Friday, December 31, 2010

Do Over!

Do you remember playing neighborhood sports as a kid?  Not organized leagues, but the group of neighborhood kids that all gathered together on Saturday morning and suddenly became all-stars? Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was lucky enough to experience the advent of youth soccer.  It was just taking off in American suburbia and I jumped in feet first!  In fact, I think my Mom still considers herself officially the first "soccer mom".  As Saturdays became Game Day, I absolutely fell in love with this burgeoning sport.  But despite the cool uniforms and the cheers of the crowds, I always loved playing neighborhood soccer best of all. There is just something about playing soccer with your buddies. No rules, no uniforms, no rain-outs and no refs! You play a little harder, get a lot more sweaty and dirty (maybe even a little blood!), and most of all, have a lot more fun.

But the one thing I remember most was the amount of grace we allowed each other. And we granted that grace with the ever popular "Do Over"! Remember the "Do Over"? You kick the ball crooked, it goes out of bounds and you yell, "Do over!" You hit a foul ball, "Do over!" You slip while trying to tackle the wide receiver, "Do over!" It was the best, and one of the only rules we had in neighborhood sports. Of course, there was always that guy that objected to most "do overs", but he was usually over ruled by other teams mates that knew they would probably need a "do over" as well when they had the ball.

I've been thinking a lot about "do overs" as we face the end of 2012, and and I am considering giving myself a "do over" to start the year off right. I know what you're thinking.!  It sound cliche, right?  But it's really how I've been feeling. I guess it's just human nature to reflect over the last year and take inventory of how you've been doing. This week, I found myself listing the various things that I want to do better. A lot of things went through my mind, but my predominate thought was to be a better spiritual leader to my two boys. Don't get me wrong, I pray with them every morning and night, get them to church every Sunday, make sure they make midweek groups, etc. But I want to feel like I'm doing more than just going through the motions. I want to connect with them on a deeper spiritual level. I'm not sure what that might mean right now. Maybe sharing more spiritual insight with them. Maybe sharing some cool things that God is doing in my life. Maybe just listening to them a little more. Whatever it might be, I'm considering a "do over".

You may not feel like you need a "do over" in this area of your life.  You may not even be a parent.  You may take stock of 2010 and feel as if all the pieces have fallen into place perfectly. But let me just ask you to join me in doing one thing.  If you're a mom or dad, teacher, youth leader, coach, or all of the above, you spend a great amount of our time with kids. Unfortunately, kids usually don't reflect on the past year as we do. In fact, they usually don't reflect much on the last week, or day for that matter! But what has 2010 looked like for the children in our lives? What obstacles have they faced? What victories have they been a part of? Where are they spiritually? Are there any milestones that mark their journey's of faith?

Give this some thought. Spend some time with God and reflect. And if you see some things that you might have been able to do a little better with the kiddos, then I officially make the call!

"Do over!!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Here

In Eugene Peterson's The Message, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3:13 like this:
'There's an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth: A right time for birth and another for death, A right time to plant and another to reap, A right time to kill and another to heal, A right time to destroy and another to construct, A right time to cry and another to laugh, A right time to lament and another to cheer, A right time to make love and another to abstain, A right time to embrace and another to part, A right time to search and another to count your losses, A right time to hold on and another to let go, A right time to rip out and another to mend, A right time to shut up and another to speak up, A right time to love and another to hate, A right time to wage war and another to make peace. But in the end, does it really make a difference what anyone does? I've had a good look at what God has given us to do—busywork, mostly. True, God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time—but he's left us in the dark, so we can never know what God is up to, whether he's coming or going. I've decided that there's nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life. That's it—eat, drink, and make the most of your job. It's God's gift."

I read these words in a new way this morning. I've been sitting in the library, trying to continue writing my book, which I began this Summer. It's not as easy as I thought it was going to be. At times, it can be isolating. Sometimes it's difficult to focus. Sometimes I feel compelled to delete every file that I've collected so far and start over. Sometimes, I wonder why I'm doing this at all. I wonder if I'll ever finish. I wonder if this is wasted time. I wonder if anyone will read it. But the words in this passage of scripture spoke to me this morning and gave me the comfort and perspective that I needed. I have no idea who's reading this, and those of you that are, I know nothing about your journey in life, and the specific paths you've taken. But you're human, and chances are, you've struggled with the same thoughts that overwhelm me this morning. I pray that it opens a door of hope with you as well.

Basically, my thoughts are pretty simple. I don't have a deep theological dissertation or a new idea of what God is trying to communicate. What rang true with me in these words is that God knows exactly what He's doing, each and every second of our lives. Regardless of the paths we decide to take in life, each one is the path that is ordained for us to walk down. Culture might classify your choices as "right" or "wrong", but what does that really mean when we are in perfect union with God? I firmly believe that if we remain connected to God in prayer and meditation, each and every life choice that we make is guided by Him through His Spirit and therefore cannot be narrowed down to a category of "right" or "wrong". My Dad often said that if we remain responsible in our decisions and pray about each choice, there are no "bad" choices. A specific decision may not be exactly what God had intended, but he still uses that choice for good and to advance His Kingdom.

