Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Change is up to Us

Election day is looming which means that about half the ads on TV are about what how horrible political opponents are and what each candidate will do to change what the "other side" has messed up so badly.  Usually, these come in pairs that oppose each other.  While I wouldn't trade our system of government for anywhere in the world, it sure makes me want to keep my finger on the mute button for the next few days.  Of course, the follow up will start next Wednesday or the day after inauguration, at the latest:  the near-constant game of pointing out what (insert elected official here) is doing to mess up the country/state/city and what they should do differently.

Before, I devolve into complete cynicism or completely contradict the point of this post, I should point out that most groups are pretty good at this game regardless of political involvement.  We are all adept at figuring out what "they" need to change to make things better.  Poor people need to get a job, rich people need to share their blessings, young people need to be more responsible and respectful, old people need to get a clue, black people need to get over the old days of oppression, white people need to fix the systems of oppression still in existence.  The church is no exception as we find it easy to point out what the world (code for those outside the church) is doing wrong and how "they" need to straighten up and stop messing things up.

Here's the problem.  This never works.  The simplest reason is that I don't have control over anybody but me.  Trust me, I'd like to have.  I have all sorts of better choices for the people around me (that's a joke, sort of).  An extension of that is that I don't have much influence over anybody but those I can honestly call "us."  My family, my friends, and those who share my interests or background mostly listen to what I have to say.  People who are outside of those circles have virtually no reason to listen to what I have to say, much less heed any advice I might give.  If your fix for your family, church, community, state, country, etc starts with, "If only they would," you are doomed to overwhelming frustration.

"Us" is the only group I have any hope of changing and these are the only folks I know well enough to offer anything helpful.  This, by the way, is among the most fundamental differences between "us" and "them."  While I'd love to offer this advice to the whole world, heeding my own advice dictates that I speak to my own tribe, the church.

Happily, the church was created for this very purpose.  Jesus made clear that His followers were to be expanders of "us."  Sometimes we have taken this in a military or political conquest sense but that's a perversion of what Jesus said.  "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself."  There it is.  Loving God means loving my neighbor and not just a little bit.  Love him or her so much that "they" become "us."  His need becomes my concern.  Her joy becomes my celebration.

As we do that, not only to we have the chance to tell the greatest news ever, we also get smarter.  We find out why people are the way the are.  We learn more about what it's like to be from a different setting.  We even find out where we have been part of the problem.  If done correctly, we find a growing circle of "us."  This we can change.

It's a sucker bet, of course.  The change will always be in us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Membership Privileges

"Membership has it's privileges."  So says American Express and such is usually the case.  Being a member carries a sense of belonging and acceptance into the group if nothing else.  In fact, some groups get members by way of the privileges.  AmEx, AAA, country clubs, and timeshares convince us to pay a fee just to receive the privileges that membership provides.  Other groups are composed of people who join up to support a cause and the benefits are just a consequence of that, they are not the reason people join.  Still others are more like fan groups, the group come together to extol the virtues of a particular person or thing.  For these, membership is about shared love.  Membership might lead to a shared cause if the object of adoration champions a particular effort but this is a secondary item; certain group members might take it up while others do not.

Not so long ago in the U.S., church membership carried a certain amount of the first kind of membership.  To be accepted in the social community and the business community, a person needed to be a member of a local church.  In those circumstances, some (many?) joined the church in order to enjoy the privileges.  Sadly, many people today view most, if not all, Christians as having joined for the privileges and those same folks view the church as an exclusive, insider club.  Even sadder is the fact that many of us who follow Jesus and are active in church have contributed to this understanding by our own actions.  I think this has been unintentional but we need to be intentional about fixing it.

Minimally, church is a group with a mutual object of affection.  Jesus has encountered us and offered us acceptance into His family.  We "joined up" because of our love for Jesus.  I really mean something more than fandom here but you see the similarities.  There is nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes, but it is a starting point not an ending point.

Jesus is a man on a mission.  To join His family is to join His mission.  If you are a part of His family, you ought to be part of a local church and that local church should be the people who come together to support the mission.  Among other things that means we ought to echo President Kennedy in asking what we can do for our church (or, better, what can we do to further the mission) rather than what our church does for us.  If you are a follower of Jesus, this is part of the expectations of your life.  Get busy following!

Maybe you're not a follower of Jesus and have not been too impressed by the privileges the church provides.  May I suggest that you may have misunderstood what we're about?  As I said above, we who are inside the church have aided (even caused!) this misunderstanding.  I'd like to encourage you to think about it differently.  Most folks respect the life and teachings of Jesus whether they are impressed by His followers or not.  Jesus is not after respect.  He is about reconciling people to Himself.  It is the greatest cause of which you could benefit and in which you could participate.

