Thursday, March 31, 2005

So what are they shopping for?

I work in retail over half the year. If you've worked retail before, it's likely you've had days when the general public has made you generally anti-social. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is when a customer will lie to you... straight to your face... in an attempt to get rid of you. And the lie comes in just two words: "Just looking!"

Now I've watched people obviously going through a mental checklist, mouthing the words of something they are trying to find. I've seen someone searching high and low for a price tag so they can tell if whatever it is they are looking at is the right price. After asking these people, "Is there anything I can help you find?" or "Are you looking for something in particular?" I'll see the panicked look in their eyes and the two word lie comes shooting out of their mouth like a spitwad from a third-grader. "Just looking." I know, I know, they're too embarassed to admit that they are looking for something special like a price or a particular style. But why? Why won't so many people just come out and tell what they are shopping for?

I've put this post off for a while. I don't want to sound critical or like I'm ragging on anyone. It's a pet topic of many I'm sure, and it was reignited in me when I stumbled across a post on a Christian blog about a visit to a church -- a church shopping excursion, if you will. I'll not provide the link again (although if you search around here, you'll likely find it) because I don't want it to be about that one post. It's about the attitude of the church shopper in general. And as a pastor of a church who sees some of these folks come and go, I get curious. What are these people shopping for? And why won't they tell us?

I remember being a church shopper. We wanted to find a church in the town we had moved to instead of commuting 45 minutes to be a part of my home church. All I can remember looking for is for friendly people and some meat in the sermon. I'm not sure what my wife was looking for, but she's the one who finally decided which church she wanted to be a part of. Fortunately, I agreed with her. I think her decision had as much to do with being a part of a ministry as anything else. At least that's the way it worked out.

But what is today's "looker" shopping for? At the aforementioned post there were concerns about doctrine and altar calls but it seemed the first consideration was the people -- not the friendliness, but the social class. The poster mentioned not wanting to be around the country people's churches filled with "those people" as he called them. Of course as the pastor of a country church that one struck a nerve with me. I'm not sure what the infatuation is with the yuppie class. It seems that the biggest churches I know are made up mainly of white collar, upper middle class folks and they're a little thin on the poor, blue collar types. I hope that's just bad perception on my part and not a reflection of reality. I'd hate to think that people in this country can only handle their "own kind" or those of equal status. But I know there are some who are shopping for a higher class of Christian.

My concern with people is the manifestation of love for people within the congregation. As a single man I once visited a church on Sunday where I walked in past the turned heads of congregants. I sat beside a couple who wouldn't acknowledge my presence. After the service I walked out past the people who were busy chatting with their little groups. I was there for over an hour, participated in worship and was never spoken to by any human being. The one person whose eye caught mine turned quickly away. It doesn't matter what social class these people are, I wouldn't want to be a part of that church.

Another biggie these days seems to be the music. Obviously there are plenty of differences in style: hymns, choruses or anyplace in between. But it's almost as if the music is treated as entertainment instead of an avenue to worshipping God. I'm all for putting forth your best effort in musical worship, but as I understand the Bible the intended audience is God, not the couple in the 15th row. The post I'm deliberately not linking went on and on about the "unpolished" nature of the worship leader and the worship band. To me, polish is not necessary but authenticity is.

I remember the first Sunday at my current church. At that time we had an organist who was mostly deaf. She played well, but if she turned her body wrong and her fingers slipped off the right keys and landed on the wrong ones, she never knew the difference. That first Sunday morning her fingers were dancing all over the keyboard and chills were dancing up and down my spine until I wondered what I was doing there. But I understood that she was offering what she could and would sometimes make mistakes. In God's ears was she really playing sour notes?

The other things that seem to come up a lot are youth programs, solid Bible teaching and application, and convenience. And I certainly understand a family with teenagers wanting something in place to help the kids strengthen their faith. However sometimes it becomes about being the church where the "cool kids" are. I've seen the literature urging youth leaders to recruit the kids who are already seen as cool at school. I hope there's a lot more to those groups than being popular. It's a shame when youth ministry becomes nothing more than another clique.