Many of you know that I had a bad experience with the last church staff on which I served. I spent most of the Summer being angry with those that hurt me, and with God as well. I demanded God provide a reason for what happened, and begged Him for me to be vindicated. I questioned my decision to join this church, and questioned if God had even called me there in the first place. But just as I reached the pinnacle of confusion and frustration, God revealed to me that everything happened exactly as He had intended it. There was a "reason" for what happened, and I didn't need to know what it was. And I have found a peace with this realization.

So I sit here, in a dark corner of the library, banging on my laptop and knowing that there is a time to write and a time to serve on a church staff. There is a time to feel lonely, isolated and there is a time to enjoy company. There is a time for confusion and a time for clarity. There is a time for the wilderness and a time for shelter. There is a time for depression and a time for peace. A time for anger and a time for joy. There is a time to fall and a time to get up, but also a time to just lie there for a while. There is a time for each event in our lives that God sets into motion. And just like the seasons throughout a year, they often seem to be in complete conflict with each other. But they all work together in complete unity and reveal to us a simple truth: There is a time to trust God, and a time to....well...I guess that's it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Construct


We are all born into a spiritual construct. My spiritual construct is different from your spiritual construct, and your spiritual construct is different from mine. A spiritual construct is basically the building blocks of spirituality that have been set in place since the day you were born. They consist of things you are aware of, and may consist of things that have been subliminal throughout most of your life. Your spiritual construct reveals your spiritual personality and determines how your spiritual life will flow.

I was born into the Roman Catholic faith, and although I now follow a Protestant theology, my spiritual life has been developed to a great extent by my Catholic upbringing. Spiritual elements like Christian icons, stained glass, candles, meditation and observing long periods of silence are a big part of how I delve into a deeper communion with God. Although Christ is the center of who I am, these are elements that are part of my spiritual construct.

For many years, I rejected anything that was in any way related to Catholicism. In my mind, I felt that anything connected to the rigid and religious structure of the liturgical church was only going to hinder my growth as a follower of Christ. I felt as if I had become "enlightened", whatever that means, and freed from the overly structured and methodical way of faith that I grew up with. But then I went to seminary, and came out feeling as if knew less that I did before, and I became "enlightened" to the fact that I was dead wrong!

What I began to realize is that Christianity is somewhat of a mosaic that makes up the Church as we see it today in 2010. Some of us grew up with the structure of the liturgy, and some of us grew up with the freedom of a congregational church setting. Some of us grew up with structure of conservative spiritual upbringing, while others grew up with the idealism of a more liberal faith. Either way, our spiritual construct was set by those early stages of faith. Right or wrong, good or bad, our spirituality has been developed by where we've been, and that's not a bad thing.

What I have learned through my journey of faith, is that each of us need to embrace our spiritual construct. The mold that has been cast is not necessarily one that needs to be broken and reconstructed. The early path we took in our spiritual development, does not mean we're going in the wrong direction. Construction does not always mean demolition. And If we're honest with ourselves, we can look back over our spiritual lives and see that the building blocks that have been set are elements that have brought us to the faith we have today.

In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul alludes to Timothy's Spiritual Construct. "I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God," We have no idea of the details of Timothy's upbringing in the faith. We know nothing of the traditions or spiritual disciplines practiced in his household. But we do know that his Mother and grandmother were Jewish and his Father was Greek. He grew up in Lystra, which was located in modern day Turkey, and heavily steeped in Greek culture. Both of these backgrounds would have been part of his accepting the truths of Jesus Christ when the Apostle Paul first began spreading the gospel in that area. In fact, it's very significant that Paul found it important enough to mention that both Timothy's Mother and Grandmother had an influence in Timothy's strong faith. Both being Jewish, the faith of Israel would would have been a filter that he used in accepting the Christian faith.

Like Timothy, you might have parents or grandparents that influenced the development of your spiritual construct. You may have other family members or friends that have affected your growth, or there might be life events that have added building blocks to your faith. Still there may be some of you that see nothing in your life journey that has had any influence in where you are spiritually. But I encourage you to spend some time meditating on what your spiritual construct might look like. See if you can determine what factors have influenced it. Once you have, embrace those spiritual aspects. Ask God how you can utilize them in your walk of faith this week. Seek how they might become regular practices to draw closer to God, and enjoy your place in the mosaic of Christianity.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jesus Teaches on Direction: A Lost Passage

The Gospel according to......

"One day Jesus approached the temple with His disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. As they approached the temple courts, a group of religious leaders approached Him saying, 'Teacher, walk with us to the right of the temple and discuss with us the importance of following the law. For the paths are straight, and there are no people to distract us. We can therefore discuss the law of Moses without missing anything. Our conversation will not be interrupted.' Jesus said to them, 'You follow the law and know it well. You do well to do this, for the law reveals sin and the darkness in your life. I came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it."

"Walking further, another group of religious leaders stopped Jesus and said to Him, 'Good Teacher, please walk along these paths to the left of the temple and talk with us. Here there will be many paths, people and opportunities to help the poor and sick. We can share with them the kingdom of God not by our words and the law, but by our kind actions." Jesus looked at them and said, "You open your arms to the poor and care for the sick. You do well to do this, for blessed are the poor and sick. For my kingdom is for them. Against these things there is no law."