Like all great causes, the work is hard and the life will be marked by sacrifice.  The privileges are great but if you "spend in" the work and sacrifice to get the privileges, you're only trying to buy into a group with a currency other than money.  The work and sacrifice are worth it because the relationship and the mission are worth it.  Any other attitude is less than what we're shooting for.  I, at least, need to get busy reflecting that in my attitude and actions.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

No I in Team

Have you been following Izaic Yorks?  Yeah, me neither.  Not being a big fan of NCAA track & field I had no idea who this young man was until I heard about him on the radio.  Seems Mr. Yorks ran the fastest mile ever by an American collegian in a recent meet.  At just under 3:54, Izaic ran a mile at about the speed I bike a mile.  The real surprise, however, is that he did not run the mile at the NCAA championships which he qualified for.  Why not, you ask?  You can read about it here, but the upshot is that he had already committed to running the Distance Medley Relay with three of his teammates.  The qualifying heat for the mile is right before the DMR so Izaic had to choose which one to run.  Running the mile would effectively ruin their chances to win the DMR.  Izaic had promised his teammates he would run the relay and he evidenced no hesitation in keeping his word.

Now here's the thing, his teammates, his coach, and everyone aware of the story would have understood if Izaic bowed out of the relay to have a shot at being an individual champion.  In fact, with track & field's emphasis on individual achievement, all these people probably expected Izaic to do so.  Izaic Yorks, however, considered his word to be more important than all that.  It's more than refreshing, it's amazing.  I know it shouldn't be but it is.

What is God doing in me?  Even if I wonder what He will do through me, I am in danger of missing the greater purpose.  When I focus on God working in me, I might forget what I promised so long ago.  When I gave my life to Jesus, I agreed that whatever He wanted was what I'd do.  As I learn more about Jesus, I am coming to understand that He wants to do things in us rather than just in me.  Keeping my word might require me doing something that will be recognized as a church thing rather than an LP thing.  That might seem obvious but I find it easier to do what Jesus wants when I'm pretty sure someone will pat me on the back for it.  What about you?

To be sure, this does not remove my individual responsibility.  Izaic still had to put in the work himself.  No one can run the training laps for you; no one can push through the pain on your behalf; no one can read your Bible, pray, or serve the needy in your place.  When choosing where or how we will serve, however, Izaic's example bears remembering.  On race day, he chose to run with his team rather than in an event where his name would be listed by itself.  Oh, that I would make the same kind of decision while following Jesus.

By the way, Izaic is in the habit of keeping his promises.  He started some time ago and I will be watching the Rio games in hopes of seeing him fulfill that promise also.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Gravity pt.3, The ending and beginning

"Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance."  So says C.S. Lewis in the essay, "Christian Apologetics" in the collection God In The Dock.  In terms of western culture this is definitely arguable (as done by a Lewis critic here), but this is not, I think, Lewis's point.  In terms of what Christianity says about ultimate reality, it is either true or false.  This is true of every religious and philosophical system.  The consequences are pretty dramatic in any of the major world religions.  This has caused many to reject the whole lot.  Others say that they are all basically true but not exclusive.  (I think this position is really saying that they are all equally false, but that's a different post!)  For the last couple of posts, I have illustrated Christian belief with the obvious-to-everyone force of gravity.  No doubt, to folks who do not share my convictions about Jesus Christ, this seems a little condescending.  That is not my intent.

To a believer, the evidence of God is everywhere and nearly as obvious as gravity.  To the skeptic, all these phenomena could be explained by chance or natural forces.  Each group seems to be ignoring the plain evidence from the other point of view.  Some might be tempted to make peace between these two groups by trying to compromise and come up with an acceptable middle ground.  This is not my intent, either.  I am firmly in the "believer" camp.  I am trying to grow in my ability to see things from the other side so that I can understand and befriend more people.  Acceptance, however, doesn't mean I agree.  I'm going to try to persuade you still.

