Tag Archives: church

Eight Things I Learned about Church Life and Ministry from Baseball

One: Nobody bats 1.000.  In baseball, the very best offensive players only get it right about a third of the time; the rest of the time they are out (sometimes down and out).  In this Christian life, clinging to the solid truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) can mean that we have a better handle on our propensity for “striking out” and will, perhaps, be better able to cultivate a temperament suited to understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Two: Comparing batting averages is a waste of time.  Baseball players don’t advance by comparing their stats to someone else’s.  Baseball players advance by focusing on their own game.  Besides, all comparisons do is fuel either pride or despair.  The Kingdom of God functions on neither.  In the Kingdom, we do best to look to our own standing before the King.  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3).

Three: We don’t have to swing at every pitch.  Batters know that lots of different pitches will come their way.  They need to discern those pitches that have the best chance of connecting and going somewhere.  They do that based on their experience and their coaching from those wiser than they.  In church life and ministry, it seems that everyone is an expert–except that they’re not.  Do I believe that God can bring ideas to and through anyone by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit?  Absolutely!  Is that the way it happens (and has happened) throughout two millennia of church history?  Not regularly–God speaks to and through leaders and then expects those leaders to lead.  So, we lean into the wisdom of those called, gifted, and equipped for ministry leadership–checking their ideas against Scripture and testing the spirits.  But every idea that comes our way is not worthy of engagement.  “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

Four: Especially never swing at a pitch in the dirt.  Batters are sometimes fooled by a pitch that looks like it will be in the sweet spot but then trails away (often bouncing in the dirt near the plate).  Sometimes the pitch is so “off” that the batter can tell it’s going to be in the dirt from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand.  Two things happen when you swing at a pitch in the dirt: (1) you look stupid and, (2) you end up covered in dirt.  In ministry, the sheep will sometimes throw a pitch in the dirt–a snarl, a cutting remark, a baseless accusation, a tome of complaint, a general disdain.  Sometimes they’ll do it accidentally; oftentimes purposefully.  When we swing at those “pitches,” we end up covered in dirt and looking stupid.  It is so tempting to engage the defensive machine and blast back…perhaps “charging the mound” in indignation.  It is the wise person who knows when to simply let the pitch go by.  “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Five: It’s at least a nine-inning game and it takes as long as it takes.  Fans sometimes chafe at extra-inning games or pitchers who take their time between pitches.  Sure, some of that pitching motion is strategy, an attempt to throw off batters’ timing.  But much of it is simply the rhythm of the game–integral to the test of endurance that is baseball.  It’s at least a nine-inning game and there are 162 of them in the regular season.  A team’s prospects at the beginning of any one game or at the beginning of any one season are not always predictors of the final outcome.  I once watched a 16-inning battle at Fenway Park that saw the lead switch several times before the home team finally nailed it in the bottom of the sixteenth inning.  People seated next to me left in the eighth inning because they thought the game was over.  Ha!  In church life we must get used to the reality of endurance that is simply the rhythm of the Christian endeavor.  “…the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).

Six: Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the team.  Many a superior hitter goes to the plate with instructions from the coach to try to get put out–to hit the ball somewhere they know it will likely be caught but which allows the runner(s) to advance into scoring position.  Church life is full of these moments.  Moments when we can choose to “swing away” and attempt to grab personal glory or when we can choose to make the “sacrifice” that offers the “team” the best prospects for Kingdom impact. “Now, to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Seven: Getting to play in the minors is better than being in the stands at the majors.  Ask any player which they would rather do:  play or watch.  The answer?  Invariably, they want to play.  Too many in the Christian life these days are attracted to the bigger and the better–but all they want to do is watch.  Playing is always better–even if it’s only in the pickup game down the street.  “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus said (John 10:10).  Nobody thinks (well, at least I don’t) that the “full life” is characterized by flattened and scarred backsides caused by sitting and watching others mixing it up on the field.

Eight: You need to be in shape to play the game.  Who thinks out-of-shape players will do well?  No one.  Everybody knows that players who are in shape will fare better: fewer injuries, more stamina, that extra “something” that makes plays and wins games.  The Christian life is joyfully rigorous and requires that we be in tip top spiritual shape: regular devotions, fervent prayers, supportive fellowship, genuine accountability.  Without those things we will not be “suited up” for the game and will falter when adversity comes our way.  “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).

© All Rights Reserved.  Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


Owls Don’t Pronounce the “T”…

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So it’s “Who” not “Hoot.”  I bring this up because I was at a football game the other day where the team mascot is an Owl and people frequently say, “Hoot! Hoot!”  I keep pointing out that it’s “Who” and I even try to model proper supportive fan behavior.

Example One:  Announcer, “And that was Number 43 scoring for the Owls.”  Me: “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan: “Number 43.”  Me:  “Who!?!”

Example Two:  Announcer, “A remarkable carry by Number 12 for the Owls.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “Number 12.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “One more time with the ‘Who’ and you’ll find out.”  Me:  “Who………………………..t”

I suppose, beyond the lack of fluency in Owl diction, what surprised me most at the game was the presence of so many critical “fans.”  I put the word in quotation marks because it seems to me that “fans” would be more supportive.  Perhaps I should call the critical ones “spectators” but that would mean that they just watched the game and, trust me, these folks do way more than watch.

