Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Gaurding Against Spirtual Stagnation

Friday, September 2, 2011

As Christians, spiritual stagnation can be one of our greatest and most dangerous enemies. Unfortunately, it can creep up on us before we know it. The familiar is comfortable and often appears to be more manageable. On the other hand, change, thinking our way through issues, learning to reform the questions that guide our spiritual lives, are all very important things that we can neglect to our own peril. 

I am reminded of the cliché: "no pain, no gain." Through exercise, we break down a muscle, the consequence of which is often soreness and discomfort. Over time, however, these muscles rebuild themselves and usually return bigger and stronger. Such is the process of growth.  This mixture of pain/gain is also applicable to our spiritual exercise and spiritual growth process as well.

Remaining with the metaphor, not all exercise is created equally. Some is better, safer, and more capable of doing what we need it to do than others. Over time, it is also important for one to change up the routine. Along our spiritual journey, we have to be careful not to always accept one set of answers as being the end all to all questions. If we are truly growing spiritually, our questions will naturally grow and change with us. Accepting one set of answers, regardless of where those answers fall on a particular spectrum (progressive, conservative, etc) can be dangerous. For instance (and to change the metaphor a bit), if medical science operated upon such misguided logic, we would still be blood-letting or some other primitive form of medical treatment instead of the more effective and modern techniques of today's medicine that prolong lives and has made the current state of our medical care better than it was, even 50 years ago. 

So, change is definitely good for us. Once again, however, as in the exercise metaphor above, not all change is created equal. I remember, years ago, when I began to question some of the sacred cows in my life, examining my theology; it was difficult, and at times, violent. In fact, it propelled me into a crisis of faith, the likes of which I have never experienced since (and am still recovering from), nor would I wish upon my worst enemy. I mean, I went to bed one night believing in God, woke up the next morning and wasn't so sure (not literally, but you get the point). And this called into question everything that I had hung my faith upon over the years. Sorting through all of this and finally returning, through it all, as a person faith (a miracle in its own rite!) was a 15 year journey; 15 years! Some of the most difficult times of my life were during those days!

I have recently been reading Becky Garrison's book entitled, Jesus Died for This? A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ. In it, her spiritual mentor asks her some very interesting questions; questions that I think we'd all do well to think over and address. They make wonderful exercises in our effort to ward off spiritual stagnation. Here they are, slightly modified: 

  • What are we looking for in church?
  • How would we respond if our questions changed?
  • Are we ready to be surprised by the answers? [p. 49]

I won't take the time to address each question individually. But, I think the second question, for me at least, is the most important. You see, it is very easy for me to adopt an elitist mentality, as if I have finally arrived at some enlightened frame of mind, no additional thinking necessary. While obviously misguided, it is just as easy for me to think that I now have all the questions down pat as it has always been. Obviously, this is just as false as it was the day I began this journey. To coddle this thinking is spiritual stagnation at its worse. 

Regardless of how enlightened I may feel, I can easily become stagnant. Learning in the faith should be an ongoing process. The more we learn, the more capable we are to learn. And, I can assure you that we will never exhaust the completeness of God. The author of Philippians, speaking of Jesus, said that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge abide in Him (Col 2:1-3). We will never come to a place where we've arrived and have no need to ask more questions or seek better answers. 

Think about the above questions. Let them settle into your spirit. What are we looking for in church? How has this changed over time? How do you expect it to change? How different are your questions today compared to what they were just a year ago? Do you still struggle with the same answers? What would you do if you got an answer that didn't mesh well with your overall thinking right now? 

Let's never stop growing and searching for better answers and understanding!  

If Steve Jobs Read My Last Post, What Would He Say?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Death: is very likely the single best invention of life, says Steve Jobs in his 2005 address to the graduation class of Stanford University. 

I could not, in a million years, write a more appropriate follow up to my last post than what Steve Jobs did in this commencement address. This was a man who had obviously been greatly impacted by his own mortality. I guess this has resurfaced in light of his deteriorating health and his recent resignation as the CEO of Apple. I wish I would have heard this 12 years ago; the tools that he gives these graduates are pages pulled right from the note book of his own life. While not inherently religious, it is a speech that functions religiously, at least it has for me. Hopefully, it will for you as well! We only lose when we quit trying. I have today and hope for tomorrow, that I can make a difference in my life and the lives of others!

I will try and come back and add (below) some of the comments that spoke to my heart the most.


Crosses Hurt! Ask Me How I know...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Okay, a good Facebook friend of mine recently wrote a very difficult post and in it, he included the following quote by Fulton Ousler

Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.

I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Fulton Ousler. After googling the guy, I am rather ashamed that I don't. The link above will take you to the unadulterated infallible cloud inspired almighty Wikipedia, and it will give a glimpse into this man's life and the huge corpus of material he left behind. Since I've never read any of it, the only thing I can comment on is the quote above, left so graciously by my good friend, Chad Holtz. The statement really got into my soul! I mean, I read it weeks ago in the middle of a post where my friend was sharing his heart over something that was intensely personal, and I am sure, somewhat embarrassing for him as well. My heart was moved by his situation and I cried and prayed for him. And, I continue to do so today. But in the background, that quote kept ringing in my ears like church bells reverberating in a bell tower. And while I heard Oursler's words, I also heard my own voice screaming back at me in response, "that is you!!!" 

For 15+ years, I have suffered the regret of past failures. I was a young preacher who was in the right place but at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons. I've lived with a sense of call from the age of 11. It was real, still is. But, it got messed up because of allot of family and self esteem issues. So, when I finally got to where I thought I was supposed to be, I screwed it all up. I was in a bad marriage with three children, I was barely 21 years of age with no real education or training behind me, and it was a recipe for disaster. It took over six years, but my utter defeat happened, and I have held my head in shame ever since. 

I have facebook friends who were colleagues of mine back in those days. Most of them avoid me like the plague. I think they befriended me out of some morbid curiosity. In all honestly, I despise them. They sat back and watched me burn. When it was all said and done, they no longer knew who I was; they had suddenly forgotten my phone number. Not a single one of them, from my best friend to my worst enemy, ever tried to help me. I was left out in the cold, alone, and hurting. So, yeah, I know a little bit about being crucified on the cross of regret. 