The Bible teaching is usually evaluated by the speaking abilities of the senior pastor. No matter how Biblical the teaching, if the pastor can't hold anybody's attention it becomes useless. Again, I understand that. But not every church can have a dynamo in the pulpit. And sometimes the best pastors are not the best speakers, but they do love the congregation with all their heart. The sermon is just a fraction of what a pastor does, but to a church shopper it's likely all that matters.

Finally the convenience factor comes creeping in. Proximity to home and service times play a big role for a church shopper. Location used to be the sole factor before transportation became so easy. Now people will drive a half-hour to be a part of the church that fits their lifestyle.

So is this the answer? Is this what "just looking" actually means? Are church shoppers looking for the "right" class of people, a professional musical presentation, programs for "cool" youth, an exciting sermon and a lifestyle fit? What happened to the idea that you go to a church to serve and worship God? Why have we made Sunday morning all about pleasing US? Am I nuts here? What am I missing?

I'll close this with the comments I left at that other Christian blog concerning his church shopping post.

My question is simply, "What are you looking for and is that truly what you should be looking for? "Not applying this to you, but I've met plenty of church-shoppers in my life. Most of them (including me, when I was doing it) are acting out of selfishness -- what can the church give me, not what can I do for the church. I pastor a small country church -- one infested with those "country hick" people. We can't sing well. On a good Sunday we have 60 people in worship, 15-20 of them kids. We can't offer bells and whistles. We offer Jesus. We offer Him from the heart. We have problems here and problems there, but the goal is to worship and serve Jesus. It seems that for far too many people, that isn't good enough. If your goal is being able to worship God and serve Him to the best of your ability, then best of luck finding that place although it shouldn't be that hard. If your goal is being comfortable, then perhaps you should reconsider what you want. I certainly don't know your heart. I just know the temptation to find the discomforts and to miss the presence of God and I hope you don't succumb to that temptation.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Edifice Complex

In viewing the latest Christian Carnival over at Weapon of Mass Distraction, I came upon one of the posts which reignited an old flame under my kettle of righteous indignation. (Yes, when I get upset, I speak in bizarre figures of speech!) The topic was the building of a new church structure.

The original post is at irene q's unravelled. Her church is embarking on a multi-million dollar building program to put up a new. . . well. . . here's how irene describes it:

5,000-seat auditorium with a "world-class stage", another two halls with 1,000 seating capacity each, reception area, community centre, 3-storey arts centre with recording studio, atrium with skylight (a "hang out" spot), bookshop, library, counselling rooms, sports centre with facilities for indoor sports, two floors of classrooms, two floors of office space, and an intercessor's hall.

Insert jaw drop here.

Granted, my church is in an entirely different universe than one who conducts four packed services each weekend, but still a building like that is tough for most people to comprehend. irene's first question was simply, "Is all this really necessary?"

This is a quandry that lots of churches find themselves in. Maybe not to the degree of irene's church, but what kind of physical facilities should a church have? Better yet, how do you decide what you need as a church? Or when church shopping, what part do the facilities play in influencing a decision?

I've driven by Willow Creek in the Chicago area. I thought it looked nicer than most of the homes around where I live. Or most anything around where I live. I've heard the reasoning that the "yuppies" around that part of Chicagoland would never come to anything that's less than first class. Is that becoming like the rich so that by all means the rich may be saved? Or is it a good excuse to build big and fancy? The answer is likely only found in the heart, and I'll readily admit that I don't know Bill Hybels' heart (or anyone else for that matter) so I won't accuse anyone of anything. But I will raise the question: How luxurious should a church be?

For some reason, Kristen at Walking Circumspectly and I have been blogging on the same wavelength lately, so it only seems right that I pull this quote from her latest post and apply it in a literal fashion: "Is the Lord building the house, or am I seeking to please men with my deeds? Am I simply doing what is right in my own eyes, or has the Lord truly led me?" How do we decide if we are putting up a huge edifice for our own comfort or for legitimate reasons?

My guess is that we can find reasons to justify anything we put in a church building. A recording studio, a hangout, an art center, a bookshop. . . they can all be used for His glory. But what's in the heart of those erecting the edifice? Are they putting up a monument for their own glory or for God's glory.

