to man, but God’s ways are not our ways and part of our understanding of God lies in the fact that we cannot always understand Him. Acknowledging that God is God, and we are not, gets us to a place where we have no other alternative but to submit to Him and the fact that He just might know what’s better for us than we do. After all, Scripture is filled with examples of people that futilely tried to do things they’re own way, only to hit proverbial the brink wall. Peace and success are realized in the lives of those who learned to be in full submission to His sovereignty and will. Those that finally decided that they might just be better off doing the “opposite” of what they have always done.

"Serenity" - Watercolor by Judi McWilliams - www.judimcwilliamsfineart.com

Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar and Worship

Yesterday afternoon, my oldest son and I ventured out for some "guy time" and saw Avatar. If you haven't seen the movie yet, let me just say that if you saw the 1990 epic, Dances with Wolves, you already know the basic story line. In fact, one could easily say that it's just a futuristic rip-off in CGI form. Don't get me wrong, Avatar is an amazing and beautiful journey into pure fantasy and was worth the money. It's an escape, which is what most of us need these days. But is there much more to it?

Despite the usual political rhetoric regarding "evil" humans, and how we are too stupid and greedy to avoid destroying ourselves, and eventually other planets, the movie is very enjoyable. But I'll warn you... you may walk out of the movie carrying a burden of humanistic guilt the size of a Mountain Banshee! There's also the whole "Colonists suck, Indians rock" theme going! Avatar also smacks of universalist theology, pantheism and goddess worship, but what can you expect from Hollywood, and the man who arrogantly prides himself on miraculously discovering Jesus' tomb? The plot is very predictable and leaves you with the underlying theme that it is uncool to be Human.

Believe it or not, it is not my intention to slam Avatar. Like I said, I liked the movie and was very entertained, and I usually try and keep political agendas out of the picture. I'm not a film critic, but as with any movie I see, I always try and dissect the underlying theological significance and how it applies to today's culture. After watching Avatar, this wasn't difficult to do. One aspect resonated with me more clearly than any other movie in many years. It's subtle, but definitely there, and is also one of the main objections I had to the movie: the faith and worship of the alien civilization around which the movie revolves.

The Na'vi are a primitive race of aliens that inhabit the planet Pandora. As the movie progresses, you begin to see the lifeblood of this culture, which is its faith in their deity, Eywa. The center of worship is The Tree of Souls, which seems to be the point of spiritual contact with Eywa and the civilization's ancestors. The energy that emanates from this tree, and Eywa, is a living network that carries through all of nature, living creatures and the Na'vi themselves. It's the center of life on Pandora.

The point is, the Na'vi saw their deity and it's power as the center of their lives. Nothing existed independently from their god. To this culture, there was no distinction between faith and life. All aspects of life were united and flowing together, with their god at the center. It was a holistic picture of faith and one of the more beautiful images in Avatar. No, it was not Christian worship and I acknowledge that this movie paints a picture of a false god, and a fantasy god at that. But what I am focusing on, is the simple act of worship within this culture and what I think we can learn from it as believers in Christ.

As I've said before, we live in a very compartmentalized culture with very pluralistic belief systems. One compartment holds our faith. One compartment holds our family. One compartment holds our work, hobbies, friends, etc. Very rarely do we encourage, or even want the elements of our faith intertwining with other compartments of our life. But what would it look like if we did? What would it look like in our churches, if all elements of our lives revolved around our faith communities and the worship of Jesus Christ? What would it be like to see the power of the living God transcending every compartment, until we were left with a holistic picture of life, with God at the center? Everything moved within and intertwined until there was no distinction. No conflicts. No barriers. Just faith in a God that lives within us as Scripture says.

The ancient Hebrews knew this well, and it makes me wonder where we've lost hold of this essential key of worship. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God encourages His people in saying "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."

In John 15, Jesus reinforced this essential holistic relationship with God when He said, "I am the vine; you are the branches." Just before this in John 14, He says, "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;" Do you see this holistic picture that God has been painting since He first spoke to the people of Israel? God is the essence of all that has life. He lives in us and through us, and gives life to all that is around us. Why should we not then attribute all the aspects of our individual lives to God, and see that He is the object of our worship, not what He has created, but Him who is the creator? Worship as a lifestyle? Not just a Sunday morning ritual? Now that's an alien concept!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nostalgia and Corner Stores


Did you know that “nostalgia” used to be considered a mental disorder? In my case, that would make sense, but lately memories of my youth have been creeping in and out of my mind. I’m not sure why, but I’ve been rather nostalgic over the last couple of weeks. And this has actually made me think a lot about my relationship with God, and how good He has been to me in the 40 years that I’ve been blessed to walk this earth. It’s almost as if God has been guiding me through a museum of elaborate paintings that are windows of the past. Each painting is like a snap shot of a significant period of life that was pivotal in the development of who I am today. Let me share one of these paintings with you.

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived down the road from a little corner store named O’Bannon’s. This was back in the mid to late 70’s, so some of that old fashioned Americana still penetrated into modern society, and this was one of those rare gems. These were the days when a pocket full of change would buy cavity-inducing treasure, and you would still have a little left over. I still can still feel it. I can still see it with vivid clarity. I can still smell it.

Each summer, my brother and I would always spend a week at my grandparent’s house, and walking to O’Bannon’s was the highlight of each day. Most mornings, we darted out of the kitchen that had one of those old wooden screen doors that creaked before it slammed shut, just like on the Walton’s. We ran past Paw Paw’s upholstery shop and across the drive way covered in rock and oyster shells. I could feel the embrace of the morning sun on my back and on my bare feet as the concrete warmed up a little. Down a cracked sidewalk we would run before dodging between a couple of houses and through a few backyards. Eventually we would come to the well worn path that led to the left and the back of O’Bannon’s. Through heavy trees and bushes the path would wind until it finally ended at the cracked black asphalt parking lot. The bright summer sun would greet us again as we skipped across the cracks and potholes and eventually to the cool covered sidewalk that ran along the front of the store. To the right was an old rail covered in cracked and peeling paint that divided the walk from the parking spots. To your left were the dirty glass windows of the store, revealing cloudy glances of the treasures that lay waiting inside.

As you opened the front door a bell would ring and you were instantly met with a cold burst of air, which was very welcome on a hot and humid morning. My grandparents had no air conditioning back in those days, so this was like heaven. Our pace would slow as we enjoyed the cool air and made our way over to the candy isle. Since we usually only had a dollar or so, we immediately inspected the lowest row, which held the colorful bins of penny candy. Imagine how many pieces you could buy for a dollar? But we always made sure that we had 25 cents for a soda. I don’t know about you, but soda tasted much better, and stayed colder, back in the day when it came in tall glass bottles. But as usual, I digress. What does all of this have to do with God and theology in general?

In Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon says, “Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” He goes on to emphasize the natural passing and general order of life in several verses that culminate with, “the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.”

Meaningless, huh? Is there really no point to our wandering through this world? Is the substance of our lives simply being born into this world, living a relatively short life and then returning to the earth that we walked upon? Well, I don’t think that’s what Solomon is saying and I believe that our existence has much more significance than simply taking up space and wasting air. Rather, I think that the point is that our time on earth is short. The past, although filled with significant memories, no longer exists. The future is uncertain and that leaves us holding on to our present, which will soon pass on to the history we make of it. Those of us that have a relationship with Christ, are called to embrace the present existence that we have each second of the day. And one of the problems we all have is “nostalgia”. Come to think of it, maybe it is a mental disorder after all. I find no benefit in walking through the corridors of the past. And as God seemed to be walking me through these lost moments of life, maybe His point was “release”, rather than “embrace”. I can’t go back in time. I can’t recreate the memories of youth that I store away in the “Nostalgia” file. But there are two things that God has revealed to me as I finish this blog and stop rambling. These memories are gifts from a Holy God that have carved me into the man I am today. And although I sometimes long for the days of my youth, I must honor him now, before I get much older and say to myself with regret, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” Because it really is meaningless when compared to my eternal relationship with God.