Fear of the future is another cross I am very familiar with. The only two things I've ever known how to do, is be a plumber and a preacher. When I got divorced and lost my church (not in that order), I just naturally went back to what I knew to do. I guess it was a bit like Peter going back to fishing after Jesus was buried. The best thing in town was gone and all he knew how to do was fish. I lost my access to do what I was called to do (mainly because I was in a very strict Pentecostal/Fundamentalist denomination where the stain of divorce ran red as crimson), so I grabbed my wrenches and I went back to working with pipe. 

But, I got hurt; fell down a flight of stairs, and to make a long story short, I still suffer extreme pain, have rod and screws in my spine, and I've lost the only other thing I ever knew to do, besides preach. That was 12 years ago; 12 LONG years! Since, I've dabbled with education, taken 75-80 credits of liberal arts classes, sort of aimlessly, and I've pondered the prospect of returning to the ministry in a mainline church where the idea of being divorced doesn't make me a huge liability. But, in the end, I've never really recovered. I have just hung on those two crosses and I know what it feels like when Psalmist cries:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. [Psalms 22:14-15, ESV]

It is a horrible place to be! But, through all of this, I keep coming back to Jacob (I know, I'm all over the place with this. It gets worse!), that Old Testament patriarch. He always gets a bad rap because of his name and some bad choices, but he was a honorable man who worked hard for his family and his possessions. He's fleeing again, this time not really due to anything that he's done wrong per se. It is the Eve before he will lay eyes upon a brother that he screwed decades earlier. The failures of yesterday, and the fear of tomorrow is starring him directly in the face! You can read all about it in Genesis 31-33. It's an epic story, indeed. 

Jacob crosses the river for solitude and to no doubt, ponder the past as well as the future as it is set before him. This may well be his last night on earth. Esau could kill tomorrow. He probably should have. After all, Jacob had stolen from Esau his very birthright and taken from him the blessing of his beloved father. But in the midst of all this mental anguish, an Angel appears and they wrestle all night. I don't know, maybe the point of the whole thing was to simply get Jacob's mind off of all the "what if's" that were swirling around in his head. Regardless, in the end, Jacob prevails (which is quite impressive if you really think of it!), his name is changed from that of "heel grabber" to that of a victor. He's no longer a victim! He has striven with both God and man and prevailed! It cost him though. He was crippled from that day on, for the rest of his life. But, something tells me that Jacob hardly ever noticed. 

Those two crosses cast huge shadows in my life; I will not deny that. But, like Jacob, I am eying that stream. I am headed to the other side and if I have to wrestle God, then I will damn well fight, because I am so tired of the nails, the sweat and agony of defeat, my tongue stuck to the very roof of my mouth, taking away my voice. Jesus only had to hang there for six hours, give or take. I feel like I've been here my entire life. But, enough is enough, and the first step to recovery is to simply admit that you need help. And, Ousler has given voice to what I need to cry out like the blind beggar, sitting by the road to Jericho, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Luke 18:38) Get me off this cross!

Transparency in the Church: How Real Can You Be?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Our subject is something that I first pondered twenty  years ago, while serving as the pastor of a small church in eastern NC. The parsonage was right next to the church, so close that I could reach out one of the side windows and actually touch the church. It was a very awkward experience, to say the least. We were young and very green in terms of pastoral ministry and I had no clue how intrusive some people could be. There really was no presumption of privacy there. People would come and go from the parsonage as if they had been doing it their entire lives. It didn't take us very long to realize that over half the congregation had their own key (the former pastor did not live there and the congregation had used it as a makeshift fellowship hall for several years)!

Looking back, it was hard to even have a good argument in that house. I suppose it was good for our marriage at the time. Being young with three small children, an occasion to argue arose frequently, for sure. But, we were always a bit reluctant to raise our voices (who can imagine a good argument without getting a little loud?), never really knowing who was listening. All of this made me begin to ponder the expectation of church people upon their clergy and the nature of my responsibility to live up to those expectations. I mean, every family in my church struggled with arguments and such; who doesn't? Yet, I didn't feel comfortable letting my family conflicts become common knowledge. 

After some time in prayer and contemplation, I found Isaiah 39; a very short chapter, but an extremely important one. Hezekiah has received Babylonian envoys and in his hospitality (I am sure there was a bragging component here as well), the King shows these Babylonians all the treasures of the kingdom of Judah. When they leave, Isaiah sends word to the King, asking about what the envoys saw in the Hezekiah's house. The King replies, ‘[t]hey have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’ The prophet essentially tells the King that what he's done was a bad thing and that because of it, one day, these Babylonians will return to Jerusalem and take everything for themselves (obviously, the reasons for Judah's inevitable judgment were more complex than this one event); a prophecy that would come true just 120 years later.

I remember reading this and feeling the Lord speak to me, saying that I, myself, did not need to show everyone everything that was in my house. And this is what I would like to address briefly in this post. How transparent can we be, or, should we be, in the church? I know that we sometimes have this egalitarian ideal, where everyone is on equal footing and no one has the right to expect more from one than from any one else. Unfortunately, while all that sounds good (may even have a strong biblical basis) and looks good on paper, it doesn't connect with reality in most cases. And especially, not in areas of professional leadership. It may not be right, but there is definitely a prevailing thought that says that I might have my problems and not want you to judge me, but if you are being paid to be my pastor, and if you are being paid to represent my church in the community, I don't want your dirty laundry aired out in the society column of the local newspaper!

Many times over the years, I have heard a pastor declare from the pulpit, "my wife and I had an argument on the way to church this morning." Every time, my heart leaps, and I say, 
"YES! Finally, something I can relate too!" Yet, there has also been a part of me that becomes troubled, thinking, if he or she can't get it right, what hope is there for me? I know that is a simple example, and we certainly can not expect our clergy to be perfect, not experiencing some of the same problems we all go through. But, how honest is too honest in these areas? How do we straddle the divide between honesty and open dialog and at the same, not discourage people or give those who have less than honest intentions fuel to fight and destroy us with? 

