Monday, September 23, 2013

Empty-centered arguments

I have the great privilege of serving as associate pastor at Union Hill Baptist Church.  I get to preach there quite bit and yesterday I had more sermon than I could get preached!  This blog post is, in part, a continuation of that sermon.  You can listen to the whole thing here (the sermon starts at 13:20) but I'll give you a quick summary.  Many of us are guilty of evaluating our marriage based on our own happiness.  We can be guilty of considering our spouse's happiness only as it affects our own happiness and we only occasionally consider how God is glorified in our marriage.  To be fair, this last criteria is only a reasonable expectation for Christians but that's who I want to talk to for a minute.

God's glory and others' benefit is the primary filter that all our actions should run through to determine whether or not they are good or right.  It is easy, however, to fall into the trap of calling whatever makes me happy good.  Nearly every commercial, ad, and billboard appeal to our personal satisfaction and happiness as the greatest good.  This plays to our natural tendencies.  Every one of us is a natural-born fulfiller of our own needs and wants and we frequently elevate the latter category into the former.

This is not to say that the things that make us happy are necessarily bad.  An illustration from food might help.  We've all heard jokes and dieting instructions based on the idea that no food can taste good and be good for you so anything that tastes good must be bad.  Happily this is not true.  Some of you probably like broccoli of all things!  Similarly not everything that makes us happy is bad but you can imagine what trouble we would get into if we assumed that everything that tasted good was good for us.

Our tendency to misjudge what is good is made worse by our ability to do things that we know are not good just because they will make us happy.  Back to food:  I know that a half bag of potato chips is not good for me but I eat them anyway because I like them.  Sin is an old-fashioned word to some but it is alive and well in our daily habits.  Most of us are not going to steal, kill someone, or commit adultery but we have a lot of little ways to put our own wants first and gently push others out of the way

These tendencies put us on shaky ground when we try to tell others what God has said about what is good and right.  They make our arguments sound hollow to our hearers.  There are lots of areas where this crops up but none more prevalent today than in the subject of same-sex marriage and the LGBT community.  I have taken this subject up before but I want to tackle a new piece today.

Arguing for what God says in a secular culture will always be difficult.  No one likes hearing that something they are doing is wrong.  Everyone, religious or not, has an impulse to defend their own actions and refute or reject the correction being offered.  When the correction is based on what God says through the Bible, non-Christians will, naturally, reject the validity or relevance of the scripture.  There is nothing we, as Christians, can do about that.

The problem we can help fix is the agreement of our lives with our argument.  When we make many (most?) of our own decisions based on our personal happiness and then tell others they should do "what the Bible says" in spite of what makes them happy, our argument sounds hollow.  In fact our argument is hollow.  Not because it isn't right, what God says is always right but, when we ask others to do things we won't, it makes us hollow.  You see, being married to my beautiful wife makes me happy.  That doesn't make it wrong but, if that is my primary reason for being married to her, then I lose my footing to make any argument to someone else that they can't marry who makes them happy.  Pointing at a verse in Leviticus invites others to point at other verses that I don't follow.  Worse, speaking against homosexual behavior while silently or openly condoning heterosexual lust (or greed, gossip, or bitterness) opens the floodgates of charges of hypocrisy.

If, on the other hand, my life is characterized by making choices that put my short-term satisfaction under what God wants and that bless others around me rather than taking what I want, then I have something to stand on when I say "God's way is best."  This certainly does not guarantee that everyone will take the advice.  Remember, nobody likes correction!  It is, however, the first step to being heard.  I wouldn't trust a cook who doesn't eat what he prepares or a doctor who won't take his own medicine.  Neither will anyone trust a Christ-follower who follows their own desires while asking others to ignore their own.


P.S.  None of this should be taken to mean we (Christians) shouldn't address what the Bible says about homosexuality or any other sin.  We absolutely should speak about this.  Love for others demands that we speak.  Speaking with integrity requires that we line up our lives with God and then speak from our experience.

