Archive for April, 2004

It’s an election year, so I thought it might be appropriate to quote a politician. Don’t worry, I won’t be attempting to decipher was is is or sharing my thoughts on who and who is not a crook. Rather, I decided that a quote that has something to say to people’s spirit might be more effective. I want to continue to press us to do great things and never fear failure. Here are some words from Teddy Roosevelt.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat.”

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Afraid to Try

Posted: April 26, 2004 in Everything

One of the things that has always been true of American churches is that they (we) fear risk. We talk a lot about trust and faithfulness but when the rubber meets the road, what we have always done becomes what we will always do. I suppose that’s fair enough. It’s difficult for anyone, especially an organization, to dare to become something other than it has always been.

But we must!!

The church stands at an exciting crossroads, one that can lead us into bigger, better, brighter things. We are being beckoned to the light, if only we are willing to go. Our American culture is daring us to speak about the real Spirit in a world full of saline spiritualities. But to do that, we must be willing to change. Oh, no, not change the gospel. We are not and should not be willing to change the core beliefs that make us disciples, but rather we must change the way we do things. Chiefly, we must not be afraid to fail. When we are afraid to fail then by default we are afraid to try.

Leonard Sweet writes, “Postmodern culture has moved from ‘trial and error’ to ‘trial and success.’ Can the culture of the church change from safety-first, risk-free to risky, frisky innovation and unplanned experimentation?” At the core he is asking, “Can the church see itself in a different light than it always has?” It’s a great question, one that most churches will say “yes” to in word, but “no” to in deed.

Churches are far more likely to walk the road most traveled, hoping that the crowded path will give us comfort and company enough for our journey so we don’t realize that we really aren’t going anywhere. After all, there is safety in numbers.

But those numbers are declining. The world sees the status quo, faithlessness of the church and simply chooses to not chose Christianity at all. Why should they?

Think on these words from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love.

“God can do without man. God could do without the ichthyosauri and the mastodon. These monsters failed creatively to develop, so God, the creative mystery, dispensed with them. In the same way the mystery could dispense with man (or the church), should he too fail creatively to change and develop.”

Happy Ending!

Posted: April 21, 2004 in Everything

A church member asked me a few weeks ago whether or not I knew any happy stories. I guess the sermon illustrations in the weeks running up to that had a lot to do with pain, suffering, or death. I wasn’t quite sure what to say to the man. I do know “happy” stories, quite a few as a matter of fact, but oftentimes they don’t make it into the text of my sermons or writings.

I’ve spent the last few weeks wondering why that is. Why is it that I’ve spent 2004 focusing on messy spiritual lives and being disappointed with God? Is that where I live? Well, sometimes but not all the times. Do I enjoy the dark side? Not really. I typically recoil from unpleasantness.

Maybe it’s because 2004 has been the most difficult personal and professional time in my life. My father-in-law died, I’ve had increased responsibilities at work, my wife’s been in deep mourning, we’re stumbling through being first time parents, Texas has no income tax and takes it out of homeowners, and disappointment decided to make my life it’s campground–but I don’t think that’s why I talk and write about the things I talk and write about.

Rather, I think it is because I have seen and lived such false Christianity in my life. It is a religious life where everything with everybody is always fine and people always feel good. Church folks are great at pretending, so to be successful, I learned to pretend along with them.

The problem is that that is the worst possible way to maintain a relationship. It’s like a first date. Both people wear their best clothes, tell their best stories, and are always on their best behavior. That’s great for impressing someone, but terrible for knowing someone. Many of us spend our entire lives doing impressions of ourselves, hoping that people will like or love us. And soon after we have impressed all the people we want to impress and gained their attention and love, our hearts weep, because the person they have come to love isn’t really us.

That’s why I tell “unhappy” stories. We all need to know that we can be who we are, experience what happens to us and continue in faith without having to be on guard that our personas are damaged. I tell real stories about real people, so that people can have the courage to be real.

