Friday, May 20, 2011

After Birth

Every once and a while, the light bulb of illumination appears over my head.  You know, that "DING" moment on the old cartoons when the character has a "bright" idea?  I wonder if the proverbial "light bulb" of revelation has to now become an LED or CFL bulb?  I mean, cartoon characters have to be conscious of the environment too, right?  Actually, when you think about it, the entire image of the light bulb might not be politically correct anymore.  Why waste energy just because you have a revelatory insightful thought?   Maybe the character could just turn a shade of green when he has a bright idea?  Hmmm.  Well, anyway.     

I love it when I find a little piece of insightful truth that I never noticed before.  One of the reasons that I write is because it enables me to put my thoughts together in a coherent format.  By recording my thoughts, my humble hope is always that someone will glean something from what I've written and then develop a new insight of their own.  My favorite comments is always something like, "Wow! I never thought of it that way!"  When more people begin to express their thoughts, beliefs and insights, it can open doors for others.  They share their new insights and the cycle continues.  When I think about it, I think we are more prone to learn more from each other than we do from any other source.

This morning is was reading something that that really blew me away by the imagery.  My friend Rob Vasquez writes an online devotional called "Be Blessed".  This week he wrote the following about what it means to be born again and the transformation that occurs after:

"Many people don't realize or want to admit how messy, slow, painful & gradual real change is. And here’s the truth many don’t want to accept: it’s very messy for broken people to be healed & transformed. It takes time. Birth is messy. It isn’t pretty. And guess what? Neither is new birth. Following Jesus is messier than people make it out to be."
Unfortunately, a lot of Christ followers reduce their salvation down to a day they "accepted Christ".  They prayed a religious mantra that magically transformed them into a Christian and now they are suppose to be automatically different than those that haven't prayer "the prayer".  We do this a lot in our churches, don't we?  We compare notes with each other and base our worth on how many people have been "saved".  The higher the number, the better Christian we are and to US be the glory, right?  Get 'em into heaven, get 'em a Bible and direct them to a church, and our job is done!  But is salvation this simplistic? 
Let me be clear.  I'm not discounting the act of salvation.  I'm not discounting the fact that for some Christians, saying a prayer of salvation was a pivotal point in their spiritual life.  And I'm not saying that it is not a Christian's responsibility to share the gospel and hope to see people others come to Christ.  What I'm saying is that we narrow down salvation and making disciples to a one time event that really can have nothing to do with a person being "Christlike".  Yes, there is always a point in which a non-Christian becomes a Christ follower.  Usually, it is a specific decision we make. Sometimes it's a definable moment, and other times it's not that clear.  I look at my own salvation as a life long journey that contains many pivotal moments of spiritual realizations.  If someone asked me when I was "saved", there is a specific time that I refer to as the moment of my "salvation", but to be honest, it's somewhat irrelevant to me now.  I'm more interested in what has occurred, and continues to occur in my life today, and what I think Rob might be talking about in the words above.  What we're really talking about is "sanctification". defines sanctification as "the activity of God which liberates the Christian from the power of sin.  It is the process of becoming what we are in Christ. This involves the putting off of the old habits of lying, stealing, backbiting, etc., and putting on the Christ-like qualities of honesty, mercy, and love."  See Colossians 3:1-10
Basically, sanctification is the process.  It's the ongoing activity on our lives of becoming more like Christ.  We become sanctified as we get rid of the crap in our lives and start looking more and more like Jesus by our words, actions and thoughts.  While salvation is essential, sanctification is really the evidence of who we are.  In many ways, sanctification is more significant than a single salvation experience because it reveals that a transformation has occurred in a persons life.  How many times have you run across someone who claims to be a follower of Christ because they "prayed a prayer", but they displays nothing in their life that would lead anyone to arrive at that conclusion.  
And this brings me to my point: like Rob said above, change is a messy thing.  When we begin the journey of becoming more like Christ, it can be a very ugly, chaotic and nasty process.  Yes, becoming more Christlike is a beautiful thing, but the process of getting there can be anything but pretty because it can involve confronting lifestyle aspects that are no longer spiritually healthy.   Everyday choices and actions can become "anti" Christ, and when we confront these issues, a conflict arises.  Our natural person, the thing that existed before following Christ, begins to rebel and fight the "process" every step of the way.  It doesn't want to be sanctified.  In many ways, we don't want to change.  We would rather live in a state of pre-salvtion because it's easy, safe and non-threatening.  
When a baby is born into the world, it's a beautiful, joyous and life changing event.  But physically, it's not pretty, is it?  It's messy, painful and chaotic.  Screams and cries fill the air as this new life comes into the world in a wave of blood, bodily fluid and discarded tissue.  It's not a pretty picture from a purely visual perspective.  Being "born again" is no different than the physical aspects of natural birth.  Our Church culture has created an unrealistic view of what salvation is, and consequently, it's created an unrealistic view of sanctification as well.  Spiritual transformation is sometimes not pretty, and like Rob says, it's slow, painful and gradual.     
From my own experience, in many ways following Christ is much more difficult than the life I lived before.  As I grow, becoming sanctified, I encounter and overcome more and more challenges that reveal to me how messy my life is.  I was born (again), spit out into the world in a mess of spiritual afterbirth.  Yes, I was cleaned up, but it's cold, frightening and not the comfortable place I came from.  I've been poked and prodded.  I've had to eat things that taste like shit.  I've soiled myself and spit up when things didn't agree with my spiritual digestive system.  I've fallen when I tried to walk and been scolded when I did something wrong. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Grace at Reduced Cost