What they do is monitor any misstep on the part of the refs or the opposition players or, if their team is doing badly, the aforementioned Owls (as in, their own players).  Then, poised with poison, they hurl epithets with an accuracy and completion percentage any quarterback would envy.

Those epithets are not only flung with precision, they are linguistic cudgels–the kind of language you hope you will never find splattered on your spirit.  All of this, mind you, at a college football game that, at the end of the day, amounts to no (zero, none, nada) eternal (and very little even temporal) consequence.

Sadly, though, this sometimes reminds me of churches.  Larry Burkett’s hoped for “Safest Place on Earth,” is often anything but, because the home team’s “fans” can’t quite get this “fan” thing down.  Tiptoe through the Scriptures and absorb the very many ways that the biblical authors addressed the paramount need to (in the Apostle Paul’s words) “speak the truth in love.”  Yet we hurl critique with the best of them…and usually at our own team…and often with nuclear effect (not to mention fallout).

I wonder about this even as I know that I can tend toward critique myself.  I know that there are times when we all need that relational-investment-based, love-motivated, gently worded “wound from a friend” (Prov. 27:6).  But can it really be that, in our verbal quiver, the “wound” arrows so outnumber the “encourage” arrows?

I sincerely hope not.  We need to work to find genuine words of truthful affirmation.  To not speak unless we know that the end result of our words will be to build up and not discourage.

It’s up to me…and you.

“Who!?!”  You (and me), that’s who.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


A Girl Named Sue — “The Middle” — And Rejection

rejectLately, most likely due to the parched land of the television desert known as “late summer viewing,” we had stumbled across voluminous repeats of a show called “The Middle.”

[I know, some of you are leaning snobbish right now because you eschew the pedestrian land of television (or, at least, you say you do).  That’s fine…I’ve been called worse (than pedestrian, I mean).]

The show’s about a middle (who knew?) American family named Heck (as in “what the?”)–and it unmasks a collection of decidedly not-put-together reverse caricatures of the perfect family.

The Hecks are the anti-Cleavers, the non-Huxtables of yesteryear.  Nor are they the realistically flawed but earnest Bravermans of current “Parenthood” fame.  And they are certainly not the cartoonish kids-are-always-smarter-than-the-adults small (and large) screen family portraits painted by many of today’s screen writers.  The Hecks are flawed, flawed, earnestly & deeply flawed people…both individually and as a family unit.

They love each other in a nearly impossible to predict, frayed edges, trying too hard in a not-very-hard kind of oblique attempt at family success.  Messes abound: personally and corporately…in their lives and in their environs.  They survive but nobody knows how.  They’ll never, ever thrive.  And yet they somehow do…thrive, that is.

Another blog post would be required to completely profile this whacky five-some and give them all the attention they deserve.  But, I have to confess, their antics on some of the shows have made me laugh at the number 10 belly pain level (dripping tears and all).

Amongst this bunch is Sue…the middler of the Heck progeny.  Sue is a forgettable non-person, invisible to most of the world, most of the time.  Her teachers do not know she is in their classes.  Her achingly embarrassing moments (and there are oh so many) are hardly ever recognizable as hers because the other kids in the school have no clue about Sue…at all…in any context.

Sue’s main dream has been to be picked…for something…for anything.  She has been on a quest to “make” the (a, any, please just one) team…club…committee…just something…please.  It is simultaneously gruesome and darkly hilarious to watch.  Well, mostly gruesome in a you-can-never-turn-away-from-the-train (car, bicycle, moped, you get the picture) wreck kind of way.

Sue had never been chosen for anything; she worked in rejection as her medium like some painters wallow in oils.  She was masterful at not mastering, nor even being able to muster, for anything.  Until, that is, her Mom (Frankie) MADE the school principal declare at least one sport a “No Cut” team.

But Sue, being Sue, nearly didn’t make the “no cut” cross country team because she almost didn’t make the requisite five-lap track requirement.  She dragged herself across the finish line (after first stopping at the “not finished” line), crawling on the track through a thunderstorm and pelting rain.  Sue, God bless her, who never gets picked for anything, by anyone, ever, was finally on the receiving end of a tossed team t-shirt from the Cross Country Coach.  YEAH!

Some of you may have never known rejection…the end of a relationship, the termination of a job, the thin envelope or terse email from the college, the “we’ve found someone more suited for the job.”  Good for you; the aura of self-sufficiency is firmly in place.  Good for you.  Really, I mean it: good for you.

I have had rejection recently, the particular category is not important.  You’d think at my age I’d have established some resilient baseline to help me navigate the jagged edges of the word, “no.”  Such a small word; such power packed into its tiny-lettered twosome; it’s a short-hilted, verbal dagger that slices through to the heart.  “No–not you.”

Of course, as we mature as persons, we need to learn to hear a certain kind of “no.”  We have to learn to damper the power of destructive whims and capriciousness, not to mention selfishness.  This is also not the other “no”–the one that believers need to embrace–the “no” to sin that we all need to grapple with as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But the “no” of rejection…a Sue kind of “no” is neither of those.  It’s the “no” that drains our spirits and rattles our minds and stifles the sense of unique createdness to which the Scriptures testify.  And sometimes it seems as if “no” is the only word that the whole world knows.

But there is another word; a word that flows from the center of a deeply loving and ever present Savior.  It is the word, “Yes.”  This is the word of secure connection; this is the word of everlasting and lavish love; this is the word that looks past our many “tryouts” and “cuts” and “fails”; this is the word that transcends our plethora of personal “no’s” and reaches into the place deep inside us where we need to hear, “Yes.”  This is the word from Jesus.  This is the cure for the “no’s”—this is the word I need to hear; perhaps this is the word you need to hear.