Everytime I see a luxurious campus for a church or a parachurch ministry like Focus on the Family, I begin to wonder what a fraction of that money could do in a country like Haiti or Sudan. Are the yuppies of the world worth that much more than the Sudanese? I could think of a lot of things I can do with an extra 10,000 square feet of facilities. But couldn't I also do ministry working out of an abandoned downtown storefront or a ramshackle building? I guess that's a question that I have to wrestle with in my prayer time. I'd just hate to think that a facility devoted to God's ministry was built to provide luxury for lazy, spoiled Christians.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Easter Leftovers

I know what you're thinking. . . maybe I could get another ham sandwich out of the scraps in the fridge, but those mashed potatoes are looking really gross. And I don't even want to think about another boiled egg.

Don't worry. For once, my mind isn't on food. You have my permission to run that stuff through the garbage disposal.

It's just funny how things strike a person at odd times. This one hit me while reading Scripture aloud at Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday. It wasn't because I was reading a different translation or that it was something that I hadn't read countless times. But for some reason I found myself in the sandals of those gathered around the cross -- not with Mary and John and the faithful, but with the scoffers and hecklers. The Bible tells us that the Pharisees and company ridiculed Jesus saying, "He claimed to save others, but He can't save Himself!" And they called to Him, "Come on down from there and then we'll believe in You!" Those were just a few of the insults hurled at Him during the Passion. But they stuck with me this time around.

Now had I been the One on the cross, I'm not sure I could have been so restrained with the peanut gallery. I would have been mentally reviewing prophecy to see if there was anything about a few rogue lightning bolts hitting select people standing near the cross! Couldn't the atonement still occur with a few dead Pharisees lying about? Of course Jesus' thinking was not focused on the lamebrains talking smack at Him on the cross. I doubt that He paid them much attention, especially with the condition He was in at the time.

But what about those hecklers? What was the premise behind their insults? They seemed to assert that Jesus' abilities were indicated solely by His actions. "If this Jesus could save Himself, surely He would," they reasoned. And since Jesus didn't come down from the cross, then He certainly did not have the power to do so, according to the brilliance of the cross-side philosophers. They figured that Jesus would do everything He could to save Himself. But they were working with a faulty premise.

Satan found out just how wrong that premise was when He tested Jesus in the desert. He saw that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah who would do something simply because He possessed the power to do it. Jesus didn't try to make a sandwich out of rocks, although He certainly could have. He didn't toss Himself off the top of the temple despite the fact that He could have displayed some amazing power had He done so. Jesus did not act out of selfish interest. Instead, He told His Father, "Not my will, but thine."

So what the loudmouths standing near the cross didn't understand was that although Jesus could have done whatever He pleased, what pleased Him was pleasing the Father. If, as we are instructed in Philippians 2, our attitude is the same as Christ Jesus, then our aim should be not to please ourselves but to please God.

But should we be so hard on those shouting insults at the Master? Many people succumb to the same type of faulty logic at times. We question God when trials start to overtake us. We wonder why God would allow sickness and disease to afflict us when we could do so much more for the Kingdom if we were completely well. We accumulate our pride in one big ball and start to think that God should honor our desires. We want to see Him do the amazing, like step off the cross. But what God wants is for us to say, "Not my will, but thine."

Our beliefs about God's power do not restrict what He can really do, nor do they change Who He actually is. Our idea of logic doesn't always apply to God because God's ways are so far above ours. Our focus on ourselves is selfish foolishness in comparison to incredible majesty of Almighty God.

While the scoffers and hecklers thought they knew the truth, Jesus knew better. And once Sunday arrived, many others knew better as well.

Monday, March 28, 2005

When You Least Expect It

It had been another long Saturday night. "Marjorie" had barely gotten any sleep again. It was becoming a habit. She laid there and worried about her son, "Brian". It had been days since they had heard from him. Brian had been into all sorts of nasty habits and Marjorie could only imagine his fate. She and her husband "Steve" had tried to cope in their own ways, but nothing was solving the problem. Things only seemed to be spinning farther and farther out of control. And after weeks and weeks of fearing for Brian's safety and wondering where he could be, Marjorie was at her wits end.