On the bridge of the unforgiven
   forgiveness takes the high road.
Malnourished and perplexed,
   redemption takes a second seat.
Finding salvation comes at a cost,
   but you buy grace at wholesale prices
and wonder why it's defective
   and void of legitimate warranty.
It was forecast that rain would fall
   and it did indeed.
We run to theological shelters
   set up by Red Cross rejects.
But our cots have no sleep number
   and smell like homeless ministry.
You shake the hand that shakes
   and offer a blessing on pain.
"Peace be with you" and off you go.
   You go your way.  I go mine.
I adjust my ringtone.
   You stand in line.
My hands are washed and the crowd applauds.
   My realization is final and sure,
as salvation sets in cold and secure.
   Grace is cheap.
Costco carries it in bulk.
   You run to freedoms register
and write your check to God.
"I've paid my dues.  Now my entitlement counted."
   Among the Pharisees we all will stand,
but our robes are rotted and tassels are tangled.

                                                    - Anonymous

The Practice of Love

Most of you know that I recently had the opportunity to join a community of authors in writing for The Practice of Love: Real Stories of Living into the Kingdom of God.  This is a collection of essay by a community of writers that examines what it means love God, ourselves, our neighbors and our enemies in today's culture.  We know that God has called each of us to love in extraordinary ways in all facets of life, but reality proves that this is sometimes easy said than done.  This book provides real life personal stories that will cause the reader to examine what it really means to love in the Kingdom of God.

In contributing to this project, I experienced a lot more personal spiritual insight than I thought would.  I chose to write about what it means to love our enemies because this has always been a difficult thing for me.  We live in a very self-centered culture, so our first reaction in dealing with enemies is usually to place focus on ourselves and how we've been hurt. I don't know about you, but I often think of the person who wronged me and immediately contemplate how I can get revenge and make the offender hurt as I've been hurt.  Not only that, but I usually feel the need to be justified.  What I mean is that I want the other person to realize what they've done was wrong and know, deep within their heart, that they are wrong.  Nothing aggravates me more than someone arrogantly strutting around as if they've done nothing wrong, completely oblivious to the pain they've caused me.  But as a follower of Christ, is this what He calls me to do?  Is this the kind of reaction that will advance the Kingdom of God?  Or does my returning anger with anger, only hinder others seeing the Kingdom in the way Christ wants it to be seen?  These are the questions that I wrestled with as I wrote my essay.    