So I guess I’ll focus my thoughts on “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which god has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Disconnect

Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon in my kayak on Armond bayou. Sunday found me in somewhat of a fog, and after we got home from church, I felt myself slipping into a spiral of frustration and self pity. Sundays are always a little tough for me. When you work in the church, Sundays are always the busiest day of the week. I used to love Sunday, because it was as if the culmination of all the work from the week before was coming to fruition. I used to feel as if I was releasing all the love that God had been building up in me all week to the incredible people that I was blessed to minister to. I love the local church, but I have to admit: I do not look forward to Sundays as much these days.

So, before the spiral slipped to a point of no return, I decided to get out of the house. I glanced at the lawn. Usually yard work helps to clear my mind, but the length hadn’t reached that critical point, so I couldn’t justify pulling out the mower. I glanced at my running shoes. Running is always great therapy for me, but since I can only squeeze out about 30 minutes these days, it seemed like too quick a solution. Then I glanced at my bag of kayak gear. The thought of disconnecting myself from land seemed to be very appealing, and the thought of disconnecting myself from reality, if only for a few hours, seemed even better.

Armond Bayou is an amazing place. In the midst of our fast paced culture, it’s a sanctuary for animals, birds and the soul. Oh yeah; there are alligators too, and lots of them! But once you venture out a mile or so into the twists and turns of the various inlets, you cannot imagine that just over the tree lines lies suburbia. Without the sounds of cars, construction and everyday life, you hear each animal scuttle through the salt grass. Fish break the water and turtles slide off the banks as you glide past on the glass-like liquid that carries you along. It reminds me of climbing into your bed after a hard day and covering yourself up with your blankets. The outside world vanishes for a while and you create a new temporary reality.

There was a time in my life when I dreaded being alone. For me, solitude was isolation, and isolation was far too connected to loneliness. As a person who has recovered from severe depression, I can now see that being alone is not such a bad thing. The problem is not solitude in and of itself, but rather why we choose solitude. When you deal with depression, there are times when you feel isolated 24/7. It’s a great feeling to choose being alone, because you enjoy being alone.

The Bible tells us that Jesus often withdrew from the crowds of people that surrounded Him to be alone and pray. Luke 5:15 says that the news of what Jesus was doing was spreading so much “that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” There are two very significant points in this verse. One, Jesus’ popularity was growing at a very fast pace at this point. And two, Jesus still needed time to get away and immerse Himself in solitude.

I find it funny how the busier we get doing things for God, the less with we spend with God? And yet Jesus saw the importance of isolating Himself with the father, no matter how large the crowds were. And He saw this as an imperative; before the people smothered Him.

We dig deeper when crowds push in. We immerse ourselves within the waves of humanity, that rush overhead, and then wonder why be can’t breathe. Peace is found at the shore, waiting and watching for what God is doing in those that we minster to. I can see them. And they do just fine with my isolation. Jesus saw them as well, and yet after His time of solitude, He still confronted the Pharisees and healed a paralytic man. Pretty cool example.

"Kayak Solitude" - Watercolor by Judi McWilliams - www.judimcwilliamsfineart.com

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Holding Patterns

Every once and a while, I hate writing. This morning is one of those times. I’m sitting here at Starbucks, staring at the Via Ready Brew display in front of me, and thinking about how I have nothing interesting to share. I’m frustrated, tired and a little bored with myself. Being an out-of-work pastor is no different than anyone else who is out of work. Mondays seem to make your unemployment even more vivid. The wound is fresh. As the week moves on, you begin to accept your current situation, but it’s still hard. You find ways to cover and care for your wound. You medicate it, bandage it, protect it, and it begins to feel better, but there is still an ache.

I guess it might be a little easier for me, because I’m out of work by choice, rather than the economy, bad performance, etc. To make a long story short, I resigned from my last position as an associate pastor/children’s pastor because it just wasn’t a good fit anymore. God began to make it clear that he didn’t want me at this particular church anymore, and as a very dear friend and mentor put it: “Jake, it looks like God has closed the door, and you’re trying to force it back open.” And I see now how very true that was. I realize now that I got to the point where I came to work with crow bar and hammer in hand. And as hard as I tried, as much muscle as I put into it, the door was not only shut, but sealed. I finally had to realize that I was going to have to find another exit point. Or maybe it was an entry point. But much of this is clear only in retrospect.

God’s ways are not our ways, and that is a very difficult thing for a person like me to accept. I like being in control. I like knowing what’s going on all the time, and what the next steps are to get to where I need to go. Now that God has placed me into a time of uncertainty, as temporary as it might be, I’m having trouble accepting it. And I have to admit, I’m a little angry with God. After all, I had a successful ministry. People liked me and I liked being liked. I liked the pats on the back and the recognition I received. I was good at what I did. Or at least I think I was. But is that such a bad thing? Is it wrong to enjoy the occasional stroking of our egos? Aren’t we taught to be the best we can be at each and everything we do? Well, sorry. I don’t have an answer for you. In fact, if you have some insight on this, please feel free to let me know.

But there is one thing that I am very certain of. I am exactly where God wants me to be right now. I’m a 100% sure that he wanted me to leave my last church. I am 100% sure that he wanted me to remain out of paid ministry for a while; at least for the summer. I spent an incredible amount of quality time with my two boys, and was blessed beyond words. It was part of His plan, and I’m very thankful for that. So I accepted it and assured myself that by the time school started, God would reveal the door that would not only open with ease, but would remain open for at least the indefinite future. Well, at this point, all I see is walls. No doors. No windows. Although people come in and out, I don’t know from where they come from. They have doors to come in to my life, but it’s almost as if they are only visible from their side of reality. Kind of like Monster’s Inc., huh?

I know that God has a plan for me and my ministry. I love God’s words of comfort to us in Isaiah: “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” - Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT) Those words really speak to me today, and I know with all confidence that God already has everything laid out. I know this because His Spirit has assured me of that. For whatever reason, He’s just not letting me in on the details yet, and I’m OK with that. I'm in a holding pattern and don't have clearance to land yet. Wandering. Wilderness. Uncertainty.

But even in the occasional dark times of discouragement, I feel Him gently whispering and reminding me that He’s there and has it all under control. Like any earthly Father, I believe that God only wants the best for us, and I feel confident that that is what lies ahead for me. My last ministry position may have been good, but it wasn’t what was best for me. But as my door closed, it became someone else's to walk through. It was someone else’s “better”. And you know what? My next ministry position may not be the “best”, and if it’s not, God will shut another door. I pray that if He does, I won’t pull out my crow bar and hammer again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Time

Do you ever feel like time is racing by faster and faster? Do you look back on your life and wonder what happened to all the years? Job said, "My days are swifter than a runner; they fly away without a glimpse of joy." (Job 9:25) As I grow older, I am beginning to understand how he might have felt. Sometimes, my days do seem to race by like a runner, leaving nothing more than a blur of what once was. Lately, I've been thinking of the past quite a bit and what it all means to me today. It's funny how the past almost seems to have a physical existence, like it exists "somewhere", "out there". God created us to be thinkers and stretch the power of our minds, and I guess that's how the whole concept of time travel began. Man has always tried to harness time, but much like the mind, our efforts prove futile. Is time only a relative concept and our memories just bits and pieces of data, stored away in the recesses the miracle that is our brain?

Go back in time, for just a moment, to your very earliest memory. Mine is the day my parents brought my younger brother home from the hospital. I was only three years old and I remember this little red thing wrapped in white and the house filled with people. I remember my Mom smiling at me as she encouraged me to “meet” him for the first time. Your memory will be very different. It might be your first haircut, getting your first bike, a particular Christmas that stands out, your first time at the beach, whatever. Close your eyes, fix your thoughts on that moment and think about it for just a few minutes. Do your best to imagine the details. Try and remember how it felt. What did things look like around you? What time of day was it? What was the lighting like? What smells do you think might have been connected to this memory. Who was there? What were they wearing? Put yourself in that moment. Capture it. Be in that moment.