Fact is, as ministers and leaders in the church, one of our greatest assets is our credibility. Once we've lost that, it doesn't matter how real we are or how honest we might be, nothing we do or say from that moment on will matter. And, there's often a very fine line, one that's not clearly marked, between being real with others and being too real: losing credibility. I'm not addressing how things should be. We all know that things should be different. But, I am speaking to how things really are for many of us in places of leadership and ministry.

I know this isn't a comfortable subject for many of us. But, the question persist: how do we become more transparent, yet at the same time refuse to give our enemy place to ridicule or destroy us? No one wants to be a hypocrite, but I don't think everyone wants to know about everything that I struggle with every day. I'm not sure that I would want my pastor to confide in me about his short comings or failures. How do we navigate this mine field?

Peter and Essential Truths

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Text: 2 Peter 1:12-21

Wrapping up our discussion of the Apostle Peter, I want to take a look at the last known words recorded by the Apostle. Although the entire document of 2 Peter bears his name, there's good internal evidence to suggest that the document is a composite, compiled after Peter's life, of things that the Apostle was believed to have said, or recorded by others. But, there is believed to be an original Petrine fragment found in the 1st chapter of 2 Peter, verses 12-21. Here, Peter is nearing the end of his life and is reflecting upon some things that he believes to be very important for the followers of Christ to remember.

Luke 9: 28-34
Among many Christian traditions, this text is read on Transfiguration Sunday. The transfiguration is one of those thin places in the life of Christ where we're afforded a glimpse of who he really is. His humanity takes a secondary role and the disciples witness, with greater clarity, the reality of Christ's divinity. In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), this Transfiguration experience takes place right after Peter's famous confession about who Jesus is. When reading these stories, you get the impression that God is trying to deepen their conviction, not so much for the present moment (because it is clear that they do not fully comprehend all that is going on prior to the the crucifixion/resurrection), but for the years to come when they would reflect upon this event and use it as tool for expanding the Kingdom, as Peter is doing here at the end of his life.

So, after sharing with his readers the fact that he's aware that his life is coming to a close (and I think one's last words are always important), there are two things that this great Apostle wants to remind them of. Two things that he wants to ensure that they never forget. And while they are profound in scope, they are basic and foundational to the faith of these believers as well as to all those who would follow them. Essential truths that remain important, even today, in the 21st century.

The first truth is found in verses 16-18. Peter ensures them that the faith that they are following is based upon concrete, real, authentic reality. I was going to use the word truth, but that is often an ambiguous word. He contrast their faith with the fables and myths that were common within the religious traditions of the Greco/Roman world around them. What he wants them to understand is that his faith was based upon a real experience with God in the person of Jesus, and that he, as a faithful steward, has passed this down to them. What they are staking their lives (especially in light of the persecutory nature of time) upon is very real and genuine.

Obviously, there is a practical tone to what Peter is saying. He's one of the last living eye witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Some have speculated that this is the last authentic written expression from such an eye witness in New Testament. Those who had walked with Jesus, those who had handled and been involved in the life and ministry of Jesus were quickly passing from the scene. And, Peter wants to ensure that his message does not pass away with him. 

He wants them know and recognize that the expression of God through the person of Jesus is authentic. Sure, their understanding of Jesus was an ongoing experience. The post Easter understanding of Jesus, and all that implied, was being constructed, and I would argue, is continuing to be constructed, even today. But, Peter is wanting them to know that all that has developed within the Apostolic tradition, and all that would develop, both doctrinally and otherwise, flows from a reliable source. That the traditions they had received and were participating in were collectively drawn from an established, authentic fountain. The transfiguration of Jesus became the fountainhead of all they would come to know and understand about Jesus. It all began there, and continues, even today. Furthermore, Peter wants them to know that, for their particular expression of faith, Jesus is at the center and focus of all that God is doing in the world. Incidentally, this does not preclude other divine expressions in the world; but, it does, however, put Jesus at the center and forefront of the Christian expression of God in the world.

The last thing that Peter wants them to be aware of, is the primacy of Christian scriptures within their faith. In verse 19, he says “...we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts....” (NRSV) Following Peter's lead here, we need to be reminded that there is something unique and special about our sacred literature. Now, I don't want to propagate an idolatrous biblicism, where the bible erroneously takes the place of God. This is exactly what many forms of fundamentalism and biblical literalism is all about. God is reduced to the mere text on a page and our particular interpretation of what that text means becomes the end all of divine revelation. God is held hostage to the written word and our interpretations of it. This is not what Peter has in mind. 

Peter, here, is indicating the cooperation between the experience of Christ and the written words of our sacred text. This gives us a deeper understanding and greater confidence in what we've believed. That is, our sacred literature is an echo of what we experience in the present tense. God has spoken, is speaking, and will continue to speak through the medium of our sacred literature. This is an invaluable asset in the confirmation of our religious experiences. Being able to draw a direct parallel between the existential quality of our faith, a faith that is living and abides in the present, with the disclosure of God found in the written expressions of our faith, is a tremendous tool. Peter says that the cohesion between the words he heard on the mountain, “this is my beloved Son” and the prophetic utterances found in holy writ, gives them an assurance and confidence that is unmatched.

So, in essence, Peter identifies two things that are irreducible to the community of faith. First, there's an unshakable conviction that God has done something unique through the person Jesus Christ. We resound that conviction in the world today. While God never intended us to draw lines of segregation between ourselves and those of different faiths, we should never be ashamed of or draw away from declaring who Jesus is and what he means to our faith. For us, he is the way, truth, and life! And, we should never forget the importance of our sacred literature. Through it, God has spoken, is speaking, and will continue to speak to us and to our world.

Peter and Inclusion: 1st Century Debate with 21st Century Implications

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Following up on our conversation on Peter, I was reading the story in Act 10 where Peter sees the vision of the blanket descending out of heaven, filled with animals that were unclean and offensive to him. We hear the voice of God telling Peter to rise, kill, and eat! This happens three times and each time, Peter vehemently declines, stating that no unclean food has ever touched his lips. One might applaud Peter's conviction, or draw a direct parallel to what we talked about yesterday: Peter's three time denial of Christ.