Monday, August 12, 2013

I doubt it (is that ok?)

I am reading You Lost Me by David Kinnaman.  This book is a report on research into the "dropout problem" among young adults in Christian churches in America and some prescriptive thoughts for reaching these dropouts and reorienting our churches around the gospel.  It is a challenging read for a church leader and long-time follower of Jesus like myself.  One of the later chapters has especially spurred my thoughts recently.  The chapter is simply titled "Doubt."

Doubt is an interesting phenomenon in the life of a follower of Jesus or even in the life of someone who is considering following Jesus.  We spend a great deal of time as preachers and teachers encouraging people to trust God and "exercise" their faith.  All of this encouragement can, and should, be used to deal with our doubts.  It is my experience, however, that we almost never address doubt directly and I spend a lot of time preaching and teaching.  By contrast, I've said and heard something like "when we sin we should . . . ." or "when you are discouraged you should . . . ." lots of times.  Not so much with doubt.

I've always thought doubt was a near-universal experience mostly because I have personally experienced it.  Don't most of us assume we are mostly normal?  The research by the Barna Group presented in You Lost Me backs this up.  That's good, sort of.  Good in the sense that I am normal, at least in this one case, and you are, too.  Not so good in the sense that this thing that everyone feels is not being addressed.  In  leaving it unaddressed we, Christians, give the impression that it's not acceptable to doubt or, worse, that we don't have any way of dealing with doubt.

Doubt need not be feared.  While faith doesn't depend on doubt, doubt certainly provides an opportunity for our faith to be strengthened.  Maybe an illustration from my "other" life will help.  Scientific theory and advancement is built on doubt.  Thoughts like "that doesn't seem right" and questions like "how does that happen?" are the impetus for scientific discovery.  The questions and skepticism do not yield discovery on their own, of course, but the testing of theories and exploration of processes does.  This is doubt applied, if you will.  Experiments are ideas and questions put to the test and I would suggest that followers of Jesus should apply this practice and encourage others to do likewise.

A brief aside:  there are some readers who would like to delve into and challenge naturalism based on the above paragraph.  I am with you but that will have to occupy another space.  Suffice it to say that the above paragraph applies to actual science.  Naturalism is philosophy and has only recently come to be, mistakenly, synonymous with scientific thought.

The Bible actually has a something to say about doubt.  Interested readers should cast fresh eyes on the Psalms and the book of Job.  Doubt is hit head on in the life of Thomas and even in the Great Commission.  Check out the response of the disciples in Matt 28:17!  How did Jesus respond?  With Thomas, Jesus invited him to test his doubt.  "Put your hands here."  With the disciples at the end of Matthew, He gave them the mission anyway, effectively inviting them to test Him and His authority.

We can do the same.  If God is the source of all truth, all sincere testing will lead us closer to Him.  We should test our doubts rather than nurse them in the dark.  One warning, you can explore the effects of gravity by dropping a marble but you can't explore God without risking yourself.  If you have emerged from your doubts with a stronger faith, you should work at making others feel comfortable expressing, and testing, their own doubts.  Someone may one day topple our current model of the atom but, if God is who He says He is, no one will ever topple Him! 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The R-Word

Folks who have known me for a while have probably heard me carry on about the "r-word" at some point.  I had no idea that my personal carrying on had a national campaign.  Today is designated as the annual day of awareness for using (or not using) "retarded."  You can learn more at r-word.org (their site is very slow, maybe just today) and I encourage you to check it out.  This is personal to me as I have a 14-year-old son with Cerebral Palsy and severe Developmental Delay.  He is an individual with an intellectual disability.  Retardation is a literal description of a medical condition.  It has come to be used as an insult or joke.  I appreciate you considering eliminating it from your vocabulary.  If you really want to go above and beyond, pay attention to how you use "special" as well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cheering You On

I was sent an email from a friend last week that contained the story of a football game between Gainesville State High School and Faith Christian High School in Texas.  I have seen several great stories of compassion in the sports world but I'm not sure any of them tops this one.  I encourage you to take about 5 minutes and watch the news story here.

