Saturday, December 12, 2009

Samaritan in Camo

Had a nice experience the other day. Seated next to the window at Starbucks, with a long line at the counter. Suddenly a young soldier (maybe 22-23?) in the line jumped out of the line and sprinted for the front door. My head swiveled as he hit the door and I saw a ragged old man outside on the sidewalk, where he had apparently fallen. From his appearance, he could have been my grandpa or a local wino. But this young man spotted his fall, rushed to his side, insisted on helping him up, and then stood by to make sure he was all right, over the man's protestations. After the man was under his own power and headed on down the sidewalk, the soldier returned to the line as though nothing had happened.

I was impressed by both his rate of response-- no hesitation about losing his place in line, or stopping to see if anyone standing near the man would help first-- and by his quiet insistence on seeing the man safely on his way. (And I'm a little chagrined that he blew past me to get the job done.) Nice work, young man.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Nation of Sprinters

(RANT WARNING: Readers seeking cool, reasoned spiritual things, please scroll past...)

America is a nation of sprinters. Fast out of the gate, strong at the start, able to bring tremendous assets and effort together in a short time in pursuit of a goal. It’s easy to put this in government terms, so let’s get closer to home. What do we love? What do we celebrate? The hot start-up company gets the ink, not the long-term industry: Gillette makes razor blades and generates money while Yahoo! makes news and generates headlines. We know the rookie of the year, while the career-wins guy is a statistical footnote. We pay $5000 to the rapid weight-loss clinic instead of spending $500 in the produce aisle and $100 on walking shoes. Americans watched the made-for-TV attack on Baghdad with rapt interest, and now with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground, we have no idea what’s going on. We blasted FEMA for being slow to get to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but that same government has to let every highway bridge and overpass rot because we can’t see why we should have to pony up taxes for them. We complain about our lawmakers doing things we don’t understand while we won’t sit still for more than a 30-second CNN sound bite before reaching for the remote.

Our world view is the short view.

Our national slogan should be, “Hurry! Hurry! What?” In the words of Havner, we “go up like rockets and come down like rocks.”

Welcome to the good ol’ USofADD.

And dear readers, many of you are at this very moment having the same thought: “Well then, tell us what to do about it.” A paragraph of clever rant in print and we are ready to take action. Ready, fire, aim. On that horse and riding off in all directions. We are a nation that has confused response time with positive action. Mistaken activity for accomplishment. And here are three simple steps we can take right now to get back on the right track: (Get real. Did you really not get that joke? It’s our appetite for “three quick steps” to anything that has formed us into a people with the attention span of a fruit fly. Everyone who thought there were going to be three steps, go back to the start of this rant and read it slowly…)

Life is not so simplistic, and it’s time we grew up and faced it. Time that we stopped looking for the quick fix, the short cut, the trite and simple answer to ancient and complex problems. And it’s high time we stopped believing people who offer these things and stopped buying their books. (By the way, next time you are in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, ask yourself, “Now which of these books is going to dramatically change my life? And for only $17.95?”) Then put it back.

Stop and think. Okay, that’s a simple step, but it’s not the secret panacea to anything. But it might just slow down the our mental hyperdrive long enough for us to realize at least one thing we had failed to consider before. And having done that, we might think a bit more and discover more. And such a radical approach might help us toward solutions instead of mere reactions.

I am a proponent of a new set of heroes. That elderly man-- the one who takes care of his wife who is stricken with Alzheimer’s and can’t remember who he is-- is my hero. That thirty-year veteran second grade teacher is my hero. The kid who threw papers and mowed yards and said “You want fries with that?” until he wanted to puke-- all to buy his cheap first car; he is my hero. That lady who’s been in night school for six years is my hero. That couple who have stayed married for sixty years are my heroes. The man who saved up for five years and bought a new car with cash is my hero. Nobody on this list got there the easy way, or the fast way. They passed on opportunities for easier answers and more comfortable paths. They discovered that what is worthwhile, costs. And they paid the price. And we —not just they— are the richer for it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What to do, what to do

The interesting thing here is that while the structural problems with today's religion club structure are quite complex, the ways I see to respond are so far fairly simple. Let's start with...

Make friends --real friends-- with believers outside your club. I grew up in a very exclusive religion club where we were not encouraged to do this. When God gave me godly friends outside my group, my whole view on the church changed irrevocably. It's also hard to get trapped inside your club when that would exclude your own BFF.

If you are a member of a club, ask a leader to explain things to you. This may be tricky, because it's probably going to come off as a challenge. So pick a leader of your club who knows you and who won't get offended if you ask pointed questions. Buy lunch. Maybe several. Ask directly why your club does not have a whole lot of meaningful relationships with other local clubs. Ask him how he feels about you splitting your Sunday time up between your club and the clubs of your friends. Don't be sidetracked by minor issues. Ask, and sincerely try to understand, why he thinks your club should exist when there are lots of other clubs in town. See if he has vision beyond the club; you'd be surprised how many leaders do, and are afraid to follow what they see. Encourage him!

If you are not a member of a club, check out your friend's club. Don't join, just look for other believers to be friends with. By the way, there's no need to bang heads about joining, just tell anyone who offers that you are already his brother or sister and that's good enough for you. Small groups are a great way to do this, by the way. It's hard to really meet anyone at Sunday Services, but a club's small group or a class or home group works great. Make friends.

Look for service projects outside your club. Substitute this for a club activity if you have limited time available. Sling hash at a soup kitchen, build a Habitat house, mentor a kid at a Boys Club. The more servant-like and the less visible the job the better. You meet a tremendous grade of people this way. Make friends.

That'll do for a start...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is “Winning the World for Christ” Killing My Neighbors?

Great institutions have great dreams, or at least great aspirations. The most widely-claimed of these found in the evangelical church is found in the slogan, “Win the world for Christ!”. This is a noble and seemingly-inarguable aspiration. After all, who do we not hope will follow Jesus? For whom has Christ not died? As it is the Father’s express desire that “not any should perish”, should we not all embrace this as our life’s cause?

Well, at the risk of heresy, I’m not so sure.

How does the great task of “winning the world for Christ” actually manifest itself among us? On the positive, it has stirred many of us with a concern for those outside our own cultures, and has sent the message of the gospel into the far corners of the world. I have numerous friends in places like Uganda, Kenya, Morocco, China, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. I have a friend who is a missionary from Nigeria to the U.S. (As much as that may offend some, I see the same desperate needs he sees in our post-Christian culture.) I clearly see the work of the Holy Spirit in these callings.

But I fear the very grandiosity of the language we use has borne unintended consequences. After many years in the church, I do not see today’s believer to be any more likely to bear witness of the life of Christ to his neighbor than was his grandfather. In fact, a strong argument can be made that today’s Joe Christian is less likely to impact the family next door than perhaps ever before in American history.

Our drumbeat of “winning the world” has contributed to what I call the “myopia effect” among the church. Our suburban church loads up a hundred fired-up teens and takes them to a Mexican border town, or to the urban jungle of a large city, all in the interest of ministering to the lost. And they do it with great fervor. But that busload of kids drives right past our own blighted neighborhoods on the way out of town to “spread the gospel”. We can now see so far out “into the world” that our own neighbors have become only vague and fuzzy images to us. While we are able to communicate our thrill in “going into all the world”, we are much less effective at sharing God’s concern for the people who live within our own zip code. I do not think this is intentional neglect so much as romantic overlook. As a veteran missionary once told me, “There’s no magic in a plane ticket.”

When is the last time your congregation was asked for money to support a missionary living in the African interior? That fellow who is on furlough from Africa brought his Powerpoint presentation—it used to be slides, but Microsoft marches on—and everyone enjoyed the exotic photos of strange peoples in strange lands. You wondered at how those people were SO much more receptive to the gospel than are Americans. But when was the last time you considered the same kind of financial support for one living in the barrio in your own city? We get far more excited about unbelievers overseas than unbelievers in our neighborhood.

Our religious traditions are not making it any easier for us to touch the lives of our neighbors. Joe lives across the street from me, and his church home is across town. He saw that fellowship advertised on a billboard, and chose that group from a wide assortment of congregations, based on his compatibility with its doctrines and demographics, and on the attractiveness of its programs and public offerings. As Joe’s neighbors, we know that Joe loads up the family on Sunday and “goes to church”, and he has a fish on the back of his car, so we figure he’s a Christian, but we don’t know a lot more. Joe’s family is heavily involved in church activities, which are constantly expanding in an effort to grow the size of that fellowship. As a result, there is created a natural division of activity—the religious stuff, the “God stuff” happens across town, while the mundane everyday stuff happens here. There, Joe worships. There, he expresses his devotion to God and talks about it with others. Over here, he mows his lawn and takes his kid to Little League. We know if Joe has crabgrass, but we don’t see much of his Christian walk.