As a Western reader, I think it's extremely difficult for us to relate to this passage and understand just how offensive this directive really was to Peter. A casual Jew, not even an especially devout one, would have found this vision to be problematic. For the Jews, their dietary restrictions were a fundamental part of their national and religious identity. It helped to define who they were as a people. Simply put, they were different, special, right down to the type of food they put into their mouths! God was so involved with who they were as a nation that he was interested in everything about them, even about what they chose to eat. And, this was very important to them, to say the least.

So, you can imagine the internal struggle that must have been going on inside of Peter when all of a sudden, God changes his mind about something that was settled a long time ago. Remember, many of these dietary injunctions were given to them by God himself (via Moses), and were a part of their oral and writen tradition. These laws were written down for all Jews to read and observe. Obviously, and as Peter would soon find out, there was allot more at stake here than just food or dietary restrictions. God was about to embrace the other: an entire segment of the world's population who had hitherto been rejected, were now being chosen and declared acceptable by God. And, he was going to do it without their consent or opinion!

One of the things that strikes me the most about this story is that God changes his mind. While this not a new concept by any means (there are numerous places in the biblical record where God repents or changes direction, etc), it is one that we often pass over quickly and fail to recognize. I mean, to be honest, I can't say that it's something that makes me feel very comfortable. It kind of rubs me wrong and offends my God sensibilities. Changing one's mind seems like such a human thing to do. Surely, God can see things from all angles and therefore, should make the right decision the first time around. Right? But, regardless of how we interpret it, God changing his mind is one of his sovereign prerogatives. This was a HUGE change in policy! And, for all us non-Jews reading this today, let's be thankful for it!

If you continue reading this into the 11th chapter, you'll find that Peter is confronted with his (supposed) violation of Kosher laws, visiting and fraternizing with Gentiles, even baptizing them into the faith. In his defense, Peter recounts the vision that he had to his fellow Jewish believers, recounting how these Gentiles had received the same Spirit as the Jewish believers had on the Day of Pentecost, and then makes the same observation that he made when commanding Cornelius and his entire household to be baptized. That is, if God has embraced these Gentiles, with their non-Jewish diets and the such like, then how can we deny them their rightful place alongside us in the faith?

The crux here is what God said to Peter in the vision: do not call profane what I've called (have made) clean (Acts 10:15). You don't have to understand, agree, or even like it, but you do have to acknowledge it. God has a right to do things that we don't like. He has a right to change his mind. And, this is something that I think is very important for us to understand.

I'm a part of an UCC congregation and the denomination's motto is one that I have always loved: “God is still Speaking.” Meaning, the final word hasn't been spoken. I know this will rub many of my fundamentalist friends the wrong way, and those with a very high view of scripture will vehemently object. But, I think that our story is still under construction. I think God still has something in store for us that will surprise us, no matter how biblically versed we are or think that we've got it all figured out.

On a practical side, this speaks definitively to the LGBT issues of our day. Peter was willing to go against millenniums of oral tradition, as well as an entire segment of written law, based entirely upon a vision and what he deemed to be acceptable fruit.1 He saw with his own eyes that God had accepted the Gentiles. His relationship with these people and his proximity to what God was doing in the present, convinced him that God had indeed changed the course of human history and had made these Gentiles fellow participants in the work and ministry of Christ. 

It is very easy to pontificate about a segment of people (abstractly) and deny them access to God and the church. It is another matter, indeed, to know them, build relationships with them, and then pronounce such upon them. It's different when it's your brother or father, than when it's some abstract “someone” out there who is different. But, I think that regardless of how we interpret scripture, we can use the same litmus test that Peter used.

LGBT persons have tremendous talents to offer the church. Many of them have received the same callings, gifts, and talents that their heterosexual counterparts have received. They recount the same conversion experiences, exhibit the same attributes, have a relationship with the same God. They're fighting and working in the same trenches for justice and peace. They are in love with the same Jesus. And quite frankly, who are we to continue to designate them as unclean when God has clearly embraced them and called them to be a part of the same body of Christ? 

1.When God Breaks the Rules
   A sermon on Acts 11: 1-18 & John 13:31-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 May 2004

Just Like Peter...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jacob Wrestling God 1
Peter is a fascinating biblical character. He's definitely one that I can identify with, for various reasons. Without Peter, I might well think that there's no hope for me. But, looking at Peter's life and failures has breathed new life into my own hope that one day God will be able to use me again, in spite of my past and less than shinning moments.

I heard an old preacher, some years ago, preach a sermon on the O.T. patriarch, Jacob. He was talking about leadership and referred to Jacob's wrestling with the Angel of Lord along the banks of the river Jabbok. If you remember the story, you will recall that Jacob won the fight and to get away, the Angel dislocated Jacob's hip, causing Jacob to walk with a limp for the rest of his life (Ge 32:25,32). This was a life altering event, and one that had great significance for the children of Israel. The old preacher's conclusion: never trust a leader who doesn't have a limp!

Peter has no problems in this department; he has a very visible limp. One moment, Peter is declaring the Lord's messiah-ship, claiming Christ to be the son of God. The next moment, Peter is sticking his foot in his mouth and being rebuked by Jesus, in very harsh terms. One moment he's fighting for Christ in the garden, willing to lead an assault to keep Christ from being taken prisoner, the next he's cursing and decrying Christ, stating that he never knew him. These are the type of failures that follow you your entire life. The kind of failures that others never let you forget.

Yet, God chose Peter to lead this fledgling church that Jesus was leaving behind. He chose Peter to be a representative, a Kingdom Ambassador, commissioned to take the message of Jesus to the world. To show the world what Jesus is all about. This man, with a very lack luster resume, was the very man upon whom Jesus bestowed the keys of the kingdom, the power of binding and loosing; the man upon whom the church would be built. Obviously, there are allot of different interpretations about what all these things mean, but no one can deny that Peter played a very significant role in the early establishment of the church. And, this involvement was by design. Jesus chose him, and in spite of Peter's best efforts to ruin himself, Jesus was deliberate about Peter's call and the part he would play in the church.