Now, concentrate on the moment you are in right now. You might be at work, at home, in a Starbucks like I am, wherever you are. You might be taking a walk, working out at the gym, shopping, whatever. Look at the environment around you. Focus on the details of your surroundings. Engage all of your senses. Who is with you or around you? Close your eyes and take in the and sounds. Focus on the smells. Absorb this very moment. Take it in. Capture it. Be in this moment.

Now imagine the great expanse of life in between these two moments. Imagine the vast and detailed canvas of your life. Two very specific memories. Two isolated points of time. Two very distinct and vivid moments, divided by an almost endless amount of details, moments and memories that make up the construct of your life. Now think about this for a moment. What holds these two memories to one another? What connects these moments together? What is the “filling” of these two very different and isolated points of time? What are some of the events in life that you would look at as significant; the ones that have transformed you into who you are today? Who are the people that have come in and out of your life? How long were they in your life? How have the touched you? How have they changed you?

Now go back to that first memory. How did that one significant event affect the filling of your life? How did that event play a part, even if very small, in the progression of where you are today? How did that event help in directing the life you lived after that moment? Why do you think God put you in that very place in time, to experience what you did in that moment? Why has He put you in this place in time, reading this particular blog?

What’s my point? I’m not sure. I guess as I get older, I am beginning to look at my life with a more critical eye. As I do certain things, right or wrong, I am more aware of how they might affect the rest of my life. I wonder how each action I take might have an influence on other events that follow. I wonder how what I do, say and even think, might touch someone else’s life and even change the course of events. Obviously, the birth of my brother was a very significant event in my life because as hard as I try, I do not remember anything before he was born. How different would my life be had he not come along? How different would my life be if he had been a girl, or if he had been mentally or physically disabled?

Think about it. A lot of time has transpired between the two moments that we just imagined. And as we live in the present day, our tendency is to move extremely fast. Let’s face it; as we get older, time seems to accelerate at an alarming rate. I remember when a year seemed to be an eternity. Now, a year goes by in the flash of an instant. And that makes me wonder, “What happened to all that time? Where did it go? What happened to all those details and moments of my life? And I guess what I’m really asking is, “How have I lived throughout this last year? What did I do with these memories and moments? How have they affected my “today” and how will they affect my tomorrow?

“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14) If these things are true, does this not have a profound effect on how we live our lives each day? Each hour? Each minute? Each second? I think this might be the “meaningless” of life that God is trying to get across to us. Maybe in terms of eternity, our lives on earth are only a snapshot of what God created us to be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Marc Driscoll's Family Dinner Devotion Method

Do you have trouble finding time to have family devotions? When you do, do you face the frustration of wondering what to do? Does it work? Are the kids getting it? Well, I found this approach from Marc Driscoll that seems very realistic and effective. Give it a try, and let me know what kind of results you get! Marc Driscoll is Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, founder of the Acts 29 Network, author and speaker.

Step 1 - Eat dinner with your entire family regularly.

Step 2 - Mom and Dad sit next to one another to lead the family discussion.

Step 3 - Open the meal by asking if there is anyone or anything to pray for.

Step 4 - Someone opens in prayer and covers any requests. This task should be rotated among family members so that different people take turns learning to pray aloud.

Step 5 - Start eating and discuss how everyone’s day went.

Step 6 - Have a Bible in front of the parents in a translation that is age-appropriate for the kids’ reading level. Have someone (parent or child) open the Bible, and assign a portion to read aloud while everyone is eating and listening.

Step 7 - Parents should note key words and themes in the passage and explain them to the kids on an age-appropriate level.

Step 8 - Ask questions about the passage. You may want to begin with having your children summarize what was read—retelling the story or passage outline. Then, ask the following questions: What does this passage teach us about God? What does it say about us or about how God sees us? What does it teach us about our relationships with others?

Step 9 - Let the conversation happen naturally, listen carefully to the kids, let them answer the questions, and fill in whatever they miss or lovingly and gently correct whatever they get wrong so as to help them.

Step 10 - If the Scriptures convict you of sin, repent as you need to your family, and share appropriately honest parts of your life story so the kids can see Jesus’ work in your life and your need for him too. This demonstrates gospel humility to them.

Step 11 - At the end of dinner, ask the kids if they have any questions for you.

Step 12 - If you miss a night, or if conversation gets off track, or if your family occasionally just wants to talk about something else, don’t stress—it’s inevitable.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I Am a Rock

As a kid, I grew up listening to folk music. Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan, John Denver and Peter, Paul and Mary were standard sounds pumped though our “high fidelity” record or cassette player. Saturday mornings were always accompanied by my Mom cleaning the house, the smell of breakfast wafting from the kitchen and the sounds of 60s revolution in the background. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I did my best to drown out the sounds from the living room stereo. Usually that came from dueling sound systems as I assaulted my parents ear drums with anything from The Smiths to Black Flag. But well into my 40th year of stumbling through this life, I find myself looking back on those days with a comforting nostalgia.

Now that I’m older, I have a greater appreciation for these artists. In fact, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. One of the best days of my life was taking my dad to see his aging folk idol at the Houston Rodeo in 2002. Dad’s reaction? “Wow! He sucks in his old age!” But you know, when hearing these artists today, my mind quickly drifts back to a much simpler time. Last week, as I fumbled through the radio stations, I heard Simon and Garfunkle’s classic, “I Am a Rock”. As I hummed along, I was surprised that I actually knew all of the words. But for the first time, I caught myself really listening closely to the lyrics of this song and what the artist had to say.

“I’ve built walls, a fort deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need for friendship; Friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island…If I never loved I never would have cried…hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me.” Too bad they didn’t have Paxil or Effexor back in those days, huh?

As I wrote in my last blog, we all experience dark times in our lives. We all experience “the funk”. How familiar does this sound? You have a bad day at work, reprimanded by your boss and given a hard time by co-workers. On the way home, you’re pulled over for speeding and given a ticket. When you finally return home, the stressful reality of family life sets in with a greeting of screaming kids, clutter and a to-do list that looks more like a three page essay. At this point, the only thing you want to do is crawl under the covers and shut off for the remaining hours of the day. The thought of confronting anyone only makes you more frustrated. You don’t want to talk to anyone. All you want is isolation. “I am a rock.”

Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won't collapse, because it is built on rock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash." After Jesus finished speaking, the crowds were amazed at his teaching."

So, when I isolate myself in my pain, am I really a rock? Am I an island? Do I have no need for friendship because friendship will only cause pain? “Friendship causes pain,”. Hmmmm. You know what? I would have to agree 100%. Friendship does cause pain, and that pain comes from the responsibility of loving one another. But it’s worth the risk. “Love one another.”

(Art by Ben Davies-Jenkins. "Golden Isolation"; oil)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Five Stories - Part V


“Love one another”. Three simple words. A simple call to action that Jesus gave his disciples just before He physically left this world. It’s funny how such simplicity can have such a huge impact in your life. When I first began writing these “Five Stories” blogs, I was spending several evenings just observing people. Hanging out in my favorite Starbucks, I sat, watched, listened and sipped on iced coffee. Observing culture. Thinking. Praying. But I found that as my thoughts transformed into words on my laptop, my heart began to transform as well. And more importantly, my thoughts about God began to change. They began to expand and yet also simplify. Grasping who God is and how He functions in our lives is not easy, is it? And as I began to meditate and study about what Scripture says about love, I began to see that grasping what love is, and how it functions in our lives is not any easier.