Joe is not intentionally neglecting his neighbors. But the epicenter of his “Christian life” is far from his neighborhood, and what happens here is a faint echo of what happens there. And so long as his local religion club maintains the steady call to “come to church” and “come with us and do good things”, this dynamic will continue.

The solution is simple, but counter-intuitive for most professional clergy and folks interested in “building our church”. Tell people to go home. Yep. Start carving out parts of the week when no “church activities” will be scheduled. Rather than recruiting and training people to teach Sunday school, teach them how to love their neighbors. Truly loving one’s neighbor is the most effective way of bringing people to Jesus. Most believers in my experience testify that they came to Christ mainly because of the actions of some non-clergy individual who loved them.

Now for the warning: this suggestion is much more radical than it seems, and far harder than I make it out to be. For I am suggesting that a local religion club begin to do things that are not consistent with the future of the club. That they choose against the club’s best interest to sow believers into the community. I am suggesting that they begin to seek for their members to identify less with First Church and more with Jesus, to serve their neighbors even if the club’s programs languish. This is a hard enough sell in and of itself. But in our competitive religious marketplace, the inevitable reaction will be for the religion club next door to quickly redouble its recruiting efforts, with the distinct possibility that once Religion Club A sends its members out into the community, Religion Club B will scoop up half of them and entice them into the building down the street for the hot new version of American Churchgoing’s Greatest Hits. Clergymen seem to know this reality almost instinctively and find it nearly impossible to embrace the kind of change that would put “their flock” at risk of changing membership to the club next door.

So with these obstacles in mind, what can we do to help this along?

More to come…

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To Our Public Frogs

"But where else will I exercise my gifts?"

I'm beginning to notice that this unspoken question is keeping any number of folks inside the religion clubs. As a former pulpit preacher, worship leader, elder, and musician, I understand the quandry, and that understanding is what disturbs me.

It goes on in the mind of a person who is considering changing his identity from "First Whichever Church" to the kingdom of God. "But I'm a preacher!" I say. "Where will I preach? I'm a worship leader! Where will I set up my microphone and plug in my amp?" As if scheduling people to attend a gathering is a prerequisite for doing what I am called to do. What I am really asking, and cannot readily admit, is, "Who will be required to listen to me if their attendance at my performance is not mandated by tradition?"

I know, I've quit preaching and gone to meddling. But those of you who have gifts which are now used to serve the Body in the regularly-scheduled gathering we call a "church service"-- what would you do if those doors closed? Would you stop doing what you do? Would you know how to continue to obey God and employ your gifts with no church service involved? Or are you only useful in organized groups of a dozen to five thousand? If your calling is being defined and delimited by a tradition of Sunday-go-to-meetin', who really called you?

Yes, this is an out-and-out challenge. If singing Jesus Loves Me with your toddler is less satisfying than playing in a hot worship band at church, it's time to ask yourself what it is that drives your worship. If explaining who Jesus is to a ditchdigger on the tailgate of the truck is somehow not as fulfilling as giving a 50-minute oratorio before a packed house of shoutin', stompin', on-fire believers... perhaps it's a good idea to ask God why this is so.

It's easy to tell people all the different ways that our gifts can be manifest in the earth. We've done it many times. And we all nod... and head right back to the pulpit/microphone/public venue and go on with business as usual, either as performers or spectators. (Insert head shake here.) Until we as "gifted individuals" are willing to go to the Father for a bit of personal examination, this dynamic is likely to continue. And the only way for God to shake us into looking deeply into this will be to break up our "ministries". Perhaps it would be wise to fall on the rock this time, to keep it from having to fall on us.

Been there myself. Waited for the rock, got it. Trust me, it smarts.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Today's Quote

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
--Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Take Your Child To Work Day

I had the privilege of praying for a couple of missionaries from Afghanistan last night at home group. It's a pretty prophetic group, so if you ask for prayer, you usually get somewhat more.

There was a word for a brother named Jonathan that I think bears repeating. In essence, it reminded him that even on that mission field, that God's primary interest was in him, and the mission was secondary. This seems strange to us, who tend to measure things in terms of jobs and callings and ministries and measurable results of our labors. I was reminded that when God placed Jonathan in Afghanistan, it was not as though God posted a want ad and hired the qualified applicant. It was that God was doing something and wanted to share that with his child.

Ministry is truly like "Take Your Child To Work Day". God is doing something in the earth, and he calls us to Himself, taking us along to join in. His invitation is not based on what talent He sees in us, nor on what He thinks we will accomplish, but simply on the fact that we are his sons. I fear that we have made ministry into a job fair, looking at the options, finding what line of work suits us best and finding a way to sign on. If it's a paying gig, all the better. But this process establishes me as the central worker, the work as my place to shine, and "for God" as the fish on my business card.

I would suggest that we allow our minds to be renewed, from a mindset that says, "This is the thing I will accomplish for God," to a more childlike "Dad, where are you going today? What are you doing? Can I go? Please? Can I help?"

If you truly wish to see wonderful things, try following Dad to work.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Agricultural wisdom

This is better than anything I've written in a while, so I am unabashedly stealing it from my daughter Megan and posting it here--

I've never been one that God gave visions to, never heard words for people, or could distinctly hear his voice (without questioning myself). It never bothered me too much. I just figured our relationship wasn't like that---

Well, tonight during worship one of the speakers asked God to "tear us up" to give us a new vision of God and his love- This guided my prayers as I beseeched God-
"Make me sensitive to your spirit God..."
He gave me this---

I saw my life as hard ground.
Soil comfortably in place, not touched for an extended period of time.
A few sprouts have emerged from this soil but non significant in size or splendor

God gave me the image of this ground, not looking at it with disgust or disappointment but full of thought as he considered his plan.
A plan to till up the soil of my life that I have let remain motionless.
I felt only anticipation and excitement from my father as the ground began to display texture- No hint of hurry or frustration-
For he plans to grow so much in me; he expects a great harvest to come forth from me.

He showed me how I have cut myself off from his life by allowing myself to become sedimentary. The ground he showed me receives minimal nourishment from above as most of the rain is unable to soak in and therefore runs off-
The soil thrives because of the sustenance it has stored below. The relationship with him and the knowledge of his word have not evaporated; it is firmly in place- but it does not grow; it does not reap the harvest of the king-

My loving father knows me so well- Oh how he knows every uncertainty, every fear, every weakness, all of my hidden frailty he considers-

He carefully showed me in that moment that this ground could continue on in its current state--
No evil would occur, no angry wrath would ensue, no love withheld- even a minimal amount of growth would sustain---
But to continue on in its current state the ground would never reap the full harvest of God.

Oh my glorious creator- how I indeed comprehended the nature of psalms and the inability to call you by any other name than Marvelous- I need not to work in the soil, I need not tire in the sun - The only thing you require of my is to let go of this “life” I’ve created and become sensitive to your spirit-

You indeed are a glorious father; my only desire is to stay in your presence-

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brother Lawrence

I'm re-reading Brother Lawrence's "The Practice of the Presence of God". I'm reminded of a Bible class I once attended that required you to be able to testify about your "salvation experience". The suggestion was made that if you could not recount the point in time that you were saved, said salvation might be in doubt. This was always problematic for me, as I have no recollection of my days prior to belief in Christ, such reality being inculcated in me from the earliest age. I "walked the aisle" as a boy, as did most of my acquaintances, but could not really identify this as a starting point with God.

Brother Lawrence's testimony is even less categorical, but far more profound:

"The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was on the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favor in his conversion at the age of eighteen. During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that, within a little time, the leaves would be renewed and, after that, the flowers and fruit appear; Brother Lawrence received a high view of the providence and power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul. This view had perfectly set him free from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since."

Would that I were "perfectly set free from the world", and to the place where over forty years of life marked no change in the constancy of my own love for God.

Lawrence, a Carmelite monk, lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century and his words are remain inspiring and challenging over four hundred years later. I wonder how many writings of that century have continued to be regularly published and remain as important and relevant as this little collection of thoughts?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Worried or concerned?

A friend was looking for an illustration of differentiating "concern" and "worry". Best I can tell, "concern" is about what God has told you to handle, and "worry" is about what God has said He will handle. The wandering Israelite would concern himself with gathering up the morning's harvest of manna for his household, as this is a task God assigned to him. But he would be foolish to worry about the next day's manna delivery, as this is something God said He would take care of.

Other ideas?

Monday, August 17, 2009

From freedom to hostility

According to a story on CNN today, two school administrators are going on trial soon for offering a prayer over a meal at the dedication of a new field house in Pace, Florida. Both face six months in jail after the ACLU got a judge to sign a consent decree banning any such prayers at Pace High School. Saying grace over a meal at Pace High has thus been criminalized. And the criminals are two men who defied American jurisprudence by offering a simple thanks for a plate of food.