Ironically enough, over the last few weeks, we have been witness to possibly the quintessential example of an enemy in Osama Bin Laden.  Consequently, with his death, we have all been given a opportunity to examine this issue in the clearest example that we will probably ever have before us.  To me, it was as if God revealed this scenario to me and said, "OK.  You just wrote an essay on what it means to love your enemy, right?  Well, here's THE enemy.  Love him."  Really, God?  I tell you that it's hard for me to swim and you throw me in the middle of the ocean?     

After my experience with The Practice of Love, I find myself wanting to love more.  Specifically, I find myself wanting to expand the way that I love my enemies.  Basically, I came to a realization that I don't want to hate anymore.  I don't want to judge anymore.  I'm finding that I don't feel the need to be "right" all the time, and "win" the arguments, whatever "winning" means.  Instead of actively seeking reasons to be angry with my enemies, dislike or even hate them, I'm learning to seek out ways that I can love them.  What are ways that I can connect with that person and find unity?  Whether or not they "feel" my love for them, how can I really love them, and more importantly,what does that look like in the Kingdom of God?

Those of you that know me, know that I can have somewhat of a temper.  It doesn't take much to set me off, and usually that comes out in dealing with my enemies.  But many years ago, a mentor of mine gave me some advice that I've never forgotten.  It was one of those gems of wisdom that is written on your soul, under the file name: Wisdom.  This man, that was quite a bit older than me, recognized that I often got angry with those that hurt me.  Not only that, but he also recognized that I had the somewhat obsessive desire to "be right" or "win" the argument.  One day, he sat me down and said the following: "Jake, people are going to wrong you throughout your life.  It's going to happen again and again.  But YOU have the choice of how you are going to react to them.  Why is it so important for you to be justified?  Instead, allow them to believe that they've won.  For whatever reason, they felt the need to hurt you.  Let them have it.  It's theirs.  Instead, find a way to do something kind for them.  Find a way to show love to them.  By doing that, you will almost always soften their hearts.  When that happens, then, and ONLY then, can you sit down with them, explain how they hurt you.  99% of the time, they will understand and ALLOW you to be justified.  Then you both win.  That's a better deal, right?"  Yes, Pat.  That's a much better deal.  Thank you.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Life Sucks, Truth is Truth and Life is Good

The blog is going to be all over the place.  My mind is racing with a thousand thoughts from too much caffeine, so bear with me.  I started out this morning with one particular thought, and it just snowballed from there.  Those of you that know me will understand from conversations with me that it often go in this direction.  So think of this as just casually sitting in Starbucks with me and listening to me ramble.  You have to by the coffee though.  

Several years ago, when I was a Children’s Pastor, I ran an 8 week movie club for kids during the Summer.  The church that I was serving at had a huge multipurpose room with a big screen and sound system, so it was perfect for keeping a bunch of bunch of restless kids occupied for a at least one morning a week.  Each week featured a Disney or Pixar movie, complete with popcorn, and afterwards I would teach a short Bible lesson that tied into the main storyline.  Kind of a "hidden" message from God.  The week before the club began, I got a couple :anticipated" calls from concerned parents asking how secular movies would teach kids about God.  My favorite one was an irate mother chastising me for even daring to show movies of this type in a church!  Gasp!  I mean, we all know Woody and Buzz went to Hell after they were discarded and finally wore out, right?  Didn't Andy ask them where they would be in 100 years? 

One of my dominate philosophies or theological beliefs is that God’s truth can be found everywhere.  Whether it’s a Disney movie, nature, everyday culture or even other religions, God’s truth can be found if we seek it out.  St. Augustine said, "Where I found truth, there found I my God, who is the truth itself."  His truth permeates creation and all of existence whether we like it or not.  (Psalm 19)  When you think about it, God can reveal a basic truth by any medium he wants, anywhere he wants and by any method He wants.  It reminds me of a scene from the 80s sci-fi movie Enemy Mine.  An alien, played by Lou Gossett Jr. is teaching his culture’s holy scriptures to a fighter pilot from Earth, played by Dennis Quaid.  They are both stranded on a deserted planet and soon become friends.  When Gossett reads a quote, that is almost word for word from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Quaid’s character responds, “You know, I’ve heard that before?”; to which this alien from a planet millions of miles from Earth responds, “Of course you have.  Truth is truth.” 
This week I was watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall the conversation between the two aliens, Klaatu and the Mr. Wu:

Klaatu: We need to prepare to leave.
Mr. Wu: I’m staying
Klaatu: You can’t stay here
Mr. Wu: I can and I will
Klaatu: If you stay you’ll die
Mr. Wu: I know, this is my home now.
Klaatu: You yourself call them the destructive race
Mr. Wu: That’s true. But still, there is another side.  You see, I love them. This is a very strange thing.  I can’t find a way to explain it to you. For many years I cursed my luck for being sent here.  Human life is difficult. But if this life is coming to an end, I consider myself lucky to have lived it.

When I heard this, I instantly saw a couple of deep and profound biblical truths: Human life is difficult.  (John 16:33)  The Bible is replete with examples of the sufferings we can expect while journeying through life.  Not only that, but in many ways, those that follow Christ are in fact "aliens" living in foreign bodies.  Yes, the Bible tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, causing us to reflect on the importance of respecting the vessels we exist in, but we also know that there is much more to our existence than the physical shell that will one day return to the earth and die.  (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Through our faith in Christ, we are Spiritual beings.  The substance that is the soul never dies and is greater than the physical body we live in. (2 Corinthians 5:8)  So while we live in the imperfect human body, we experience the imperfection in full.  Human life is hard and as with what Mr. Wu said in the above dialogue, we experience the same dichotomy while we walk this earth.  It's strange when you think about it.  We walk this earth, yearning for something more, sometimes cursing the life we live.  But I wonder how many of us would have just a bit of hesitation to leave it if we had the choice.  In reality, we know that our existence will experience much more in the world to come.  It's inconceivable.  But the temporal is often very hard to let go of despite the eternal reality of what we were really created for.       

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hot, Wild, Freaky Sex (Seriously! The title is not just to get your attention)

Recently, a good friend of mine asked me some questions about sex.  He's been married for a few years, loves his wife and from what he shared with me, they seem to have a very healthy sex life.  However, he needed some answers on a very specific issue that, let's just say was a little risque, to say the least.  Ah, what the heck.  It was about oral sex.  After we talked for a while, he realized that he wasn't quite as weird as he thought he was.  The "colorful" topic that he brought up was not necessarily sexually off limits, but its just one of those things we don't usually talk about, especially in church.  And that got me thinking.  Does the Church inadvertently create an atmosphere of fear, embarrassment or even shame when it comes to sex?  Should we be more open and willing to talk about the "details", no matter how graphic in nature they might be?  After all, how do newly married couples know what is acceptable and what's not if we aren't willing to discuss it?  The only other option they have is culture and the media, and we don't want to go there, do we?        

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to council with a few newlyweds and couples preparing for marriage.  I've never been a senior pastor, nor do I ever want to, but on occasion I've been asked to preform a wedding or two and offer some words of wisdom to couples just setting out on the somewhat unknown journey of becoming husband and wife.  By no means do I claim to be a marriage counselor or expert in the field.  In fact, there's still a lot that I don't know, and my wife would attest that I might need a refresher course from time to time.  I guess being married for almost 20 years gives you plenty of chances to screw up until you finally get it right.

Usually with some amount of embarrassment from the younger couples, sex always seems to be a main issue of concern.  Personally, I have no problem dealing with questions of the carnal nature, but to a young couple, it can be a little intimidating.  In fact, the last couple that I met with were so uncomfortable that they could not stop laughing in order to get through one question.  This was a shame because later, when they finally got the nerve to share by email, they had some very honest and legitimate questions about sex once they were married.  Questions about oral sex, masturbation, sexual positions, pornography and even the use of sex toys are all topics that we might run across in today's culture.  Please know that I am not endorsing the acceptability of any sexual topic, or any others that might come to mind.  This blog is not intended to address each issue individually.  Let me just say that as followers of Christ, there are some areas of sex that God does not want us to venture into, even in the context of marriage.  All the more reason to help couples talk about these issues in a comfortable atmosphere, right?