The Bible is filled with literally hundreds of references to love. So I guess it should be no surprise that one of those references simply reads, “God is love.” (1 John 4:16) And the simplicity of those words makes me wonder. Perhaps by expressing something so familiar, God is giving us a glimpse of the unfamiliar. Could it be that God and love are so intimately intertwined that this attribute encompasses all that He is? His very existence? God in a nut shell, so to speak? Kind of puts a different twist on the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing, doesn’t it? (Matthew 19:19) But think about that for a moment. I don’t know about you, but it becomes very difficult to love others when we are constantly obsessing over our own imperfections. Loving ourselves does not come easily these days; especially when media inundates us with how imperfect we are. And as I write this, I point the proverbial finger right back at me.

Well, the final story of “Five Stories” revolves around a little Asian woman that seems to live on the fringe of society. She frequents my local Starbucks and although I’ve seen her many times, I don’t even know her name. She appears out of nowhere, and then just like that, she just disappears. Sometimes she smiles and makes eye contact, looking just as normal as the next person. Other times she looks disheveled and just stares blankly into space. She’s an older woman and doesn’t really talk. I’ve tried several times to start up a conversation, but usually I just get a smile and maybe a brief “Hi”. To be honest, I didn’t even know if she spoke English. But after being inquisitive, as I usually am, one of the regular baristas at Starbucks confirmed that she did. But what catches my attention most is her erratic behavior. Sometime she’s there, and other times she’s not.

After a little more investigative work, I learned that this woman has severe mental problems and wanders around the area on a regular basis. Sometimes she talks with the baristas, and other times she just sits there. Her family usually comes to get her and bring her home, but most of the time she just sort of wanders around. She takes medication that apparently has a huge effect on her mental state. One day she made her way into someone’s open car, apparently just to take a load off. I laughed when one of my barista friends told me of how the customer came to the counter and asked, “Umm, could you please ask this woman to get out my car?”

“Love one another”. How does this connect with all this stuff about love? Well, one day as I watched this woman, I found myself wondering what she thinks about herself. Does she love herself? More importantly, does she feel loved by others? And those thoughts brought me full circle on all these rambling thoughts of love. Loving ourselves comes from a deep realization of how much we are loved by God. As we become aware of His love for us, and that He is love, we are able to express that love to others. But what is most important is becoming aware of His radical, unlimited and passionate love for us. That’s the starting point. How can love not pour from us when the God of the universe is literally drowning us in His love?
But here’s the key: Do we believe that He loves us that much? Do we realize it? Internalize it? Allow it to consume us, direct us and guide us? I’m sorry to say that most of the time, I’m afraid we don’t. At least I don’t. And because of that, I have a tough time loving myself. And I can’t help but think that people like this strange little lady, have a tough time feeling love because we cannot first love ourselves. And many of us as just as lost as she appears to be.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Shack & The Gospel According to Mack Part II


As I prepared to write this blog, I came to four interesting realizations. First,there is a LOT of information here. Way more that I can cleverly construct into one blog. Second, I don't want to begin a series of blogs on this topic. I would much rather sit down with others and discuss these issues, and there are countless resources available that have done a much better job of critiquing this book than I have. Third, this blog was never meant to be a forum for me to write theological dissertations. So I'll spare you the boredom! And forth, I have no desire to promote arguments, division or an create and atmosphere of judgment. With that said, I chose to take somewhat of a different angle toward this.

You see, when you get right down to it, the main issue here is not whether or not Wm. Paul Brown's The Shack. is Biblically relevant or accurate. That is really a secondary issue. The main issue that we face here is that the Church, in and of itself, has become Biblically illiterate. And yes; that means you and me. And as I write these words, I mentally see myself in the mirror and point my finger in accusation. Those of us in ministry are just as guilty of neglecting the diligent study of God’s Word as those in the “real world”. 1 Peter 3:15 says that we should “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, if most of us are completely honest with ourselves, we must admit that we have fallen somewhat short. So, I wonder to myself. How can I judge anyone for building a theological construct based on this book when leaders are not encouraging the Church to begin with God’s Word? We should base our beliefs on Scripture and allow other sources, like The Shack, to enhance our faith; not vice-versa. What culture has done with this book is allowed it to take precedence over God’s Word, rather than saying to ourselves, “Hmmm. This is really interesting stuff. Very thought provoking. I feel that God may be moving in my life through these words, but how does it line up with HIS words?”

Let me also say that I have no desire to judge anyone by my views toward The Shack. Each person’s individual spiritual journeys are different and God works in our lives in various manners through His Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that the “experiential” aspect of faith can be just as valid and powerful as the physical or spiritual. If your experience with The Shack has caused you to grow into a deeper relationship with God, it is not my place to judge the validity of that. If you have grown deeper in your understanding of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I only ask you to consider my views, and factor them into your theological foundation.

We also have to acknowledge that our understanding of God will always be limited to our human vessels. The doctrine of the Trinity is, and will always be, an incredible mystery. And even when we reach heaven and see God face to face, the reality of this concept will never be fully grasped.

In addition, we must remember that The Shack is a book of fiction. Because of limitations with this genre of literature, it is very difficult to compare and critique in light of Scripture. There is an emotional and experiential element that will always cloud reality. There are many statements that the author makes that are challenging to decipher simply because they are made through the lens of the author or through the interaction of characters in the story. The best bet in these situations is to trust in the Holy Spirit for wisdom and discernment.

However, there are clearly some theological problem with this book. I feel that these issues need to be addressed in order to remain true to Scripture and God's truth. Like I said earlier, there are theologians, pastors and speakers that are much wiser than I am, so I decided to attach a video by Pastor Mark Driscoll Of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. He has done a phenomenal job in laying out the main objections to The Shack. A much better job than I have done, but has addressed the main issues that have caused me concern. Watch with an open mind and heart and allow God to guide you in your journey.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Shack & The Gospel According to Mack Part I


I know that this is going to surprise some people, and maybe offend others, but I am not a big fan of Wm. Paul Brown’s The Shack, nor do I recommend it to anyone. “Gasp!” There! I said it! I can just hear the comments streaming through cyberspace and radiating through my computer: “What can you possibly have against this beautiful book?” “How dare you say anything negative about this theological masterpiece?” “Where do you base your opinions? Did you actually read the book?” Well, Yes. I finally conceded and read The Shack. Being in ministry, I thought that it would only be fair to delve into this phenomenon and develop my own opinion, rather than relying on word of mouth. And I have to admit, it was somewhat entertaining. It is very creatively and thoughtfully written. Brown obviously poured his heart and soul into this writing, and the issues he writes on are obviously very close to his heart. It’s engaging. It’s thought provoking. And it's heresy; plain and simple. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Heresy is not a very popular word these days. We live in a very politically correct culture, and unfortunately that sort of mindset has seeped into the Church. I mean, how dare I judge someones theological views of Christianity that might differ from mine? Aren’t we supposed to have a mind of tolerance in today’s postmodern culture? Well, Yes! I would say we should, and 99% of the time, I do. In fact, I’ve been accused of being somewhat of a “liberal thinking Christian” by some of my friends in ministry.

But regardless of social trends, and the Church’s attempts to remain culturally relevant, the very basic teachings of Christianity cannot be compromised. I think we have to eventually draw a proverbial line in the sand and stand by the truths of Scripture: God’s word revealing Himself to the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Basically, heresy is a thought or belief that rejects, or teaches something that is contrary to a basic belief system or a particular religious doctrine. Within the Church, there are certain truths that define Christianity and make it what it is. Heresy is a teaching that denies one or more of these basic truths. For instance, there was a movement within the early Church called Docetism, that rejected the fact that Jesus was human. Since this thought went against the basic teachings of the incarnation of Christ, and the humanity of Jesus, it was classified as heresy and dangerous to the early Church. The Docetists also denied that Jesus rose from the dead, which is essential to the basics of Christianity. Another group called the Nicolaitans were considered heretics because they believed that sins committed in the body did not affect the spirit. Because of this, they believed that there were no sexual sins that were off limits! Maybe an appealing thought in modern culture, but heresy none the less!

So, why do I consider The Shack to be heresy? Well, give it some thought, and I’ll let you know what I think in my next post!