This is not a screed about anybody's "rights". I'll leave that to others. I just post this to remind us that our form of government is not only no longer friendly to religious expression, but has become actively hostile to Christianity. I am not suggesting that we try to get the government to change this, because they will not. While I respect those who fight these things in the courts, the long-term prognosis is entirely negative. This case is no great watershed moment. The current actions are a mere logical continuation of a direction begun over forty years ago in the U.S.

We have the opportunity to pull our heads out of the sand now, say goodbye to the antiquated fiction of a so-called "Christian nation", and prepare ourselves for ongoing conflict with the government. Or we can continue in our ill-considered and outdated view of "God and Country" until the day when we will publicly say about God only what Country tells us we can say. In that day, we will have embraced a new "Lord".

Those of us who continue to think our modern Caesar is a Christian will most certainly find out differently. The reality is already clear. The choice is only whether to recognize it sooner and later.

We face a challenge to our citizenship, to our allegiance. The time is rapidly approaching when acknowledgment of a heavenly King will place us in jeopardy of the earthly kings. In Pace, Florida, that day has evidently arrived.

It is well that we have a greater citizenship than an American one...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Members-Only (Straight)jacket

"...for we are all members of one body..." --Paul, to the Ephesians

If we as believers are indeed all members of one body, what is that Brother Doe joins when he departs First Great Big Church and "places membership" at First Church On The Corner? It is not "the church" he joins, for whether Joe is part of FCOTC or not, he is a member of the body of Christ, the church. No, this is a membership in a local religion club. And unfortunately, one with a very bad habit.

Now, one can join the Gideons and still be a member of First Baptist. One can be join Campus Crusade and still be a member of Second Street Church of Christ. One can join the Navigators and still be a member in good standing of Third Avenue Presbyterian. But hardly any of the local brick-and-mortar religion clubs will encourage... or even countenance... simultaneous membership in one of the other local clubs. That is, each local club claims, by virtue of your placing membership, your exclusive identity with their club.

So, since First Church gets exclusive claim to your "membership", what does that mean? It's something of a contract, a commitment. Some groups even have you sign a "covenant" with them. In this contract, the club can expect your regular attendance at its meetings, your regular monetary contributions to its treasury, and your participation in its activities. And believe me, they expect it. For your part, you are allowed to identify yourself with the club, and at some time in the future, perhaps even be part of club leadership. All the other things you get with your membership --public teaching, worship, fellowship--are generally open to non-members as well.

As contracts go, this one is quite one-sided. "Agree to support us and we will agree to let you!"

But the truly objectionable part of this is the "branding" of the new member. The new member of First Church is no longer just "a Christian" and no longer belongs just "to Jesus". He now wears a new label, and when asked, is expected to say, "I'm a Baptist," or "I'm a Pentecostal," instead. This new brand tells the fellow with a different club brand, "I'm not one of you. I'm one of US!" And the divine idea of us all being members one of another becomes a theological expression with only a faint echo of reality.

I wear only one Man's brand. I'll fellowship my brothers and sisters in whatever club they want to join. But they'll have to pardon me if I don't "place membership". I'm already a member of the only group that will ever have exclusive claim to my identity. To use a very old-fashioned phrase, I'm "spoken for".

Friday, August 7, 2009

Another quote

When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself. --Mark Twain

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Quote of the day

He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice. -Albert Einstein

Ultimate vanity: Quoting onesself

I found this sentence in a letter I once wrote to a friend and consulting client. In contrast to my usual verbosity, this one is short and to the point:

"It is better to follow God than to follow good."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Checking out the plants

With the phrase "church plant" now firmly ensconced in our religious lexicon, may I be permitted to ask just what the heck it means?

Now, I understand that if one travels where the church of Jesus Christ is a largely-unknown quantity, one may begin to share Jesus, to make disciples, and thus "plant" something that was not there before. To those who do this, may your eternal reward be great!

But, most "church plants" I know of are aimed at cities in the U.S. Cities where there are thousands-- or hundreds of thousands-- of believers. The church of Jesus has already been planted in those places. Now, it may need watering, or pruning, or to have the caterpillars picked off it, but it's there. So what is it exactly that we are "planting"? Are we simply trying to scratch-start another religion club to compete for believers with the existing local religion clubs? Are our "planters" happy to gather disaffected believers out of other clubs, in order to build a new one in OUR image? (Tell me that a "planter" who gathered 500 people a Sunday in this manner would not be considered a success!) In this, it seems to me that we are more like start-up businesses, eager to chisel out a hunk of Christian market share.

It strikes me as not a little arrogant on our part to gather up a team to "church-plant" in, say, Chicago. If we have a heart for sharing Jesus with Chicagoans, why don't we just go do it? It is certainly not necessary for us to start up yet another storefront competitor. Why can we not find joints in the Body in Chicago? Is it because no one else has the gospel like we have it? Or is it that we might not be able to do things our own way if we connected to believers already in place?

I fear that one of the motivations found most commonly among American "planters" is the hope of a full-time paying gig in "the ministry". Our local group has no job openings, so I go out on my own to open a new franchise. And once I have gathered a critical mass of believers, I hope that they will begin to pay me a wage that will allow me to quit my job at Best Buy and "enter the full-time ministry".

Somehow, this motivation seems questionable.

Perhaps a Gideonesque recruitment of church planting teams would be in order:
~Hoping for a future staff job? You guys can go home.
~Hoping to create a new group of which you will be a leader? That group, go home.
~Hoping to build a group that does things (doctrine, worship, activities) the way you like them? Thanks for coming, now go home.

Now, everybody that's left, grab a torch, a trumpet, and a pot and head toward the battle. And be prepared to succeed, only as a participant in what God is already doing in that place where you are headed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Great Child Robbery

There have been many things said about the "cost of divorce". But in my reading, there is a calculation I have not come across. I'm not talking about the staggering emotional cost or the relational costs or the indirect costs. For this example, I'm talking about hard cash outlay, every month by the divorced parents of children. Let's look at just one expenditure:

I'm sure this has been calculated before, but it just occurred to me to run the numbers. After Jack and Jill divorced, they maintained separate households to care for themselves and their children. Compared to being married, Jack and Jill's combined housing expenses --rent, utilities, maintenance-- have almost doubled, but the same people are being housed, and no better than they were before. A very conservative estimate is that as parents, J&J are incurring "excess" housing costs of at least $1000 a month. (Your mileage may vary, but I can't imagine it would be less.) And while this pinches the pocketbook each month, the real news is in the savings calculator.

If that same $1000 per month were to have been socked away for the children, in a mutual fund at 8%, the accumulated value after 20 years would be over half a million dollars. That's real money. Carry that calculation out another 10 years. (Makes sense to think of it this way, as they will continue to maintain separate homes.) Now, the balance is $1.5 million. That is a very nice inheritance for the children.

Which Jack and Jill threw away.

I didn't know it was possible for ordinary human beings to squander that much money while living what we Americans would consider a modest normal lifestyle.

How many of us who found ourselves before a judge in divorce court, would have been able to openly say, "Yes, your honor, I know that this decision will cost my children over a million dollars in inheritance. It's worth every penny. Let's do it."

Perhaps we would have. Or just maybe, we might have done something differently...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Life vs Theology

Third-hand revelation is as good as any. Baxter Kruger quotes Ken Blue as saying, “Thank God, most people live better than their theology.”

Boy, am I grateful for the reality of this statement.

I grew up in a group whose theology evidenced little grace, but my experience with the individuals involved was replete with grace and mercy. I have been with brothers who doctrinally frowned on demonstrative public praise in their congregations, but I have heard those same men unashamedly praise God for a sudden thundershower on dry crops, or for a cool breeze on a scorching workday.

I have heard prophetic words from those who doctrinally disdain modern prophecy, have seen active apostles working in denominations that do no recognize the office, and have heard many testimonies of divine miracles from folks whose theology denies such things. So, I must not be quick to put too much weight on "what your church believes" and be more aware of what God is doing in you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Marbles and Grapes

“To what shall I liken this generation?” Today’s state of Christian fellowship is very much like a large room filled with thousands of sacks of marbles. The marbles are all similar, with some differences in color and decoration, and they are divided up among a vast variety of different marble sacks. The smallest sacks contain only a couple dozen marbles, a few enormous sacks hold thousands, and there are sacks of every other size as well. There are simple cotton sacks, somber black sacks, sequined sacks, sacks of every fabric and design. Some are brand-new; others are obviously antiques. Some sacks are tattered and patched; some are even sewn shut at the top. Some of the large sacks are stunningly decorated, with no expense spared-- like Faberge eggs of the marble-sack world.

The marbles in each sack are identified by the sack in which they sit. Marbles in one sack are essentially closed off from marbles in the other sacks. When you look for the marbles, you see the sacks. And while the marbles in a sack rub up against each other all the time, they aren’t really connected to one another in any way. The only thing that actually holds them together is the sack. I am keenly aware that if a sack were to burst, all its marbles would fall out and scatter, to be scooped up as prizes by the owners of the other sacks.

