Wednesday, December 12, 2012

5 Ways Christians Waste Their Time

We waste out time in lots of ways. I am not advocating that we need to be busybodies, never stopping to rest. The ways we waste our time are often things that seem quite industrious. The problem is that  these busy, industrious activities have no eternal value. We can not follow Jesus seven days a week if we are not ready to brutally examine every aspect of our lives ad hold it up to the light of Jesus as he is revealed in the Gospel.  If you feel convicted or even irritated, take comfort in the fact that I am equally convicted and irritated by these words.  I struggle daily with wasting my time on these things as well.  Let's walk together.

1. Fighting fire with politics

Oh, the plagues of our modern era: abortion, gay marriage, high tax rates on the rich.  If only we could go back to those days when Christian values ruled the land.  Like in Puritan Massachusetts in the 17th century.  You know, when we hung witches and those suspected of witchery.  When we put people in stocks for missing church and outlawed Christmas.  They good old days.

Where did we get the idea that God's kingdom could be brought about by governmental power?  Jesus didn't infiltrate Jewish or Roman government 2000 years ago. He never tried to take it over to impose his will on them.  He could have, Satan even offered him ruler-ship of the kingdoms of the world and Jesus flatly rejected it.  He ushered a different kind of kingdom, one not bound to the rules of human politics.  This kingdom like a tiny mustard seeds grows out of weakness, and takes root in brokenness.

Somewhere we lost our way.  We started aligning ourselves with politicians that do not share our value for the kingdom of God.  They have used Christians to advance their own earthly agendas by promising to end abortion and gay marriage, and restore "family" values.  Meanwhile they have infiltrated us, getting Christians to support greed, violence, and idolatry masked as free-market economics and patriotism.

I am not saying abortion is alright.  I think in a century, people are going to look back on abortion the way we look at slavery today.  How could so many people accept such a barbaric practice and inhumane treatment of other human beings?  At least I hope it goes like that.  But, supposedly pro-life Republicans have held the office of president for 20 of the last 32 years.  Abortion is just as legal now as is was then.  Earthly politics is not the answer to our problems.  Jesus is the answer.

Politics creates a new set of enemies.  Instead of battling the principalities and powers of darkenss in the unseen realms, the  forces behind evils like abortion, we are battling children of God whose opinions differ from ours.  All we do is further alienate these people from the community of believers and keep them away from Jesus.

2. Trying to be trendy/relevant/hip or whatever the vogue word for it is

This is not a critique on style of dress, or even musical and artistic choices.  Be as hip or not hip as you want.  Wear what makes you comfortable and listen to music you like. It really doesn't matter in the eternal scope of things.  This is a critique on the deliberate efforts of those in Christians to 'reach-out' to the in-crowd by imitating them.  Rather  than look at what a God-starved world needs, we have tried to pursue what it likes.  In the process we become as fake and phony as the pop-culture the hipsters are attempting to distance themselves from.  They are not impressed with out hipster style and lingo.  People, regardless of their trendiness or hipness want to see genuine followers of Jesus actually following Jesus.

3. Trying to build a community

As churches grow, they get more and more impersonal.  People see each other on Sunday morning and that's about it.  No one knows anyone else.  Everyone is afraid to make the first move.  Mega-churches have developed an array of strategies  to make community happen.  Small home groups are the first tactic.  Put a bunch of random people together in a small group and the'll be forced to talk.  Sometimes it works.  Then there is segmenting.  Put people around those just like themselves so they have something in common to talk about.  So we divide people by age, genders, marital status, child status, occupation, addiction, hobby, musical style, and ice cream flavor.  Somehow community still doesn't happen.  Various programs, dinners, fun-nights are contrived to pull people together.  But people feel more distant and impersonal than ever.

Community is like serenity   The harder you pursue it, the farther away it gets.  Community does not come from trying to make it happen.  It won't happen in a program or a fellowship dinner, or a contrived small-group gathering.  Community comes from our common purpose, our common work together.  Community is often born out of adversity.  We have all suffered together; we have all pulled through.  Community comes when we lay aside ourselves and sacrifice for others.  All of these programs fall short because we can't make people actually love each other in the sacrificial Christ-like way.  I'm pretty sure that if we focus on  following Jesus, we will be drawn to those who are following him too.  If we love like Jesus, people will be drawn to us and our community will happen.