"At this, Jesus' disciples were confused and said to Him, "Then which direction should we go? How will we then get to where we are going? Which group of religious leaders will we follow?" Jesus said, "Right and left are only directions. If it's my Father's will to travel left, then I will travel left. You will do well to follow me. If it is my father's will to travel right, then I will travel right as well. Both paths lead us to where we want to go and on both paths are the kingdom of God. So you would be correct in following those on the right, and you would be correct in following those on the left. And both direction I will walk as my Father leads."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What the Hell?

Hell is not a popular topic today, is it? I shudder at having to write about it because it's not very politically correct. But considering how many times Jesus talked about the reality of Hell, it’s probably something we should at least consider. There are at least 15 passages of scripture where Jesus mentions the concept of Hell, and all are instances that propose that Hell is the basically the antithesis of Heaven. The result of rejecting God and a place of final judgment and punishment. None of the illustrations make Hell sound like a good place to be. In fact, in many of Jesus’ Hell illustrations, He uses the term “Gehenna”, which was Jerusalem’s garbage dump, just south of the city. It was a place that was kept constantly burning in order to destroy the huge amounts of refuse accumulated every day. It was also full of animal carcasses and human remains from Pagan sacrifices, including children. Not a nice place, to say the least!

The most common objection I hear in response to Hell’s existence is, “Why would a loving God allow the reality of Hell? Why would He send any of His beloved creation to such a horrible place?” My thoughts have often drifted to ponder this question myself. And my conclusion and response has become very simplistic: He doesn’t. Now, before you accuse me of denying the existence of Hell, allow me to explain. I believe that Hell is a very real place. Just as real as Heaven and the world around us, Hell is a reality that unfortunately is the final destination for some people that walk this earth. But my point is this: I don’t believe that God “sends” anyone to Hell. Those that end up facing eternity in Hell, end up there by their own choice. So, am I saying that people actually “decide” to hang out in Hell forever, without any chance of parole? Well, maybe not intentionally, but yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Why? Because God is a “just” God.

So, what does God’s justice really mean? Well, basically, God is fair. Those that choose to believe in Him and do their best to follow His guidelines of life, get to spend eternity with Him, and those that reject Him for a lifetime, get more of the same in a place completely absent of Him. Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point. Sounds pretty narrow minded and judgmental, right? Well, I’m not God and thankfully, I’m not the judge. But if we are going to attribute perfect love and acceptance to the God of the universe, then we probably have to attribute the fact that He is completely “just” as well. If not, He would be a flaky deity and no different than many of the inconsistent Christians that claim to be His followers. I would be more apt to give Him more credit than that, wouldn’t you? Especially if it was compared to me and my spiritual walk.

But, here’s the point. I don’t believe for one second that God “sends” anyone to Hell. Obviously, people end up there, but I don’t think God waves a wand of judgment and, “poof”, you’re in Hell! “Mwahhahaha! Suck on that, you worthless sinner! Sorry! Too late! Can’t hang in Heaven! Even if ya beg!”

To sum it up; yes. I do believe in the existence of Hell. But I do not, for one second, believe that God is in the habit of aggressively looking for people to send to Hell. He’s not actively looking for loopholes so He can put another name in His “Sent to Hell” log. Instead, I believe that we serve a living and loving God, that is constantly looking for any reason possible to bring people into the eternal reality of Heaven. And this same God weeps when anyone faces the reality of Hell, because we were not created for Hell in the first place.

I believe that God is banging on the door of each and every heart, screaming to the recesses of our souls of His reality and that eternity with Him is more real that the temporary world around us. “This is your home! This is what you were created for! This is the way! Walk in it!”

Gehenna references: Matt.5:22, Matt.5:29, Matt.5:30, Matt.10:28, Matt.18:9, Matt.23:15, Matt.23:33, Matt. 9:43, Mark 9:45, Mark 9:47, Luke 12:5, James 3:6.

Monday, August 23, 2010

School of Pain

Well, the kids are officially back in school and the painful looks on their faces reminded me of that anxious and fearfully dreaded first day after Summer vacation. After explaining to them both that school is just part of life and that all good things must come to an end, I realized that this is just part of the natural pattern of life. We all experience times if great joy, "life vacations", and we all experience pain, "back to school". It's just an element of how God created us. Yeah, I know! Try explaining that to a teenager, right?

It's ironic,isn't it? We live in a culture, where we are constantly taught to avoid pain and suffering at ALL cost. Pain and suffering, whether physical or emotional, are meant to be avoided. Go to the doctor for this. Take a pill for that. So, how in the world are we supposed to teach our children that pain and suffering is just part of a Christian's journey, and should not only be expected, but even welcomed? In his book “On the Anvil”, Max Lucado takes a look at human suffering and compares the suffering of a Christian to that of being on a blacksmith’s anvil. As the blacksmith hammers the hot steel, it’s not exactly a pretty sight. It’s chaotic. It’s ugly. It takes much work. It’s hot and uncomfortable. But after the blacksmith has completed his job, what he is left with is a beautiful piece of metal; perhaps a sword or a valuable tool. The point that Lucado makes is that through our suffering, we become refined. We become better. As God allows us to go through the fire of pain, what comes out on the other side is beautiful. Yes, it’s painful, chaotic and ugly. But when the work has come to fruition, what remains is a tool that God can then use, on his terms. Beautiful. Useful. Refined!