“I will give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). 

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). 

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). 

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39). 

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20a). 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Some Assembly Required

some-assembly-required-mainThere are word combinations in the English language that I love:  “Pepperoni, Sausage, Extra Cheese,” hovers near the top of the list. 

There are word combinations in the English language that I despise:  “While you are up, can you…?”  Note to readers…waiting until I am up to have me satisfy your whims is not adorable; it’s annoying.  But I stray from the topic at hand. 

Because there is one word combination in the English language that makes me want to heave (as in, you know, projectile vomiting).  I am not talking about the mildly upset stomach followed by the quasi-catch-in-the-throat-near-miss vomit.  No, I am talking about solar system departure trajectory, full on, don’t-get-in-the-way-or-you’ll-be-knocked-down-and-covered-with-gastric-juices-for-life vomit. 

What words, you ask (so as to never utter them in my presence), might generate such a depraved, visceral (literally) response?  Here they are…mark them down…do not say them to me:  “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” 

Now, I know that there are genuine he men and she women whose day is made more delightful by put-it-together-yourself-because-they-were-too-lazy-to-do-it-at-the-factory projects.  My hat is off to them (actually, my hat was off anyway, but I needed a handy cliché). 

Seriously, I know some ace project people who are both genuinely good at what they do and whose hearts thump with delight at the mere prospect of such projects.  You probably know some people like that too.  You may even be one.  You know who you are…you are barely on step one of the current project and yet you have already cast your eye on the next project.  God bless you. 

But…I am not a “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” kind of person.  This whacked me again when I was beginning to put together a chair.  Why I was putting the chair together is a post for another day.  But there I was, through no fault of my own, taking the chair pieces out of the boxes so as to lay them out and have each piece handy for the assembly. 

Unpacking the pieces is what got me riled up.  The pieces were each heavily fortified with nuclear detonation proof plastic and then sealed with THAT KIND of tape.  The kind of tape that will not detape itself…until you have tried to cut it with every sharp object at hand…and then cut your hand…until the tape finally yields only to reveal the INNER PLASTIC and TAPE. 

And this was my thought in that moment:  wouldn’t it have been easier just to assemble the stinking chair?!?  I mean, rather than wrap each little piece in multiple shrouds of bomb proof tape and plastic, wouldn’t it be simpler to just assemble the stinking chair?!?  [I know, I have said “stinking” twice…it’s for, you know, emphasis.] 

Of course the mere unwrapping of all the pieces is followed by the preliminary reading of the assembly instructions.  You have seen these instructions.  They are cobbled together by people whose first language is, indeed, English, but who have such demented minds that they use Google Translate to render the instructions through the entire list of available languages in the app before re-rendering the instructions in English. 

That process takes a sentence like, “Identify the four hex nuts and lay them side-by-side,” and transmogrifies it into something like, “Put your left hand in, take your left hand out, put your left hand in and then you shake the nearest dog’s tail until the dog eats the turnips left over from the guillotine.”  [This is not hyperbole; you know it’s true.] 

You have to read the instructions so many times that you forget why you started reading them in the first place.  And then you remember:  SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. 

I so loathe those words…unless, of course, unless…they are about me.  Because I know that I am a horrible mess of a work in progress and I am so very grateful that Jesus has decided to work in me (and sometimes…rarely, but sometimes, through me).  I thank God that His work in me is not dependent upon my ability to bring it about. 

Oh sure, I read the instructions (His are plain enough) and I do my best to follow along.  But then I remember that it is God who is at work in me to accomplish His purposes. 

And the very funny thing is…He delights in the project–He’s one of those project types.  The Master Carpenter who labored over His neighbors’ household needs, is now at work to perfect His strength right here…in the middle of me.  

I, of course, am very much more complicated than a chair that comes in a box.  Presuming that I slog my way through the instructions, stick with the project, find that runaway bolt that must have rolled into the heater vent (again!), and connect all the connections…the chair will be assembled.  It will stay that way; it won’t try to disassemble itself.  But I will…try to disassemble myself, that is. 

And Jesus starts again…with me…putting me back aright and pouring out His compassion while I am in the very process of self-disassembly.  Oh, great love!  Oh, great mercy!  Oh, great power!  Oh, great patience! 

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

 © All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Yes, the Church Definitely Stinks! Letter to an (Absent but Vocal) Church Critic

sinners-wanted-001

[In response to a Facebook post about the sad, sin-plagued state of the church today.  Names have been withheld, changed, or translated into Common Eldarin & Westron to avoid offense.] 

My response:  Guilty.As.Charged. 

Is the capital “C” Church, and are all the many, many individual churches, populated by sometime cantankerous, grumpy, judgmental people?  Yes, absolutely; guilty as charged.  Do those same people fall short of biblical expectations for life and service?  You betcha! 

Should those facts make me stay away?  Better yet, should those facts make me stay away and then target those in the camp with explosive-laden complaint drones?  Well… 

There are a million reasons not to be connected with a local church or regularly in worship.  I’ve heard them all and, in moments of personal honesty, I’ve used some of them myself.  At the top of the list: many of the people you find there.  One seminary wag said it:  “Ministry is great, except for the people.”  Or, as a former parishioner of mine put it so eloquently, “I love God’s church; it’s God’s people I can’t stand!” 

