Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is It Too Easy?

I have had the opportunity to attend or serve in churches from at least three major denominations. It’s very interesting to observe the “discipleship” process that each of these faith traditions take. The new terminology in churches for “discipleship” is “spiritual formation.” Call it whatever you want, it’s still the same thing. As I look at the process though, I wonder if we’ve made it too simple. Have we packaged everything so nicely and neatly and handed it to people on a platter right there on the table in front of them? Or have we actually required commitment and passion to move through the process?

There are a number of schools of thought in this area. Regardless of which school of thought a church embraces, it seems that the end result is generally the same: once you’ve gone through the process, walking right out the back door is a perfectly acceptable option.

I know that it sounds harsh, but hear me out. In some mainline Protestant churches, those who believe in what they would refer to as “believer’s baptism,” there is a membership class that is required in order to go through the process of baptism. Once the class requirements are fulfilled, you can successfully “pass” and are then eligible for baptism. In other mainline Protestant churches, those who believe in infant baptism and the confirmation process, there is a more stringent confirmation process that is required in order to “pass” and be eligible to be confirmed.

The same problem occurs in both of these areas: people show to church up long enough to take part in the class and the process, and once they get their certificate, they see no need to continue with church attendance. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that out of all of the people that go through this process there is a 100% church dropout rate, but there is a larger dropout rate than any church should be satisfied with.

So what is the church doing wrong? Have we made the process too simple? Is the process meaningful or has it become a distraction and even an idol to a real relationship with Christ?

I would much rather see people involved in churches who participate in worship, spiritual formation, and service, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized or confirmed. In some ways, these things, while beneficial to the spiritual formation of those who claim to be followers of Christ, have instead become symbols that they have been “approved” by the church, and therefore by God. They have become ends rather than means. They are not seen as part of the process, they are seen as the end of the process.

I don’t really have any answers or suggestions of what to do with this. I hate to feel like I’m criticizing the Church, especially when I have no suggestions or alternatives to present that might be beneficial. All that I know is that it is a problem, regardless of denominational affiliation or faith tradition, and that problem desperately needs to be remedied.

People continually argue over whether or not the United States is a Christian nation or not, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. I think that the right question to ask is, “Is the Church in America really a Christian church?” Are we going through the motions or do we really consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus?

Jesus made it very clear that following after him would not be easy, the symbol of following was an instrument of death: the cross (he said take up your cross and follow me). Easy Christianity seems sort of like an oxymoron. While it should be much simpler than we make it seem at times, it will rarely be easy. But we will live in the tension between grace, faith, and works. While we don’t earn salvation, if we are doing nothing to show the fruit of what God has done in our lives, than we really have to question what kind of “plant” we really are. You know a plant by its fruit, what kind of fruit are you bearing?

Monday, May 10, 2010

When Bad Things Happen

The Biblical story of Job is one that gets pulled out whenever people are experiencing difficulties. Some of us sing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name” which originated from the book of Job. In Christian circles, we tend to always look at our situation in comparison to what Job went through. “At least I didn’t have it as bad as Job,” we might say. “Job lost everything.” Yet, the reason that Job experienced what he experienced, according to the biblical account, is because God allowed it to happen. James wrote, “The testing of your faith develops perseverance.” What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?

The book of Job is among the longer books of the Old Testament and yet we generally only see snapshots of it when we look at it in sermons. Job calls God to question and wonders why he experiences what he experiences. After all, the wicked are the ones who are supposed to be going through difficulty, right? Job’s friends are hardly encouraging to him as they call him into question and beg him to confess whatever unconfessed sin he might be harboring inside.

God’s dialogue with Job borders on sarcastic at times, if it’s possible to read it that way. In Job 38, after 37 chapters of listening to Job and his friends speculate the cause of Job’s demise, the Lord finally speaks. He says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” God made it pretty clear who was responsible for creation and also that he knew what he was doing.

One problem that I see with our typical reading of the book of Job is that when things occur in our lives, we automatically go to that place of “what have I done to deserve this, Lord?” or “I must be being obedient since the Lord has blessed me.” Both of those options can lead us to some fairly slippery slopes, quickly.

I have been in a place like this recently in my life. I haven’t lost everything like Job, but there has been enough emotional and mental stress for me that it has gotten me to a point where everything that happens seems to be some sort of divine judgment or reward. The computer breaks. The car runs out of oil. These things can’t be my doing, right? I can’t be held responsible for all of these bad things in my life. It must be God, right?

We live in a culture that promotes the idea of entitlement. We all deserve the best and when we don’t get it, we have a tendency to whine like children. Of course, if you work with children, you can see this played out at a grander scale. If something doesn’t happen in the journey from childhood to adulthood, we end up with a lot of adults who whine and complain because they didn’t get the opportunity that was due them.