In the book of Job, we see the quintessential example of human suffering intertwined with the nature and the sovereignty of God. We see life being played out in a great epic drama. On the big stage we see Satan suggesting that Job is only faithful because of God’s blessings in his life. Take away the blessings, and Job would surely reject and curse God. God begs to differ, knowing full well that Job’s heart was in the right place. “Prove it!”, Satan challenges. God sees redemptive history in front of Him. The big picture. He knows the pain that Job will go through, but in the end it will bring Him glory. And that’s what lies at the heart of this story. God’s glory.

So, God allows the heat to be turned up on Job’s life, and he makes it through the fire. Job became the steel. He was sent into the fire. Thrown upon the anvil. Beaten with the hammer. Tested and refined for God’s will. What remained? A tool to be used for God over the next several thousand years and for all eternity! Pretty awesome, huh? Do you think Job had any idea how his personal suffering would be used for the glory of God? Probably not. In fact, there is no evidence that Job had any idea what was going on between Satan and God. And he probably had never realized what God’s will was throughout his tragedy. All that mattered was God’s glory and Job's faithfulness. The point was made clear.

We all go through tragedy. We all experience pain. You may be going through some painful circumstances as you read this. Most of us do not go through suffering to the magnitude that Job did, but that's not the point, nor does it matter. The point is that suffering is suffering. Pain is pain. But as we feel the heat being turned up, and the hammer coming down upon us, do we ask God to stop the pain? Or do we just ask Him what the purpose of this particular trial might be? How can it be used for His glory? How can it be used in the big picture? How can we grow from it?

See, God has a reason for every tear we shed. We may never know what those reasons are, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that God receives the glory as we prove to be faithful. And our kids need to see this lived out in our lives. They need to see that we, as parents, teachers, leaders, can confront pain and suffering because it is an element of a fallen world. And they need to see that we welcome pain and suffering because it refines and makes us better!

So when your kids come home today, complaining about the "pain" of a new school year, I encourage you to talk to them about what God might be doing in their lives. remind them what's going on is not really such a bad thing, but only part of the process of refining the tool that God will some day use in incredible ways.

And if that doesn't work, you can always take them to McDonald's tonight :-)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What is Theology?

What is it that you think of when you hear the word theology? Wikipedia says that Theology "is the study of a god or, more generally, the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or of spirituality". St. Augustine said that theology was the "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity." And Webster defines the word as "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of God and of God's relation to the world, or "a theological theory or system".

The origins of the word theology, take us back to the Greek word, theologia (θεολογία), which is derived from the roots, theos, meaning god and logos, meaning word,discourse or reasoning.

Nineteenth Century clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, said that "Theology is a science of mind applied to God and is but our ideas of truth classified and arranged. And modern scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, said “What has 'theology' ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has 'theology' ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that 'theology' is a subject at all?”

But what is theology to you? How does it affect you in a personal way? Does it bring back uncomfortable memories of a class you had to take in high school? Does it remind you of an elite group of philosophers in the upper echelons of academia? Stacks of books? Scrolls? An old bearded man diligently writing by candlelight?

How do you think theology fits in with today's world? What relevance does theology have with our culture? And Once we have a grasp of what theology really is, how do we apply it in everyday life? How does it affect our faith and spiritual life?

What is theology? Let me know your thoughts.

Theology According to Charlie Brown

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tiles

Imagine, if you will, a vast array of hexagonal shaped tiles. Picture in your mind’s eye, a seemingly endless floor beneath your feet, covered in these six sided tiles, each one connected to six other tiles on each side, one after another. From your perspective, there seems to be no beginning and no end. A continuous union, interwoven and dependent on each other, yet each uniquely independent in it's own right.

Tiles are not something that we typically give much thought to, are they? Thoughts of them don't consumes our day and usually not something that will enter into common daily conversation. It is not until we look closely at the tile community that we realize that they actually illustrate something more significant than simply covering a bathroom floor. Let me explain what I mean.

Looking closely, we can clearly see that at any given time, an individual tile can be the center of six other tiles. Going further, we see that the same tile can be the center of twelve tiles, twenty four tiles and so on. But, in an infinite surrounding of tiles, that same individual tile could be the center of the entire tile community, and if intently focused upon, the only tile in view. The only one that exists.

If only a connecting tile, it matters not where it is placed in the endless connection of tiles, but its value is the same as the center tile. So much so that it too can also represent the center tile at any given time, along with the infinite others that surround it.

So, why am I rambling about bathroom tiles? Well, Romans 12:4 & 5 says, "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." After reading this, it occurred to me that the Church is somewhat like the group of endless tiles. Each member is connected to one another, and is vital in the existence of the tile community as a whole. One by one, six by six, twelve by twelve, and so on, we are each joined together in an infinite pattern of unity. None more important that the other, and all connected by a spiritual "grout" that holds us all together as one.

