If______, then _______!

•January 29, 2008 • 12 Comments

Once again my young friend Berkels got me to thinking (although I don’t understand a word of what he writes in his own blog…the closest thing to Anime that I ever watched was Battle of the Planets which rocked! G-Force!). battle-of-the-planets.jpegBut when he starts to talk about faith issues I pay attentionbecause he usually has something thought provoking for me — even if it does include a little poke in the ribs every now and then.

So much of what has been taught when it comes to faith and following in the way of Jesus is skewed because we understand it from a certain point of view and we don’t understand how that point of view colors our understanding. In other words, I see what I see because of the point in history that I see it from, but I never take the time to notice the process of seeing. My view is colored by my experience, the time in history in which I live, my understanding or paradigm, and an endless list of other factors.

So much of what is discussed in the “Christian conversation” these days sounds more like social exchange theory than gospel. It reminds me of back when I too my first computer classes. Back in the days before Windows we were actually taught how to work in DOS. (Back when the cursor was a little green horizontal line rather than the skinny black vertical line!) One of the first commands that I was taught was the “If, then” command. Basically, it was a statement of input and output. “If x=8, then print “correct.” So that if the user puts in the right answer the computer answers, “correct” on the screen. Pretty simple — input = output.

I see a lot of people approaching faith this way as well. The reason is that we (as Christians) have sold it this way for WAY too long. “If you’ll be good and go to church, then God will bless you. If you ask for forgiveness, then God will forgive. If you pray for something, it will come true.” (In my mind I hear Jiminy Cricket singing, “When you wish upon a star.”)jiminycricket.jpg

This sets up a scenario where God becomes this cosmic vending machine that requires a certain amount of input to generate the correct amount and type of output. And just like when we’re “cheated” by the machine when our Funions get hung on the Peanut M&M’s, we want to kick the crap out of God when He doesn’t live up to his end of the bargain.

What I’m beginning to understand (although I don’t always live like it) is that following in the way of Jesus is not about an “If, then” kind of faith. Jesus doesn’t promise me healing or forgiveness or anything else to lure me into a relationship only to renege on the promise when I really need Him to come through. Following in the Kingdom way is not about doing what God wants me to do so that God will do what I need him to do. It’s about acknowledging the present reality of who God is — YHWH (I am; The One who Is; The Source; The Creator; Love).

Think about the epic poem called Job in our Bibles. Job did all of the “right” things. He was a “righteous” man. He “should have been” blessed, right? This story looks like a cosmic game between God and The Accuser with Job as an innocent game piece (like the poor little guy on “Operation” who’s nose lights up every time someone makes a wrong move). But the story is actually a call for Israel to acknowledge that God “IS” whether their circumstances point in a positive direction or a negative one. God reminds Job (and Israel, and us) that He is the foundation, the creative force that is working in history to draw us toward himself.

Jesus does the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are not a “check list” of “if,then” statements. (i.e. IF you’re poor in spirit, then you’ll get to go to heaven when you die; IF you’re meek, THEN you’ll inherit the earth.) They are a statement of a present reality — BECAUSE you’re poor in spirit, you’re blessed to be a part of the kingdom NOW…not through any act of your own but through a relationship with the King who is standing in front of you!

We ask for forgiveness, because forgiveness is already available. We beg for mercy, because mercy flows always. We long for grace, which is right there at our fingertips. The “asking” is not what gets us there, it’s simply a part of a larger process. My kids don’t ASK for my love, but it is a deeply moving experience when we both acknowledge that love is already there. We grow together.

There is too much CRAP in this world for the “If, then” kind of God to be someone worth believing in…to be quite honest. But to believe in a God that is an “ever-present” reality that is working through history to draw all of his creation back into divine relationship with himself is totally different.  The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something you do or an exchange that you make with God — “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-22)

It IS.

And faith then is stepping into the presence of that reality.  It then shapes me and invites me to become a co-participant.  It re-frames my story to fit (and start to make sense) in a larger Story.  So that somehow, both the good and the bad that happens in my life draw me deeper into the One that Is.

“Let your will be done on earth (in ‘real time’) as it is in heaven (where you reign always)!” 

Going…

•January 24, 2008 • 3 Comments

Where do you experience God?

For the longest time I would have answered that question the “right” way — in worship, in prayer, at church, serving others, doing what is right, and every once in a while in nature.  I guess I had this idea that I had to be doing “God-stuff” in order to experience God.  I’m sure that is somehow tied back into some Greek dualism idea, but I that gets too complicated really fast for me and makes my head hurt (like it did when I watched that Cloverfield movie).  Personally, I think that most of us have been taught (by those that said they knew) that God is experienced in moments that are somehow special…holy in some way.  And that holiness comes from a specific focus on doing God-stuff in God-ways so that we can feel better about ourselves.