As she came downstairs that Sunday morning, She told Steve and her other child, "I can't take it anymore! It's like I've been pushed down and someone won't let me up no matter how hard I struggle. I give up. I'm saying 'Uncle'. I don't know what to do." Her head hung dejectedly as the tears started to flow again.

But today there was no time for any deep soul searching. The family had to travel two hours to attend a baby dedication at a little church up north. The whole extended family would be there, so they couldn't miss it. And they were running short on time, so they got dressed and got in the car for the long, silent journey. Marjorie wondered what they were even doing, going to a church service today. The family had been ignoring anything spiritual for a few years now. The pressures of the world seemed to need more time than God. Besides, was God really real? After these past few months, Marjorie had her doubts.

The family made it to church in the nick of time. A few of the family asked about Brian, but Marjorie didn't want to get into it. Not right now. Besides, the morning was supposed to be about the eleven month-old boy being dedicated. They found their seats, but it wasn't easy. The sanctuary was packed. Marjorie and Steve looked around and realized that about half the crowd were their relatives. The whole family had turned out.

The little country church service was quaint. The dedication itself was lovely. Then the pastor began the sermon. As Marjorie settled in, she found herself unprepared for what that preacher was going to say.

The first words of the sermon formed a question: "What do you do when life has knocked you to the ground?" A chill went up Marjorie's back.

"What should you do when it seems like no matter what you do, you can't pull yourself up again?" The words she had spoken that morning in the kitchen came flooding back. She thought to herself what she had decided to do -- say "uncle".

The pastor continued, "When it feels like God has pinned you down, you have to say..." Marjorie mouthed the word along with the pastor. "Uncle."

Marjorie was shaking slightly as she listened. The pastor preached about the early believers in the book of Acts and how they had understood that God had the power, not them. The early Christians weren't trying to do things by their own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. All of a sudden, things began to make sense.

When they got back home, Marjorie spent the evening in prayer. She decided that since she was being held down and that all the power was in God's hands then she had better give it to Him. She prayed that they would be able to find Brian. She prayed that she would be strong enough to let God handle the heavy lifting.

The next day, Steve and Marjorie received a phone call. It was from the local police. They had found Brian and were holding him at the jail. Marjorie cried. It was a mixture of relief, joy and pain. But they had found their son.

Over the next few months, things began to change. The family went back to church to become reaquainted with the One who holds the power. Brian was diagnosed with both schitzophrenia and bipolar disorder and was put on medication which has helped him tremendously. In time, Steve and Marjorie became more active in their faith and in their church. It has been six years since Marjorie heard those words coming from the pulpit. It was the answer she had been looking for, received when she least expected it.

I met "Marjorie" last Friday at a funeral home visitation. It turns out that I had met her once before -- about six years ago.
You see, it turns out that I was that pastor who unknowingly spoke those words which would change the life of a family forever. I had been oblivious to the whole situation. I remember that service because it was the largest crowd we've had at that church. I even have a faint memory of a woman speaking to me after the service about saying "uncle" but beyond that I remember nothing else. I checked my sermon notes from that Sunday six years ago, and what she said was true. God changes lives.
I share this with you today for two reasons. One, if you are wondering if God really cares and if He can really help you, I'm here to say that He does and He can. And when you say "uncle" you could find that help right where you least expect it. And two, I share this with those of you who have been faithful in your walk and in your witness, but you just haven't seen the fruit. Just because you haven't seen it doesn't mean it's not there. Sometime you may see the results of your efforts. . . when you least expect it.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Definately Worth Reading

It's been a long week, so I thought I'd use my day of rest to point you to some very good posts around the web.

Gordon Atkinson at Real Live Preacher has written a post that no Christian parent wants to think about but everyone should read.

Becky/chinsup at The Faith Expedition writes a beautiful post about the God-given strength which gets us through some very difficult times, and is seeing Becky through one right now.