But at any given time, one person can stand as the center tile. As God looks down and views the endless array, He sees each of us as the center, and if focused on with intensity, as the only tile that exists. Six, twelve, twenty four, in a cosmic system of spiritual connection, it doesn’t matter who is joined to whom. From God’s view of this beautiful mosaic, we are all connected, and are all mysteriously the center. The only tile that exists.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Self

One of the greatest dangers that we face in our journey with God is the self. How many times have we fallen on our knees in prayer, asking God to reveal Himself in a deeper, more real way, and all the while our focus is turned inward? It's easy for us to do this, isn't it? We are born into a culture that teaches us from day one that the self is the center of all that exists. And as we grow in our relationship and understanding of God, we find that we have already been conditioned to be obsessed with the self. The created being becomes more concerned with itself, rather than the creator.

As we walk through life, we find ourselves in a constant search for a feeling, emotion or experience in our relationship with God. We automatically want to place our faith and trust on that which is tangible. We long to cling to things we can see, smell, touch, taste, feel, etc. The most tangible thing in our existence is the self, and in an ironic quest, the self will always strangle off any hope we can manage to grasp hold of drawing closer to God.

Colossians 3:3-7 is one of the clearest passages of scripture concerning the self. In it we read that the follower of Christ should consider himself essentially dead. The self died, was buried and was raised with Christ. It's not an easy concept to grasp, but the self cannot exist in our relationship with God. The two are in constant conflict with one another. The self has no real existence, but none the less, continues to strive for significance, relevance and even superiority. It's a futile battle, but rages on each day of our lives.

So, how then should we see ourselves? Are we insignificant beings? Does our existence mean nothing? Does following Christ mean that we become mindless robots, walking the earth only to be controlled by a divine puppeteer? Absolutely not. We have each been created by God, possessing individual minds, with a vast array of gifts, talents and various aspects of personality that make us who we are. But the one thing we must consider, is this: the created being was not made to glorify in itself or be glorified by others. The created being was made for the sole purpose of glorifying God. And it is in that place of submission that we find our true identities, and the essence of what we seek from the self in the first place.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paradox

It would be good for us to rest in the uncertainty of the supernatural; a realm that is beyond our comprehension at times, but strangely rises in us as welcoming and constant, and all the while, resting in the resounding truth that our God is a God of order, not disorder. A God of certainty, not confusion. (1 Corinthians 14:33)

It is true that we cannot see God, hold Him, touch Him, verbally dialogue with Him, or smell His sweet aroma. But in a divine paradox, He is the most tangible thing that our human souls can witness in this journey of life. Beyond time and space, God moves in a reality that almost seems to be non-existent, yet exists more clearly than ourselves. Closer than the air we breathe, He is within us, enveloping us and transcending us.

But in a feeble attempt, our natural tendency seems to want to put God into a box, that neatly fits into our realm of comprehension. Attempting to do this is like trying to capture the entire ocean in a cup, or counting every last grain of sand on the earth. To do so would be impossible, and yet we continue to live under the false impression that we can completely comprehend that which almost seems to have no comprehension.

To say all this is to also agree that despite the far reaching arms of the supernatural, we also have a very tangible hold on God's existence. As nature revolves around us and we witness the incredible beauty and miracles of creation, it cries out to us that God exists in a very real way. (Romans 1:20) The universe cries out to us, "Hear this! In the same manner that you cannot comprehend me, you cannot comprehend that which made me! But His existence is all the more real because you behold my existence!" (Psalm 19:1)

So I rest in the fact that although I cannot always comprehend God and how He works in this world or in my life, I am sure of His existence because the supernatural breaks through the realms of the natural, screams to me, grabs hold of me and pulls me under until I am drowning in truth. A paradox, yes; but still with no contradiction or defiance to intuition.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Categories

Do we really like choosing sides? Issues that cause us to choose sides are usually avoided these days, aren't they? At least that's what I've recently noticed. Another thing I've noticed is that discussion over issues that cause us to take a radical stance has the potential to cause division and anger. It becomes frustrating and a lot of times, people just want to blend in with the crowd, completely avoiding confrontation. In my own life, especially in ministry and the church, I've seen opposing views cause much pain and much less unity, leading me to wonder if it's worth encouraging discussion at all.

Especially when it comes to the issues that relate to today’s culture (controversial social, economical, political, etc.), our culture seems to be quickly evolving into a morally relative mind set. Issues that encourage a moral choice are becoming less popular because they cause us to put things into one of two categories. They cause us to look at culture from a black and white perspective, which causes us to make decisions. We don't like to make decisions, because that classifies us. And we don't like to be classified, because that puts us into a category. Isn't it easier to just blend into culture? Isn't it more difficult to stand out? To contrast? To be polarized?

I'll admit, I may not always take the "black and white" position on some issues of life. It's not always so easy to take a side, and sometimes it's seems better to just agree to disagree, doesn't it? Choosing points of unity rather than increasing the distance of our division seems to me to be a better route to take, especially when it comes to the Church. But one area that I've become convinced of is the reality of good and evil. Think about it. Things like murder, child abuse, theft and rape are not just questions of preference; they are in fact “evil”, and no amount of moral relativism changes that.