All this gives me hope. I'm a screw up, just Peter. Just like Peter, I've walked away feeling like all was lost, going back to who I was, doing what I've always done. Just like Peter, Jesus has come back to very same place, finding me in the very same boat I was in when he found me. He finds me weary, having fished all night for nothing; just spinning my wheels, over and over again. Just like Peter, I've heard Jesus tell me to do it all over again, throw that net into the water one more time. (Jn 21:1-19)

I've heard Jesus say to me many times, “do you love me more than...?” You fill in the blanks. Jesus looks past what everyone else sees. There's a value in us that is not always visible to others. But Christ is committed to making us what he wants us to be. And while he was the stone that the builder's rejected, Peter became the least likely pillar of the church as well. Yet his influence and the mythology of his life and ministry still impacts the world today.

This encourages me. Some may reject me, but Jesus has embraced me. Even when he knew I'd screw it up, deny him, and run as fast and as hard as I could from his cross. Yet, Jesus can see in me what you can't, knows my tomorrow in ways that no one but him can, and somehow, he's deemed me, and you... a good investment.

Keep your head up today!

Learning to Love

Monday, August 1, 2011

One of the most valuable assets that a Christian can posses is the ability to resolve conflicts. Evidence for this can be found in just a cursory reading of the New Testament. The teachings of Christ on loving one's neighbor; the Apostle Paul's admonitions toward unity within the churches he established, all show a consistent preoccupation with the subjects of love and unity within the New Testament. Jesus prayed that we would all be one (John 17:11-13); Paul told the Philippians to have the same mind as Christ who gave up his life for the good of others (Phil 2:1-8) To exist together in love and unity, giving of ourselves for the benefit of others, is a clear, consistent, and resounding biblical priority.

The problem lies in the practical aspects of this: the divide between what we know is right and how we choose to behave. I mean, none of us would argue against the ideal. Surely, most of us can see the beauty and value in this way of life and would hardly argue against. However, it is something that is not natural for most of us. And, outside of the church and the Kingdom of God, in the real dog eat dog world where we spend allot our time, it's just not something we witness or experience on a consistent basis. The world simply walks to the beat of a different drum.

The ethos of Kingdom of God, however, is to embody and possess (to slightly modify and borrow a phrase from liberation theology) a preferential option for others. But, even in the church, and in our intimate relationships with friends and family, we tend to fall short of this ideal because it's not natural for us. Most of us operate with an innate fight or flight response; we have a built in mechanism that causes us to fight to protect ourselves. And, it's not always a given that in any particular situation we'll just automatically prefer others above ourselves, sacrifice our desires, dreams, and aspirations, for the good of someone else. Especially when we feel justified in not doing so.

With this said, for the Kingdom within to be what it's supposed to be, for us to emulate Christ in his lifestyle of sacrifice and concern for others, we have to be transformed. I think this is what Paul was saying when he admonished us to put on Christ (Ro 13:14), not being conformed to the world and its standards, but to be transformed by the regenerating of our minds through the power of the Holy Spirit (Ro 12:1-2). It's hardwired into our DNA to protect our own self-interest. But, the Spirit of Christ can re-write this code, reprogram our natural propensity toward self-preservation. This will allow us to truly love our brother as ourselves, emulating Christ who laid down his very life for his friends (John 15:13). 

Recent events in my life have reminded me of these truths and how important it is to live with other's in mind. It is so easy to forget these things and live our lives with little to no perception of what our actions and words are doing to others. And, I tend to appraise people's perception of me based solely upon how I feel about it. I mean, if my wife has a problem with something I'm doing but I don't see the harm in it, I am more likely than not, going to continue the behavior. But, that's not really how Christ would lead me to behave, is it?

It should be enough that our actions hurt someone else, without having to make them defend their position and argue it in such a way that convinces us that we should change. Obviously, this can be taken to an extreme, and we should all live reasonably. But, Paul was essentially talking about the same thing in Ro. 14 when he was addressing the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. I may be able to pull up to the table and enjoy that piece of perfectly cooked Prime Rib, and there may not be a single thing inherently wrong with doing so. But if my brother is offended...

This is the heart of the gospel. Everything Jesus did, he did for others. He was led to the cross, not because of his own offenses, but for ours. He stepped into our domain, clothed himself with the frailty of our human flesh, suffered the full range of human emotion and indignity, and he did it all for us. He did it to show us how were are live; how we are live our lives in love and sacrifice, esteeming the needs of others above our own. 
The Sacred Heart of Jesus*

By this will all men know that you are my disciples, because of your love one for another (Jn 13:35). That's so much more than just saying, “I love you.” It's the giving of ourselves, wholly and completely, for the good and benefit of others. Such love is visible to those outside our communities of faith. It's a tangible and concrete expression of love. It's love that compels others to desire to partake of what we've got. It's this kind of love and sacrifice that is the very heartbeat of Christian community!

It is this kind of love that behooves us to resolve conflict, to lay aside division and embrace one another, even when we disagree and have valid reasons to dislike one another. This love enables us to bury the hatchet, lay aside our entitlements, and fully clothe ourselves with the disposition of Christ.

May God helps us to this end! 

*The Sacred heart of Jesus represents the unmitigated love, compassion, and long-suffering of the heart of Christ towards humanity. 

Best Blog Post I've Read in a Long Time!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Follow Jesus TODAY
—not in some future state of perfection, but in messy, boring, unglamorous today.  This is the only moment I am promised, and it’s the best moment to seek after God.  Something tells me He can be found here."

This is one of the best and most insightful post I've read in a long time! Click on the title above to read it. 

A note to self: things to consider when looking for a Church

Church has been a sore spot in our immediate family over the past 10 years. It's definitely been the weakest link in our corporate journey of faith. We've attended some wonderful churches and some not so wonderful ones. Both my wife and I, before we met, had underwent some traumatic events that tore us away from the denominations that we were raised in; consequently, we were both sort of starting over trying to find another church/denomination to call home.