Ha Ha! Now I’ve got your curiosity peaked!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Five Stories - Part IV


Have you ever felt like just walking up to a stranger, striking up a conversation with them and finding out what their story is? We all have "stories", don't we? Some of us are just beginning to put the first few chapters together, and others are completing a set of volumes. I find that sometimes I just have an attraction to certain people that I see in public. Not a physical attraction, but spiritual. I want to know more about them, where they come from, where they are in life and what chapter of their story they find themselves on. Something tells me that their story and my story need to cross paths and intertwine, if only for a few minutes. But unfortunately, I often ignore that "still, small voice" and retreat further into my own cozy little reality. After all, this is the way we are supposed to be in American culture, right? As history progresses, each generation becomes more isolated and our "stories" become more two-dimensional and monotone. That makes it difficult to "Love one another", doesn't it?

I haven't been spending as much time in my favorite Starbucks over the last couple of weeks. When I started writing these "Five Stories" blogs, I was haunting my local Starbucks almost every night. My favorite chair had become my lazy-boy and the ottoman my desk. I began to really enjoy these times because it gave me a chance to just observe. One thing that I really dislike about myself is my tendency to slide inside the Christian bubble and blind myself to what's going on in culture in general. Being in ministry does this to you sometimes. But I have found that I grow more spiritually when I am outside of the church setting.

"Love one another". I'm beginning to hear this in my sleep. "Love one another". These words of Christ penetrate my thoughts almost every day. As I walk through the everyday path of life, people drift from one end to another. Lives cross paths, but seldom are stories revealed, shared, enjoyed and meshed together. I think this is what frustrates me the most. I mean, you don't have to be a Bible scholar to understand that God calls us to not only "live" in community with one another, but also to grow, develop and flourish together. Unfortunately, all we tend to do is share proximity, rather than intimacy.

The forth story of "Five Stories" is rather simple. There is not much there because I just could not seem to scratch below the surface. A young lady was sitting toward the back of Starbucks, intently reading over technical material, dressed in hospital scrubs. She caught my attention because she looked as though she was utterly disconnected from her surroundings. I tried to make eye contact as I ordered a refill of my iced coffee, but it was as if there was a barrier around her. I walked past her table, making as if I was getting another napkin, but nothing. I returned to my chair and continued to observe.

Finally, I walked over to her table and asked what she was working on. Startled, she looked up with a surprised look on her face. "Huh?", she replied and I repeated my question. She mumbled something about a licensing test next Monday, but made no real eye contact and no real interest in talking with me. I asked if she wouldn't mind me praying for her and asked her name. She shook her head, but said, "Sure, if you want to." I never got her name, but as I walked away I heard her say, "I'm sorry, but I'm just really scared right now. It's just this stuff." She pointed to her books and papers. I reached out my hand to shake hers, and cupped it with my other hand. "I'll pray for you.", I said, and went back to my chair. That's as far as she was going to let me in. And I sat there with iced coffee, closed my eyes and prayed.

Scripture tells is that "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,". (1 John 4:18) Just before this, in the same passage, it says that "God is love." We've been talking about the whole "Love one another" issue, right? God is saying that He is love. The essence of His being is love. And because God is good and perfect in all His ways, we can deduct that fear cannot exist in Him. So fear and love cannot coexist. Finally, we are commanded to "love one another" by Jesus Himself, which we all know, we don't do as often as we could. "Love one another"

I don't know if my efforts quelled the fears of this young lady. Maybe my efforts weren't enough. What I do know is that fear existed in a community that I was a part of. And my hope is that God, being the perfect manifestation of love, intervened in a spiritual connection with this lady, and broke through the barriers of fear. If only for a few moments.

"Love one another".

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ode To Writers Block

"I really must update my blog.
Part IV of "Five Stories" must be told.
But thoughts are cluttered and blocked
as I sit here wishing it was cold.

See, I hate the heat of Summer.
Winter motivates me more.
Then maybe I could find consistency
beginning with "Five Stories - Part IV"

As you can see, I'm not a poet,
but thought it might be clever
to share with you a blog in rhyme
For today, rather than never!

"God, put thoughts inside my head!
Can you not hear me pray?
Motivate me to write more!"
But hey, at least I posted something today!"


There! I posted a blog! Happy?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Five Stories - Part III


I’ve been spending a lot of time in Starbucks this week. The rest of the family has been participating in Summer Kid’s Club at church, so each evening has opened up a couple of hours of solitude, a chance to catch up of some reading and bang on my laptop. Periodically, I look up from what I’m doing, just to see who's walking in and out. Occasionally I’ll see someone that I know, but most of the time, I just watch strangers. I see facial expressions and hear conversations. One thing I can tell you after spending a week of evenings in Starbucks; you really get a feel for the cultural pulse of your community.

“Love one another”. Yeah, I know. Easier said than done, right? I’ve come to a conclusion this week. It’s hard to love one another these days. Overall, we live in a culture that is becoming increasingly angry, frustrated and apathetic. Whether it’s dealing with the regular threat of terrorism, war, the economy, politics or the death of Michael Jackson, there are countless outside factors that negatively affect our day-to-day lives. The frustrations build, anger develops and the next thing we know, we are biting the head off the Barista at Starbucks because she didn’t put enough espresso in our grande Latte; like the guy who just stormed out! “Love one another”.

Story number three of “Five Stories” revolves around a young couple that I saw last week that really seemed to love each other; at least for the time being! They came in, head to toe in tattoos and piercings and looked like they were just making a coffee stop on their way out for a night on the town. They sat down with their coffees, laughing and engaged in discussion. Amid the occasional “F-Bomb”, and other choice four letter words, their conversation seemed to go nowhere. Words went in one ear and out the other as they threw words at each other. No substance. No conversation. Just words flying from one chair to another, with the occasional one landing near me. There is the appearance of love, but in reality, it’s not real. It’s a counterfeit painting. A mini drama being played out with an audience of one and his laptop. It got to a point where I didn’t like what I was hearing. There was a lot of pain just beneath the surface and it began to bubble up as I listened. My heart felt heavy and I seemed to feel the pain that was emanating from them. I felt love for this couple. Strange, but I felt love. “Love one another.”

Remember, “God is love.” John goes on to write “whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us…because in this world we are like him.” (1 John 4:17) How is love made “complete” in this way? Is it because our feeble attempts to “love one another come up empty, shallow and void of emotion? Is it because we are unable to “love one another” without the infusion of God, who is the essence of love? Is true love possible without a relationship with the one who is literally love? Do we have to be engaged in real love before we can offer it readily to those we come in contact with? I wonder. “Love one another”.

Love is active, complex and deep. It’s not an emotion that we take out and use at our disposal, like a tool or weapon to get what we want. Rather, the more I think about it, love is a state of being. And if we follow what God has commanded from us, and what He freely offers us, we exist in perfect and complete love. Day and night, we live and breathe love because God is love. Christ said, and I am paraphrasing, that He is like a vine and His followers are like branches, organically connected and intertwined, so that we live through Him and in Him. Could the life giving sap that runs through this union be the love that bonds each of us together as one? (John 15:1-17)

“God is Love” “Love one another”.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Five Stories - Part II


“Love one another”. As I sit here this afternoon, in my favorite corner of Starbucks, these words echo in my mind over and over again. I read them in the pages of my Bible (John 13:34 & 35), but as with many words of Scripture, they seem to slip in one ear and out the other. I’ve read and studied this passage dozens of times, but what does it really mean to love one another? I mean, I can say that I love the guy sitting next to me who is consistently bumping my chair, or the loud and obnoxious women across the room, or the iced coffee that I’m drinking, but where is the line drawn between words and actions? When is love really expressed as genuine love? What if I don’t particularly want to love someone? What if I can’t, even though Christ commands me to? (John 13:34) Love the unlovable? Love those I don’t know? Love my enemies? Those that have hurt me?