This morning I was reading through Psalm 34 and came across a verse that sums up my thoughts on all of this. Verse 14 tells us to, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Think about this for a second. This tells us two very specific things: first of all, there is good and evil, and we have a choice to make in terms of which path we take. It also tells us that by choosing good, we promote peace and unity in our lives.

I don’t think anyone would argue that we witness a lot of evil these days. We are living in difficult times and there is always the potential to allow fear to move in and make itself at home in our souls. It seems that every day we are bombarded by what seems like an endless onslaught of injustice, violence, hypocrisy, anger, etc. The list goes on.

But scripture paints us a picture that clearly illustrates that we have a choice to make. We can conform to culture and follow the "moral" relative path that seems to be growing wider and wider, or we can venture onto the increasingly narrow path and choose what is good. But let's pause for a second and ask ourselves a question: Is that decision so easy to make?

Listen to what it says in Isaiah 5:20 & 21, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight!" Remember what I said about moral relativism? Who sets the standard? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Is there really such a thing as good and evil? Who are we to decide what is right for one person and what is wrong for another? That fact is, none of us have that authority or are capable of such decisions on our own. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) In reality, all we can do is follow our own moral compass that, if grounded in God’s truth, will enable us to follow what is right, true and good in our lives.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Manifestation

As you can tell from the date of my last blog entry, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, or not that I haven’t intended to write something. And it’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. It’s just been difficult for me to write lately. To be honest, I’m going through a difficult time in my life. Right now, I would classify life as spiritually chaotic, and when I struggle through times like this, my first inclination is to isolate myself. Since writing has become a manner of communication for me, isolation from the written word has almost become inevitable.

Over the last week or so, several people have asked why my blogs have not been as frequent as usual. To my surprise, some people have even mentioned that they’ve missed them and have encouraged me to get back on a regular schedule again. With all that said, the inevitable question arose: “What am I going to write about?” I posed this question to a good friend of mine, and he replied with the frustratingly obvious: “Why not write about what’s going on in your life right now? What are you having the most trouble with”. I hesitated, and reluctantly the answer became the theme of this blog: I have trouble allowing people to minister to me.

Being in vocational ministry has been much more difficult than I ever thought. Many of the stories that I heard while in seminary have become all too real as I attempt to carve out the ministry that God wants for me. There are times when it can be very lonely and painful, often causing me to question whether or not I want to endure this journey much longer. However, after pouring my heart out to God in prayer, He quickly reminds me of how ridiculous that consideration really is. This is what He created me for, and in reality there is nothing more I would rather do with the rest of my life.

Despite the isolation and times when I feel like I’m in this alone, there are always a handful of people who have offered to take my hand as I walk through this valley. A few are fellow pastors, but most are just friends and acquaintances that I’ve known through my journey of life. And ironically, that’s where I find the most difficulty. Like I said, I have trouble allowing others to minister to me; especially those that are not in ministry as I am. Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that everyone has to have a theological background to offer Godly ministry. Some of the most wise and loving people I know have never darkened the door of a seminary or served a day on a church staff.

The problem lies inside me, and is mixed with pride, selfishness and arrogance that automatically want to construct walls as I isolate myself further. I guess I feel that since I’m a minister in the church, I need to have everything together, under control and figured out; whatever that means. I need to be the one that's ministering to others, not being so weak that others have to minister to me, right? Well, let me explain how ridiculous I have found this to be.

Scripture tells us that the Church is the “Body of Christ”, and I believe this to be true in a very literal sense. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, that we “are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” In essence, the Church represents Christ as flesh and blood while He is not physically present on earth. That designation carries the responsibility of acting in the same ways that He acted when he walked the earth. When we offer loving ministry to one another, we are literally manifesting God to each other. And consequently, when we refuse ministry from others, we refuse to allow God to work through someone else, and deny them the opportunity to be used by God.

What I realize is that not only have I been denying others to allow God to work through them, but in essence, I’ve been denying God to speak to me directly. As I call out to God in prayer, “Why are you so silent? Why are you not answering my prayers?”, I am ignoring His voice being poured out through others that He has chosen to use in a divine way. He reminds me that He is present in those that care for me, with hands and feet. Christ with flesh on. It’s Him.

Through the people that reach out to me, I see the reality of 2 Corinthians 1:4. It says that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” The reality is that we all walk through dark times as we journey through this life. Sometimes we are comforted. Sometimes we need comforting. But could it be that God is working through others to comfort me, so that I can then have the peace to again comfort others? Is ministry somewhat of a give-and-take experience as we allow God to work through each other? Could it be that we are all just children of a living God that longs to exhibit His power through each and every one of us in a serendipitous ministry of brothers and sisters in Christ revealing and manifesting God to the world?

So I will choose to receive ministry from anyone who is called to care for me. Because as I do, I have the opportunity to see God speaking to me in the flesh. Hands and feet. Lovingly breaking through the human realm to touch me and reach my deepest need.