In retrospect, neither of us were ready to find a new church. The wounds we'd suffered from the places we were fleeing from were just too fresh. This created a tremendous lack of trust. We felt somewhat compelled to go to church because it was normal for us, and we had children that we really wanted to grow up in church as we had. Intellectually, we knew that church was a fundamental part the Christian faith: Christians attend church. It was as simple as that. 

Over the years, however, this endeavor has been a nightmare. It has, without a doubt, been the most challenging and unsuccessful thing we've attempted to do as a Christian family. As a result, our church attendance has been erratic at best. We've went long periods of time when we didn't go to church at all. There have been times when my wife and I attended separate churches, or where one of us went to church and the other stayed home. During all this, there's been a huge sense of dissatisfaction: both of us feeling the need to be in church together, as a family, realizing that the absence of a church where we both felt at home was unacceptable. 

After years of this sporadic church attendance, finally, in May of 2009, Shery and I made the commitment that our family would attend church together every Sunday. I can say, with subjective certainty, that we've lived up to that commitment. I mean, we've missed Sundays here and there, but as a whole, we've followed through with this commitment. Obviously, we didn't have a clue where we wanted to go, but we resolved the question of if we were going.

We began by attending churches that resembled, in terms of belief and worship styles, the respective denominations that we had each left prior to our marriage. It just appeared logical to go back to the beginning, the starting place. In a year's time, we visited four different churches like this, spending enough time at each church to determine whether we felt like it was where we belonged. None of these churches ultimately appealed to us but we did explore this area enough to realize that we were not the same people we had been years ago, and that we were no longer compatible with the beliefs, practices, and worship styles of these groups. So, it wasn't a total loss, but rather, a learning experience. We learned enough to realize that we were no longer tied to these groups and could move on with our lives with assurance, at least, that we did not belong there.

Finally, we returned to an United Methodist Church that we had attended briefly when we first moved into this area. Initially, we had stuck around long enough to transfer our membership (from another UMC church we attended in the town we had just moved from). While we did not stay long, both my wife and I had the utmost respect for the pastor, and we both were moved and touched by his ministry. I also considered him to be a very good friend and we shared allot of common interest intellectually.

Unfortunately, upon returning, we immediately discovered that he was several months away from departing. He was about to embark on a well deserved year long sabbatical after serving for more than 30 years. Since the UMC doesn't provide for year long sabbaticals, he had to resign his position at this church. We were very disappointed, but decided to hang out and see how the new pastor was. 

The time passed too quickly and before we knew it he was gone and the new pastor had arrived: this was almost a year ago. His successor was a female minister; incidentally, the church's first female senior pastor, and she is a wonderful minister indeed. She has a great ministry within the church and community, and God is using her in many wonderful ways. With that said, however, my wife and I have realized that our journey to find the church where we belong is not over.

We have enjoyed getting to know the new pastor and have been blessed by her ministry. But, the whole time we've been back, we've felt out of place. I don't think that it's any one's fault, I just think its because we've yet to find the place where God wants us. There are some wonderful people in this church and we've formed some bonds and relationships with people that we dearly love and appreciate. So, our decision is not something we've undertaken lightly.

Discussing this with my wife, we've come up with some things that we wish we would have considered before we embarked upon this journey. I think it certainly would have saved us allot of frustration. So, without dragging this post on any longer than it needs to be, I want to share with you something that we've entitled, "A note to self: things to consider when looking for a church." While I am sure many of these will appear simple and a product of common sense, unfortunately we did not considered many of these along the way, to our own detriment.

  • The church that appears to be the most logical place is not always the most advantageous.where to attend church has been made with the possibility of returning in mind. Obviously, a church/denomination that refuses to ordain ministers because of divorce and remarriage would not be advantageous for me. But, this has limited God, in my opinion. If and when God wants me to return to ministry, it will not matter where we are or where we attend church. God will open the door for me. He needs my cooperation, but he doesn't need my help.

  • Listen to God Obviously there are practical considerations every family needs to consider when attending a church for the first time. But, just because a church looks good and  has all the amenities that you think you might need, does not mean that it is where God wants you to be. And ultimately, this is what it's all about, right? Being at the right place at the right time is the most important thing to consider. And, the only way to ensure this is to listen to God and know that you are where He wants you to be. This is another area where I didn't follow well. I made the most rationale decision I could make. But, my rationale mind is not always compatible with God's will for my life. I have to learn to listen with my spiritual mind and do what God wants me to do, whether it appears to be rationale or not.

  • Make church the priority it is meant to be. For a long time, we approached church as an accessory to our Christian journey. I'm not exactly sure how this happened either. Both my wife and I attended church basically our entire lives. It was all we ever knew. But somehow, during a time of crisis, church became the problem for us, rather than a particular place being part of a problem, if that makes sense. Consequently, we stopped seeing church as an irreducible part of our Christian walk. It was expendable, which meant we could go extended periods of time without fellowship and communion with other  believers. This was to our extreme detriment. I am sure that if we would have placed the church where God intends it to be, then we would not be sitting here looking back over ten years of failed church experiences.

  • Be flexible and gracious! This is a challenge! Church is made up of people, and as such, is imperfect. Not every church is going to meet our every need all the time. Every thing within the church is not going to flow smoothly all the time either. You are not going to be appreciated by everyone equally, nor will you fit in with every group of the church. You have to have tolerance and be able to withstand some controversy. Obviously, if there is more controversy in a particular church for you then anything else, perhaps it's time to look elsewhere. But, even in the most ideal situations, where you seem to fit the best, there are going to be struggles and you have to be prepared to deal with them. Families struggle some times, we experience difficulties and growing pains, but when God has placed you in a church family and you know that you know that it is where He wants you, then you will be wiling to endure some difficulties for your ultimate good.