3. Consuming media like we need it

"Simplicity is freedom" says Christian spiritual guru, Richard Foster.  We have bought into the lie that freedom is an abundance of choices.  In reality, the more choices we have, the more enslaved we become to consumption. That is why retailers like to give so many choices to you. They know you will want to try them all, and six or seven of them will stick.

I see Christians who, like the rest of society, spend hours a day watching TV, playing video games, keeping up with the social media, and consuming media like they need it. They consume media, because they are "free" to chose it.  We spend thousands a year on the equipment and content we consume on it.  We can't imagine our lives without all this stuff, this barrage of noise from all directions.  We are enslaved to media.  In the process, we've forgotten how to think and dream, how to analyze what is happening around us and in us. We have forgotten how to listen to God.

I am not saying we should never watch another TV show or listen to music.  But we have gone so far from moderation, we don't even know what it is anymore. I've known a few people who unplug.  They don't do Iphones or Netflix, Cable TV or XBox. Not only do they save a lot of money, but they live. I think they live a lot more than I do.

5. Worrying About Things

"Don't worry about what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear," says Jewish spiritual guru, Jesus. So much of my time is consumed with just that.  The more I have, the more I have to worry about.  The guy with the junky car never worries about it getting stolen. Cheap plastic dishes don't get broken as easily as fine china. Don't even get me started about debt and the load of worries car loans, credit card bills and mortgages cause.

I am not saying it is a sin to have stuff.  I am saying it is a sin to worry about stuff. It's a lot more tempting to worry about stuff when I have it.

God has blessed me and my family with poverty. We are not truly impoverished, although I'm sure I have been considered below the federal poverty line for much of my adult life. We have always had enough.  We had a roof over our heads and food and clothes and usually a car to drive. We never had much to fall back on. Sorry, Dave Ramsey, but we've never had 3-6 months salary saved away in an emergency fund like you suggest. In spite of a lot of turmoil and changing jobs and transition periods, we have always been taken care of. You can chalk that up to some great people helping us at some key times, and we are very thankful for those people. But ultimately we chalk it up to God.  Not counting funds people gave to an organization we were associated with, we have given away more than we have received in those years.   How is that even possible?  It's the growing wealth of generosity, God's capitalism at work.  The more you give, the more you have to give.

God has shown us that he will always provide. We are learning to stop worrying about things so much, and trying to worry more about seeing His kingdom advance on earth. He takes care of all the other stuff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

I'll Pray for You, Maybe

prayer & devotion - hands 3How many times have I made the promise, "I'll pray for you about that."   In our culture it is considered a basic courtesy to those in need.  My secular friends will say something like, "you are in my thoughts today."  But Christians are expected to say, "you are in my prayers."    We throw it around like "please" and "thank-you." It is no more than a social courtesy.

After I make a promise to pray, one of two things usually happens.  Sometimes I make the promise and just forget.  I never think of the person or their situation again until I see them.  Then I feel guilty for not praying for them and their distressful situation.   Truth be told, I am often too wrapped up in my own life to think about others' needs.  In other cases I remember their request and make a quick cursory prayer, not really believing anything will happen, but reassuring myself that I have met my obligation.

I know a few people that tell others they will pray and mean it.  They actually struggle with the burdens of friend and stranger alike.  They are the ones that come back later and ask how God has been working in the situation.  I really want to be like them, but, I am just not there yet.

Don't get me wrong, I do pray.  And in addition to my other conversations with the Father, I pray for the needs of others.  If something or someone is really weighing on my mind, I will take it to God in passionate supplication.  At those moments I expect God to do something about my prayer.  But, to be honest,  this is doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like.   

Following Jesus means praying.  Jesus was all about praying.  He did it alone(Matt 14:23), he did it with his disciples(John 17).  He  prayed when he was happy (Luke 10:21), and when he was distressed almost to the point of giving up (Luke 22:42).   Jesus spent a lot of his time explaining how to pray.  He said we should be persistent because God wants to answer our prayers (Luke 18:1-6).  He even said to ask for anything in his name and it will be done (John 16:24-28).