Over at Cerulean Sanctum, Dan has a couple of interesting points about the soft tissue recently found in a T-Rex thigh bone.

And there are literally COUNTLESS good posts about the Easter Season. Start at biscotti brain then hit northern 'burbs and stop by Rebecca writes and then just do some surfing. Many great perspectives this weekend.

I'll get around to posting something intelligent after I catch a nap or two!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Dead or Alive

I can't think of the Wild West of the late 1800's without calling to mind a yellowed sheet of paper hanging from a tree or nailed to a wall. Across the top in big, bold letters is the word, "WANTED" followed by the words, "Dead or Alive." The posters I imagine always seem to have photographs of the ornery hombre on the page as well -- always with a sneer on his face as if he is defying you to try to catch him and collect that reward. The message is clear: We want this nasty cuss out of the way and if you have to kill him to stop him, then shoot to kill. It would have to be a pretty dangerous outlaw to merit "dead or alive" status. Or else a pretty major lack of secure jail space!

I've always wanted to make one of those posters which reads, "WANTED, dead or alive, Jesus of Nazareth. Reward - Thirty pieces of silver. Wanted for Unlawful Healing, Disrespect of a Pharisee, Blasphemy and Leading a Gang of Outlaw Galileans." Then I'd tack on a couple of those well-known pictures of Jesus, but I'd change the peaceful look on His face to a scowl. I'm not sure what I'd do with it. Maybe that's why I've never gotten around to making one.

Maybe if Jesus had come to Deadwood, South Dakota instead of Jerusalem, there would have been some posters like that tacked up around the surrounding territory. That was certainly the attitude that the Pharisees had toward Him. They wanted Jesus out of the way. And they would kill Him themselves if they could figure out a way to do it without inciting a riot. Eventually they got their way. Judas Iscariot took them to an out-of-the-way place to arrest Him. They found some trumped-up charge to prosecute Him for, and craftily weaseled the Romans into performing an extremely painful execution. It was finally over. His followers would scatter like rats from a sinking ship. He was dead.

Or was He? Better guard the tomb in case those hick Galileans try to pull a fast one. And with that, every base was covered. He was dead.

With anyone else, that would have been the end of it. But Jesus Christ wasn't your average political revolutionary. He possessed power -- power over death itself.

Even the disciples weren't expecting it. Jesus was dead to them also. He had led them down the path and deserted them. He hadn't even put up a fight. It was almost like He wanted to die. Now they were alone and lost, like sheep without a shepherd. What good is a dead leader? What good is a dead messiah? What good is a dead savior? When the women came Sunday morning with their wild story, it just made the wounds that much deeper. Foolish women! Did they realize what they were saying? It was impossible! Some of the eleven had seen the spear shoved into his side and saw the last of His blood fall to the earth. He was surely dead. Wasn't He?

I can only imagine the looks on their faces when, as they sat in a locked room, all of a sudden there He was. They knew it couldn't be real. But He was. He was alive! Thomas declared it outright the next week, falling to his knees and declaring, "My Lord and My God!" No longer were they followers of a dead teacher. The details of some of those mysterious things He had said started flooding back into their consciousness. "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days!" "The Son of Man must die and then be raised to life again." It was starting to make some sense now. Well, not much sense just yet. but that didn't matter. Jesus was not dead, He was alive!

Even though over the next forty days their experiences with the risen Lord were few and far between, the attitudes of the remaining eleven disciples changed. They knew that Jesus was alive. All was not lost. The Master was back. But then one day as He was speaking to them, He started to elevate in a way that Michael Jordan would have been put to shame. He ascended out of sight. He was gone. But He was still alive; of that they were sure. And once the Holy Spirit hit them ten days later, the world would never be the same. The disciples were serving a living Lord by preaching His Good News all over town, and eventually all over the region and to the ends of the known earth.

Today there are times when we treat Jesus as though He were still dead. We try to plow through our daily problems by taking them on with our own strength. We don't bother Him for the things we're sure we can handle. Or at least we think we can handle it. But no matter. We press on, confident in ourselves; proud that we aren't so weak that we need to lean on Jesus for everything. Jesus may as well be dead to us at those times. We deny Him the opportunity to work in our lives. We ignore the shepherd and follow the other sheep into dangerous grazing lands.