The second person of “Five Stories”, sat a few tables from me. He was a man that I had seen a number of times in Starbucks, and in my neighborhood, and was talking with someone else about his realty business. As the conversation moved to more personal topics, he began to share how he was beginning to realize that life’s BIG adventures might be as simple as drinking a cup of coffee while watering his flowers early in the morning. His Dad died recently and he watched him work until he was 70 years old, never really seeming to enjoy his life to the fullest. He doesn’t want this to happen to him, and feels God is leading him to slow down and enjoy each moment of life. From listening to his words and the inflection in his voice, it is obvious that he gets it. He is content with his life and is learning more about his relationship with God every day.

As I watched this man, and his interaction with his friend, I felt myself having compassion for him. I could feel something deeper than just observing a stranger, but there was somewhat of a connection with him. Even though I was uninvited to listen in on this little segment of his life, I felt as if I was joining him in his journey of life; if only for a few moments. He had no idea that I was connecting with him, but on some spiritual level, we were connected. Was this “love” that I was feeling for this stranger? The way in which God intends us to love one another? And as my mind meditated on his story, was the love of God being expressed in my concern for him?

The author of the Gospel of John was called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and as you read through the words of his gospel account, you get a sense of why he was singled out among the other eleven disciples and given this title. His words take you into a deeper understanding of the humanity of Christ and the fullness and complexity of His emotions moreso than the other three gospels. In his first letter of the New Testament, John speaks quite a bit about the concept of love. In fact, he draws one of the most significant and simplistic parallels to God that has ever been written: God is love. “God is love”. “Love one another”. Are we able to put some pieces together here?

I don’t think that John was merely talking about one of God’s many attributes or actions. Rather in His love, we see the complete embodiment of who God is, culminating in the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. The ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate expression of love. Maybe being extensions of God’s love is more than just saying we “love” others. Maybe in order to really love one another, we must first be intimately connected to the one who is the essence of love. And as God dwells within us, His love pours out from us as we submit to Him completely. Let’s face it. Some people are impossible to love through our own power and actions. Yes, Christ commands us to love one another, but it seems to me that if God is love, and we are called to love one another, maybe it has less to do with our feelings or actions. Maybe it has nothing to do with us at all, and our expressions of love are simply the revelation of God to the world.

"Love one another".

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Five Stories - Part I


Jesus said in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one an another”. Love one another. Recently, I began wondering why we seem to take this “command” as if it were simply a suggestion. But while I was sitting in Starbucks yesterday afternoon, trying to relax and finish a book that I began reading a few weeks ago, my mind began to wander, as did my eyes. As I looked around the room, I started watching the people who were enjoying their coffee and engaging in various conversations. Everyone was drinking iced coffee drinks, signifying that summer had finally arrived, and after about 20 minutes of observation, I realized that there were 5 groups of people in the room. Five individual lives. Five individual stories existing in five separate, specific and secluded realities. “Love one another. “ Allow me to tell you about one of the five.
The first person that I noticed was an older woman who was talking with the barista and leaning on the counter. She was much older than me, had very weathered skin and a raspy voice. Probably a smoker, she was talking about how she had just had the first good night’s sleep in a long time, due to a new mattress that she had just aquired. After listening for a while, I began to realize that she was a victim of hurricane Ike, and was just starting to get her life back together again. She looked tired. She looked troubled. She looked lost. And although my heart really went out to her, I realized how isolated I felt from her. Here we were, sharing the same air, the same light, the same sounds and maybe the same brew of coffee, and yet we might as well be on opposite ends of the globe. “Love one another.” I love my wife. I love my two boys. But, how am I supposed to love a person that I know nothing about it?
A little later, she walked outside and sat by herself. Enjoying a smoke along with her coffee, she stared out into the parking lot, looking deep in thought. Not a peaceful contemplative type of thought, but a troubled and worried thought. The kind of thought where you wish you would just freeze time and live in this moment forever. You don’t want to leave the moment because reality is waiting for you just around the corner, and it’s not pleasant. I watched her from the window, but couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. I felt isolated and disconnected from her, and wondered how I could show the love of God to someone so distant. “Love one another.”
It’s interesting how our culture functions. Millions of people walk in and out of each others lives without so much as a second thought. We imagine our lives as being the center of the universe and elevate ourselves above others. But what if God had different plans for us? What if we were meant to engage each other as part of life’s natural rhythm? What if my observations in Starbucks are a flaw in how I perceive life? Should my observations rather be conversations?
Jesus said in Matthew 22, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How is that possible when we find it so difficult to love ourselves? Many of us find ourselves either in the pits of self-loathing, or we are constantly striving to be someone that we’re not. We constantly attempt to improve ourselves inside and out, as if the imperfect always needs constant improving. Either way, we reject ourselves as incomplete, imperfect and flawed; as if God just didn’t get it right when He created us the first time.
“Love one another.” What does it mean to love one another? I’m not sure that I understand, and I’m not so sure that I am always capable. But maybe its more simple than we think. Maybe loving one another has less to do with a physical decision or action, and more to do with a spiritual connection. A divine encounter. Love one another.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Truth

There was a time when I loved the debate over denominational differences. I zealously followed the beliefs and doctrines of my particular denomination, dotting each "i" and crossing every "t". I held firm to my beliefs as absolute truth, and assumed without doubt that other denominations were completely wrong; and in many instances, not biblical. As I made my way through seminary, I began to have less interest in arguments. AT this point in my life, I find these arguments boring. In fact, I avoid them at all cost.

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. There is a significance of seeking truth within our faith system. Each of us should seek truth and wisdom with all of our heart. The book of Proverbs constantly speaks of the importance of seeking wisdom and holding firm to it as a precious jewel. It's vital to our spiritual development to hold firm to what we believe and not waver on basic doctrinal truths. And let's face it; there are some bizarre interpretations of the Bible that we must be aware of with a wise and discerning spirit. But let's be honest, most of the issues that we argue over within denominations, do not fall in the category of bad theology or even heresy. Most of the issues are not worth the effort of a good debate, let alone divisions in Christianity.

But it makes me think: Is our faith a personal experience, a group relationship or elements of both? Is it mandatory that we buy into the "corporate philosophy" 100%, or face being ostracized? Are we merely following a set of rules and regulations mandated by the denomination, pastor, council, etc.? Or are we following the teachings of Christ and seeking what He taught and implementing it into our lives? Do we belong to a corporation, or the Body of Christ?

Hey, we all believe different things, right? We all carry a personal bias of interpreting scripture, and most people are well intentioned in their quest for truth. Most folks don't run out and try to develop heresy, for the sake of causing division. Most Christians are on the same journey, trying to make sense of all this. And yes, we make a mess from time to time! James Garlow, in his book, "God and His People", says that it is nothing short of a miracle of God that the Church has not only survived, but thrived for over 2000 years, despite the failures of man. I can't agree more.

Sometimes I imagine when we come face to face with our Creator, and He explains what HE intended, we are ALL going to realize that we had it dead wrong in many areas! Oh sure, we've done some great things. One denomination does "this" really well. These guys do "that" very well. And another church has their game down pretty well also. Looking at the various mosaic of denominations, each one has nailed one aspect of Christianity very well.

But what if we stopped criticizing each other on the areas of disagreement, and attempt to come together on what we all hold as truth? Those certain essentials of our faith?

Paul sums this up pretty well in 1 Corinthians 15. "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to Scriptures," That just about sums it up, doesn't it?

What would happen if we just allowed God to sort out the other stuff? When you think about it, most of it is not detrimental to our salvation or relationship with Christ. The "denomination" is not who is going to be held accountable in the end. We join together in unity, but in the end, it comes down to our relationship with a living God. We seek. He speaks. We listen. We do our best to understand. We receive.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Contentment

Many years ago, just after I graduated from college, my parents gave me one of those inspirational pictures for Christmas that I hung on one of my office walls. I still have it today. The peaceful image is of a golden sunset, silhouetted by a man in a kayak, rowing across a calm glassy lake. The picture is titled “Contentment”, and the caption reads, “When you can look at the past with pride and the future with hope, you can live comfortably with today”. Yeah, right! Easier said than done!