Prayer is power.  Not in itself.  A lot of people pray and nothing happens.  But praying to our loving Father in the name of Jesus, under his authority, that is something else.  If we really recognized the power that is released when we take our requests to God in the name of Jesus, we would pray a lot more, and promise to pray a lot less.  We would not flippantly tell people that we will ask God to do whatever they desire.  What if they are asking for something that will hurt them or others?  Jesus healed sick people, but he didn't heal everyone who was sick. I am still not sure why he healed some of those he did and why he didn't heal some of those he didn't.  Until I figure it our, I am a little more hesitant to just start praying that every sick person I know or have heard of is healed.  Praying in Jesus' name is a responsibility of the utmost importance.  He asks us to represent him on earth.  He gives us the authority to do so.  That is humbling.

So if you come to me and ask me to pray for you, maybe I will and maybe I won't.  If I do, it is because I believe I am following in the footsteps of Jesus to complete his work, to advance his kingdom.   It is because I have decided to take your burden, on myself and wrestle with God on your behalf.  If I don't feel God compelling my heart to pray for your need, I might just say, "you are in my thoughts," or if possible, I will just do something to help you.  Rather than pray for your will to be done, I may pray that you will come to accept the situation God has put you in and that you will grow as a person out of your suffering.

Prayer is too powerful to be a social courtesy.   Please don't mistake my intentions.  I am not trying to be a jerk by not praying for you.  I am trying to pray for you in a way that really matters.  It's not that I am trying to pray less.  I am trying to pray more.  But more importantly, I am trying to pray more like Jesus.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Black Friday-Golden Rule

I don't do Black Friday.  It's not a moral choice, but a practical one.  For a guy who isn't too crazy about shopping anyway, getting up at 4 am, standing in lines, dealing with crazy traffic, all to get a deal?  No thanks!  But I have to admit, I am tempted by some of the deals coming out Thursday evening this year.

For millions of Americans, Black Friday has become a staple.  And it is quickly becoming Black Thursday night as well.  People go crazy for a deal.  Things, whether to satisfy their own lust, or to lavish on others in exchange for love have become the centerpiece of the holiday season.  I will not go into how commercial idolatry is destroying Christmas, that will be a rant for another day.  But I am concerned about how commercial idolatry is ruining Thanksgiving, and ruining people all throughout the year.

Think about it for a minute.  For stores to open at 8 pm on Thanksgiving Day, how early do you think people have to be there, stocking shelves and preparing displays for the massive sales to begin?  It doesn't take a mathematician to  figure out that a number of people in retail are spending most of their Thanksgiving Holiday at work.  The trend is to open earlier and earlier.  In a few years, it will probably be a holiday tradition to go hit the stores in the early afternoon on Thanksgiving while your food settles. 

The thing that keeps coming to my mind is Matthew 7:12.  "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (NIV)  This simple teaching is so broad, so all consuming,  that I am often overwhelmed when I try and think of how to live it out.  I am so far from actually obeying this rule in every part of my life, that I just don't know where to start.  So let's start with shopping.  I am going to try and live out the golden rule in my holiday shopping this year.  Do you want to join me?  Here is what we are going to do.

Before we go out to get that awesome deal at 8pm on Thanksgiving, we ask ourselves;  "Would I want to have to work at a retail establishment on Thanksgiving?"  If the answer is "no" then we stay home.  When we go out on Friday (or any other day during the tumultuous holiday shopping season), and there is a long line and the cashier seems to be going too slow and we're frustrated because we are about to miss the deal at the next store, we ask ourselves, "If I were this cashier how would I want to be treated?"  Then we do whatever it is we were thinking.  Like the rest of us, cashiers like to be acknowledged as a human.  They like smiles and words of affirmation.  Although most are not allowed to accept gifts or tips, we can find ways to show our appreciation.

What about the other shoppers?  How might they want to be treated?  We could start by not acting annoyed at them when they are holding up a line.  Maybe if we see someone with a large load, we could offer to help them carry it.  We could take people's carts back for them in the parking lot, especially the elderly and people with small kids.  Maybe we could slow things down a bit too.  If we just give ourselves a little extra time when we go out, we won't be too rushed to offer courtesy and help to others.