Occasionally we give a token prayer toward Him. But deep down we don't expect anything. "How could one lousy prayer make a difference? Jesus? Yeah, I'll see Him in heaven, but until then I'm pretty much on my own." Foolish child. You're missing out on what a living Savior is all about.

Why do we deny the presence of a living Christ? Why are we so afraid to call on Him? Why does the Bible sit idly on the table for days while the TV remote is used so much the letters are wearing off the thing? Why are we so intimidated by the One who was put to death so we could be with Him forever? Not just in eternity, but in the here and now as well!

Jesus is alive, indeed. That means He not only conquered death, but He also lives to direct us, protect us, encourage us, teach us and give us incomparable peace. He doesn't want to be treated like a dead Savior. He doesn't want us wandering around, following the same echoes that other sheep are chasing. He wants us to relish His presence. He wants us to live for Him because He knows what is best for us. He wants to be our living Lord.

How do you see Jesus? Is He the One you turn to as a last resort or as your steady companion? Do you allow Him to show Himself to you? Do you lean on Him instead of depending upon your own understanding and your own earthly strength? Is Jesus alive to you?

Friday, March 25, 2005

Good or Bad

"I don't get it," he said. The five year-old peered through strands of brown hair as he looked up at me. His nose was wrinkled and the look in his eyes revealed the confusion in my mind. "If it's the day Jesus died, why do they call it Good Friday?"

It was an understandable question. People with greater intellects that your average five year-old have struggled with the idea. If you saw The Passion of the Christ you saw a toned-down version of what really happened on that Friday. How could something that horrific and brutal be construed as "good" when it clearly looked the opposite?

The idea of good and bad is usually a pretty elementary concept. A five-year old can usually tell you if they have been good. My three year-old daughter always makes sure that I know as soon as I get home that she has indeed been a good girl. I'm not sure she'd tell me if she was bad, but I'm fairly sure she would know. But as simple as it should be to tell good from bad, sometimes we have trouble discerning the difference. Society doesn't help things. Remember around twenty years ago when "bad" was slang for "good"? When someone told me I was a "bad dancer" I had to stop and wonder if that was an insult or not. (It usually was. Check that. It always was!) Of course anymore if someone uses the word "bad" to mean "good, he's likely to be seen as being as "hip" as if he'd just uttered the word "groovy."

Many have claimed that nothing is all good or all bad but merely somewhere between the two extremes. When agnostic-turned-theologian C. S. Lewis was considering the idea of God, he had to deal with the idea of "good." It was easy to come up with something which was pure evil -- like a criminal taking a machette and hacking off the arm of a child. But what Lewis discovered was that he could not be able to recognize evil if he had no idea of what "good" is. He said that he would not be able to recognize a crooked line if he had no idea what a straight line looked like. So the presence of evil is in itself a testament to the existence of good.

But why "Good" Friday? Because as gruesome as the crucifixion was, it was necessary. Without the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, the punishment for our sins would still be ours to bear. That means there's no way we end up in heaven because we can't pay our bill. The other obvious good from Good Friday is that without the crucifixion there could be no resurrection. And without the resurrection, as Paul put it, eat, drink and be merry because life has no meaning.

But with the cross, we have had the way cleared to be welcomed into God's family forever -- if we accept Him on His terms. And with the cross, we have the resurrection so that we know that Jesus was and is Who He said He was, and we have the guarantee that death is not the end for us.

It's amazing that God used something so horrible to do something so good. There are times when I stop and wonder why God lets so much evil exist on this earth. Then I remember that if God only allowed "good" then I'd be history in a heartbeat. But beyond that, God can use the bad that happens and turn it to good. He did it for Joseph when he was sold into slavery, but God was simply moving him to Egypt where he'd soon be an important leader. God has accomplished good with some of the darkest days of my life. I still don't know all the good that God was able to do because my son died. But I've seen the shadows of a few of the good things, and I know there were more.