What is contentment? More importantly, why is contentment so hard for us to grasp in our culture today? Here’s what the apostle Paul said about it. In Philippians 4:11-13, he says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” As I read through this verse, I see that Paul understood that we have no real control over the past or the future. The only period of time that we can physically live within, exist within, is the present. And our present situations of life can only be filled with peace through a complete surrender to God.

Basically, for Paul, it came down to a very simple concept: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” He reaffirms this in his first letter to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 6:6-8, Paul again links the secret of contentment to God. “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” He then goes on to show us that our physical possessions have nothing to do with contentment. “For we brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” Now, how many of us are content with those basic necessities of life?

Dale Carnagie once said that we should live life in “Day Tight Compartments”. He compares the past and present to the “air tight” doors of a ship that keep water from spreading in case of a sudden breach in the hull. He urges us to live each day in such a way that both the doors to the past and future remain shut and “day tight”. I believe that this is the essence of what the Paul was trying to get across in these verses. Paul had once lived life only for himself and knew of the dangers of being controlled by possessions. He had experienced life with much, and experienced life with nothing, and I believe that he is urging us to find a healthy medium between the two. Even if we are blessed with much, we can always want more, or convince ourselves that we need more. True contentment comes when we learn to accept the blessings that God has given us from one day to the next.

Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14 that he is, “forgetting what lies behind”. This is hard for me to grasp because I am a rather nostalgic person by nature. One of the last things I tend to do is “forget what lies behind.” I love reveling in a memory to the point that I’m transformed back in time. I can hear the sounds and voices. See the faces. So, what is Paul he getting at?

Can't our past bring forth good memories and enhance our contentment for today? Or can positive memories from our past cause us problems or conflict, because they create a false expectation of what things “should” be like? Do we put too much emphasis on what has been, and not allow God to have control of our here and now and transform us in the present? Do we not only put the bad behind us, but to some extent, the good as well?

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t hold great memories of the past, pictures, video, etc… But as we live in the present and create the ever changing reality that soon becomes our past, we don’t try and recreate the past by what used to be, or who you used to be. God longs to transform is in the here and now. God cannot, and does not transform our yesterday. While He is in control of our tomorrow, the last thing He wants us to do is absorb ourselves in worry of tomorrow. True contentment comes when we learn to live within the reality of today and embrace the fact that this is the only reality over which we have control.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Would you like fries with that?" - God

Imagine for a moment, that you pull into your favorite fast food restaurant and order your favorite fast food meal. Your stomach growls with anticipation and hunger as you decide that you might just have to pull into a parking spot and have dinner in the car. Strangely, the cashier asks you to pull forward and tells you that she will bring your meal out to you in about 10 minutes. “Ten minutes!?”, you think to yourself with irritation. Isn't this supposed to be “fast” food? Reluctantly, you pull over, turn the car off and wait. Exactly 10 minutes later, you’re still waiting and hungrier than ever. Finally, 15 minutes later, your food arrives. Famished, you rip open the bag only to discover not the Quarter Pounder with cheese and large fries that you ordered, but a large chicken Caesar salad! The thought of storming into the restaurant and demanding satisfaction crosses your mind, but considering you are close to starvation at this point, you decide to accept what you have and dine. You take a deep breath, eat your "healthy" salad, and dream about how good that Quarter Pounder would have tasted! You finish eating, sit back, start the car and head for home for a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.

After the drive home, you realize something. You feel surprisingly good. In fact, you have more energy than you have had in days! The anger from your 15-minute wait seems to be gone and you realize that if you had been served that double cheeseburger in five minutes, and eaten it in two, at this moment you would be eating Rolaids like candy.

We live in a “fast food” culture. Everything that we want, we want NOW. We microwave our meals as well as our relationships. The faster the better and anything that we have to wait for, is just not worth it. In fact, we have grown to believe that good things DON’T come to those who wait, but to those who can intimidate others to get what they want immediately. Is it any wonder that our relationship with God reflects how we view our life in America?

Our prayer life is much like the above scenario, despite how ridiculous it may sound. Answers to prayer typically do not come quickly and they are usually not what we expect. How many times have you prayed about something and expected to hear an answer right at that very moment? We tend to look at God as the cashier behind the counter. “OK, God. I’ll have THIS, THAT, but not too much of THAT, and while your at it, through in some of THIS.” We wait. We listen. And usually, we hear nothing. Automatically we assume that God isn't listening, or we question if He is really there at all. Waiting on God is not something that comes easy for us as Westerners. We become discouraged and our faith becomes weak. But as the profit Isaiah said, “Blessed are all who wait for him!”. Even in dark times, He hears our cries. Jonah knew this well as he cried out, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.”

There are two things that you can be assured of: God always hears ALL of our prayers and He always answers our prayers according to His will. In 1 John 5:14, it says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have what we asked of him.” Notice that this is not an unconditional guarantee because our prayers must be within the will of God.

We see examples of this throughout the Psalms. David prays, waits and seeks God’s will. He goes into great detail to describe his pain and anguish while approaching God. I believe that this shows that David spent a significant amount of time waiting for God. Not only did he wait, but because of his suffering, more than likely, David’s prayers were not answered the way in which he would have liked. Above all, we are assured that David knew that his prayers were being heard: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” David asked, he waited, he heard from God and He accepted God’s will as the best thing for him. He may have wanted the double cheeseburger, but God gave him the salad instead. And David not only “ate the salad”, but rejoiced and praised his Lord for hearing and answering his prayer.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Faith


I spend a lot of time meditating on life and the world we live in. And when I think about it, I've been like this ever since I was a little boy. I remember sitting in my room, staring at the ceiling and asking questions like, "Why am I here?" "Why am I who I am?" "Why does this world exist?" "Why is there death?" As I developed a deeper concept of God, these questions began to make more sense, but I have to admit; even today, I ponder these issues probably more than most people. And probably more than I should. After all, the book of Ecclesiastes opens with the words, "Meaningless! Meaningless!...Everything is meaningless." Maybe he was on to something?

I guess you can say that I got a glimpse of the "meaninglessness" of life a few weeks ago. Let me share with you what happened on an ordinary day after getting my haircut. As I turned my car onto FM 518, I saw the familiar and peppy gallop of two dogs that I met and rescued just after Christmas. Trevor and Faith were trotting down the busy League City street in the familiar and aimless manner of dogs who are not at all street savoy. Afternoon congestion only caused confusion, as they blindly dodged in and out of traffic; for a moment darting off the side walk and then back on again. I instantly knew that I was going to have to intervene to keep these two out of imminent danger yet again.

I began to pull over, but before I could initiate a plan of attack, the two suddenly split up. Trevor, a terrior mix, sprinted down the sidewalk that parallels FM 518, and Faith, a black lab, dodged into an apartment complex, apparently limping as she listlessly hopped a parking lot curb. Assuming that she would be safe for the moment, I chose to try and round up Trevor as he raced East toward my neighborhood. Speeding ahead of traffic, I screeched into the next intersection, cut him off at the pass, and waited for him to get a bit closer. "Come on Trevor! Come on boy!", I yelled out, assuming he would recognize me. But much to my surprise, he quickly darted to the left, and fell into a full speed sprint through an open field.

Realizing that there was no chance of catching him, I quickly made an illegal u-turn, and backtracked to find Faith. Back at the apartment complex, I made my way through the back parking lot until I saw two people standing behind a few parked cars looking down at the grass. I asked if they had seen a black lab, and my heart sunk as a woman replied with tears in her eyes, "Yeah, she's right here! And she's messed up bad!"