This, then, brings me to the end and what I hope and pray is a beginning.  I really believe God is trying to reveal Himself to humanity.  Maybe it would be better to say He is trying to reveal Himself to each human.  Some have said that He could do a better, more dramatic job if He's God after all.  I'll have to concede this point.  It doesn't always make sense to me either but I don't even understand why other humans do what they do.  I guess it's not surprising that I don't always understand why God does what He does.  On the other hand, what about those instances in your life that don't easily yield to happenstance.  Have you encountered a circumstance that seemed a little "too neat?"  Have you learned enough about our natural world to see that, as my high school chemistry teacher used to say, "it almost looks like someone designed this system?"  Have you felt the gentle pull toward belief?  Sure you could explain it away.  What if it's true?  What if the pull is not two masses drawing each other in but the pull of a Father for his child?

If someone sent you this article, ask them what this all means.  If you'd like, you can reach me through the comments or you can find me on Facebook.  I'd love to continue the conversation.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Gravity,pt. 2, A Parable, Maybe

Imagine a child born on the international space station.  As much as gravity is a part of every second of our existence, it is completely alien to him.  Every day he floats through the space he inhabits.  Everything he lets go of continues in whatever direction it was going until acted on by some other force.  Among other effects, his hip joints (our familiar ball and socket) have formed very slowly because of the lack of pressure from crawling and walking as an infant and toddler.  He had to intentionally exercise with resistance bands from the time he could be taught or tricked into doing so.  This child is now of an age where the beginnings of physics can be explained and, of course, one of the fundamental forces governing our universe is gravity.  How would you explain it?

That part is actually pretty easy.  One equation with a constant and 3 variables is all it takes.  The idea is reasonably easy, but then how would you convince him it was real?  He has no direct experience with the force.  To be sure, you could give evidence.  Orbits depend on gravity.  Without an attractive force, all celestial objects would fly in straight lines rather than curve around a central body.  Planets around the sun, the moon about the earth, even his own home continues around the earth he sees out the window everyday.  The problem is that motion is hard to observe at such an enormous scale.  What if he resists this idea?  Couldn't all the objects we just mentioned be travelling along on parallel lines?  Even if he's resistant he should be able to see the changes in the relative positions of the earth, the space station, and the moon.  Parallel, straight paths won't work but circular paths are still not obvious.  Who knows what lengths he might go to put the data together without gravity?  School teachers could, no doubt, give testimony to the creative ability of stubborn children!  The best and brightest of earth believed their home to be flat for a long time because you can't observe the curve while you're standing on it.

The most effective device would be a field trip.  A few moments anywhere on the surface of the earth (to say nothing of landing!) should be more than enough to convince our recalcitrant student of the reality of gravity.  Understanding would be unleashed as the experience broke down the barriers of resistance.  A whole new world would be opened.  Even if he suggested that this was a idiosyncrasy of earth, a few more trips should settle the debate.  Experience on the moon and another planet (we're the ones doing the dreaming here, right?) would render resistance more amusing than substantive.  Gravity is universal.

Too often, as Christians, we get stuck in the explanation and evidence stage when talking about our faith with an unbelieving friend or family member.  Some of them accept and are transformed.  Several others are heart-breakingly unconvinced.  What's needed is experience.  Here, of course, is the problem.  Getting a child to experience gravity on the earth, moon, and Mars is simplicity itself compared to conjuring up an experience with God for someone else.  We don't control such things.  God has to encounter them by His own choice in His own way if anything we say about Him is true.  The beauty is that, if what we say is true, this is exactly what God wants to do.

This is certainly not a reason to stop giving explanations and evidence.  What if we took the child to earth before explaining gravity?  He'd have no frame of reference to understand his experience.  So it is with our unbelieving loved ones.  We ought to give them the information we have so when God does show up, they understand what is happening.  What I am arguing for is for a little peace.  Your friends and family aren't dependent on you coming up with the perfect argument for them to come to faith.  They are dependent on God drawing them to Himself.  The pressure is not on you.  There's enough courage involved in overcoming my anxiety to just have the conversation without adding to it the pressure of having to perfectly convince my friend through my own skill and passion.  More importantly, too often I find myself poring over past conversations and imagining new illustrations and completely neglecting asking God to do His work.  Faith is not easy.  It's not easy to accept the first time and it's not easy to put into practice as we go along.  God is not tame or safe, after all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Gravity, pt. 1, A Parable Maybe

Have you ever thought of the benefits of gravity?  When I set something down, it stays there.  As a parent, I love this.  I would never be justified in saying, "It's probably where you left it" if not for gravity.  Gravity makes staying in shape much easier.  Built in resistance is something we take for granted but most of us have heard of the muscle atrophy experienced by astronauts due to living in weightlessness.  Gravity keeps water in my glass at supper and holds the atmosphere around earth like a blanket.  Oh yeah, it also keeps the blankets on me while I sleep and keeps me on the bed without restraints.  Certainly, there are some frustrations with gravity.  I'm not crazy about falling when I'm clumsy or when winter brings icy conditions.  I have some older friends who suggest gravity is not always an aid to the physique.  On the whole, however, it's pretty hard to argue that gravity is anything other than an overwhelming positive in our life.