There are a million reasons not to be in worship regularly.  But there is one overriding reason to be there:  God says so.  So, from a simple “obedience” perspective (for those of you concerned about the disobedient people in the church), I think you’d need to deal with that.  The Writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24,25). 

But, in the purity of the power of a relationship with the Heavenly Father, that’s not what moves me to be among God’s people, in church.  I don’t “have” to go; I “get” to go…and there are light years difference between those two things. 

The God who loves me wants me to hang out with Him AND He wants me to regularly hang out with those other people He loves…not so that we can all show off how much better than the rest of humanity we are, but to worship Him and adore Him and face our need for His grace and power to accomplish His purposes.  “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said…nothing

The church is not a beauty contest, it’s a “Critical Care Unit” — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  That’s true before people come to know Christ and, sadly, still true after we come to know Christ.  This side of heaven we are still plagued by sin. 

Is the Bible full of calls to be better?  Certainly.  But that “betterment” is not a self-help effort.  It’s an “only Jesus can make this possible” effort.  And the very second we start to compare “betterment” we are in serious, serious trouble.  “Do not judge,” Jesus said, “Do not judge.” 

I think a wise church leader friend of mine is right: many in the church over the years have thought they were going to a spiritual Lowe’s to pick up the tools to be able to become better people (Let’s Build Something!).  When, in fact, worship is about God, not the life “score card” of the person sitting next to me–nor even my own spiritual “batting average.”  I don’t have to go; I get to go.  And, when I do go, I get to worship the God who loves this broken sinner.  And (and here’s the key point in this particular ramble): I get to hang out with others just like me who know they’re broken and who are partnering with each other and the Living God to experience grace such that we might show grace to each other and to the rest of the world. 

Do we get that right?  Sometimes…ok, maybe rarely…perhaps hardly ever…but when we do, it’s a wondrous thing to behold…and it’s worth every second of church-based stupidity I’ve ever experienced.  And trust me, as a pastor, I have seen, heard, felt, and been bashed by more of that stupidity than anyone observing from the sidelines will ever know. 

And…by the way…I do know that many have been egregiously wounded by those in the church…wounded by those who thought they knew better…or perhaps even wounded by those who did know better but couldn’t “speak the truth in love.”  This is not to diminish any of those hurts and pains.  It is to say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  And, if we think we can have Jesus (Simply Jesus) without the pains, travails, and (yes) joys of the church, then I think we miss the entire tenor of the New Testament’s witness about the church. 

Winston Churchill, in commenting on the frailties of democracy, once remarked: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others…”  The same could likely be said of the church:  “No one pretends that the church is perfect or all wise.  It’s the worst form of Christian gathering, except for all the others.” 

To a more “Christianly Correct” audience, perhaps it would be better for us to hear Billy Graham’s pithily profound observation: “There’s no such thing as a perfect church; if you think you’ve found a perfect church, don’t join it–you’ll ruin it.”  

I regularly hearken back to John Newton’s, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” 

What do I see? Not how much better I can perform now, but how much I desperately need the power of God every day.  What do I see?  That grace is not a onetime proposition, but the constant outpouring of undeserving love on this weary and wary sinner.  Where do I see that best?  With and among God’s people…in worship…even when they’re cantankerous, grumpy, and judgmental. 

Before you discard the church, friend…remember that the church was (and is still) God’s idea (Matthew 16:17-19).  Standing on the outside looking in and lobbing verbal grenades?  Well, that’s someone else’s idea.


On the Mat

Image

They were all so very glad to see me; it kind of took me by surprise.  Normally my “Hug Block” is fully operational (I have a list of those who can get through…and it’s a very, very small list).  I remember one time, years ago, an adorable little girl ran my way, arms outstretched in the classic “I love you a lot and I want you to pick me up” posture, only to hit the hug block protective shield about five feet away from me, come to a (yes, literal) screeching halt, look up at me with bewilderment dripping from her face, turn and slink away.

But this day the entire Hug Block mechanism experienced an epic fail.  People were breaking through left and right.  For a moment I thought I had transmogrified into some Brad Pitt lookalike, but then I caught my reflection in a car window and it was the same old lumpy, dumpy, baldy, blobby me.  One person (I am not making this up) genuflected and kissed my hand.  They were all truly happy to see me!

I am a bit of a self-deprecator.  I tend to minimize me, myself, and I.  The simple truth is that I am on the inner edge of the introvert spectrometer and will usually downplay and just “aw shucks” the congratulatory moments that come my way.  It’s simply how I am wired (or, I guess, not wired?).

Anyway, this bunch was genuinely happy to see me (if not, they deserve a group Oscar for “Best Performance by a Cast Doing Pretense”).

Wow!  What church is that?  I am going to drop everything and make my way there so that I can feel welcomed and valued too.  They really have the Welcome Mat out at that place!  Jesus must be tickled to hang out with that gang!  The Holy Spirit must be dancing His way through hearts and minds!  Get me that address, website, Facebook page, Twitter handle, or whatever…just get me to that place! 

Not so fast…it wasn’t a church…wasn’t even church-like.  It was a group of folks connected to a place of secular employment.  It was…hold your breath…a place in “The World” (cue dark, suspenseful music).  And yet I walked away from that place more affirmed in my spirit than I often feel in the Body of Christ.