  • Realize that there is virtue in sacrifice and compromise. This is especially important when families are looking for a church. Not everyone in your family will value the same things in the same order that you do. Not one single person's needs can be elevated above all others. The right church will have the right complements of ministry and service opportunities to best meet the needs of the entire family. For instance, Shery values the emotional qualities of a church more than I. She loves interactive worship, good music, etc. Me, I value quality Christian education and preaching/teaching that is stimulating and thought provoking. Over the years, in our search for a church, when one of us has had to do all the sacrificing, it didn't work well in the long term. So, finding a place that has the potential to meet the needs of all the family as a whole is important. On the other hand, no single church is going to be able to do this entirely. They may have excellent Christian education and mediocre music. Each person has to do his or her part in compromising for the good of the family. God will lead you to the right place, not necessarily the perfect place. 

  • Lastly, always consider service a priority. What a church can do for you should not always be the prime consideration. We've been called to serve one another and to give of our time and resources for the benefit of the Kingdom. While we do go to church to be ministered too, we also should go there with an eye towards service. If a church is not open to ministry, both within and without its' four walls, then it may not be the right place for you. Liturgy means "the work of the people." We gather to worship, to receive a mandate, and we leave to serve. Does the church provide potential and opportunity for you and your family to engage in ministry to others? 

This certainly is not an exhaustive list of important considerations when searching for a church. I hope that you will participate in this discussion through comments to add things that I have not thought of. Next, my wife and I will put together a letter to our potential new church.

Big Love Ministries

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Below is an excerpt from the "About" page at Big Love Ministries. This is a worthwhile ministry led by Chad & Amy Holtz. Please visit their site to see how you can get involved in helping minister to the orphans, widows, and others in need of Ethiopia. May God richly bless you as you lend a helping hand!

Chad & Amy Holtz of Big Love Ministries

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27)

I’ll never forget the day we first met Fannuel and Hideat.   Before May 12, 2008, they were just pictures on our computer screen and words on a page.   But as we watched the blue van pull up to our hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they became more than that – they became our son and daughter.

Little did we know at that time that embracing them for the first time would open up a new world for us every bit as it opened a new world to them.   Our eyes were opened to the  severe plight of orphans and widows.   On the heels of this embrace came the realization that there are so many more excluded.   As we walked the streets of Ethiopia, one desperate woman begged Amy to take her four children back to America so that they might have a  chance to live.   She cried out, “I’ll have a small bag packed for them if you come by my house!”  (I share this story  in the sermon I preached at Fannuel and Hideat’s baptism).  We wanted to  close our eyes again but we could not.  Now that we had eyes to see we knew we had to do something.

That something began to crystalize when out of the blue we received an email from the mother (her name is Tsigie) of our two adopted children, now called Eli and Sophie.  She is a widow – young, poor, hungry – who  desired nothing more than to know her children were safe and loved.   As we got to know her more and more through her english-speaking cousin, a pastor in the countryside of northern Ethiopia (Tigray), we felt an increasing burden and calling to do something to help not just her but the many, many women and children just like her.

But you need to hear the needs in their own words.  Here is one email from Alex, the pastor I mentioned above, responding to my wife’s  (Amy) inquiry about what needs they have. His english is a bit broken and I left it as-is:
Hello Amy
Today I have come with all in detail information and try to read it carefully. And what I will do is I will show you the huge gap in this region so that you can choose one or two projects to start with.
First let me tell you the back ground of the region shortly.
-Tigray region is located in the northern part of ETHIOPIA ( IN border  for Sudan and Eritria )
-Ethiopia has been reigned by different princes ,kings and  ,governors for centuries especially Tigray region had been the battle field for those governors since 1855s
-And during those governors we loosed a lot of innocent people
-There was also a remarkable moment  in 1985 e.c during this time we loose 200,000 people due to sever famine
-Recently the war ib between Ethiopia and Eritria we have sacrificed more than 36,000 soldiers and hundreds of innocent people
-Parrarelly HIV AIDS also took the life 30,000 people with in 20 years and made many children homeless and fatherless still many became victims
-Beside to this fact as a region TIGRAY (THE FIVE ZONES )  have many common problems that the government alone can not solve it and could not give attention these are
1-      Attention for aged people (senior  citizens ) and children who loose their parents by war and HIV AIDS
2-      Death of children due to luck of nutrition
3-      Prostitution (moms who have 2-5 children) they do this staff to raise their children
4-      Dropping (ceasing ) school because of the luck of food ,cloth ,and stationary for school
5-      Attention for positive moms to get balanced diet specially pregnant moms
6-      Attention for real Widows who are forced to raise their children alone ( because of the war and HIV AIDS)
7-      School opportunity for disable ( specially young children who are blind and deaf )
And other common problems of the region
-          Sight problem ( eye disease )
-          Tooth ach
-          Wheel chair for disable children and young
Dear Amy
I pray that God may open your spiritual eyes to see the deep poverty hovering the region. This region is badly seeking a good Samarian man and woman who can lift up the region from deep quagmire of poverty which had killed and has been killing the lives many people.
And as for me it is better to give priority for the problem mentioned in number 1, 2 and 3 the rest problems can be solved under this project. All these things were with in my heart for several years . I prayed and fasted that may God see this region from His holy throne and now I am able to see when God moves His hand for my people and I am able to see a little cloud that can cover the region.
Who knows if God raised you to like the Samarian man for this really hurted  and severely  injured region?
Who knows if God may be speaking to you right now to help the orphans and widows that  so desperately need it?

They need you. We are in the process of putting together a plan to buy land (cost is about $2000) where we can build a ministry center that will do a number of things, beginning with nutrition for babies, feeding the hungry a daily meal, delivering food to the elderly, provide school supplies, clothing and eye glasses, facilitate classes that teach job skills and conduct chapel services.

We hope you will consider partnering with us in this ministry.   You can begin today by donating a few dollars to help us get this ministry center started.   Become part of this big plan to show big love to God’s precious children in Northern Ethiopia and beyond.

Thank you on behalf of orphans and widows everywhere.
In Christ,

Chad and Amy Holtz
Big Love Ministries

***Chad also maintains a personal blog here

Liberal Fundamentalism

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Last weekend I found out about a used book sale in a nearby town that was coming to a close. It had been going on for three days and by time I found out about it, it was almost over. I jumped in the van (with two of my lovely children in tow) and headed there promptly, not ever wanting to miss a good used book sale. My back was really bothering me when I left home but since books are one of my greatest passions, I pushed through the pain thinking that the benefit would far outweigh the discomfort.