Jumping out of my car, I raced over to where the people were standing. And there on the ground, laying in a grassy spot was Faith; gasping for breath and bleeding from the mouth. "Is she yours?", the woman asked. "No, but I know her and know where she lives. I saved her a few months ago and was trying to do it again.". I put my hand on Faith's head and whispered that it was going to be OK. You know, the way "dog people", like myself, find themselves talking to dogs? The other person was a man pouring cold water over her head and mumbled that she must be bleeding internally. We agreed and after a few minutes, we glanced at each other, shook our heads, and without a word, agreed that she was not going to make it. Unfortunately, our unspoken assumption was right.

As I rubbed Faith's head with my right hand, she laid her head on top of my left, gave one last raspy gasp, spit out some blood, closed her eyes and died. Just like that. We sat there, starring at Faith for a few seconds and it was very quiet. I wasn't unusually sad, but I suddenly felt very out of control. Not panic, anger or fear, but just a simple realization that I really don't have a lot of control in life. This elaborate system that God has created is complex and in reality, we are just a part of it. We don't control the system, we only live in submission to it or aimlessly attempt to manipulate it.

The author of Ecclesiastes goes on to say that "No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death." Yes, you may be thinking that Faith was just a dog. And I guess an animal's life is not on the same level as that of a humans, but life is life. God grants it and He takes it away. He starts all the internal clocks of life and stops them when time runs out. We have no real control, and I think a large part of our healthy functioning in this system God has created, is just accepting that.

Job understood this simple concept. And when he found himself in in the midst of the deepest grief and despair in the death of his sons and daughters, he lifted up his hands toward God and cried out from the depth of his soul, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." Job knew that life is in the control of the hands of God, just as the wind that blows and cannot be contained with feeble human hands.

Sure, I could look at this experience and say to myself, "Hey, Faith was just another dog that got hit by a car. It happens everyday". But I chose to dig into the moment and focus on what was really happening. God's system of creation is constantly moving around us and for the most part, it functions better than anything human hands have developed. Life is an amazing thing and seeing life end from time to time helps us to realize how incredible each breath of it really is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Image of Christ


Over the last couple of years, God has been directing me in odd directions. Strange concepts fill my dreams at night; they wake me up and send me to my laptop to write what I am trying to decipher. Writing has become somewhat of a communication with God for me, because as my thoughts pour into word, He deepens my insight into who He is. And these insights cause me to reflect on who I am; or who I am supposed to be.

Lately, God has specifically been directing my thoughts and prayers to what it really means to be transformed into His image. And through prayer, I meditate on the imperfections in my life. I began asking God to change those things which are against His will or opposite of what He created me to be. But rather than hearing, “Well, Jake I need you to do this, that and the other thing. Be this way. Be that way.” I began to simply hear, “Be transformed into the image of my Son.” And that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. I began to pursue this and it caused me to contemplate what this really means in my life. To be transformed into the image of Christ.

The word Sanctification, is just a big word for the continuous process of making ourselves holy, or setting ourselves apart. Distinguishing ourselves as a follower of Christ and dedicating our efforts to be more like Him. As we grow in Christ, we are continuously being transformed into His likeness. Becoming more and more like Him. It’s a process that we live our lives by, that begins with salvation and carries on until we are finally glorified; which is just the end result, or reaching the finish line after this life. In many ways, this process is a restoration back to what was intended in the first place, before the fall of man. And to find out more of what the image of Christ is, I actually found myself going back to the book of Genesis, and looking at what man was created for in the first place.

Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make man in our image AND likeness”, and in the next verse (27), God goes on to say “in the IMAGE of God He made him.” For some reason, He is silent on “likeness”. Why is this? Well, what I think is going on here is a description of the progression of creation. See, in the first creation, man received the honor and privilege of being made in God's image, but the likeness of God is something that is ongoing, and finally completed when we leave this world. That’s what sanctification is all about.

I see myself living this out in a very practical way; by following the example of Christ. Imitating God, so to speak. And that draws into the even deeper concept of living our lives as Christians and realizing our identity as children of God. The Bible talks about followers of Christ being "transformed". Most significantly, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

As we become more like Christ, a restoration begins to take place in creation. We begin to be transformed back to what we were originally created to be in the first place. We see this in Colossians 3:10, where Paul talks about putting on the “new self” “which is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its Creator.” And Ephesians 4:22-24, where Paul says that we are “made new” and to “put on the new self” “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

OK. This all sounds well and good, but I began to ask myself, "Do I really believe that this is true? And if I do, why do I not live as a “new creation” on a regular basis. Why do I walk out of the door on Sunday mornings, and live as the “old creation” when I get home?" If I am in fact, a “new creation”, then my life needs to emmulate a life that is lived in constant awareness of this basic principle. Am I conscious of this every waking moment? Am I transformed even to the point of how I physically see the world? Am I looking at life through the eyes of Christ, or am I looking through the eyes of who I once was?

As we find ourselves being transformed in Christ's image, it’s almost as if we are putting on "Christ" glasses that distort all that we see, but in a way that brings clarity, not a blurred reality. You see, when we refuse to allow ourselves to be transformed, we are essentially giving our will over to sin, and that is the exact antithesis of the Christ's image. And this is the essence of the fall of man, and the beginning of man's skewed and distorted image. We lost the image of God that He intended us to have.

In the early days of Christianity, followers of Christ were called Christians as a derogatory term. It meant “little Christ”. I can imagine the Greek philosophers calling out, “Hey look! There's another one of those “little Christs”. But when you think about it, what a great derogatory term. If only I could be called a "little Christ" more often! But could I be accused of that on a daily basis? Am I walking with God in such a way, that I am intertwined with Christ’s image and it spews over into my life? Am I a "little Christ"?

Digital History

I finally went digital, kicking and screaming, about 2 years ago. See, when I was in high school, I was really into black and white photography. To me, there was nothing better than spending an entire day shooting a role of film, entering the dark room that evening, and watching the images of my mind being transformed to print. It was a rush that I still think about from time to time. And when I do, I find myself feeling very nostalgic. I think back to what it was like when I was growing up and all the memories I keep in one of those "LIFE" files. We all have them, don't we? A thought pops into our mind, we smell something that flips a switch and we are transported to a time that seems so distant, but more familiar than much of reality. And it makes me meditate on who I am today and how God has used my history to carve out the man that sits here and writes blogs.

Much like our Creator, history is an entity that doesn't exist in time and space. We harness it through the mystery of the mind and the miracle of memory. And when you think about it, our memory function is really an incredible gift from God. We can restrain it, we can repress it, we can embellish it or we can allow it to run wild. We mold it. Carve it. And we cherish it. But the fact of the matter is that history is what it is. It remains constant despite our manipulation. History is what it is, and one thing that remains constant about history is that it is imperfect.

Open a photo album before the advent of digital photography. Let your mind go back as you look over the images. You'll find that much of what you see is a vast array of imperfection. Great memories and nostalgia that runs deep, but flawed and irregular. Look closely at the pictures. Look at the faces. Someone's eyes are closed. Your little brother has his tongue sticking out. Someone is not looking at the camera, not smiling or is scratching something that should not be caught on film! And hey, isn't the classic "red eye" hilarious sometimes?

But these imperfections are part of the canvass that is our life. Yes, God has created us in His image and likeness, and His image should be perfection, but unfortunately that image is flawed by the sin that is in our lives. Just read through the first few chapters of Genesis. We do our best to perfect life, but what is left is still the imperfect. We can label that memory file "PERFECT LIFE", but in reality it is still just "LIFE". A digital camera can help us eliminate the little flaws in our memories, but it doesn't eliminate the imperfections. And those imperfections create an elaborate, deep and warm canvass of history, and are who we are.

I lost my camera early this week, but found it this morning, and for some reason, I feel like taking a lot of pictures. I hope that you'll do the same this weekend, and don't be so quick to hit the delete button. Don't be so quick to backup only the pictures that are "perfect", because for that matter, what is "perfect"? Take pictures! Make memories! Fill up the memory card! But keep ALL of them and build a rich history; imperfections and all.