Considering that story, I have a few questions.

Which side of the ball are you on?  If you feel like you are on the Gainesville State side where no one cheers for you, I would like to tell you something about Christmas.  The baby in the manger was God in the flesh.  One of the overwhelming messages of the life of Jesus is that God is for you.  He knows your name and really wants the best for you.  More than just dividing His fans in half, God Himself chose to break into our world to rescue us from our past mistakes and give us a future.  Like the boys in Gainseville State School, we have to make amends for our past but the great thing is that the price has already been provided.  If you don't know how that works, I encourage you to find someone who follows Christ and ask them.

Maybe, though, you're like me and you have a lot more in common with the Faith Christian players.  We have some regular cheerleaders in our lives.  People who believe in us and support us and upon whom we can depend for a kind word or act of love when we need it.  Our question is, who are you cheering for?  Who around you desperately needs a fan?  How can you build a "spirit line" for him/her?  Learn their name, be clear that you are cheering for them.  If you are a follower of Jesus, this is what the Spirit does for us everyday.  You have a chance to be part of what He is doing!

Even if you don't have fans, you can be a cheerleader.  Who knows, you might just find some fans as you encourage others!

Finally, some of you are coaches.  You have resources not just for you but you direct other people all the time.  Almost all parents qualify, here.  Are you willing to take some of your fans and give them away?  How can we redirect our resources to benefit others, even those who oppose us?  I have a secret, you are probably not in any more danger of losing fans than the coach at Faith Christian was.  Let's not hoard our resources but put them in places where they can really be appreciated and let's lead others to do the same.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Out of Focus

I serve as a pastor.  I lead our youth group.  I parent 3 children.  I think a lot about how to communicate principles for decision making that are not just "when A happens, you pick B."  At least, I should think a lot about it!  I was up late last night as a result of these kinds of thoughts.  We all are exposed to different environments, saddled with different challenges, and face different choices.  What rules or guidelines will help all of us make the right choice all the time?  Even if I won't choose the right thing all the time, could I at least get some help in knowing what the right thing is?

It's tempting here to say something like, "Well just do what the Bible says all the time" or, "Just ask WWJD?"  Here's the problem, I have read the Bible all the way through a couple of times and I haven't found a verse that gives me the script to correct a sensitive child's behavior in a way that let's him know the gravity of the error but still leaves him encouraged that he can and will do better in the future.  None of the people who have asked me how you know God is speaking to you have had a burning bush or blinding light so I struggle to find an exact description.  I know I've felt God move in me and direct my choices but, if you've ever tried to explain this knowing, you know where I'm coming from.

Don't get me wrong.  I believe the Bible is sufficient for our life.  I just helped teach the first few verses of Colossians 2 and I firmly believe that all wisdom and knowledge are contained in Christ.  Many of the people I lead seem to find the same frustration:  the specific choice they are facing is not specifically outlined in the pages of scripture.  It seems that God did not intend to detail each and every situation we might face (think of the size of that book!).  Instead, He chose to give us guidelines to apply to every decision.  I think Colossians 2:1 has a hint.  Paul says he is struggling "for you."

Hmm, struggling for others.  Focusing on others (hard) instead of me (as easy as falling off a log).  What if I made my choices always thinking of how it is going to impact somebody besides me.  Maybe I'm beginning to figure out why Jesus gave two great commandments when He was only asked for one.  As a follower of Christ, I want to always make the decision that makes God happiest.  (Even people who don't believe Jesus was God in the flesh frequently agree that His ethics and morality were pretty great.)  When I can't figure that out directly, I can choose what would benefit people around me the most.  Jesus says that these two things, what God wants and what benefits others, are always like each other.