Now…I know what you’re thinking…I’ve been stopping in the wrong highways and bi-ways in the Body of Christ.  Maybe my Google Maps have been set to the wrong destinations.  Maybe Siri took my request for a, “Church that loves,” and heard “chokes and shoves” and sent me to those places.  Siri is a little off like that sometimes.

But, to be honest (By the way, does that phrase “to be honest” bother anyone else?  Does that mean everything said up to that point is suspect?  Somehow less than honest?), most churches struggle with the Welcome Mat.  We get used to each other or critical of each other for wearing plaid (or some other character flaw) and we let go of the enthusiasm that should mark our times together.  We are submerged in the mire of our struggles and we forget that others struggle too.  Or we let five minutes of chit chat about the baseball team (though they do need to get their act together) substitute for genuine connection in the Body of Christ…the Church Family.  Or we hand off the notion of Welcome to those “gifted in the area of hospitality” who have signed up to be Greeters or operate the Information Booth.

Don’t get me wrong, there are always pockets of saints in every place of worship who have the aroma of encouragement about them–people in every congregation who see past the facades and into the souls of men and women and boys and girls–people who can always run past the Hug Block.  I am blessed to know many of them and “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!”  But most of the rest of us can’t seem to find the Welcome Mat–at least not regularly.  It’s a shame, really.

“When you see him again, hale and hearty, how you’ll rejoice and how relieved I’ll be. Give him a grand welcome, a joyful embrace! People like him deserve the best you can give” (Philippians 2:28-29).

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotation from The Message.

 


Zombie Church

My bride took me to see “The Not So Great Gatsby” last year, Old Sport.  I have to confess that I did not like the film, or the book, or the earlier film with Robert Redford, Old Sport.  Just didn’t like it, Old Sport.  When we were leaving the theater I told my brilliant and beautiful life companion that she owed me five “real” movies after TNSGG; we settled on three or four, I think.

A little later in our 2013 cinematic experience, I took her to see World War Z.  Now, I am generally not a fan of the Zombie genre.  But, in my defense, the previews did a pretty good job of selling the movie and I decided it was worth a try.  My wife and I went together.  On the way out she said, “We’re even.”  I said sheepishly (by the way…how did sheep get the rap for when we look stupid?)…anyway, I said, “Yep.”  Because we were, even, that is.  And I was, you know, stupid.

Meanwhile, back at the Zombies.  They’re kind of fun to watch for a little while (at least they were for me).

You see, Zombies appear to be alive, but they are not.  They walk and they grunt (see “grumble” in your Bible concordance).  They mass together in directionless mobs intent on the consumption of every resource in sight.  They don’t “give back”; they don’t really “give” at all (unless you count the smirk-laced amusement from a movie audience).  They devour anyone in their way.  When they are done, they move on to the next consumption opportunity.  Plus…they chatter and snarl…a lot.  They are just plain mean, but then again, they are Zombies.  You don’t expect much more from them; they are what they are.

It’s just that, from the outside, from a distance, for a moment or two, in the noir of a theater, they look like they are people.  Not dead but alive.  They look like they could help in times of trouble and provide respite for those in need and a cool cup of water on a sizzling summer’s day (which is apparently NEVER COMING this year). 

But then the Zombies come closer (they have remarkable speed for being, ummm, dead).  And when they get closer, at the last minute, when it’s inevitably too late (unless you are Brad Pitt…see World War Z above), they close in for the kill.  They have done harm–which, it seems, is all Zombies can do, even if they look like they are alive.

And…sad to say…Zombies cannot go back to being alive and being productive and being forces for good.

But we can…at least Jesus thinks so…

Revelation 3:1-3 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.”

I know that I have my Zombie moments, like everyone else in the Body of Christ.  And there have been (and are) times in church life when I feel like I am hanging with the Zombs (yes, I made up another word).  But we need to stop and turn and quit it.  Individually, collectively; alone, together; the world has seen enough Zombies. 

We have stuff to do; empowered by the presence of the Living God, we have stuff to do, Old Sport.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Blobs Anonymous

At the gym…on the treadmill…listening to some shuffled song on my iPod…sweating like a pig (sorry, Piglet)…feet hurting…back screaming for relief…trying not to feel intimidated by the guy on the treadmill next to me running REALLY fast…hoping he doesn’t look at my pace (or lack thereof) digitally writ LARGE in RED LIGHTS visible from the international space station…puzzled by how I let myself get to be such a blob. 

And…wondering:  “Why is it so easy to get out of shape and so hard to stay in shape?”  I have pondered this over the last several years as my waist size has expanded in direct proportion to the national debt.  It used to be that I could not comprehend a number in the trillions; now, when I shop for belts, I get it.

At each juncture during my journey into blobness, I have chastised myself for continued deterioration of physique.  I have actually sat there, on the couch, enduring Downton Abbey–my brilliant wife is a fan–I am not…how they manage to cram a 13 minute show into an hour is beyond me…and I know…this will cause some blogosphere angst…I am at peace with that)…but meanwhile, back on the couch, enduring Downton Abbey, crunching potato chips (I am more of a salty snack guy than a sweet snack guy), resting the chip bowl ON MY STOMACH, saying to myself, “You have to do something about this; it’s getting (gotten) ridiculous!”

