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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Being Human

The last few days have caused me to think harder than usual.  I have received both praise and push back related to my last post and, if I expected one and not the other, shame on me.  This weekend I spent a great deal of time helping decorate our house, watching my Tigers lose the SEC championship game, and preparing for the great privilege and responsibility of preaching to the congregation that meets at Union Hill Baptist Church.  To be honest, I began preparing the morning sermon looking for something to say about Ferguson.  Indeed, to see if God had something to say about Ferguson.  I'm sure He does but that is not where this week's message ended up.  From that message, the events in Ferguson, the video and grand jury proceedings in NYC, and the discussion of my last post, I have a few more thoughts that have risen to the top.

The main point of the Sunday morning sermon was that God said at least three things in coming to earth as the Baby Jesus ("Messages from the Manger" clever, right?) and He is still saying them today.  Those three things are, "I am with you," (Matt 1:18-23), "I understand you," (Hebrews 4:15-16), and "I love you this much." (Philippians 2:5-8)  I'll spare you the whole sermon but Jesus waded into our messy, painful, real world to rescue us.  As such, any who follow Him ought to be the first to wade into the messy, painful, real life of someone else.  Categorization hinders this.

As described by one of my friends while sharing my last post, I am a "white, middle class, conservative Baptist pastor."  I'm pretty sure he used those words in a friendly fashion.  All of them carry some useful information.  All of them can also carry some excuse to put people in a box and assume you know what they will think, say, or do in any variety of contexts.  In short they provide an opportunity to short-cut actually knowing someone.  Obviously, there are lots of words that carry that opportunity.  Black, White, Latino, Cop, NAACP, Protestor, Suspect just to name a few that have been thrown around in the last several months.  None of these labels are bad; they all carry useful information but they carry the opportunity for not knowing.

Are all black men aggressive towards cops?  Do all police officers treat black me unfairly?  Are all prosecutors biased toward the police officers they work with?  When the questions are asked like this, the answers are easy.  That's not the way prejudice usually works.  I get a little information about a situation or a person.  Maybe it's from a little bit of gossip, half a conversation that I overhear, or even the news.  It's easy to slide a little information inside my pre-made categories and end up with a faceless wall of "people."  I put people in quotes because that's the problem; they are not people anymore.  They are preachers, cops, lawyers, blacks, whatever.  They no longer have faces, or families, or personalities.  They are the group.  We know how "they" are.  That's how "they" always are.

Knowing is hard.  It is much easier to keep to myself and my like-minded friends and imagine how others think and feel (if they feel).  If I keep reminding myself that I am imagining, there wouldn't be anything too terrible about that.  The trouble is when imagining turns into assuming.  Assuming is not knowing.  Assumptions turn people into blocks and groups.  Personal interaction (usually listening more than talking) leads to knowing.  Knowing turns groups into individuals, people.  Humans have pain.  Humans cause pain.  It's all part of being human regardless of language, zip code, or color.  Knowing will lead to pain.  Those you know will hurt you.  You will hurt when others hurt people you know.  You will hurt when those you know hurt even when no one caused it and there's no one to blame.  It stinks.  Knowing, however, is the only thing that makes loving possible.  Without that there's nothing worth anything.

One final thought, I read an article last week about who we really know.  The author didn't use those words but, instead, talked about who we discuss important social issues with.  Think about the folks you discuss politics, faith, and social issues with in a meaningful way (not like we talk about the weather).  Do all those folks look like you?  I realized that those folks in my life are boringly similar.  They all look like me and most of them think like me.  I'm out to change that.  How about you?  Don't be surprised when it turns out to be difficult; knowing is hard.   