Before you think I have just sunk into doing whatever people won't complain about, note that the condition is what benefits others, not necessarily what makes them happy.  Don't take my word for it, though.  Give it a whirl.  Feel free to leave a comment if you learn something!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Home

As a child, the brick house on the hill.
Moniteau County, Walker Township.
On the farm, outside of McGirk (where?!)
Not so much the house as the land.

Teenager: two girls occupy our home, too.
Foster kids, is this home for them?
One returns to her home.
One stays through college.
Still, is this home for her?  Hard to tell.

College: "On my own!"  Cool!
. . . Not home though.
I go "home" on weekends and for summers.
A thought is peeking through the clouds,
Maybe I was wrong as a child.
Maybe home is not the house or the land.
Sure feels like home to see Mom and Dad (and Brother?)

Her:  Things have changed!
On top of the world, looking at spectacular,
I want to show . . . her.
Why her?  Hmmm.
The question.  She said yes!
Yep, I was wrong as a child.
We make home, she and I.

Home is the people not the place.
The place is nice, filled with memories (laundry, too).
If the people move, so do I.
The place becomes a memory.
Home moves with the people.

Preacher:  I tell people that this is not home at all.
Home is where we're headed, not where we are.
Now I think of the Place, again.
Rolling hills, green, mountains in the distance.

I'm wrong, again.
Home is not the Place.
Home is the Person. (Think of all the people!)
I should be chasing Him, not There.
If I'm chasing Him, I find and follow Him here,
I get a taste of Ultimate Home.

Can I invite you with me?
I'm heading Home
Come along, you'll find Home.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Outrageous

While watching the Today show a little while back I was caught by a phrase from Salman Rushdie during an interview with Matt Lauer.  In the interview (you can see it here), Rushdie opines that we are living in an age of outrage and that "people seem to define themselves by their outrage."  Incidentally, he also describes the internet movie at the center of this controversy in an almost lyrical way as "an outrageous, disgraceful, little malevolent thing."  Poetry.

The legitimacy of this outrage on the part of Muslim residents of North Africa and the Middle East is not the discussion I wish to engage here.  How we, as privileged westerners, tend to define ourselves by outrage is the discussion I'd like to take a stab at.

Some will object to my use of privileged but only the narrowest of viewpoints will support any other assessment of middle-class citizens of the USA.  People who do not worry about the existence or timing of their next meal and have a dry, temperature-controlled place to sleep rank as wealthy by almost any scale that accounts for the world as a whole or across an even moderate scope of history.  To include the number of vehicles, mobile phones, or computers owned by most of us only furthers the point.  How can I or any of my peers claim a justifiable outrage?

It turns out it is easy enough in practice.  Anytime some one encroaches on our rights or gives us a perceived slight we are quick to notice and, usually, advertise.  To be sure, most of us are sympathetic when we see someone "less fortunate" than us but how long does that stay with us?  How often are we genuinely thankful for our blessings?  I have noticed that a hurt, no matter how insignificant it is, tends to stick with me far longer than any sympathy for another or thankfulness for everyday blessings.

Of course, this only points to how much I am focused on me.  The old formula for JOY (Jesus first, others next, yourself last) seems to be best represented by Y . . . . . . . . . . . JO in my life far too often.  I know when I have been hurt all the time.  I am keenly aware of my wants and needs and frequently confuse the former for the latter.  I spend my time defining myself, no matter how quietly, by what I don't have rather than what I do have.  This is the beginning of outrage.  "I deserve better!"

If I'm right on the problem, then the solution is easy enough but we'll have to be honest with ourselves.  No matter how good the reason sounds (Christians who groan about the persecution we face here in modern America, I'm looking at us), we simply need to focus outside ourselves.  My dad had a quote on the wall of his workspace for as long as I can remember up to his retirement.  "If all the problems of the world were piled in a heap and everyone had to take an equal share, most people would be content to take their own and leave."  Amen.

P.S. Specifically for Christians:  What if the world saw us as people who were overwhelmed by our blessings rather than those who were defined by their outrage like everyone else?