Consider, by contrast, a bunch of grapes. Lovely terminology, “a bunch”-- not a dozen or a hundred or a carton or a case, but a “bunch”. As vague a description as one could create of the shape, size and appearance of that conglomeration of individual fruits. How many grapes are in a bunch? Where do they stand in relation to each other? That is totally dependent on what kind of connective network the vine produces for that bunch. Grapes are held together internally, by the connections of the vine. Life flows through those connections. How does one “identify” grapes? By the vine on which they grow.

Marbles (and many Christians) are held together by external organizations owned and operated by men. If you are a marble, you “join” a sack, and the sacks compete for your presence. If you are a grape, you find the Vine-connections that God has created for you in Jesus, and His life flows to you and others because you are connected.

The owner of a marble sack always wants more marbles and a bigger sack. The vinedresser only wants better grapes.

Are you living like a grape or a marble? Look closely at your connections with fellow-believers. Did you comparison-shop and choose your present church because it attracted or suited you? If your group’s Sunday services and programs disappeared tomorrow, would you go looking for another group? That’s marble behavior. When someone asks you about your spiritual identity, do you say, “I belong to First Baptist”, rather than “I belong to Jesus”? Very marble-ish. Does your group require some form of “church membership” for a person to function fully there? Does it ask your agreement to a “statement of faith” or some such set of doctrines? Would your affiliation be in question if you always went to Sunday morning meetings with another group? All these are characteristic of a religious “marble sack”.

You are called to be a grape, so why live like a marble? There is a better life available in the Vine.

Exceptions to the Rule

Here are two facts that become interesting if taken together: According to polls, fewer than a third of Americans think Congress is doing a good job. At the same time, over the past twenty years, incumbents have been re-elected to Congress at a rate of near 90%. We seem to be saying that Congress overall is performing abysmally, but our local congressmen and senators are doing a marvelous job! Something doesn't make sense here.

I hear a similar dynamic voiced when I discuss the church with believers. When we talk about division, or a lack of impact in the community, or the millions spent of brick and mortar compared to nickels spent on the poor, I find a lot of Christians sadly acknowledging the reality of these things in the church as a whole. But this acknowledgment is usually followed by a quick defense of that Christian's local fellowship. "But our church gives 10% to missions," or "We started a clothes closet for the poor," or "Our Sunday School gave $500 to the United Way!" or "We had a pastor from another denomination speak at our midweek service last week!"

Funny how every local fellowship I hear about seems to be going one way while the church's performance in general is going another. We are not divisive, but the body of Christ is divided into hundreds of groups who hardly speak to one another. We are generous to the poor, but the real estate portfolio of the American church continues to increase while the homeless sleep on the church steps. We are committed to spreading the gospel to the world, but the overall resources churches spend on extralocal missions is dwarfed by the mortgage payments on our buildings.

But that's everybody else…. not us. "Our church" is the exception to the rule. In fact, all of us seem to be exceptions. Like the children in Lake Wobegon, who are "all above average".

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Potential repeating feature--

How about "Let's" and "Let's Not" for a feature? That is, one thing the local body should be encouraged to do, and one thing I'll encourage us NOT to do? Today's episode, "Let's"- Part One:

LET'S... invite our brother or sister home for dinner. (Not lunch, but dinner.) I know this doesn't sound very spiritual, but here we can do several good things.
  • Get to know more about each other than just where we work and how many kids we have. Eating together puts us more at ease than even the best "meeting".
  • Share our real selves, rather than just the sanitized version of us that we bring to church.
  • Enjoy a relaxed atmosphere where we can talk without being obligated to "study". Amazing how deep and wide we can go when we are free from religious meeting agendas.
  • Discover our joints. That is, recognize those people to whom God is connecting us. Hard to find these without some close interaction.

LET'S NOT... count church attendance anymore. Headcounts aren't of any use for pastoral care, nor are they beneficial to the people being counted. They just feed our human sense of pride, and too often give a false picture of what we are about. For biblical insight into head-counting, read 2 Samuel 24.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Keeping Score

A friend and I were talking about some youth groups from his church which have been working in Uganda this summer. (Including a couple of my daughters!) He said that they seemed to be getting good results, and then seemed to pull up short. I understand his hesitation. In my experience, we tend to measure our effectiveness in evangelism and other work by the numbers, such as, "We had fifty decisions for Christ."

Our assumption that this information is important may not be wise. Experienced evangelists who spend years in the Third World tell me that often such a "decision" at a meeting may be little more than courtesy to a visitor. Most certainly, thinking that we have created X number of Christians in a crusade or a mission tour is probably more wishful thinking than reality. This is not to say that people are not being saved in these works, or that lives are not being changed. I am quite certain that God is showing up in the work these folks are doing. There is so much undeniable evidence of the power of God and changed lives! I am NOT in any way criticizing the work. It is not the work that needs to change, so much as the scorekeeping.

If God has called a group of young Texans to Uganda for two weeks, that is sufficient reason for the trip. God is faithful to lead them in what He calls them to do. Their task is not to be able to report a particular number of harvested souls. Theirs is to follow and participate in what the Father is doing. Reporting such things by numbers is an unfortunate human measurement that is at worst self-glorifying, and at best completely beside the point of the exercise. What if a mission group washed pots and mended clothes for an unknown orphanage for two weeks, leaving behind only the aroma of the Servant King? What if a street encounter is not a rejection, but a sowing of seed for a later harvest? What if the only real result of a meeting was that one believer who was about to give up was rejuvenated, but told no one about it? Those things don't show up in the statistics. But they are just as much the work of God as baptisms or decisions or buildings erected.

I relish those who come back from experiences like these brief mission trips with testimonies like, "I saw God move!" "I saw a blind man healed!" "I told a lady about Jesus!" Or best of all, "I got to do exactly what God was telling me to do!"

This is SO much better than counting heads. Such a worldly practice does not validate the work of pure-hearted servants, it demeans it. We serve for the joy, and let God keep the score.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pass the word...

I'm not much of a self-promoter, but you might read things here that you think someone else ought to see. Please let folks know where you read it. Your comments are always more than welcome-- even if you want to take me to task on something. To follow this blog (and only God knows where it's going next), you can click the little "Follow Blog" thingy on the top header.

The Religion Club and the Public School

The average local religion club operates much like a public school. Like the public school, it approaches life from two specific aspects: academic and social.

The major gatherings of most clubs revolve around teaching. We devise various natural schemes to make our academic offerings more effective. First, we hire the best scholar/presenter we can get to handle our public lectures. These lectures are oriented around instructing adults. Because this is of limited effectiveness with younger people, we then move to demographically segregate them into age-specific subgroups, much as a school is divided into grades. Infants and toddlers are warehoused and entertained by paid baby-sitters to free their families from the burden of their care during classes. All the eight-year-olds are lumped together and presented with age-appropriate instructional material. In teaching adolescents, the main theme is to keep them liking the religion club and liking God, so we present them with as adolescent an atmosphere as possible. The post-high-school single people are grouped together – and kept separate from the married people, if the numbers allow. This is primarily for social and mate-hunting purposes.

But while this method does provide the most efficient, rational means of effectively getting academic information into the heads of people, those who grow up in the club spend their formative years with others just like themselves. Everyone in little Johnny’s class is just like Johnny: same age, same experiences, same coursework, same teacher. Everyone in teenager Susan’s group is just like her: same interests, same questions, same adolescent pride and self-doubt. This system works all the way up to the Senior Saints Class, where everyone shares similar historical points of reference, similar age-related issues, similar interests, prejudices, and fears.

Like the public school, the local religion club also works hard to provide social connections for its members. But since membership and attendance are voluntary, far more effort is made to “give the people what they want” in terms of social activities, in order to attract and retain members. Activities are generally selected on the basis of, “If we do this, more people will want to come.”
Our social activities also revolve around demographic divisions. We have youth activities, men’s meetings, women’s retreats, and children’s camps. Club activities that involve the entire family are seldom a priority.

But the body of Christ is really not built like this at all. It is like a family. God does not bring people into the kingdom in chronological order. He brings in young and old and puts them in the same extended family. We liberally use the term “family” when we describe our local churches, but what would we look like if we really operated as a family?

More to come...

You Might Be A Prophet

You might be a prophet…

If someone asks you what part of the body of Christ you are and you say “the teeth”…

If you have ever spoken to a person and had them spontaneously catch fire…

If your idea of gentleness is picking someone up after you knocked him down…

If you push the button at Sonic and say, “I see a great cheeseburger descending upon the clouds of onion rings, no pickle, easy on the mayo…”

If you have a “Son of Thunder” tattoo…

If you think people who need their grasshoppers cooked first are sissies…

If you like to stand by the door when you speak, since you’ll be the first one leaving anyway…

If you’ve ever wished there were still a couple of prophets of Baal around so you could take out your frustrations on them…

If you’ve ever gotten a sermon from looking into the Jello salad at Furr’s Cafeteria…

If lots of churches invite you to speak —once.