Thank you to all who have ministered to me and been Christ with flesh and bones.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Power of Pain

Let me ask you a question. We live in a culture, where we are constantly taught to avoid pain and suffering at ALL cost, right? Pain and suffering, whether physical or emotional, is meant to be avoided. Go to the doctor for this. Take a pill for that. How is the world are we supposed to teach our children that pain and suffering is part of the Christian's journey, and should not only be expected, but welcomed! In his book “On the Anvil”, Max Lucado takes a look at human sufferings. He compares the suffering of a Christian to that of being on a blacksmith’s anvil. As the blacksmith hammers the hot steel, it’s not exactly a pretty sight. It’s chaotic. It’s ugly. It takes much work. It’s hot and uncomfortable. But after the blacksmith has completed his job, what he is left with is a beautiful piece of metal; perhaps a sword or a valuable tool. The point that Lucado makes is that through our suffering we become refined. We become better. As God allows us to go through the fire, what comes out on the other side is beautiful. Yes, it’s painful, chaotic and ugly. But when the work has come to fruition, what remains is a tool that God can then use, on his terms. Beautiful. Useful. Refined!

In the book of Job, we see the quintessential example of human suffering intertwined with the nature and sovereignty of God. We see life being played out in a great drama. On the big stage we see Satan suggesting that Job was only faithful because of God’s blessings in his life. Take away the blessings, and Job would surely reject and curse God. God begs to differ, knowing full well that Job’s heart was in the right place. “Prove it!”, Satan challenges. God sees redemptive history in front of Him. The big picture. He knows the pain that Job will go through, but in the end it will bring Him glory. And that’s what lies at the heart of this story. God’s glory.

Well, God allows the heat to be turned up on Job’s life and he makes it though the fire. Job became the steel. He was sent into the fire. Thrown upon the anvil. Beaten with the hammer. Refined for God’s will. What remained? A tool to be used for God over the next several thousand years and for all eternity! Pretty awesome, huh? Do you think Job had any idea how his personal suffering would be used for the glory of God? Probably not. In fact, there is no evidence that Job had any idea what was going on between Satan and God. And he probably had never realized what God’s will was throughout his tragedy. All that mattered was God’s glory and Job faithfulness. The point was made.

We all go through tragedy. You may be going through a tragedy as you read this. Most of us do not go through suffering to the magnitude that Job did, but that doesn’t matter. Suffering is suffering. Pain is pain. But as we feel the heat being turned up, and the hammer coming down upon us, do we ask God to stop the pain? Or do we just try asking Him why? Do we ask Him what the purpose of this particular trial might be? How can it be used for His glory? How can it be used in the big picture? How can we grow from it? See, God has a reason for every tear we shed. We may never know what those reasons are, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that God receives the glory and we prove to be faithful. And our kids need to see this lived out in our lives. They need to see that we, as parents, teachers, leaders, confront the pain and suffering because it is an element of a fallen world. And they need to see that we welcome pain and suffering because it refines and makes us better!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Try Again

One night last week, my 7 year old boy and I climbed into bed for our nightly ritual of story time. For some reason, he chose an old book of nursery rhymes that we hadn't read in years. "Daddy, Read this one!", my son said pointing to a short little poem titled “Try Again”, by an unknown author. After reading it, I thought to myself, "This sounds kind of familiar!" And after my son went to bed, I meditated on these words a little more. It made me think about “perseverance” and what it really mean to persevere? Is perseverance something that we do, or is persevering more about something that we are? Something that comes from within?

“’Tis a lesson you should heed,
Try again;
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try again;
Then your courage should appear,
For if you will persevere,
You will conquer, never fear;
Try again.
If you find your task is hard
Try again;
Time will bring you your reward
Try again;
All that other folk can do,
Why, with patience, may not you?
Only keep this rule in view,
Try again.”

In the book of James, it says that “the testing of our faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) I think that as we mature in our faith, through perseverance, we learn. We grow. Things that once seemed obscure become clear. We find success, and despite our circumstances, we realize that there is really nothing more we need.

Courage. What does it mean to be courageous, especially in today's culture? Life can still be a little scary, can't it? At times, down right terrifying. But we are to "rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance”? (Romans 5:3). How does a person rejoice when diagnosed with terminal cancer? How does a parent rejoice when their child is abducted? I guess we can be certain that our fears will be conquered because “in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37). Easier said than done, huh?

Like the forming of a pearl, sometimes life requires the passing of time before we see the rewards that life offers us. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” (James 1:12) Later, James reaffirms this promise when he says, "As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.” (James 5:11)

See, despite the rat race that we often fall into, and the constant battle to “keep up with the Joneses”, we can still have victory in our perseverance; not by other people's standards, but by those of God. So instead of other people, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) and “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (12:1).

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Perfect Failure

We're very sensitive to failure, aren't we? We live in a culture that bases a person's worth on the amount of success they obtain in life. Overall, failure is considered negative, and success is thought to be the only acceptable option. But who decides what is failure and what is success? I wonder if what we sometime consider failure is not such bad thing after all. I wonder if it's possible to view failure as somewhat of a teacher. A motivator. I wonder that if we learn not to fear failure, might we learn much more as we travel the roads of life, and grow more in our spirituality? As we celebrated Easter yesterday, I thought a lot about failure and how it applies to my faith. Failure and faith. They don't seem to go together, do they? Well, let me explain.