It’s a very unbiblical approach towards life. If we read the creation account in Scripture, the only thing that any of us deserves is punishment for our disobedience to God. We don’t deserve grace. That’s why it’s called grace, because we don’t earn it. It’s given to us freely, but at a high cost.

This same mentality has pervaded the church as well. People come to church and ask, “what am I going to get out of it?” If their needs aren’t being met every minute of every day, then they take “their toys” and go find another sandbox to “play in.” Funny, seems to me that Jesus said that the Son of Man, the One who had the right to have a sense of entitlement, came not to be served, but to serve. Philippians 2:6-11 says:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Back to Job. Sometimes, things just happen. It doesn’t mean that God intervened to make our lives miserable. It also doesn’t mean that we’re sitting at the right hand of Jesus just because the sun is shining. The whole world was upset by Adam and Eve’s sin. The world and everything in it is faulty and broken, sometimes we get a clearer glimpse of that than other times.

After Job had been chastised for some of his speculations, he spoke to the Lord and said, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job realized that he was above his pay grade, he didn’t have the capacity to understand the mind of God. Neither do we.

When bad things happen in our lives, we always want answers. We want to know why things are the way that they are because we think that we can fix it. Fact of the matter is, the only one who can fix it is Jesus. The reason that he came, the reason that he died and rose again was because things are broken and he was the only one with the capacity to fix it.

Sometimes the car breaks down just because it’s old. We get speeding tickets because we were speeding. We can't find a parking space because we got here too late and the place is busy. People act like jerks to us because they’re sinners, just like us. These things, and so much more, don’t happen just because God has the crosshairs of His divine gun pointed squarely at our lives. As much as we want answers that can satisfy us, there are some times when they just can’t be found and we need to be like Job and say, “this is above my pay grade, Lord, but I trust you.”

Our Western, individualistic approach towards Christianity has a tendency to skew our perspective. It’s not that God doesn’t care about the little things in our lives, it’s that we are part of a bigger picture, a greater body. There are others who are struggling as mightily, if not more, than we are. I don’t say this to promote the old adage that “misery loves company” but instead to promote the idea that we reach out in the midst of our difficult situations. Instead of sitting in the corner and asking, “why me, God?” we need to turn and look around, realize that others are hurting too, and say, “why any of us?” Despite popular belief, it’s not all about me….or you, for that matter.

Next time you start thinking that Someone has their sights on you, remember that we are all in this together. Reach out to someone else, after all, two are better than one. And when you figure this all out, come give me some helpful hints, because right now, I’m preaching more to myself than I am to anyone else!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I Hear Dead People

I have been fulfilling my church history requirements in seminary over last quarter and this quarter. I’ve always been fascinated with history, just never been really good at it. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into the past to see how past events have shaped the world today. When it comes to church history, it’s easy to see the development of systematic theology as one studies the heresies and debates of the early church.

A lot of what we call “heresies” today started out as an idea that someone had that one of their followers took to the extreme. Someone had an idea that happened to make its way onto the written page, people read it, and before too long, people had developed the idea and made a whole system of beliefs around that idea. It’s kind of frightening to see that happen.

We are going to be going through the book of Philippians during the summer months at my church. In preparation for planning for those months, I read through Philippians today. In the final portion of the letter that Paul wrote, he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Paul exhibited a confidence that is rarely seen in our day and age.

Paul was so confident in the life that he lived and the things that he had said that he was not afraid to tell his brothers and sisters here in Philippi to follow his example. He didn’t just say, “Do as I say,” he also said, “Do as I do.” He knew that if they followed his example, they would be in pretty good shape.

I was blessed with parents who were incredibly consistent. They never asked or expected anything out of me that they didn’t expect or ask of themselves. They never told me one thing and did something else themselves. They are a far cry from what our society hands us every day. Take for instance some of the wonderful people who are collecting our taxes who have been guilty of not paying their taxes. Frankly, it’s really hard for me to “render unto Caesar” when Caesar ain’t rendering anything himself!

Consistency in word and deed is not always an easy task. It’s easy to cut corners. It’s easy to think that no one’s looking. It’s hard to do the right thing. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We have many who have gone before us who have left examples, like Paul, to follow. They were consistent. They ran the race. They fought the fight. They finished well.

I think about the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams takes the boys to the trophy cabinet and tells them to listen. As they all inch their heads closer to the cabinet, he whispers the line that has become so famous from the movie, “Carpe Diem.” Seize the day.