If your vacation postcards say, “Thus saith the Lord: Having a great time, wish you were here…”

If you say, “We are in the last days” and people think you mean your sermon is about over…

If you know the date of the Second Coming, but can’t remember your wedding anniversary…

If you find yourself looking through the Yellow Pages for someone who can do alterations on a hair shirt…

If more than forty percent of your sermons begin with the phrase, “You’re not going to like this, but…”

If you’d like to call fire down from heaven, just once…

If you have ever asked the Lord, “You’re not going to make me SAY that, are You?”…

If you’ve ever used the term “you brood of vipers” in a teaching and wondered why the offering was so small…

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Under My Grapevine

Read John 15:1-11, “The Vine and the Branches”

Jesus’ analogy speaks to me as I sit here under the grapevine that grows behind my house. It is a large specimen, covering about 200 square feet of arbor. We don’t really do much with this grapevine, and left to itself, it grows bigger and denser every year. When we do water it, it sends out more and more shoots, with more and more big leaves. As a shade, it’s a marvelous thing. Want to come over and hang around the back yard on a mild summer’s evening? You’ll not find a more pleasant place. A couple dozen people can find comfortable seating in the shade of my grapevine. I could seat more if I just wanted to spend the money to expand the arbor.

My grapevine is a relatively neat and orderly plant. Oh, a couple of branches hang too low occasionally, making it inconvenient to walk under, but stripping off just a few leaves puts it to rights. And it doesn’t inconvenience us with a mess of grapes. You know what a pain those grapes can be. The birds would flock around nibbling at them, leaving you-know-what all over my clean patio. Grapes would be ripening and falling off all the time, getting squashed by every kid that runs through the back yard. But not with my grapevine. Sure, my grapevine puts on several bunches of grapes every spring, but they’re hard little green things about the size of pencil erasers. You could never eat them… I mean, even the birds don’t bother them much. There aren’t very many grapes even at that, and they dry up by the fall and are no trouble to anybody.

We thought about trying to grow some grapes. The previous homeowner told us that this grapevine would make lovely grapes with some care and serious pruning. But that would really cut back on the shade we like so well, and would put kind of a dent in our outdoor entertaining. And with all the mess and bother… well, we don’t really like grapes all that well, anyway.

I hear that folks who grow grapes for a living cut back their vines every year. Saw it on the Discovery Channel once. Those pruned-back vines sure looked naked on their trellises. Kind of ugly, if you ask me. (I mean, compared to the big beautiful specimen in my back yard.) Not a bit of shade anywhere in their whole vineyard. Even at harvest time, nothing but a mass of stubby vines with big bunches of grapes hanging on them. Then, the growers fill that vineyard with a bunch of unsavory-looking migrants picking grapes for somebody else to use. I guess if that’s your idea of a good time, more power to you. But I think I could show those Napa Valley boys a thing or two about growing grapevines, if they could just get their mind off those silly grapes for a few minutes…

(Let me get my tongue out of my cheek for a minute, now.)

The church of Jesus Christ has borne much fruit over the centuries. But the grapevine that is today’s American church has become more a shade for the saints than an actual project to grow grapes. Sure, we talk grapes. But most of the enormous, greatly admired churches and ministries we know are renowned for their leaves, for their mighty arbors, and for the thousands who find rest in their shade. If you doubt this for an instant, ask one of those institutions for a ten-year financial statement. If they’ll reveal it, you’ll find far more money spent on arbor building and maintenance than in grape-growing.

This has gone on for so long that, like the grapevine in my back yard, our entire understanding of the vine has become distorted. We want the shade, and gladly sacrifice the fruit. No grapevine will provide both. An unpruned vine produces more and more leaves. That mass of leaves consumes all the resources, causing the grapes to starve. But the Vinedresser is coming, his pruning hook in hand. And He will have His harvest.

My advice is to volunteer for the pruning, and know that it will likely be severe. Let the Father cut loose that which has become shade, so that what remains will bear fruit. Be prepared to lay down what is popular and admired by men, so that the only success that remains is the fruit the Vinedresser seeks. Know full well that before harvest time comes, every unfruitful branch will find its way into the fire by the Father’s hand. Entire collections of beautiful leafy limbs will be cut off, with no further life flowing from the Vine.

Are you ready to be an ugly, stubby, sawed-off branch? A few bare canes on the true Vine? If you are, then know that the only identity you have left will be in that Vine, and in His ability to bear fruit in your life. There may well be nothing left of you to admire… except those gorgeous grapes the Father so desires.

Jesus said he told us these things that His joy might remain in us and that our joy may be full. There must be something to this grape business after all…

A few more notes about grapevines and the kingdom of God:

Vinedressers cut back a producing grapevine to only four branches or “canes” every year. The reason is simple: grapes only bear on new growth. The branches that are pruned off this year are the ones that produced fruit last year. If the pruning is not done thoroughly, then the vine must share its support between new, fruit-bearing branches and last year’s branches, which are only producing leaves. This is the reason that when the vinedresser is finished, all that is left is the vine and the bare branches.

This is analogous to our experience in the church. We do things that bear fruit in their season, so we cannot imagine that God would prune back what we have built. After all, it has been successful! But just like the branch of the grapevine, after that bearing season, what we produce is mainly window-dressing. We recount the glory days of our fruit-bearing, and we use that recounting to justify our unwillingness to change. But just as with the grapevine, there is a season for that branch to bear, and a season for that branch to be pruned back. Left on our own, unpruned, we will inevitably descend from fruitfulness to leafy natural size and beauty. We will become more attractive and less fruitful.

Leaves help the fruit grow, and then they kill it. In the bearing season, the vine puts on leaves that help produce the nutrients needed to grow grapes. They actually support the production of grapes. But left on the vine after the season passes, they begin to compete with the fledgling grape clusters for water and nutrients. Soon, each successive new crop of grapes struggles to get started against the large, established leafy structure. But the crop stands very little chance of maturing.

Once again, the parallel is easily seen. We build Christian organizations and structures that initially do help in bearing the fruit of the kingdom. But when we let them grow unchallenged, these organizations quickly cease to support that fruit-bearing and begin to develop a life of their own. They then begin to compete for the believers’ time and money to build buildings and pay operational expenses. Soon, the believers are being asked straight-faced from the pulpits to “support the church”, when that structure should be supporting them.

The fruit that does manage to appear in these situations has a hard time maturing. We make new converts into good “church members”, but not into strong believers. We take them straight from the baptistery into “church work”, fitting them into roles that have them supporting the organization. Instead of being the reason the organization exists, the believer becomes just another resource to keep the organization alive.

What does it mean to be “cut off and thrown into the fire”? If we continue to resist the pruning hook of the Father, the day comes when we are no longer “abiding in the Vine”. We become self-sufficient, a vine unto ourselves, with our own network of lovely branches that are off limits to the Vinedresser. In that day, we cease to have our life in the vine. The lordship of Christ no longer exists in what we have built. The Father cuts off such things. They may continue to exist in the natural, but the Father no longer supplies them, nor will He reward what they produce. As with all man’s works, such things will burn in the end.

Supermarket Relationships

For those of you who are part of the migration of believers out of the institutional church, you are likely seeing a tremendous shift in the operation of your personal relationships. Friends who were at your side every Sunday drop off your scope. What you thought were strong long-term relationships seem to evaporate. The Spirit gave me a picture recently of what is happening to us.

I was reminded of shopping for vegetables in the supermarket. There, I simply rolled my cart down the aisle and selected whatever cans suited my taste. They were all labeled and displayed for my convenience. I did not concern myself with where the food came from, who grew it, who picked it, or what chemicals and processes were involved. It was easy for me to get food in this way, as I did not have to do much except bring my checkbook. Others in the background assembled the cans on the shelves, kept the lights on, and kept store hours that fit my schedule.

The only problem was the quality of the food in the cans. The nutritional value was almost nil. I sometimes found a can which declared that it had been “fortified” with vitamins, but that only underscored the reality of the empty calories to which I had grown accustomed. I could not judge this by the cans, however. I could only look at the labels and make my selections based on the external appearance.

When asked where I got my groceries, I would say things like, “I go to Albertson’s”, or “ I normally go to Kroger, but I go to Safeway when they have specials.” Nobody asked me what I bought, because the products are essentially similar no matter where you go. I just used the store I liked best, or the most convenient place to pick up what I needed.

Thus it has been with our church relationships. We regularly go to a building built for our shopping pleasure. Organizations build and remodel and design their operations to get me to shop with them. Everyone in the neighborhood tries out the new outfit with the fancy brickwork and the espresso bar and the attractive circular in the newspaper. These organizations pique our interest with massive advertising, and spend much of their effort trying to woo customers who normally frequent other establishments. The goal is simple: to bring in as many consumers and as much revenue as possible.