Friday, December 5, 2014

Thoughts on a Rally

I attended the NAACP rally for Michael Brown at the Missouri Capitol this afternoon.  I wanted to hear what the protestors had to say and, if I could, to understand something of where they were coming from.  I wanted to record some of my thougths mostly to help me organize them and process what I saw and heard.  I put it on this blog because I'm foolish enough to think someone else might be interested in them also. What else are blogs for?!
This was an NAACP rally and, apparently, that is who organized the march from Ferguson.  There were, however, clearly some in attendance who believed in the immediate cause, justice in the Michael Brown case, but who disagreed with the platform speakers (the chairman of the board and the national president for the NAACP among others) about what needed to be done and what channels should be used.  The goals articulated by the NAACP president were to have a special prosecutor appointed to this case and to end racial profiling in the USA which includes a piece of legislation at the federal level.  Personally, I think that a special prosecutor is a reasonable request but, at the very least, making the grand jury proceedings public is necessary.  While I'm not normally given to agree with the govenor of New York, I heard him say this morning that if the preception of our justice system is one of inequality and prejudice then that must be dealt with no matter if it is a fair perception or not.  I think he's got this one right.  I should further say that I have no idea what good legal rules and precedences I am suggesting setting aside to make the grand jury proceedings public but the evidence needs to be heard.
A bishop of a Christian denomination read part of an open letter from his denomination (I'd include a link if I could remember the denomination) that I thought was interesting particularly regarding the grand jury.  The letter acknowledged that a full trial might find Darren Wilson not guilty in the death of Michael Brown but that the openness of a full trial was required for there to be trust in the process.  I thought that was a pretty good word.
I better not get any farther before I say that I believe being a police officer is a near-impossible job.  Being responsible for the protection of law abiding people while being resented by every person you stop in their car or on the street and constantly living under the real possibility of someone agressively trying to hurt you or keep you from doing your job is more than I have to put up with ever (even on Sunday morning!).  Add to this constant situation the need to occasionally make life and death decisions with no time and no margin for error and you have a job that most of us cannot imagine doing well.  As sympathetic as I am to the protestors and, in general, those who feel unheard and unknown, we ought to all try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a law enforcement officer.  While being the target of the anger of some of the protestors, several officers provided escort, traffic control, and protection to the public, protestors included, as usual.
Finally, those "other protestors."  There was a small portion of the marchers who called for "revolution."  I did not get (or take?) the chance to speak to one of them but their interactions at the rally suggested they were not interested in simply voting their mind or influencing through the existing political channels.  I did not get the impression that these revolutionaries were looters but they definitely were more militant in their speech and demonstration.  I would like to brush them off as radicals but, to be fair, it is pretty easy for me (and maybe many of you) to not really think about the NAACP demands farther than today's rally because they don't sponsor "occupy" movements or the like.  These, generally younger protestors, struck me as being ok with a measure of anarchy.
The NAACP clearly wanted to draw these young people and their energy into the fold while controlling their methods.  This kind of reminded me of pastoring a church with some always wanting change faster and some always wanting to take a little more time to consider things.  That's assuming that everyone agrees on the goals.
On the whole, I was impressed with the reliance on God clearly demonstrated from the NAACP leadership and the peaceful yet forceful statements of what needed to change.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Loving the Sinner

"Love the sinner, hate the sin."  This is probably one of the most popular phrases in church life, particularly when we are talking about interacting with our society and/or culture.  It sounds good from inside the church.  I suspect it sounds meaningless or, worse, like a cop out from the outside.  I was recently listening to a Focus on the Family broadcast which inspired me to rethink this concept.  You can find the broadcast here and you can skip to the 14 minute mark if you want to hear what caught my attention.

What if we (Christians) were required to demonstrate our love for the sinner before we could say anything about our hate of the sin?  I'm thinking of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar when he could not tell a lie.  How often would I be rendered mute if I were physically prevented from speaking against a particular sin before I had actually loved someone guilty of the sin I am ready to rail against?  How would this change my behavior and speech?  How would this change the perception of Christians by the outside world?

I don't have a magic wand, birthday candles to wish on, or any other way of bringing this about other than persuasion and our self-control.  Too often, we say we love a particular "brand" of sinners (pornographers, LGBT, mean people, etc) and we never have anyone in mind, just a faceless mass of imagined people.  What we mean, at best, is that we like to think that we would love them but we have made no effort to get to know any one of them.  In fact, we usually go out of our way to avoid contact.  At worst, we don't mean we love them at all but we say we do in order to get permission to speak against something that disgusts us.

While I'm not an advocate of heading down to the strip club to demonstrate my love for those who work there, it is worth noting that Jesus engaged those that the religious leaders of his day would not.  We have no record of Jesus entering into a house of prostitution or collecting taxes but Jesus did not shy away when prostitutes and tax collectors came to him.  True love dictates that we confront sin but it is instructive to me that, in John 8, Jesus disbanded the mob and said to the woman caught in adultery "Neither do I condemn you," before He said, "Go and sin no more."

It has consistently amazed me that Jesus confronted sin but sinners still flocked to Him.  Recently my pastor, Bro. Frank Whitney, explained this well when he said that Jesus "talked to them like they mattered."  What if our actions (done beforehand) made people feel like they mattered even as we clearly communicate our disagreement with their behavior?

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!