When I finally arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though I had never heard of it, the organization sponsoring the sale does this on an annual basis. I'm not sure how long they've been doing it but one thing is for sure, they knew exactly what they were doing and they had the largest stock of used books in one place that I've ever seen. I was like a kid in a candy store. In fact, the books were so cheap, that I was like a rich kid in a candy store with so many options that I hardly knew where to start. Time was not on my side, however, because my wife and children had made plans for the early afternoon and it was already almost lunch time. My family would have never forgiven me if I had blown them off and done what I wanted to do: rent a U-haul and tell them that I would take all the religion and philosophy books they had. I mean, they had more books in that genre than I've ever seen in one place!

Unfortunately, my back pain would not cooperate; this was definitely a case of the spirit being willing but the flesh was weak! The more I tried to concentrate on finding something of value, the more impatient I became because I was hurting. Next year, things will be different! I've already got it marked on my calendar with reminders scheduled to begin blowing the whistle 2 weeks in advance. I am serious about my books! 

Thankfully, I did manage to lay my hands on a few volumes that were of particular interest to me. When I went to pay for them, I was even more pleasantly surprised to find out that since it was the last day of the sale and I had come right before closing, they were selling everything at half price. So, I walked away with about 10 books for less than 10 bucks. While I was disappointed that I wasn't able to look at more of their stock because I lacked the time and was hurting so bad, I was nonetheless happy about the decisions I'd made. 

While driving home, however, I began to really think about how I had selected my books. As I said, there were so many to choose from and I blazed through them looking for favorite authors and certain titles, not wasting too much time in any one particular location. As I thought about some of the books I had passed over, I was reminded of something Tripp Fuller, of Homebrewed Christianity, had said in a podcast (Sex, Salvation, Scripture & the Slippery Slope: Parts 1 & 2) between himself and Rachel Held Evans. They were kind of discussing the conservative/liberal paradigm in Christianity and Tripp stated that there was something called "liberal fundamentalism." What? Surely not!

Now, I have to admit that I immediately disliked the inference. Fundamentalism is something I've tried to escape. To me, it embodies everything that is incompatible with the Christian faith: intolerance, closed mindedness, self-righteousness, bigotry, arrogance, discrimination, legalism, you name it. In my journey to be free from these fundamentalist defects, I've kind of naturally gravitated towards liberalism; or, for a more contemporary way of putting it, I've become more progressive in my religious thinking. As such, I'd like to think that I've laid aside allot of my previous prejudices and have become more tolerant and embracing of divergent viewpoints and ideas. I like to think of myself as enlightened and free from those negative influences that almost drove me away from God years ago. 

As I thought of some of the books I could have purchased and chose not too, however, I could not get this incessant little title/designation out of my mind: liberal fundamentalism... I think I've stopped liking Tripp over it actually; after all, he's a Baptist, so I am entitled to dislike him, right? God doesn't even like the Baptist, does he? I jest!

Obviously, I was searching for books that interested me and I wasn't obligated to throw one in the mix that didn't necessarily ring my bell. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But, in retrospect, this little experience has helped me understand what Tripp was saying and ashamedly, I have to admit that I think I've fallen prey to fundamentalism once again. Because as much as I would like to relegate my behavior and attitude to a single experience during a used book sale, I have to acknowledge that my actions and thinking here are very fundamental to how I view religion--and even God these days.   

My propensity towards fundamentalism is so evident by how I selected some authors while so flippantly discarding others, based solely upon whether or not I thought the author was contemporary or progressive enough. If I knew the author to have some conservative leanings, I would quickly discard them without giving them a second thought. And, I am ashamed to say it, but this was my sole criterion. In so doing, I was showing my own ignorance and willingness to tolerate discrimination in myself, all the while completely disdaining it in others. In the process, I realize that in many respects, I've been building the exact same walls of separation that I've criticized others for. It makes me think of that menacing little statement in the book of Galatians:"...if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor." (2:18; NRSV)

I just assumed that I was rather insulated from having a closed mind, being liberal and all. Some how along the way, I began to postulate that liberalism was the very antidote to intolerance. Obviously, this is not the case; being progressive or liberal minded does not automatically translate into tolerance or being more open-minded. In fact, there are some areas where I am more closed minded and intolerant than many of my conservative counterparts. It hurts to make this admission, but it is nonetheless true. 

This has been a stark admission for me. I've found that I have built many of the same walls that I thought I had destroyed in my enlightenment. I'm not exactly sure that I have not become worse, because I have cut myself off from a huge portion of religious people, being unwilling or incapable of receiving anything of value from them, simply because I deem them to be too rigid. I know that I would feel uncomfortable worshiping with these people, just as they would be cautious around me. Notice that I designate them as these people, not sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to see things differently than I do. It's a subtle distinction, but an insidious one.

In the end, there is no doubt that I am going to have to fully address and change this in my life. Regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me, I am grateful that God has opened my eyes to this. I do not want to be cut off from any of my siblings in the faith. I don't want to miss something of value simply because I am too concentrated on the packaging or label.

Paul deals with this very thing while writing to the Roman church about the act of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols and observing certain days above others. (ch. 14). Essentially, Paul is telling us not to construct walls of separation because of our thinking on non-essential issues: whether or not we approve of this or that. 

Binary thinking can be dangerous, regardless of its position on a particular continuum. Our "either/or" mentalities can shut people out, hurt them, and hurt ourselves because we are allowing division and walls between ourselves that God doesn't want there. In fact, the cross stands in direct opposition to such thinking. Our faith is designed to bridge the gap between us and God as well as between conservatives and liberals, those who eat meat and those who do not, etc etc. 

I don't want to continue the same prejudices and intolerance that I once knew. I want to be open to receive and fellowship with all of God's people, regardless of whether or not I agree with them on everything. I wonder how many books and authors I arrogantly discarded who might have broadened my understanding of God and deepened my faith? I do not want to be a fundamentalist anymore, regardless of the variety!