It is so convenient for us. We drop off our children at their managed department, getting a receipt so we can pick them up later. We cruise that building, picking out people we want to connect with, generally based on our personal preferences and outward appearances. We get with the “youth group” or the “ladies group” or the “people-too-old-to-be-in-college-but-not-yet-married-with-children group”. We sign up to rub elbows with folks who have things in common with us: the “Single Again” folks, or the weekly “Lose Weight for Jesus” support group.

We have become a nation of religious consumers. And as such, we are prey to every marketing ploy, every free offer, and every bait-and-switch tactic known to those who are selling what we buy. But it is only the darkness of our own hearts that makes such schemes effective. After all, we have proven that we are eager for the convenience of one-stop God-shopping, easily conditioned to the weekly shopping trip, satisfied with the quality of what we are sold. To criticize those who give us what we want is to ignore the beam in our own eye.

But what of those who have become disenchanted and have abandoned the spiritual supermarket? While I applaud their action, my experience tells me that they often begin to get hungry. And the reasons are not hard to see.

First, one cannot eat the fact that he no longer has religious canned goods in his pantry. Even if those canned goods had limited nutrition, simple abstention does not replace those nutrients. We must cultivate our own garden. We must find those individuals with whom God would joint us, and we must nurture and develop those relationships ourselves, without the artificial stimulus of required group meetings. We cannot leave the supermarket and expect to find canned goods along the side of the road to sustain us.

The first hard reality of this new, organic Christian lifestyle is that it requires work. Instead of dropping the can in the cart, we find ourselves on the end of a hoe in the summer sun, weeding and cultivating our relationships. This does not fit into our “busy schedules”, and it cannot be left to others when the weather gets too hot. In point of fact, any gardener can tell you that before the harvest, comes the hard work. Many believers simply do not want to do this. It is a discipline they have not yet learned. The time and effort required is so much more than the hour-and-a-half-every-Sunday to which they are accustomed. As they look over their patch of struggling green beans, the enemy whispers, “Those are three cans for a dollar at the supermarket. What are you doing?” There is a powerful temptation to trade in the hoe for that familiar shopping cart.

Unfortunately, some believers who refuse to go back to the supermarket will also not accept the responsibility to cultivate their personal gardens. These become worse off than they were before, returning to consumerism (this time through books, tapes, and television) but getting even less nutrition than before. They become emaciated, having a few scattered conferences and seminars to talk about, but lacking that strong net of local personal joints through which the life of the Spirit primarily flows.

Sometimes, we trade the religious supermarket for the corner store. That is, we move from the religious institution into homes or offices, but never relinquish our consumerism. We are still consumers, but we now get our sermons delivered from a living room sofa. We still operate scheduled store hours, only they are on a weeknight instead of Sunday. We still want our “cell pastor” or “home group leader” to fill our shopping cart, generally at a discount in required time and money. We replace the ordinances of the supermarket with our own localized practices. We become “bigger fish in a smaller pond”, gaining more control over what goods the store offers us. This is “getting out of the box”, only to climb into a smaller box.

We are called to the backyard garden of personal relationships in Christ. God gives the grace to build these relationships, and provides the people for that purpose. As we learn to do this, we will focus more on meeting than meetings. More on service than services. Less on scheduled events and more on Christ-life itself. If you are standing in the hot sun in your garden, do not be weary in well-doing. You will have a harvest if you don’t get tired and quit. Keep watering and weeding.

There is a world of difference between corn-on-the-cob fresh from the garden and those aluminum cans with the green giant on the label. Anyone who has tasted the difference can tell you it is well worth the trouble to grow your own. Happy gardening!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Selfish Gratitude

We have all taken the "We should be more grateful" guilt trip. Unfortunately, too many of my well-intentioned brothers make this a sermon staple. I think it started when we wouldn't eat the beets Mom cooked when we were six years old. Remember when she reminded us about the starving children in (insert deprived nation/continent here) who went to bed hungry? It didn't make us grateful for beets-- just made us wonder why we couldn't ship them to the hungry kids Mom knew and make a win/win out of the deal.

So we grew up having our blessings pointed out to us as an illustration of our own malformed character. Didn't help much. For the record, I have yet to meet the person who developed a lifestyle of thankfulness because he felt so badly about his previous ingratitude.

What if we came to realize that thankfulness is actually good for us? (Like most things God wants us to have.) Not good for us in the "You better eat your asparagus" sense, but in the "Now, that's what I'm talkin' about!" sense. Consider, if you will, that thankfulness is like a developed sense, like smell, for example. If you are insensitive to aromas, nothing stinks. But nothing smells good, either. You never get to know the difference between sweaty socks and homemade sugar cookies. Ingratitude is like that. Gratitude, on the other hand, is like the capacity to wake up in the morning and smell rain, or brewing coffee, or the pine tree outside the window. It is to experience with greater depth and clarity what is good around us.

And gratitude can be cultivated.

It's simple, really. We are often prompted by the Holy Spirit to be thankful. Take each opportunity to say, "Thanks!" Even if you forgot to do so when it happened. Don't feel guilty about the timing, just express your gratitude when you remember. The more this happens, well, the more it happens. The more you sniff, the more you smell. The more you offer your thanks-- to God or to anyone else-- the more aware you are of the gifts given to you. The more aware you are of your blessings, the more you enjoy them. The more you enjoy them, the better your overall appraisal of life in your world.

You know those people who seem to always be able to see the good in the world around them? Those pollyannish, unrealistic people whose apparent happiness is so annoying? The ones you secretly envy? They are most often those favored few who have learned to express their thanksgiving as part of their living and breathing, and in so doing touch the beauty of life with great depth and vitality.

Gratitude. Do it for you.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

All In The Family, Kinda Sorta...

I have eleven children. Yes, eleven. Get the gasp out of your system; while I am bragging just a little, I'm really trying to set up an illustration, an analogy, yea, a parable...

I have two sons and nine daughters. The boys have some things in common that they don't have in common with my girls. Guy stuff, you know. So, they have recently decided that they are "a family". If you ask Son #1 who's in his family, he points out Son #2. And vice versa. Now, if pressed by a teacher at school, they would readily admit that indeed, they do indeed have nine sisters, but that the "Sons of McLean" are the group they really identify with.

I have two daughters at Enormous State University. They have decided to form a family, the "McLean Fellowship at ESU", based on their commonalities. Same deal as the boys, they mostly associate with each other except at Christmas, and otherwise only identify only with one another.

The five children who are in public school have taken the hint and just formed their own "Youth of McLean" group, which they now identify as their "family". They don't hang with their older siblings much anymore. All the neat activities going on with their new group just don't leave them with time...

How do you think the formation of these three "families" makes Dad feel? And how many families does Dad think he has?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Religion clubs: a rose by any other name?

From the Ongoing Debate Department:
Why do you call local churches “religion clubs”? Are you just trying to be insulting?

Well, insult is not the intent, but I fully expect to be heard this way. After all, if you take what is considered a holy thing and decline to recognize it in that way, and you can expect to catch a few stones in the small of the back. Occupational hazard...

I use the term religion club in the interest of rhetorical accuracy. After all, what is a “club”? A group of folks who associate with one another based on a common interest. Nothing wrong there. If the common interest is Christianity, then we have a Christian club. In practical terms, our local clubs can usually be identified in more detail than this. Joe belongs to a local religion club whose main interest is studying the Bible and trying to understand it and follow what they gather from it. Jane’s club is more oriented toward feeding the poor and evangelism. Nice people getting together to do nice things.

So why is my terminology offensive? Because we insist on seeing our local club as a holy thing, as The Body of Christ. But in most cases, it is no more “a church” than a hindquarter is a heifer. The believers are indeed part and parcel of the church, but that organization which they claim, that non-profit corporation, is not.

Jesus has one bride, one church. Granted, the Church appears in many, many places. Paul wrote letters to the church in Philippi, to the church in Corinth, to the church in Ephesus. But it strikes me that he never writes to the plural “churches in Corinth”, or the “churches in Ephesus”. He writes to a single entity in each city. The idea of plural “churches” in a city-- discrete from one another, separate in almost every tangible sense, governed and operated as though the majority of the other believers in the city do not even exist—is an idea foreign to Paul’s writings.

Well, I say “foreign”, but perhaps it is not entirely so. I do find a hint of our tradition of schism in I Corinthians 3:
“You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?”

Replace the characters with Luther or Wesley or Calvin or Moody and we find ourselves readily cut-and-pasted into Paul’s discourse, with largely negative consequences. Mere men make organizations of more mere men. The local organizations I find in the burgeoning Yellow Pages listings between “chiropractors” and “cigar stores” are, if I may boldly steal from Lincoln, “…of the people, by the people and for the people”.