Think about it.

We leave a “worship service” commenting on whether or not we felt “moved” or whether we were “in the Spirit.”  We go on “mission trips” and come back saying how much we were “changed” because of the experience.  We tend to schedule in God-feeling stuff so that we can somehow “charge our batteries” for our experience in the rest of life.

I sometimes wonder if God looks at us during those “God-times” and says to himself, “I wish they would cut through all of that BS and really get to know me.”  (That sounds horrible but I think that out of all of the Beings in this existence that God should be allowed to call BS…BS!)

I’m reading a book right now that asked a question that has been rattling around in my spirit today.   When you talk to God, where does the communication take place?  Where do you focus?  Where does the voice come from?  Instinctually almost, I think that a majority of people (regardless of religious stripe) would say “up” and look to the sky.  There is something other about God that makes him above our experience.  But when I see God portrayed, particularly in the pages of the New Testament, he is sitting across the table from a friend or he is some kind of force that flows naturally from one person to another.

GOD IS LOVE.

So when I experience that which is good or that which would radiate love then I’m actually experiencing God.  A hug from my kids.  A kiss on the cheek and a pat on the rear end from my wife.  A good meal with old friends and new ones.  A student playing the piano during chapel showcasing a talent that I never knew she had.  Any experience of the goodness in THIS life is an experience of God.  A reflection of being made in His image.

When I see my day that way…when I seem my life that way, I begin to understand the idea of “prayer without ceasing” that I used to feel really guilty about.  I experience all of life as grace even though it doesn’t always cross my mind that way (like this morning when that lady cut me off on the way to school).   It is then that I understand what Paul was talking about when he said, “in him we live, and move, and have being.”

So I don’t go to church any more…it comes to me — all of the time.

It Made Me Laugh…

•January 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

So I visited the local mega-church today…I enjoy it on some levels.  But I have to confess that I couldn’t stop laughing today.  The senior pastor was dressed EXACTLY like Ned Flanders [see post below for humorous irony].

A Strange Grace

•January 6, 2008 • 1 Comment

“The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you…by the grace of God.”  — Walter Brueggemann (Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church which now sits among a handful of books that “changed me.”)

I remember the first inkling that I had of it.  It was at Barton Bible Camp which was a hole-in-the-wall as far as summer camps goes but it was a great experience for me at the time.  It was my Junior year and my second year to be named “Camper of the Week.”  (I think it was my performance at the homemade slip-n-slide that cinched it for me.)  I remember the setting…it was the next to last day at camp, we had just finished the campfire with all of the tears and re-commitments that went with it, and I was one of the last ones with a flashlight to head up the hill.  It was then that I realized that I was surrounded by preachers!  Two of my heroes at the time had hung back and waited to have a word with me.  I thought surely I was in trouble…like maybe I raised my hands during a song or something!  Roger, the one that wasn’t the preacher at my home congregation, put his arm around my shoulder…looked me in the eye and said, “I just want to make sure that you know something.”  I’m thinking, “Please say something good like ‘Jesus loves you’ and let me go back to my cabin!”  With a VERY serious look on his face he said, “If you don’t go into Youth Ministry, me and John here are going to hunt you down and break both of your legs.”  And then he hugged me!  It was sort of a holy-threat-joke-thing.

Whatever was lacking in delivery, the message was clear to me that God wanted me to do SOMETHING for Him.   I spent the next year or three trying to figure out exactly what that SOMETHING was.  It was the day before I married my wife that I finally decided to give up and go with the “suggestion” that they had given me — youth ministry.  Although we had all of our plans worked out and knew exactly what we were going to be doing after the wedding, we pitched it all up in the air figuring that God was calling us to change courses.  And we did it.

I spent the next two years training to become a youth minister.  I use the word “training” loosely here.  I don’t think that you can TRAIN a person to be a youth minister sitting in a desk learning Greek or listening to a professor that had a double major in Bible and Star Trek.  I learned that the hard way when I actually started to get my feet wet with real-live teenagers!  They were coming to me with questions that I didn’t even know existed and problems that would have made Dr. Phil blush.  I knew right then that I needed more training so at least I could bluff my way through some answers.  Surely a Masters Degree would make me an expert!  After 60 hours and almost $60,000 I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything anymore.  But I had the training!  I was prepared to fulfill my calling!  Now I just needed to figure out what that was again!