Lately I have also endured additional, gently firm chastisement from my physician who, though not the Great Physician (but certainly a great physician), has done his best to warn me about the consequences of my lack of physical discipline.  High blood pressure, type II diabetes, back trouble, having to adjust the seat in the car so that I can barely reach the steering wheel, wondering about the weight capacity of office chairs, having the police say, “Break up that crowd!” when they see me walking down the street, etc., etc., etc.

Those of you with trim physiques and for whom this is not an issue are probably snickering at my lack of self-discipline and my pitiful penchant for chips.  Go ahead; your barely masked ridicule and disdain will never match my self-deprecation.  Not even close. [I had a friend in the military who once, in a staff meeting, chaired by the (ahem) general) meant to say “self-deprecating” but instead said, “self-defecating.”  Go ahead, take a few minutes to giggle; I still do.]

You see, it’s not that I don’t know that being a blog is unhealthy, it’s just that it’s so very easy to become a blob and so hard to deblobify myself.  And being a Christ-follower makes this doubly difficult because I am convinced that the power of God is available to me to assist me in overcoming every challenge–including blobness–to “carry [His work in me] on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).  So again I wonder, “Why is it so easy to get out of shape and so hard to stay in shape?”

“Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only w few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14).

Jesus is certainly speaking in the salvific sense in this excerpt from the “Talk Up On The Hill.”  But the passage seems to have wider application to all of life’s “stuff,” even for one trying to follow Jesus.  It’s just so easy to become a blob when there are so many blob enablements around.  And it’s so hard to fight the blobness when there are fewer (or at least fewer self-promoting) counters to blob enablement.  This is not excuse; it’s simply fact.

Plus, to fight the blobness as a believer, I have to walk that curious path between the “self-control” that is the product of the Spirit of God in my life (Galatians 5) and the “self-control” that is a product of a turning of my will toward the things of God (bunches of places…look them up).

You see, it’s not merely the physical blobness that is troublesome (as troublesome as that is).  It’s my spiritual blobness that is so disheartening.  I want to be a believer who is so immersed in the things of God and the purpose of the Kingdom that all of those things that enable me to “run with perseverance” are not just “things to do” but “things in which to revel.”  But instead of reveling in the disciplines that keep my body and my spirit “in shape,” I rebel against them.

And, I have to be wary of turning my anti-blob campaign (both physical and spiritual) into another self-help project (“Let’s Build Something!”).  This is tricky biblical and theological territory.  This being “all in” with Jesus, looking to cooperate with His Spirit at work in my life, and yet realizing that it is ultimately God who enables my very feeble efforts in the first place.

The Apostle Paul, summing up his latecomer apostleship, put it this way, “I worked harder than all of [his apostlemates], yet not I, but the grace of God that was in me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

There too am I.  In my ongoing battle against the blobness within me, I throw myself onto the grace of God.  “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.”  I could not save myself, only Jesus could do that.  I could not even self-muster the faith to believe in the Jesus who would save me, only God could grant me that faith.  I could not “self-justify” any more than I can now “self-sanctify.”  And yet I, myself, am in it; I am an active and free moral agent with some (apparent) capacity to decide to cooperate with the Spirit of God within me.

What’s a blob to do?  Celebrate the reality of the presence and power of God.  Recognize that the “ability” to accomplish anything, is itself, a gift from Him.  Pray for the courage in every moment to open myself to His great gifts.  Be “at home” with the reality of the tensions in the Christian life.  Laugh…a lot…at my frailties and foibles.  Shake off the allure of the wide gate.  Step on the treadmill.  Pass by the chips.  Stop comparing myself to the guy running REALLY fast on the adjacent treadmill.  Thank God for each opportunity to say, “YES!” to His Spirit.  Thank Him again for forgiveness when I say, “No.”  Look for others who need some cheering on in the midst of their blobness (while resisting the temptation to call them “blobs”).  Perhaps form a chapter of “Blobs Anonymous.”  Oh, wait a minute, Jesus already did that.

“I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18)

 © All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.

 


30 Days to Spring Training or What’s Wrong with Christian Free Agency?

Coming off last year’s World Series win for the Boston Red Sox, it’s a sure thing that Red Sox Nation is eagerly anticipating (nay…salivating for) the annual signals that America’s Pastime will resume.  Thirty days from today, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

Plus…it’s been (already) enough of a miserable winter that any sign of spring approaching is most welcome.

Of course, given the vagaries and complexities of modern baseball, the 2014 team will not be identical to the 2013 team.  Some of the names that we got used to during last year’s playoff run will, sigh, be playing for other teams [Jacobi is off to the Bronx…though he did leave with class].

One of the highlights of last season’s really fun run was Boston Designated Hitter, David Ortiz (Big Papi).  He had an incredible .959 On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) and led the team in his inimitable style.  That style included the tide-turning pep talk to his posse during game four of the World Series.  Baseball writer Kevin Paul Dupont called it Ortiz’s “Fall Classic carpe diem” and the “series’ seminal moment.”  That’s our Big Papi, wading in unscripted to engage Fenway’s baseball boys with his own brand of insight and determination.

National audiences had previously seen this when, post the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings at the very beginning of the baseball season, Ortiz dared anyone else to mess with “our f_____ng city.”  Did I wince (well, simultaneously wince and smirk) at the choice expletive?  Yes.  Did I resonate with the voice of determination?  Absolutely.  That same determination led Ortiz to challenge his teammates to be the team they had been all season long and bring the World Series title home to Boston.  They did.