"Bad" does not rule the day when God can make it for our good. Especially when a day so dark that it featured earthquakes and a pitch-black afternoon could actually be so incredible as to be remembered as Good Friday.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Betrayer at the Table

They had been together for three years. They didn't all share the same background, but they had shared an exhilarating, confusing and bonding experience. They had become brothers. Sure there were the family spats, but they each looked to their Teacher to hold everything together. The group was nothing without Him. As the twelve gathered together for a private celebration, there was a sense of foreboding. They knew it was an important night to their Teacher, and the events of the past few days had their minds reeling. They gathered around the table and as the meal was being served, suddenly there was their Master wearing a towel around his waist, holding a basin of water, waiting to do what servants weren't even expected to do -- wash their feet.

There was hardly time to recover from this demonstration of servanthood before He dropped the bombshell. They had heard a lot over the past few days, but they were not prepared to hear this: one of them was a traitor. The shock was palpable in the room. But the responses came quickly.

"Is it I, Lord?"

"Is it I?"

"Certainly it can't be me, can it?"

We're not told how many of them asked the question outloud, but we do know that one of them didn't need to ask. He already knew. He had already negotiated the price.

The others surely must have been shooting glances at one another suspiciously. How could one of the family betray their Master? It was a toss-up deciding whether it was worse that He would be betrayed or that the betrayer was reclining there at the table with them. It cut each of them to the quick. Peter, ever the showman, would eventually claim that no matter what happened, he would give his life for the Master. But the Master knew better and told him so.

It is interesting that no one seemed to suspect Judas. The gospels make it clear that Jesus pointed him out, but the eleven misunderstood. Perhaps they weren't ready or willing to believe that any of their group could ever do such a thing. How could a betrayer be at the table?

The passages which relate the events of that night are both beautiful and startling. Chapters 13 through 17 of John paint an incredible portrait that even daVinci's artistry could never touch. Yet still we are missing some images. What did Judas do when Jesus knelt before him to wash his feet? What ran through his mind when Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him? What did Judas do after he left the upper room? Why was Judas even considering such a thing?

The eleven were not phased by Judas' departure from the room. They continued to use their peripheral vision overtime, trying to figure out who the betrayer was. Surely they were scouring their memory banks, trying to figure out who could have shown a hint of being untrustworthy in the past. Yet the obvious answer escaped them until they saw Judas Iscariot leading a detachment of temple guards toward Gethsemene and giving Jesus a kiss of greeting on His cheek.

We hate traitors. There was no more disgraceful name during the American Revolutionary War than that of Benedict Arnold. Today, Arnold is probably the second-best-known betrayer in history, with the Roman, Brutus, giving him a good run for the money. A traitor is especially hated because he has received trust only to use that trust against his former friend. It's really two horrible acts in one. And we find this despicable.

Yet at the same time, we also sit at a table with a betrayer. Our best intentions and extra effort to live a Christian life are confounded by a traitor. It's frustrating. We end up saying, like Paul, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Someone keeps betraying our attempts at living a holy life, and he sits at the table with us. And too often we stupidly overlook the obvious answer, just as the eleven overlooked Judas Iscariot. The betrayer at the table can be seen if we would only gaze in the mirror.

I've made the point numerous times that the love of self is the biggest obstacle to our love of God. We try to keep control over our lives instead of submitting to the One who loved us enough to take our penalty for our own sins. Selfishness tells us to keep that dusty Bible on the table and not to pick it up. Selfishness pushes us to watch television instead of spending time with loved ones. Selfishness reminds us that we have no spare time for prayer, even when it's not true. Selfishness puffs us up, telling us that what we think is the most important piece of information the media can ever hope to report. Selfishness prods us to be sure to keep at least a piece of our life out of God's hands (after all, I'm the only one who knows what I want.)

Yet so often I seem to miss the sheer fact that the betrayer at my table is indeed, me. So why do I continue to allow myself to foul up my relationship with my Creator? Why do I look suspiciously at others, even when I know where the betrayer sits? Why am I still so in love with my own voice and my own opinion that I react out of self-defense when I am persecuted instead of consoling myself in Him? Why do I let myself repeatedly do what I hate and avoid what I want to do when the power to obey is within me in the Person of the Holy Spirit? Why do I look to blame everyone but the betrayer at my table?