The church of Jesus Christ in any city is far greater than the organization who meets at a particular address on a particular day. The local religion clubs are something far less. The everyday members of these groups speak with a prophetic pronoun when they refer to that organization to which they belong as “our church”.

Or in my terminology, “our club”. I don't object at all to such clubs, but it does seem important to me to be able to recognize what they are if we are ever to be able to see the actual church of Jesus Christ in the cities where we live.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reality 1, 2, 3

Before I can walk in really healthy relationships with those I love, I must be settled in my primary relationship: the relationship with my heavenly Father. To do this, I must accept and believe three immutable Realities.

Reality Number One
As a child of God, I am secure and accepted in his love and by his adoption. I am loved and received not because of my actions, but in spite of them. Nothing can change how the Father feels about me as his child. Nothing I can do can challenge or breach this relationship, because God created it through Christ Jesus. When I sin, does that change his perspective on me? Absolutely not, because the blood of Jesus does not change and the character of the Father does change. My place in the heart of the Father came from the work of Jesus and his work alone. I must accept by faith my place in the Father.

Reality Number Two
What my life looks like now is going to change. The Father intends to conform me to the likeness of Jesus. This means discipline, chastisement, and a standard that I can only reach by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit in my life. Just as the Father’s love is immutable, so is his holiness. He will make me into something I am not now. This pressure will never stop. The Father will never wash his hands of his sons and say, “Enough! I’m tired of fooling with you!” Nor while we are in this body will we ever hear, “It is finished!” What I am at this time will come under constant challenge from the Holy Spirit. The flesh hates the hand of the Spirit and it always will. This conflict is part of setting aside the corruptible and taking on the incorruptible. I must accept by faith that the Father’s correction is not his rejection.

Reality Number Three

No matter how severe the discipline or struggle I experience in Reality Number Two, it will never in the tiniest degree change Reality Number One. Reality Number Three is my place of rejoicing! No matter what can of worms the Father opens in my life, he loves me not one bit less. He does not recoil from me in my sin, even while he confronts it. He embraces me in my filth and washes me clean at the same time. This is the paradox of love that I must accept by faith.

All three of the Realities are received by faith. We must choose to believe. Nothing in the natural realm can cement such things in our hearts. But when we do believe, nothing in the natural realm can take these Realities from us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Found God, added cream, no sugar

Stopped at my local Starbucks today for my usual cup-in-lieu-of-lunch and couldn’t buy one. The barista set my cup on the counter and said, “Your money’s no good today. I like to buy a cup for a regular every day, and it’s getting close to the end of my shift. This one’s on me.” Nice.

Some bullet points from this experience:

Doing good need not be a well-considered action. “Just do it” is better than “think about how best to do it until the moment passes”. Wasn’t Peter healing the lame man sort of a random act?

Kindness is real when it’s out of your own pocket. This young man didn’t offer me the hospitality of his store, but bought me a cup out of his own pocket. Next time someone comes to you in need, think about this before referring him to the Benevolence Committee. (Somebody, remind me to tell you the mule story another time.)

Don’t forget the heart of your Father, who is following you around looking to bless you. If you want to enjoy your life more, let things like this cup of coffee speak to you loudly. This sharpens your senses to the other times God does such things and you just haven’t noticed.

The heart of God is revealed in many places. Don’t just look for Him at “The Store That Displays The Fish”.
If Jesus was from Palestine, Texas

See if you can identify the passages referenced below:

~ “Listen, Martha, the chicken salad sandwiches were great. But you oughta spend less time stuffin’ that celery with Cheez Whiz and more time listening.”

~ “Lemme get this straight. You boys saw some fella you don’t know casting out demons, and you told him to knock it off? Whose side are you on, anyway?”

~ “Quit worryin’ about how you’re gonna get along. I ain’t never seen a bluebonnet in a beauty shop, or a mockingbird fillin’ out a credit application.”

~ “Only a knothead would turn on the flashlight and stick it back in his pocket. Hold it up here high so we can see somethin’.”

~ “You just can’t do much good trying to teach people who used to change your diapers. They never let you forget it.”

~ “The kingdom of God is a little like plantin’ squash. Plant just a few seeds, and you’re givin’ away squash all summer.”

~ “This idea you’ve got about my castin’ out demons by the prince of demons is just plain silly. You reckon for the big finish, I’ll just grab myself by the scruff of the neck and throw myself out the window?”

~ “Buildin’ your house on soft ground because it’s easy diggin’ seems like a good idea until the first frog-strangler comes along.”

~ “Of course you badmouth the good things I’m doing. You people have had a bad taste in your mouth for so long, you couldn’t taste goodness if somebody hit you in the face with a pie.”

~ “I’d advise figurin’ out a way to scrape that forty years worth of ugly off your own face before you start in to nitpickin’ your wife’s eyeshadow.”

~ “Let’s get with it, boys. Forty acres of hay to get in and we’re burnin’ daylight. Come dark, you can stick a fork in us, ‘cause we’re done.”

~ “Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. You characters foreclose on a widow lady on Friday, then donate a piece of the action to your church on Sunday. By Monday, there’s a brass plaque on the church wall sayin’ how your generosity paid for the new stained glass window.”

~ “Sure enough, that’s Johnson grass in the cotton. But put down your hoes, boys, ginnin’ season’s comin’ soon enough.”

~ “It’s not what goes into you that causes a mess, it’s what comes out of you. Anyone who knows the difference between a picnic table and an outhouse knows that.”

~ “Don’t worry about what kind of fish are in the river. If we fish, we’ll get some catfish. If we catch any carp, we’ll throw ‘em back. Just get the trotlines in the water.”

~ “When my Father gets a call about one of his cows being out in the bar ditch, He doesn’t start off mending the fence. First thing He does is go after that cow. He’s just that way.”

~ “Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. It’s not enough that you turn up your nose at my cookin’… you try to run everybody else out of the kitchen as well. You’d rather folks go hungry than to let ‘em chow down on a meal you won’t eat.”

~ “Here’s something else that’s bad news. I hire a foreman to look after my ranch and my hired hands. But while I’m out of town, the sorry mongrel takes the hands’ payroll and buys beer and barbecue for himself and his lowlife buddies. But when I get ready to come back to the ranch, I don’t call ahead. Let me tell you, when I do get home, I’ll barbecue that foreman myself!”

~ “Don’t go around tellin’ folks your hope is in God when all your cash is in First National.”

~ “Better find out the whole cost of the house before you start building. Otherwise, after you’ve laid a good slab and beautiful brickwork, the neighbors will notice that there’s no roof and that it’s raining all over your furniture.”

On feeding the five thousand:
“You boys see if you can’t find these folks some supper.”
“Jesus, do see us hidin’ a caterer somewhere in our back pockets?”
“Well, what have you got?”
“Two hunks of catfish left over from last night’s fish fry… and five biscuits.”
“Y’all all sit down. Father, I thank you that tonight, it’s catfish and biscuits for everybody!”

“It’s a good thing to be merciful. Some day, you’re gonna need some slack yourself.”

“When you fast, wash your face, comb your hair, and hush about it. If you’re gonna make a big deal about missin’ meals, all you’ll get out of it is a growlin’ stomach.”

“Stand up for me, and I won’t forget it. Act like you’ve never heard of me, and I’ll remember that, too.”

“Folks are going to seek me and come to church folks for guidance. And some of these people are going to drag these innocents into sin. Let me tell you, when the day comes, these so-called leaders will wish they’d gone headfirst through a combine harvester rather than face me.”

“The trick to being first in God’s kingdom is to be constantly saying, ‘After you, brother.’”

“Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. You knock yourselves out to try and make people act just like you. And when do you find some poor sucker to buy into your nonsense, all he does is add your bad habits to his. He turns out to be even worse than you!”

“The best way to live your life with just enough to get by is to always give other folks just enough to keep ‘em satisfied.”

“My Father has a funny way of counting. He don’t so much count how much you give, but how much you keep for yourself.”

“Funny how everybody’s impressed when they find out you’re a doctor, but then they don’t understand why you hang out with sick people all the time.”

“Pick up the check for someone who can’t return the favor. Your Father will pay you back with a lot more than that cheeseburger and Dr. Pepper that you popped for.”

“It’s better to sit in the folding chair and let other folks have the front pews. Otherwise, the usher is liable to come and escort you back to the cheap seats while everybody looks on.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Turning the Other Other Cheek

You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. --Matthew 5:38-39

Jesus is famous for turning common sense on its ear. Most Christians have been able to quote this famous teaching since Sunday school. But have you actually walked this one out? Many have made the attempt to turn the other cheek, only to come up short. It actually requires more of us than we might think.

First, this command concerns dealing with “an evil person”. It is not enough to turn the other cheek to a person who might deserve the benefit of the doubt, but to someone who is maliciously trying to hurt you. Second, it is not enough to simply refuse to retaliate. Jesus says not even to resist a person who would attack you in this manner. This means seeing the attack coming and deciding not to defend yourself. Third, Jesus calls us to stay engaged with the evil person and offer him a shot at the undamaged part of us, in short, to consciously continue in a decision to lay down the most basic of our “rights”—the right to protect ourselves from harm.