Now imagine this.  Imagine meeting a man who claimed to believe in gravity because of all the good it did for him, personally.  This fellow would probably amuse us to some degree.  He believes the right thing but for questionable reasons.  We might even wish to challenge this hypothetical brother in his beliefs because he has taken something fundamental and made it all about himself.  It's not that he's wrong but he has missed the greater point.  Gravity ought to be believed in because it's true, whether it is good or bad for me at any given moment.

You, of course, see the parallel.  I believe that Jesus is God in the flesh.  The second person of the Trinity and the "exact representation of the Godhead."  I believe the major tenets of Christianity.  I believe these things are true.  Recently, however, I have been shown how we (Christians, especially us preacher types) tend to sell Christianity under terms of how good it is for you.  To be sure, I believe God is good and good for us and good to us.  The greater point, though, is God ought to be believed in because He is.  If He isn't, then "we are to be pitied above all men."

"Well, what's the problem?" you ask.  Isn't the issue that people believe, no matter the reason?  The problem is that belief because of benefits will not be enough to sustain anyone who hits a patch of life where the benefits aren't obvious.  Just like the products we buy, when it no longer works it is no longer useful and should be discarded.  A firmer foundation would lead to a more resilient faith.

A couple of notes: this post is designed for believers.  Moreover, my hope is that it encourages you to examine your own motives for belief.  It is not designed to beat someone else up for their motives (those are hard to ascertain).  Nor am I intending to speak to non-believers.  Some of you are probably objecting to likening faith in a Person who benevolently created and rules the whole universe invisibly to something as obvious as gravity.  To that I would say that this is only part 1 . . .

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What I Don't Know

How do you know what you don't know?  Now that's a ridiculous sounding statement, how can you know something and not know it at the same time.  Short answer, you can't unless you are a martial arts master from some of those old movies.  "You knew without knowing, that is the secret!" That is not what I mean.  Think of a blind spot in your driving.  You can't see in your blind spot (I think that's why we call it that!), but you must be aware of where it is.  If you change lanes without looking over your shoulder, you've just followed a recipe for putting some new paint on your car.  Knowing what you don't know means knowing where my knowledge is deficient.

The lack of awareness of my knowledge "blind spots" can lead to much worse than a little fender bender.  The most common occurrence of this phenomenon in my life is with other people.  I am completely aware that I don't know what makes my phone or computer lock up when I most need it.  I also know that my knowledge of the machinations of the stock market is woefully incomplete.  However, with other people I have this curious behavior that seems to "fill in" my blind spots.  I simply assume.  (Yes, I know that old joke too!)  It's easy.  "They are just being mean."  "He's just plain lazy."  "You don't have any idea what I'm going through."  This last one is probably true but we rarely apply it in the other direction.  I always know what you're going through and it's not as bad as what I'm going through.  Just in case it's not clear, that last sentence has some sarcasm to it.

We would never say this out loud but it happens all the time.  It leads to lots (most?) of our hurt feelings and broken relationships.  What to do?  How can we fight this?  The obvious answer is to ask questions and seek to really know but that will take considerable time.  Is there anything to do right away and for the people I only interact with for a limited time?  Happily, I think there is.  Try making a different set of assumptions.  What if you assumed everyone you interact with has it worse than you.  Assume they are a little busier, a little more worn out, and a little more hurt than you are.  I don't think this will cause you to be silent about your own needs but I know it leads me to ask more questions rather than be demanding, be more respectful of others' time, and extend more grace rather than walk away hurt.

Is everyone busier than me?  In more dire straits than me?  Putting in more effort than me?  No, no, and no.  That will become evident as we really know each other.  In that context, however, these disparities will lead to generosity, sacrifice, and love.  Here's the thing.  Jesus said that I must love my neighbor as myself.  The "trick" to this is that I can never aim at equality.  I am so naturally good at looking out for and loving myself that the only way I can love someone else equally to me is to work at putting their needs above my own.  It requires a new set of assumptions.  Ones that don't fulfill that old joke!

P.S.  I read some old posts to make sure I hadn't already written on this.  I ran across a post that said there were some folks in my life who would consider this post written to them.  That is once again the case but, as with the former post, a conversation reminded me of how badly most of my friends and me need a reminder.