Let's just admit it, shall we?  Sex is fun!  It's a blast!  I love sex and if I had my way, I'd do it every day!  Unfortunately, nature won't allow that and age begins to play a factor as well.  But it's still fun, and I hope it will remain fun for many, many, many, many, many years to come!  But guess what?  God intended sex to be fun!  It was His idea, so blame Him if your judging me to be a sex maniac.  Think about it.  He could have easily made humans instinctively attracted to the opposite sex for the sole purpose of procreation.  Sex could be a robotic, boring, mundane ritual that would make doing your taxes seem like a night out on the town.  But thankfully, that's not what He had in mind.  Instead, He chose to give us sex as an awesome gift, by making it one of the most enjoyable experiences we can share on this earth.  In the right context and circumstances, sex is enjoyable, fulfilling, intoxicating, healthy and vital to a healthy marriage.  Sex is good!  Can I get an amen? 

I usually get right to the point when asked for my opinion on what is sexually "acceptable" for a married couple.  My philosophy is pretty simple:  As long as it doesn't involve other people or animals, get as hot, wild and freaky as you want to!  "Really?  Did he just say that?"  Well...yeah...I guess I did!  But before you accuse me of being some kind of pastoral pervert, let me explain.  Just so you know, I would never offer that statement as a piece of advice to any couple.  That's an extreme and simplistic example, although I might toss it out there as an ice breaker, depending on how well I know the couple.  Hmmm....That might have stopped the uncontrollable laughter of the couple I mentioned above.  But in reality, it illustrates something very significant.  God wants us to enjoy sex to the fullest possible capacity possible.  Sure, there are Biblical boundaries for sex, but it's pretty broad.  Song of Solomon provides a very graphic, erotic and illustrative picture of what an awesome sex life looks life between a husband and a wife.  We won't get into those details in this blog, but my point is this: we need to be open about sex and create an open culture within the Church and Christian circles.

We have no trouble talking about communication, finances, careers, responsibilities, parenting, etc. We have no problem discussing children and the details of becoming new parents, but for some reason, we avoid talking about where the kids come from.  When it comes to the area of sex, we usually give some broad advice or recommend a couple of good books.  Like everything else that God has given us, sex is a good thing.  It's an incredible blessing and needs to be a topic that is discussed openly, freely and without embarrassment or shame.   It's viral that we provide strong Biblical advice on sexual boundaries for two reasons:  First, married couples need to know what's off limits so they don't venture off into some freaky stuff that would cause Hugh Hefner to blush.  And secondly, married couples need to know what's within acceptable limits so they can venture off into some freaky stuff that God is totally OK with!  And they don't need to feel guilty, strange or perverted.

Song of Solomon says, "Like the finest apple tree in the orchard is my lover among other young men.  I sit in his delightful shade and taste his delicious fruit." (2:3 NLT)

"Awake, north wind!  Rise up, south wind!  Blow on my garden and spread its fragrance all around.  Come into your garden, my love; taste its finest fruits." (4:16 NLT)

"I would bring you to my childhood home, and there you would teach me.  I would give you spiced wine to drink, my sweet pomegranate wine. Your left arm would be under my head, and your right arm would embrace me. " (8:2 NLT)

"I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice.  I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk." (5:1 NIV)

"How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights!  Your stature is like that of the palm,  and your breasts like clusters of fruit.  I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.”  May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine." (7:6-9 - NIV)

Pretty intense, huh?  These are only a few examples of what the Bible tells us about erotic sex through the Song of Solomon.  Not only is it a beautiful book of poetry, but and a great example of how sex is not only meant to be enjoyed, but gives us an idea of the broad boundaries of sex to be explored.  Overall, the Church needs to do a better job at creating a more open environment of communication regarding sex. 

This is significant for two reasons: First, married couples need practical and honest guidelines about sex so they don't venture off into some freaky areas that would even make Huge Hefner blush.  And secondly, they need practical and honest guidelines so they can feel comfortable venturing off into some freaky areas that are perfectly OK with God!  Sex is a good thing!  So go out and have sex today!  Have it this afternoon!  Several times!  Or at least try.  And make it hot, wild and freaky!