David Ortiz is apparently, at this writing, in talks to extend his contract with the Red Sox.  I don’t have any special insight; I just know what I’ve read.  He wants to stay another year and I think the team wants him to stay another year.

After the 2014 season, Big Papi will become a baseball Free Agent.  He will have more room to maneuver with respect to his contract negotiations, but he will also be on the edge of player viability.  He doesn’t seem to be slowing down but you never know.

Besides the fact that I love to watch the Red Sox boys play (hence the Big Papi preamble), I am fascinated by this notion of Free Agency…the movement of talented (and sometimes not so talented) players between teams.  In baseball’s yesteryear, players were often married to the same team (for better or for worse) for their entire career.  Now team rosters are much more fluid from year to year–that fluidity a byproduct of Free Agency. 

As a Christian I am also fascinated by the Church’s own version of Free Agency.  Players (a.k.a. church members) who regularly migrate from place to place (church to church) in search of that perfect place that dispenses perfect ministry that perfectly matches their needs (desires, whims, preferences…insert your own noun).  

While recognizing that there is no such thing as a perfect church, I am puzzled by the seeming fragility of contemporary church connections–a fragility that rests on this notion of Free Agency.  Of course, I suppose it is largely a blessing that there are so many “options” for believers for worship and service.  But, there it is, the tendency to think more in consumerist North American terms than biblical terms: options. 

I pastored a church in Colorado for several years.  By “steeple envy” standards we did alright.  We may even have done well by God’s standards.  All that to say, we weren’t the “coolest” place in town but we were in the “top tier” [I know…worldly standards misapplied to Kingdom endeavors] of places to be “checked out” by the town’s new arrivals and by those who were somehow disenchanted with the place in which they worshipped. 

In that resort community, during my eleven or twelve years there, I was regularly amazed at the number of people who had been “called” to plant churches amongst the sun and winter frolicking destinarians (yes, I made up a word).  At the time, by my count, there were about 25 evangelically minded churches in a town of (then) 6,500 in a county of (then) 14,000.  If you spent a year at each church, you could move from place to place to place for a quarter of a century before having to start over.  By then, presumably, the church(es) fostering the disenchantment would have been able to get their act(s) together…or not.

Then came the archetypal Christian Free Agent.  She was in her 60s; she was grumpy; she had a mild-mannered (rarely heard) husband and she (one sunny winter’s day) alighted in our worship center.  She engaged pretty well and was initially upbeat, but after five or six months came a litany of “concerns.”  Upon further exploration with her it seemed that the church had failed to meet her expectations on several fronts. 

I was younger and dumber and less full of the kind of grace, tact, and diplomacy (and warmth and fuzziness) for which I am known today (sarcasm is hard to render blogwise).  I finally said, “Junia [that’s not her real name and perhaps me using that name is one of the reasons she huffed so…not really…I actually used her real name when I spoke with her, but I have changed the name to protect the guilty…and dodge litigation]…Junia,” I said, “You’ve been to eight churches in the last ten years [I am not making that up].  Is it at all possible that perhaps there might be an issue with you that has nothing to do with any of those churches?” 

Her husband slunk out of the room like a dog who had messed the carpet.  If I had been smarter, I would have left with him.  What followed was an explosive airburst not seen since the first hydrogen bomb (“Mike”) was tested at the Enewetak Atol in 1952.  Well…it probably wasn’t that bad…it just seemed that way.  Leaving her house that evening, shaking the fallout from my brain, I again pondered the fragility of church connections and the multiplicity of options available to those in the Body of Christ who largely think of themselves in “Free Agent” terms.

This is not to say that some churches sometimes aren’t egregious in their wounding of the gathered saints.  This is not to say that some solid saints haven’t gone the extra mile (or hundred miles) to try and redeem church circumstances such that they can remain and thrive.  Sadly, the church sometimes grossly disappoints, dissatisfies, and disheartens, thwarting even the most committed Christ follower’s attempts to make a go of it. 

It is to say that, in my view, the threshold for moving on to “another team” in our Christian Free Agency system is much too low.  It is to say that a distorted view of “freedom in Christ” tends to minimize the biblical call for perseverance, restoration, forgiveness, and plain old “hanging in there.”  The Bible commends persistence through difficulties and the beauty of brethren and sisteren dwelling in a unity based, not on preference satisfaction, but on commitment to Christ and each other, even when we disappoint.

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature,” the Apostle Paul said, “Instead, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Have You Had Your Affluenza Shot?

​I trust that you have had your flu shot this year; I’ve had mine.  I’m hoping it works this time; last year’s was a “fail” (at least that’s what I thought while I was lying in the hospital with simultaneous double pneumonia and the flu–which I thought was entirely unfair–surely I could have shared at least one of the pneumonias with someone…anyone). 

The very wise, fifteen-year-old emergency room physician advised me that I had waited “too long” to get my flu shot.  She said that it needed to “cook” (her word) in my system for a while to be completely effective.  [Does anyone else mind that flu vaccine manufacturers are allowed to “cook” their anti-flu juice in our systems?]

But there is apparently another kind of “flu” virus at work out there.  It’s not Influenza; it’s Affluenza.  The most recent case of which was diagnosed and reported in Texas. 

Dateline Tarrant County, Texas:  A Texas teenager has been spared juvenile detention for four deaths he caused while operating under the influence.  The judge ordered probation and therapy.  The teen’s defense team argued that the young man had “been a victim of his family’s enormous wealth.”  