Truthfully, I want Christian people to discover their anger and disappointment with God. I want all of us to voice our questions and shed our tears to and about a God that we don’t understand. I think that is when He engages us.

A question cannot be answered if it is never asked. A tear cannot be dried if it is never shed. A relationship cannot grow if we never talk about what we don’t like about it. God cannot encounter our hearts if we are offering holographic humanity. We cannot know Him if we are hiding behind being okay with Him. The God of the universe is pursuing us, not the makeshift men and women we portray to the world. He cannot have us if we are pretending.

It is only when we are real that the happy ending comes.

I often worry that Christianity has become too main stream, too much apart of the social fabric of America that it losses it’s intensity. Soren Kierkegaard captures my concern this way, “In a country where everyone is a Christian, no one’s a Christian.”

Reading through the Biblical story, it’s easy to see that from the beginning God’s people were misaligned with the dominant culture and world around them. In short, followers of God have always been weird! How else should we expect to be? It s our misalignment and maladjustment that gives us a word of hope and righteousness to speak to our world. It is our weirdness that shines the light of God’s love in a world covered with darkness.

I’m reminded of these words from Martin Luther King, Jr: we must be…”As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being disappointed with God. Whenever I am faced with an issue–either personal or pastoral–I often come back to the writer who is the source of so much contemporary writing, C.S. Lewis. Cherish these words from ‘The Screwtape Letters.’

“Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anti-climax which is certainly coming to the patient during the first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants–“sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own.” And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If only they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much less harder to tempt.”

It occurs to me that the “initial dryness” doesn’t go away after we’ve been disciples for a while, but re-occurs at every intersection in which we attempt to step out with Jesus into something new.

We are never safe because Jesus makes all things new.

God in the Shadows

Posted: April 19, 2004 in Everything

There is probably no more lonely a feeling than when we are disappointed with God. We think and expect something to be one way, and it turns out to be another. That kind of disappointment has visited and revisited our home a lot over the last few months. Death, reversals, rejection; they all have a way of questioning what we think life is and, more importantly, who we think God is.

Is God concerned about us–personally, intimately? Is God acting and active on our behalf? Or are we created vessels seeking to strain out the best of the numbered breaths we have been given? What is God up to, anyway? And why doesn’t He allow His faithful to peek behind the curtain to bear witness to all His plans?

Honestly, there are times when I fear that we are on our own, that life is random and God has gone on vacation. There are times that seem as though the vast emptiness I feel in the pit of my stomach–when disappointment comes–must be indicative of the void space of a creatorless creation. What explanation can be given about a God that asks us to speak to Him in prayer, but seems slow to respond? How can we explain a God that commands faithfulness and trust, but so frequently works in arenas we cannot see?

A God that works in the shadows, should not expect to be trusted, should He? The prostitute, the mugger, the cat-burglar and rapist all hide in the shadows for good reason; the evil they perpetrate is benefited by the darkness. Why would a good God not illuminate His handiwork in order to guide those who would willingly follow? If there is a plan for our lives, wouldn’t it work better if we could help work the plan?

All I can figure is that the plan must not need our help, that God doesn’t need an assist. Perhaps trust and faithfulness are the only designs we can bring to the plan. Or better yet, the plan exists to produce in us faithfulness and trust and the particulars are incidental. It must be that God’s plan is only to bring us to faithfulness and trust and the distinctives of our lives are like roads in ancient Rome; bumpy, dangerous and crooked, but all leading to center of the great kingdom?

I’ve been preaching recently about the spiritual life. What is it? How do you know when you’re spiritual? Oftentimes the spiritual life is different than what we think it is. Check out these words from Watchman Nee.

“Christians deem their spiritual lives to be at high tide when they feel the presence of God, and at low tide when they feel low or dry. Yet these are only feelings and as such do not represent the reality of spiritual life. Those who have moved on to maturity clearly understand this and thus do not place much trust in these transient feelings.”