This morning, I found myself pondering the same things that I seem to do each year. There is almost a “real time” reflection of the events that transpired over 2000 years ago for me. I sit here and imagine the thoughts that must have been going through the minds of Jesus' disciples just before He rose from the dead. The Messiah had finally come. The Roman yoke of oppression was just about to be cast off and Jesus was going to lead the way into battle! "Hosanna!", they cried on Palm Sunday! "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" But then, in a short time of less than a week, things changed radically. Sitting there on Saturday night, cowering in fear, in their minds, it was over. Failure.

Jesus' disciples had been assuming that He was the great military and political Messiah that had been expected by the Jewish people. He had finally come and they had a front row seat! All the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people had finally come to fruition! And just when they thought Jesus was going to mount a stallion, pull out a holy sword and start slaying the Roman scumbags, things start to change. Jesus starts talking about death, betrayal and things that sounded like defeat. Things that sounded like failure. And in a few hours, Jesus was dead. "Uhhh, What just happened?"

Within the course of one evening, Jesus was arrested, brutally beaten and nailed to a cross. His lifeless and disfigured body was taken down form the cross and placed in a sealed tomb. From all practical perspectives, it was over. Life as they thought it was going to be, had now transpired into a future of fear and uncertainty. Can you imagine how they felt? Can you imagine the frustration and anger? The overwhelming anxiety?

“How did we misinterpret what Jesus had been telling us over the last three years?", they must have asked themselves. “Were we totally misled?” “Are we all fools?” “Was our mission with Jesus a complete failure?” "Are we next?" "Will the Roman soldiers soon be breaking down our doors?" "Dude! We're screwed! Game over, man!" The anxiety must have felt like the weight of the world! Fear. Rejection. Anger. Confusion. All of these emotions must have been running wild as they anticipated what would happen next. From the world's point of view, this must have appeared to have been the perfect failure.

There always seems to be two sides to every story. In this case, one side tells us that Jesus' ministry was in fact, a perfect failure. This side leaves Jesus in His tomb and leaves the disciples defeated, broken, dejected and afraid. The other side of the story is what Christians all over the world celebrated yesterday. Something that contradicts all reason. Something happened that had the power to take these eleven broken men that were hiding in fear, and used them to transform the world. He is risen! We serve a God that is alive and loved His creation so much that He was willing to die for them. That means you and that means me. And after all the egg hunts, candy and Easter services, the story still ends the same. He is still risen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Asking Questions

Lately, I've been getting into some discussions regarding questions about the Christian faith. What I've seen is that a large number of these questions stem from one thing: doubts or a lack of faith. I'll admit, my first reaction to some of these conversations has been frustration, but after meditating on some of the underlying motives, my heart began to soften a little. I began to see that maybe my frustrations were only a natural defense mechanism for my own questions of faith. I know what your thinking, and before you make a decision about my underlying motives for this blog, please indulge me for a cyberspace minute or two. I think you'll see where I'm going with this and maybe even come along for the ride. If not, no worries because I'm paying for the gas, and it's my vehicle.

From time to time, we all have questions about our faith. As we stumble and bump around this life, like a clumsy toddler learning to use his legs, we inevitably bump into things that just don't make sense. We wonder. We question. We wrestle with our thoughts. We get frustrated and many times, we give up. There is so much about God that falls into the unknown, so how can anyone with all honesty say that they have it all figured out? If they do, they either suffer from a slightly swollen ego, or they've been conditioned to believe that questioning God is just a step away from being a heretic. Our Church culture has built a structure that discourages questioning and subtly belittles those who do. And doubts or even unbelief? Forget it! Full out rejection!

But is it OK to question our faith? Is it a natural part of our spiritual walk? Are doubts and fears about our faith acceptable, or are they manifestations of unbelief. Is it possible to believe, but still struggle with unbelief? St. Augustine revealed the nature of questioning faith in Confessions. For him, the mere act of questioning was actually a portal into a deeper faith and a closer relationship with God. In his experience, he saw questioning as an energy that moved him toward God. Learning to ask questions, and how to ask questions is reflected in much of his work. But one thing remains clear, Augustine saw questioning of God and faith in general, as a natural and healthy form of spiritual discipline.

In Mark 9:13-30, Jesus heals a boy that is possessed by a demon. When his father asks Jesus to help them he says, "But if you can, take pity on us and help us." Jesus responds, "If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes." The boy's father responds, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" Jesus then cast the demon out of the boy. There were no preconditions on the man's faith, and there was no chastisement for his lack of belief. The man proclaims that he understands some of what's going on with Jesus, but some of it is also difficult. Perhaps this man had seen and heard of the miracles Jesus had preformed. Maybe he had heard murmurings that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, but His rejection by the religious leaders caused him to doubt these claims. Maybe he was afraid. Afraid of letting go of tradition and what he had been taught his entire life.

For me, questioning is liberating. It is a doorway that reveals to me that I serve a God that is big enough to handle the tough questions that I have about Him. But the interesting thing about questioning, is that it actually moves me toward a deeper faith and knowledge that I lacked to begin with. I think that if we remain in unbelief and stubbornly ignore our doubts, we end up with a shallow faith that is actually more dangerous than questioning.

Don't get me wrong. I do believe, I just need help with my unbelief.