That was eleven years ago.  Since then I’ve been a Singles Minister, a Family Life Minister, an Unemployed Minister,  a substitute French teacher, and a High-School Bible teacher.  There have been times in the middle of all of it that I thought “Surely this is what God is calling me to!”  Then something would happen (whether it was a death in the family or a glory-hungry senior minister back stabbing me) that would shake me to the core and make me question the whole thing.

I’m learning that “God’s calling” for me is not a calling to this place or that place; this job or that job; this title or that title.  It’s a calling to become.  (I would say emerge but that’s getting a little too trendy these days.)  What I thought was supposed to be hasn’t been…and as Brueggemann says it is a grace to me that it hasn’t.   Too many people get caught up in the trap of “This is the way to follow God.”  You have to go to their church, be a part of their mission, vote the way that they vote, or believe the way that they believe in order to be close to God.  I’m learning that the pathway is winding, bumpy, narrow in spots with some big drop offs, and flat in others with plenty of shoulder space.  My new challenge is not to find my way to the right point, but to help others see that their journey is in the same direction as my own whether they believe it or not.

That’s not “I’m o.k.; you’re o.k.”  It’s more of growing through the journey together.  I’ve spent plenty of time broken down on the side of the road.  I’ve even been accused of slipping into reverse a time or two and spinning my wheels!

Becoming is difficult!  There’s no real way to measure it.  It’s not like your two notches closer to arriving.  Even when you arrive you’re not there yet.  Growth is strange that way.  I have friends right now that are kicking against the powers that are pushing them toward growth in a certain direction.  What I want them to realize is that even in the kicking process you’re growing…becoming.  I think we all get too focused on our own stories thinking that our pathway is the primary one (and sometimes the MOST difficult).  We’ve got to notice when we bump up against one another that we’re supposed to be changing together.

My story has touched a lot of other stories.  Some have been changed for good; others not so good.  Whatever direction it took, we’re both different.  We can’t be the same.  That’s my new ministry — story changing.  I’ll never work for another “church” but I think that this job description is flexible enough to fit me where ever I land.  That’s God’s grace for me.

And Roger, if you’re reading this…please don’t hunt me down.

Ned Flanders Killed Jesus

•December 4, 2007 • 4 Comments

flanders.pngWhy is it that so many Christian leaders seem like caricatures? They (and when I say they, I have to confess that I’ve been there before thinking I was doing the right thing) stand in front of a crowd with their face all scrunched up looking like they are in pain for Jesus. They read the Holy Scripture with a soft, sweet voice pausing on every third or fourth word. They sing songs that speak of Jesus as if He were some kind of cosmic boyfriend that is “lovely” “beautiful” and “like a rose.” But when it’s a faster song they have to add hand motions for audience participation! Then the message comes and Jesus is reduced to the great “Get Out of Hell Free Card” that comes at the low, low price of just being a nice person and doing the “right” thing. And we wonder why people are leaving the church…

Not only do we wonder…we get down right irritated. I remember back when I was first learning about this whole Jesus-thing. I remember that someone, somewhere found out that I watched The Simpsons. I was branded a reprobate and told that no “good Christian” could watch THAT kind of show. “It’s anti-Christian!” I was led to believe that little Bart Simpson was some kind of Antichrist and that this family of yellow-people was created just to lead us off the “straight and narrow.” Today I realized exactly why that took place. It’s all because of Ned Flanders!

Hear me out on this one. Those “inside” the church are so afraid that the way that those “outside” the church see those “inside” the church is the way that we actually are, that we don’t ever get “outside” to look “inside” on ourselves. I’ve been on the inside and on the outside and I’ll have to admit that from the outside, those of us on the inside come across not as children of Abraham but as children of Ned. The character bio for Ned Flanders starts like this, “Ned Flanders is irritatingly optimistic and cheerful. Religion has removed all of the gray areas from him, so he and his family live secure, knowing that the ultimate safety net that is Heaven awaits them.”

I KNOW THAT GUY! I’ve seen him before! He’s led singing in church. He’s served communion. He’s taught my kids’ Sunday School class. And he may have even shown up in chapel at school a time or two! He’s the prototype of the modern, American, middle-class, Christian. And as of today, I’m convinced that he’s the one that killed Jesus — or at least he’s attempting to kill the church that Jesus started.

I spend a lot of time trying to get people to understand that faith/Christianity/spirituality/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is “worth the effort.” They are convinced that in order to be a good Jesus-follower you have to look and act something like Ned Flanders (right down to the “Hi-dilly, ho-dilly, neighboreenos!” and the green pull-over). And they are convinced of it not because of some animated sit-com (only the funniest show EVER), but because WE act like THAT!