Recent experience tells me that the real test of obedience to this command comes only after my assailant has struck the second time. Up until this point, I can walk in that self-interested kind of faith that says, “If I obey God, everything will turn out all right for me.” But when my attacker takes the opportunity to strike the cheek I offer him, then I am faced with the fact that even though I obeyed God, I got hurt—again. Now what will I do? A self-centered faith says, “This is not working. I must not be ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’, or I would not now have two swollen jaws. God certainly would not want me to stand here and be beaten.” I will at the very least withdraw in my own defense, or I may even reason that I have given the evil person more than enough grace and feel free to retaliate.

But choosing to stay engaged and still not resist means moving out of selfish motivations and totally into submission to the lordship of Jesus. At this point, my response to my assailant has little to do with what is happening to me. It is no longer between me and the one who struck me, but it is a faith issue between my Lord and myself. No longer am I guided by my emotions, nor by my reason. For my emotions will tend toward hurt, anger, even bitterness. And human reason will not accept laying down my own life for someone who intends evil toward me.

But such behavior does look like Jesus. In fact, nothing more clearly reflects the message of the cross than the radical, outlandish behavior that Jesus calls us to in this simple teaching. As Paul writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” All the sermons in the world cannot preach this truth more clearly than turning that other cheek—again and again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Parable of the Pizza

Enrico Bodoni sat down in a pizza restaurant one day, an establishment operated by two of his sons. When the pizza entrepreneurs heard he was there, they prepared their best Pepperoni Special and sent it to their father’s table. But soon the word filtered back to the kitchen that Mr. Bodoni was not touching his pizza.

The Bodoni brothers were astounded and marched out to the table. “Papa, we noticed you’re not eating your pizza.”

“No, I suppose I’m not,” was the even reply.

“Bodoni Brothers’ pizza is the best pizza in town,” said the pizza men. “Everyone says so.”

“I’ve heard that around the neighborhood,” said their father.

“We put a lot of time and effort into that pizza.”

“I know.”

“The ingredients were really expensive.”

“So I see.”

The pizza chefs leaned in closer to the table. “Papa, you’re embarrassing us. You know, sitting here in front of all our other customers, and not touching your pizza.”


Finally, the brothers threw up their hands in exasperation. “So, why aren’t you eating your pizza?”

“I don’t like pizza. Never have.”

The brothers Bodoni were flabbergasted. “What do mean you don’t like pizza? Of course you like pizza! You come in here all the time! If you didn’t like pizza, why would you come to a pizza restaurant?”

The father replied kindly, “I don’t come in here because I like pizza. I come in here because I like you.”

Moral: Never mistake God’s presence for His purposes. As many discover the manifest presence of God in their lives, there is a human tendency to correlate God’s presence with some effort of their own. “We must be doing God’s will; just look at how he is blessing us!” This is sort of like the fellow who thought the wind picked up because he put up a windmill. God’s blessings are part of God’s love for His children. In this He never leaves us. But we can only walk in God’s kingdom purposes by the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. And His purposes are equally real in the “valley of the shadow of death” as they are “beside still waters”.

Life Savers

"He who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it."

What does it mean here to “save your life”? Does it just mean to avoid martyrdom, or is there something more here?

One who “saves his life” is like one who saves his money. He gathers it up in order to keep it for himself. If I keep my time, my resources, my passions for myself and my own satisfaction, I am saving my life. I am like the small boy who squirrels away the last of his cookies, and when asked to share it, refuses. “I’m saving it!” he says. Jesus says that when I finally reach into my pocket for that oh-so-carefully-saved cookie, I will find only a handful of crumbs.
In saving my life, I invest that which God has given me in myself. But investing in the natural man has a limited payoff. There can be no eternal return on that investment. It is somewhat like “investing” in a cord of firewood. The firewood is useful, and will keep me warm for a while. But when it’s gone, it’s gone. That money I spent has gone up the chimney in smoke, and I am cold again. Likewise, when we reserve the right to keep all or part of our lives for ourselves, we lose what we tried so hard to keep. We have become consumers of the gift of God, rather than stewards of his blessing.


In this blog, I do not promise originality. I would herewith warn my friends not to be surprised if they find themselves appearing unnamed in this space. After all, you are part of God's revelation to me! If you want editorial credit, just shout. Otherwise, I will adhere to the Preacher's Attribution Rule, which is:

1. The first time you share a thought in the pulpit you attribute it. "St. Thomas Aquinas once said..."
2. The second time you share the same thought, you generalize it. "A wise man once said..."
3. Third (and any subsequent) use belongs to you. "As I was praying, the Lord said to me..."

Book review

We were discussing what the Bible really is. Or at least how people see it. Some see it as a legal document, full of laws, precedents and rulings to be studied so that we will know the basis upon which our lives will be judged. Some see it as a more friendly "instruction manual", where we get the manufacturer's instructions for operating a Christian, as well as troubleshooting information whenever the Christian malfunctions. Some see it as a book of clever stories with moral stories, profound aphorisms, pithy proverbs and a few basic God-principles. (Sort of a cross between Moses' tablets, Aesop's fables, and Poor Richard's Almanac.)

Me, I read it as a grand autobiography of the Divine Author. In it we are introduced to God by seeing how He relates to mankind. We can touch His character by seeing human characters with whom we can identify... or be inspired... or be horrified. Here-- as in other places-- God chooses to reveal Himself to us. But as an autobiography, the Bible is best understood as being both from God and about God... but that studying it is no substitute for actually knowing the Author personally.

Like all autobiographies, the book does not contain all there is to be said about the Author, it is in no way comprehensive, and as the Author still lives, much more could be written.

And indeed, IS being written.


Had coffee yesterday with my daughter who is headed for a brief mission trip to Uganda. Ever show up to pray and wind up prophesying? Happens all the time around here. I liked the word from the Lord we heard: The word of the Lord comes to you like a piece of ice in your mouth. You can swallow it, or you can spit it out. But for heaven's sake, don't ever let it just sit there and melt away....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Tried this blog once before and just couldn't get it going. Trying again, since there are only a couple billion blogs out there now. So there's obviously a need!

Here's to a successful re-boot.

What would we look like?

I was just talking to a strong brother who had returned from visiting friends. These folks have come out of a number of church traditions to form--alas-- another "local church", complete with ruler/preacher and meeting house. This is simply because, as my friend put it, "it's what they know." And there's the rub. We tend to reproduce what we know, even if we intentionally leave what we know for good reason. It is hard, incredibly hard, to do something that is actually different.

Perhaps we have to step outside of our Christian skins to do this.

A question for the student: Let's say I am part of a large extended family. My mom has ten brothers and sisters, my dad has ten brothers and sisters, I have ten brothers and sisters... and we all live in the same town. How would you expect to see us expressing and maintaining our family relationships, passing on our family traditions, and so forth? What would you see us doing?

Would we show up at a cousin's kid's ball game and make fools of ourselves over a five-year-old hitting a ball off a tee? Would a dozen of us show up at cousin Luke's to celebrate his new swimming pool? Would most of the crowd descend on Mom on her birthday to her complete delight and the general dishevelment of her nice little house? Would the traditional Friday afternoon ritual be, "Can I sleep over at Matt's house?" Would I and four of my cousins corner my unemployed brother-in-law and quietly force some cash on him for his house payment? Would the granddaughter introduce the new boyfriend to Grandpa before going to the prom? Would we have the occasional family reunion, an exercise to play ourselves into exhaustion on what always turns out to be the hottest weekend of the summer? (Who schedules these things?) Would you find my ten-year-old son on our back patio learning the intracacies of dominoes from his grandfather and great-uncles? Would there be eternal arguments over who does the turkey for Thanksgiving this year; last year's was dry, I'm sorry to tell you. Would we crowd the hospital waiting room when Dad had his operation... or when little Julie was born? Would the first grandchild to get his college degree be cheered by a large group in the cheap seats, despite the admonition to "please hold your applause until the end"? Would every kid begin every school year hearing from his new teacher, "Oh, yes. I know your sister/brother/cousin. You're going to do fine. I know what your mother expects from you."


What if I told you that every Saturday night, Grandpa selects a movie at the local theater and our entire clan goes to that movie? Seven o'clock showing. We meet in the theater lobby, pay for our tickets, the kids run around a bit, then we troop in to see the show. For 90 minutes or thereabouts, we laugh together, or cry together, or sit on the edge of our seats, depending on the content of tonight's feature. Then the lights come up and we all troop out to the parking lot, pass a little small talk about the movie on the way to the car and say, "See you next Saturday!" That's it. That's what we do.

I would suggest that one of these families will still be close twenty-five years from now.

Door Number One or Door Number Two?