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

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!

An Update and Ordinary Time

Friday, May 6, 2011

I just noticed that it's been around 18 days since I last posted. Obviously, I intend on posting more frequently, but things have  really been hectic. Since my last contribution, we've had family visiting from out of state, my father had a mild aneurysm and subsequent heart surgery, and there's been an escalation in the Worker's Compensation case that I am currently involved in. The only one of these that was planned or foreseen was the visit from family. The other two kind of took me by surprise. 

The visit from family (my wife's parents who live in Illinois) was very pleasant. The occasion for their visit was Jaedyn and Emma's birthdays (belated: they couldn't come until a week after their actual birthdays): born respectively on April 15 & 17. We had a wonderful time together and my daughters enjoyed having their grandparents here to celebrate their special days. It was an extra special milestone for Emma, who finally became a teenager. She seems to think it's taken forever while the rest of us adults kind of scratched our head wondering how this could have possibly happened so quickly! I've been a father for 24 years now and it just doesn't get any easier to watch them grow up! It happens so fast! 

My father is in his early 70's and he's spent the better part of the last 4 years or so caring for my step-mother. She's quite a bit older than he is and her health has been deteriorating over the last five years or so. Dad has faithfully taken care of her the best he could but it finally got a bit too much for him. He had to put her in a nursing home and a few days later he has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital himself undergoing multiple heart by-passes and having a couple of his heart valves repaired. Dad is a man of faith and thankfully God took care of him during this time. The doctor's expect him to make a full recovery and I'd suspect he'll be back to landscaping and cutting grass in no time. Since he retired from an oil company in New Bern, NC, he's kept himself busy with a little landscaping business. He loves to do it and I hope he can continue to do it for a long time to come.

Some of you may know that I suffered an on the job injury back in February of 2010. I fell through a hole on a mezzanine that I didn't know was there until it was too late. Incidentally, it happened to be a church we were building. It wasn't good because I already have rods and screws in my spine due to an injury that occurred back in 1999. Because of that injury my employer's insurance denied my claim and I've been battling it out with them basically since June of 2010 when I received the official denial. My employer promptly laid me off and its been a rough time for us ever since. Throughout the later end of April my attorney informed me that I have a mediation on the 13th of May and so I've been having to fill out allot of paperwork and meeting with the attorney in preparations for the hearing. 

For those of you who have had the patience to read this personal post this far, I do solicit your prayers: both for my father's continued recovery and for God's will to be done in this legal situation. Obviously I feel like I'm entitled to compensation. I've not been able to work since July of last year and it has been a huge financial burden for my family. Thankfully, God has given my wife a wonderful job with amazing benefits during this time. He really has taken care of us and showed his faithfulness, even in times when I didn't feel like I deserved it in the least. I'm not expecting a huge settlement; I just want a reasonable one for the suffering I've endured and loss of wages from the inability to work during this time. There's very little that can be done medically and my medical expenses have been minimal during this time. So just pray that God's will be done here and that I will be content regardless.

As I was debating writing this post about some of these personal issues, I began to reflect upon the liturgical seasons. We've experienced Lent, gazed upon the Cross, and celebrated the Resurrection. Soon we'll remember Pentecost and the birth of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, we'll embark upon that time of our liturgical calendar known as "Ordinary time." Ordinary here doesn't mean that its not important or that its usual or non-eventful, but simply that it is not seasonal. One writer said this about it: "the Church [during Ordinary time] celebrates the mystery of Christ not in one specific aspect but in all its aspects."

While we are still celebrating the seasons liturgically, en-route to Pentecost, I sort of feel like I am already in this ordinary time. I am experiencing God in all the little areas: needing him in hospital rooms and legal proceedings, in the everyday happenings of my life right now. And everything that I know about him tells me that he's faithful, steady, someone that I can trust to know exactly where I am at any given moment and to know what I need, even when I don't. I don't have all the answers for tomorrow. I wish I did. But thankfully, I know who does. And in the days and weeks ahead, I know that he will be with me through it all. 

Thanks be to God!