This is a work in progress, not an exhaustive list. What other ways can we live out the Golden Rule during the holiday season?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Why I'm Not, Not an Evangelical

Saint Mark 
The label "Evangelical" has fallen into disrepute in recent years and probably for good reasons.  Ironically, it is evangelicals who often show it the most contempt.  From what I've heard, "evangelical" used to mean a person who took the Bible seriously, tried to do what Jesus says to do, and thought everyone should follow Jesus.  In the 19th century evangelicals were the champions of social causes like ending slavery and child labor, and giving women equal rights.  Nowadays, "evangelical" implies a host of other things - someone who likes guns, hates gays, votes Republican, and wants to bring prayer back to school (as if it ever left).  Evangelical culture has developed a product line full of books, music, movies, clothes, and all the other things that entice the commercially driven and insulate them from the influence of the "world."  Most of all, being evangelical implies being conservative, that is, having the orientation that things used to be much better (in America), during some long forgotten epic (the 1950s), and the best thing we can do is reverse the clock and return to those simple days (of racial segregation, misogyny, and the cold war ).

I find myself stuck in the middle.  When it comes down to it, I do believe the Bible, as it was originally given, was inspired by God, and should be taken seriously.  I also believe the Bible's teachings alone hold the answers to our greatest personal and societal problems.  I want everyone to follow Jesus.  I see something unique about those who do follow Jesus, that God has done something in them that differentiates them from every other person in the world. I believe any  life after this one is only guaranteed to those who know Jesus.   That level of exclusivity would lead many to label me an evangelical. So, maybe I am.  But on the other hand, I don't fit the cultural mold of an evangelical.  I don't always vote the way evangelicals do (and I don't put all that much stock in voting).  I believe following Jesus leads me to compassion for the poor, placing the needs of others above my own economic interest. I believe following Jesus leads me to pursue peace for all people, everywhere.  I reject the American dream, as it is sold to us, and I reject the idea that I can share my loyalty to the kingdom of God with any earthly nation, even America.  I prefer to get input ( books, news, the arts) from a variety of viewpoints, even from those I don't agree with.  If I say, "I'm not evangelical," I risk people thinking I don't believe certain things I believe, things we may hold in common.  If I say, "I am evangelical," I risk people believing certain things about my behavior and lifestyle that are just not true about me.

Is it possible to just not take a side?  What if we left the labels at home and just lived what we believed and let that speak for itself?  Maybe we could actually come to the table and talk sensibly about the issues we disagree on if we weren't so caught up in labeling each other. When I write, I usually avoid these loaded terms.  We mostly use these terms to sound smart around others, but they have the unintended consequence of putting people in a box, a rigid stereotype that they can't escape.  I don't like being put in a box, and I try not to box others in either.  I try to just explain things in the simplest terms, regardless of my audience.  I find people respond well to that.  So for now I am not an evangelical, and I'm not, not an evangelical either.  I'm just me.  Get to know me; we might have something in common.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Are We Serving or Helping?

Jesus is a helpful guy - not in the sense of taking out the trash for me, or giving me tips on what to buy my wife for her birthday.  But his very nature, the bulk of his ministry, was helping people with some problem or another.  He healed a lot of sick people.  Raised a few dead.  He gave some free meals.  He provided a lot of practical life advice mixed in with his teachings about the "kingdom."  He helped people in practical ways.  He changed lives for the better.

It seems like as his followers we should be helping people.  He kind of made that explicit in his teaching: love your neighbor (Matt 22:39), give to anyone who asks (Luke 6:30), heal the sick (Luke 10:9).  He expects us, his body on the earth, to do what he did.  

Recently my church took part in a day of service in our community.  I learned that we do this every year at about the same time.  People in the lower income neighborhoods we serve have come to expect us.  They usually have some ideas of projects that need to have done when we come around.  One landlord told his tenets he would not do needed repairs, because he knew the church people would be around soon and they could do it.

I was discussing this with some friends afterward.  There seemed to be a consensus that we were not making a difference in the community.  The same people were in the same pitiful place as they were last year.  Some people were growing weary of returning year after year and not seeing any progress in the community.  It brought a smile to faces for one day, but if anything, the community was in worse shape than it was the year before.