As we open up our history books. As we walk through our buildings. As we enter into our churches. As we open our Bibles and read, do we hear the voices of the great cloud of witnesses telling us to follow their lead? Do we hear them telling us that they have gone before us and forged a path that may have been less traveled, but was well worth the trip and effort? Do we hear their words, like Paul’s, saying, “Follow my lead”?

As I look in on my two sleeping boys every night and lift up prayers to God for their safety, their education, their health, their future, and so many other things, I realize that they are the two most important investments that I have in my life. I have a choice whether to be consistent and let my actions and words match, or whether to cut corners. If I cut corners, they’ll probably be the first ones to know. If I don’t cut corners, I might not reap the benefits until much later in life, or I may not even see the benefits.

I want to join the voices of the cloud of witnesses when I leave this earth. I want my voice to loudly proclaim that those who come behind me can follow my lead. I want to live a life where my words and my actions match. In so doing, I hope that others might see my example and not give me credit, but follow after the One who has given me the strength to run this race, to fight this fight, and to eventually finish well.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of

I have been studying through the Old Testament since September. By June, I will be finished going through a survey of all of the Old Testament books. It’s been a fascinating journey for me as I dig into portions of the Bible that I have not spent significant amount of time in before. Now, I’ve spent time in the typical books, like Psalms and Proverbs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, some of the minor prophets who we hear about in Sunday School, but I never took this long and hard of a look at the overall Old Testament to see how the books relate to each other and to the New Testament.

As I was reading the overview of some scholars on the book of Ezekiel (you know, he saw the wheel and the dry bones danced for him), something jumped out at me. The Jews were sent into exile because of their disobedience to YHWH. Apparently, the conditions in exile were not as bad as one might think, because, according to these scholars, “when the opportunity came to return to Jerusalem, many preferred to stay in Babylonia.”

That phrase may not strike you as it did me, so let me explain my take on it. Although it would seem that the conditions in exile may not have been very bad, I wonder if that was really the case. The fact is, the exiles were comfortable where they were, even though it wasn’t what God had intended for them, they were willing to settle for second best.

As I read that, I couldn’t help but think about the times in my life that I get into ruts and how much easier it is to just stay there. It’s comfortable. I know what to expect. I don’t have to think too hard. It might not be the best place in the world, but it beats venturing off into the unknown, right? I mean, who wants to live a life of adventure when you can have every moment planned out and know exactly what to expect around the corner?

Sure, this was Israel’s big problem, but as ancestors of the Israelites (at least adopted ancestors), the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I’m not telling you to go and live your best life now, please don’t misunderstand me. What I am saying is that it’s possible that God has something better for us than we think. It might not be comfortable. It might not be easy. It might not be fun all the time. But if it’s from God, would we really want to be anywhere else?

Six years ago, my wife and I left the comfort of the familiar to pursue the call that God had on our lives. It has never been easy. It has never been comfortable. Sometimes, it’s just plain sucked. But it’s what we feel like God has called us to, so would we really want to risk being somewhere else? Yet at the same time, I will not rest on my laurels and say, “I already made my sacrifice to the Lord. I’m done.” It would be too easy for God to come at me with the words of Janet Jackson saying, “What have you done for me LATELY?”

God doesn’t call us out of our comfort zones once and then never again. He might call us to constantly be on the move (geographically, but also in other ways as well). It’s easy to want to rest in the known and comfortable, but I wonder whether we would really reap the benefits of really understanding the idea of a fulfilled and abundant life if we did that.

I don’t know what’s right around the corner for me, the planner and engineer in me always wants to know though. I don’t even know that I have a Five Year Plan, but I have committed to the fact that I am doing what God has called me to do. I fight it, try to change it, and sometimes rebel, but I can’t deny that God has orchestrated things in my life in such a way that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Although I’m where I am supposed to be, it doesn’t mean that I don’t change. If I’m not constantly being refined, then I’m stuck in a rut, and if I don’t move myself, God might just move me.

Jeremiah 29 speaks of God’s command to those who were in exile. They weren’t to mope around, waiting for the opportunity to get out of the land to which God had brought them, they were to settle down and actually make it seem like they were going to be there for the long haul. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” You might be stuck in a rut, or you might be exactly where God has brought you. Only God can reveal which one it is. If you’re in a place that’s uncomfortable, He’s probably got you there for a reason. If you’re feeling too comfortable, you might want to check yourself and see if you’re stuck.
May the God who leads us into exile, deliver us to a place that, though it might be uncomfortable, unexpected, difficult, and even dangerous, we wouldn’t change for the world. After all, the most uncomfortable, unexpected, difficult, and dangerous place to be might just be exactly where He wants you.