The psychologist who testified for the defense in the trial used the term “Affluenza” (from the 2001 book by the same title) to describe the teenager’s plight.  It seems that the sad, young man had been so often afflicted by his parents saying, “Yes,” to his every whim, that any notion of personal responsibility for his drunken driving was unreasonable.  His family’s “enormous wealth” degraded his moral faculties; the weight of Affluenza broke his “I shouldn’t do that” meter. 

This would be perplexing and heartrending if there was just this one instance.  But, sadly, I sometimes think our entire culture has fallen over and hit its collective head on a huge rock.  Because, truthfully, the “very rich” aren’t the only ones suffering from Affluenza.  We all, it seems to me, catch a touch of it from time to time.  Not everybody’s Affluenza results in traffic fatalities but it is debilitating nonetheless.  

Affluenza also seems to be horrifically contagious–striking irrespective of socio-economic status or Christian identity.   It can become deeply ingrained and doggedly take hold even among God’s people in the church.  Affluenza frequently appears in the form of entitlement that seriously derails our ability to be “all in” with Jesus and available to partner with Him in His purposes.

We live in times often characterized by not merely a “What’s in it for me?” attitude, but by a more sinister, “You owe me,” mindset.  Think about it.  Our government is increasingly the deep pocket for a massive array of knowingly labeled “Entitlement Programs.”  Even in (perhaps particularly noticeable in) the church there is a recurring plethora of self-centered emphases that can derail both genuine Christian community and the effectiveness of our witness to the wider culture. 

Of course, we tell ourselves, it’s not the wealth, per se, that is the problem; it’s our attitudes toward it (it’s the love of money, not money itself which is the root of all kinds of evil) and it’s what we do with our affluence (being good stewards not bad stewards) that counts.  But the simple truth is that, unless we take active steps to derail the onset of Affluenza, it can easily ensnare.  And wealth is so insidious that we can have Affluenza for years unawares.

I’ve previously posted about generational besetting sins and, therein, acknowledged that, irrespective of generational demographics, we share common sinful proclivities.  Have you heard any of these (spoken/thought any of these) church-related evidences of entitlement?  Wondering:  “How will they minister to me?” or “Will the preaching speak to me?” or “I hope I like the worship team,” or “Are the leaders ‘genuine’ enough for me?” or “I wonder if they have the right programs for my kids?”  You can dress up the cultural particulars in Boomer, Buster, or Millennial garb, but the questions, at their core, are the same ones–centered around self and in pursuit of the latest flavor of “You owe me.”  It’s Affluenza.  

Oftentimes inoculation doesn’t work for Influenza and I’m not pretending that it will work here, but I have to hope we can provide a way to prevent a pandemic of “Affluenza” and perhaps curtail its consequences among those already infected. 

So, here’s the Affluenza shot:  “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).  “Hang on,” you say, “that’s just another bloggily simplistic cure for such an insidious problem.”  I don’t think so.  Coming off the celebrations of Christmas (God’s great gift) and Epiphany (the Wise Guys’ response of gifts to the Newborn King), I think there is something to embrace about the simplicity of giving that can overcome our shared tendency toward Affluenza. 

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg develops the notion of material giving in this way: 

“First, if wealth is an inherent good, Christians should try to gain it. If some of us succeed more than the majority, our understanding of it as God’s gift for all will lead us to want to share with the needy, particularly with those who are largely victims of circumstances outside their control. Second, if wealth is seductive, giving away some of our surplus is a good strategy for resisting the temptation to overvalue it. Third, if stewardship is a sign of a redeemed life, then Christians will, by their new natures, want to give. Over time, compassionate and generous use of their resources will become an integral part of their Christian lives. Fourth, if certain extremes of wealth and poverty are inherently intolerable, those of us with excess income (i.e., most readers of [Blomberg’s] book!) will work hard to help at least a few of the desperately needy in our world. Fifth, if holistic salvation represents the ultimate good God wants all to receive, then our charitable giving should be directed to individuals, churches or organizations who minister holistically, caring for people’s bodies as well as their souls, addressing their physical as well as their spiritual circumstances

‘Give me neither poverty nor riches,’ prayed the writer of the proverb; but, since most of us already have riches, we need to be praying more often, ‘and help me to be generous and wise in giving more of these riches away’ (Blomberg, Craig.  Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, 247, 253–italics added). 

I would widen Blomberg’s summary of application related to material wealth.* In addition to reorienting our thinking about monetary giving, we can all, I believe, consider the giving of ourselves in more fully orbed ways. 

We can move toward a giving of ourselves that transcends merely money or stuff and that includes time and energy and a willingness to transition our questions from what’s owed us to what we can provide.  In the Body of Christ, questions like these can help reorient us away from Affluenza:  “How can I pray for those who minister here?”  “Who should I approach to see how I can pitch in?”  “Am I asking God to bless all those here in worship today?”  And, if we sense a ministry need (even one borne from personal ministry desires), perhaps we can ponder this thought:  “Since God has laid this ministry need on my heart, maybe He is calling me to help be part of its implementation.” 

Perhaps it’s long past time to stop worrying about what we’re due in order to more earnestly consider what we’re to do.

*************

*P.S.  I do not intend to imply that Dr. Blomberg’s application recommendations are somehow deficient or any less robust.  Please delight (and challenge) yourself with a read of his entire book. 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.


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