Why on earth would we expect a community to change form a one-day-a-year service project?  I think if you had asked us what we expected to happen before the first time anyone went into that neighborhood, we would have said something like, "We expect to serve God by serving others."  or, "We expect to live out the love of Jesus."  If that is all we really went out to do, then we succeeded.  We showed people the love of Jesus in a practical way.  We served them like Jesus said to when he washed his disciples feet.  We succeeded!

Somewhere along the way we developed new expectations.  We expected to not only serve people, but to help people.  We expected to heal people, to feed people, to make their lives better.  And we failed.

My group of friends has recently decided to adopt a neighborhood where a couple of us live so we can spend the time to really help people.  We are going to be spending time there, getting to know people, and doing projects with the people of the neighborhood.  We realize helping and serving are not the same thing.  Serving is a single act.  Helping is a process.  It is a process that is often messy, and difficult to measure.  Helping is a relationship that takes time to build.  To really help, you need to find out not only what a person or community is lacking, but what a person or community has to offer.  Then you have to empower them to use what God has given them to change their situation.

I think a lot of Jesus' followers have wrapped their minds around serving   We can go in, do something, leave,  and feel pretty good about ourselves at the end of the day.  Most of us have not really invested enough to actually help someone, let alone to help a community.  I think Jesus wants us to do both.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why not Sunday?

Starting a blog has been a long time coming.  I have a lot of things to say.  Most of them are foolish conjecture  some just plain wrong.  But every once in a while I have a little nugget of insight that has some merit and a desire to share it with someone besides my two year old daughter.  So here we are.

I always knew being a Christian was a seven day a week thing.  I really believed I lived that way four years ago.  But in reality my life, and especially my faith revolved around Sunday.  Sunday was my day to shine, as the worship leader in a small church.  Sunday was my day of feeding, drawing form the deep well of a commendable teaching pastor.  Sunday was my day to fellowship, the day I wold try to impress people into liking me and thinking me a spiritual, mature person.  Sunday was probably the day I sinned the most the whole week, because Sunday was the day I put on my veneer of godliness in order to worship myself.

Then I was whisked off, half-way around the world on an adventure I was sorely unprepared for.  I lived in the Sultinate of Oman for two and a half years.  The interesting thing about living in the Middle East, in a predominantly Muslim country, is that Sunday means nothing there.  The work week is either Saturday through Wednesday or Sunday through Thursday across the Muslim world.  On Sunday I resumed my normal duties as a student or an English teacher.  I lived in a town of 70,000 people and not a single church.  A handful of expatriates met together for worship in their homes, usually on Thursday or Friday, and that was our church for two and a half years.

I find it interesting how little in the Bible actually happened on a Sunday.  Jesus was resurrected from the dead on a Sunday.  That's a pretty big deal.  Seven weeks later, The holy Spirit came down and started the Jesus movement, likely on a Sunday.  Another time a guy fell out of a window, and that's pretty much it.  Every other event of Jesus life, and the life of the early church happened on Monday through Saturday (or the day it happened was inconsequential and not mentioned).

I have discovered that over 85% of the Christian life doesn't happen on Sunday.  A lot of people are talking about Sunday: sermons, music, seekers, church structure, church buildings, programs - the list goes on. When I read the Gospels, and the Bible in general, I see a lot more about issues like: how do I treat my neighbor?  How far should I go out of my way to help someone?  How should I handle my money?   What does God want me to give up in order to have a better relationship with Him and with those around me?

That is what Monday Through Saturday is about.  I want to take these revolutionary truths and lay them over the patchwork of our messy, complicated, everyday lives and see what happens.  Yes, it is a purposely vague theme that I can manipulate to address whatever rant I happen to be on. It will probably include some social issues, some scriptural analysis, a book review or two, and perhaps an occasional poem.  My goal is to get people thinking and talking and living these great truths in the nitty-gritty of everyday life.  Perhaps the fact that I am getting these ideas out into the public sphere of cyberspace will encourage me to live them out in the nitty-gritty of my everyday life.  That alone would be enough to make this worthwhile.