I want so bad to stand up and say, “Get over yourself!” And that’s not to sound judgmental because it has taken me a while to even start to get over myself — I’m not sure if you ever really get there. But once you realize that you’re full of crap and Jesus loves you anyway, you can start to become what you were meant to be in the first place. There has to be some kind of wake-up call or we’ll all be sitting around in our green pull overs listening to each other’s whining — “I wish we lived in a place more like the America of yesteryear that only exists in the brains of us Republicans.” (Ned Flanders quote!)

Maybe that day has already come…

Swimming Upstream

•November 29, 2007 • 3 Comments

I snapped today.

I don’t usually do that.

But today I did.

They pushed me, and I snapped.

I apologized for it, but still…I snapped.

My students don’t understand this, but I wasn’t just snapping at them.  I have been frustrated with the whole thing lately.  This was just a microcosm of the bigger picture.

We’re in the middle of a unit on “theology” and at this point we’re looking at Christology — the  study of the person and work of Jesus as it relates to the Christian faith.  I was trying to help them better understand the proper place that Jesus should have in our overall theology (i.e. not just an insurance policy, a nice guy, or someone to make you feel good about yourself).  This is no easy task for people that have been taught one thing all of their lives by the dominant system of the day!  But still, I consider it to be a venture worth taking.

As I’m in the middle of the discussion, some students decide to discuss some random trivial matter that I’m sure has some cosmic significance somewhere but would go on the same level as most MySpace conversations as far as anyone else is concerned.  Others decide it would be a good time to drift off to dream land because “they’ve heard it all before” — or so they assume because I’m using the name Jesus so much.  And others decide to pursue more “academic” avenues by copying someone else’s homework since they decided not to do their own the night before.

In the middle of all of that it happened.  I snapped.  It seemed as if I were once again beating my head against the wall trying to get someone to hear me.  And it’s not just students!  I’ve been doing this my whole adult life.  Counseling sessions.  Small group studies.  Sunday school classes.  Sermons to 1000+ people at a time.  It all collapsed in that one moment and I snapped.

458447red-salmon-swimming-upstream-katmai-ak-posters.jpgHave you ever felt like you were “swimming upstream?”  Everyone else is floating by yelling “Hey stupid, you’re supposed to go this way!”  There’s a part of you that thinks maybe they’re right, but you’re sure down to you toenails that there’s something better closer to the headwaters than the stagnant pool at the end.  I’ve been doing this a long time.  It’s not that I’m a rebel…I just don’t conform very well.  And I’m not sure that conforming is the point.  I feel like I’m called to do something more than conform.  To speak life into those that are content to just go with the flow.

I guess that’s why it hit me so hard today and I snapped.  I want so much to help these students to find life as Kingdom people.  And I don’t see the dominant systems of religion offering that today.  They’re told what to think, how to act, how to vote, what success looks like, and even how you’re “supposed” to read the Bible.  I feel like Martin Luther must have felt when he’s hanging the 95 Theses on the door — except I keep hitting the nail but it doesn’t go in!

I guess the best I can do is keep hammering and hope that someone will at least peek their head out and wonder what’s going on!  But today I snapped.  The pity party is over now.  Time to get back to hammering!

At What Point…

•November 19, 2007 • Leave a Comment

When is it time to finally “give up” on a relationship? When do you “shake the dust from your feet” and move on? What is the difference between forgiving and continuing to allow yourself to be hurt? These are the kinds of questions that I’ve heard from people ever since I decided to go into the people helping business. I’ve counseled hundreds of folks on just such questions.

And while it is one thing to sit down with someone else who is working through these issues, it is a whole different experience to be in the middle of those questions. When it is someone that you deeply love that is unwilling to change and unwilling to even accept that something that you say could possibly have some truth to it…the questions become more real and more difficult. Your heart and your brain begin to do battle. And the battlefields are the knots in your back, the upset stomach, the lack of sleep, and the continuing feeling that something just isn’t right in the world.

I keep telling myself — just because I love them doesn’t mean that I give up what is right and sacrifice my emotional health as well as risking the emotional health of my wife and kids. But that’s my brain talking…my heart continues to hold out hope despite the evidence otherwise. What do you do? Do you seer your heart and turn your back? Or do you fight for what is right while continuing to hope for the best?

I keep coming back to the overused question — WWJD? This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to faith. What does “seeking first the Kingdom of God” mean in this situation? Is Jesus calling me to “give up father and mother” to follow him, or is he saying “forgive 70 times 7?” And does it have to be one or the other?

For now I just keep doing what I feel led to do…my prayer is that doing what is right — even though it isn’t always comfortable — will be a blessing even if it doesn’t seem like one.

 
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