Good question.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Walking Through the Graveyard

I found myself in my old hometown yesterday. I don't get there much anymore and usually when I get there I'm in too big of a hurry to look around. But yesterday I had a little time and an urge to look around. Eventually I found myself in the cemetery of this town of a thousand residents. I remember walking around there as a kid, sometimes as part of a geneology project and other times just looking around. Yesterday though, became a kind of walk through my childhood. I visited the graves of many people whom I may or may not see in heaven, but I remember them in life. I saw the grave of my elementary and middle school principal. Across the path was my grandfather's burial site and the grave of my aunt who died at the age of five months.

As I walked, I became aware of so many people who had passed to the back burner of my mind. The guy who ran the meat packing store. The lady who worked at the bank. My uncle's dad. One of my good friends from elementary school. A lady who used to drive my bus. Plenty of other relatives, including some I never really met.

As I walked, I realized there was one grave I'd never visited but had to be out there somewhere. She was my first "girlfriend." (We were in kindergarten -- how "in love" could we be?) We were good friends all through school. I had a crush on her on and off for years. She was a big encouragement to me, helping me to develop some confidence. During our senior year, we each took short trips to visit some colleges. I went with three other guys and we had fun over the next three days, seeing four different campuses in addition to downtown Indianapolis at night. She started off for a campus visit with a friend in a VW beetle about the color of a yellow tennis ball. The two of them drove about 30 minutes to the Interstate, then as they tried to merge into traffic an 18-wheeler all but crushed the beetle. My friend was taken to the hospital in a coma.

I visited her in the hospital many times. We were encouraged to talk to her, as the nurses kept saying that she heard what we said. When I went off to college about nine months later, she was still on my mind but I stopped visiting. I felt like my presence was causing her mother so much pain, hearing about the things her daughter should be doing. I kept praying.

She finally died in 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers fell. She had been in a coma for 22 years. Her parents had cared for her the entire time. She had spent some time in various hospitals but eventually was brought home where she was cared for by her loving parents year after year. When I saw her again in the casket, I would have never recognized her. She looked nothing like her old pictures.

While pacing around the cemetery yesterday, I finally found her grave. There was a beautiful stone with her senior picture etched into it. On the reverse was a beautiful quote from St. Francis. Then I looked to the right and saw another stone with the same last name. It was for her parents. Her father was still alive, but I had forgotten that her mother has passed away almost a year later. She had given so much of her life to care for her daughter that her health was horrible and her heart was broken. As I looked at the stones together I thought to myself, "This is the way we were taught to live." We're called not to live selfishly, but to live to love God completely and to love others as ourselves. My friend's mother had not wasted her life caring for 22 years for a daughter in a coma. She had followed scriptural instructions of caring for her daughter.

I often wonder what my friend was going through in those 22 years. Would she have preferred death? Should it matter if she did? Is it God's decision to take life or ours? I pray that God was able to do some incredible things for her during that time. I am positive he did not desert her.

A friend asked me about the Terri Schiavo case. He wanted to know why people wanted her to be starved to death, or why they wanted her dead, period. My best guess is that we see ourselves in the face of the less fortunate. In our limited understanding, all we see is a body driven by very little mind. We see that someone like Terri is not in control of anything; she is at the mercy of others. When many people see themselves in that situation, their reaction is fear. They fear living in a debilitated state. They fear not having control. They fear it so much that death seems preferable. And what an interesting choice that becomes for the non-believer. They would rather take the uncertainty of death over the observed certainty of living a life out of their control. Isn't that an amazing statement about the incredibly strong drive of self? But if a decision to remove a feeding tube becomes a personal fight to be able to retain control of one's life, it ceases to be about life itself. . . only about self.

I don't pretend to know everyone's motivations for their opinions. I only present what I've seen in observing some people. My conclusions aren't meant to broad-brush, but to help me understand this whole case better. I certainly feel for my friend's mother and father. At the same time I also have great admiration for them. I also greatly admire Henri Nouwen, who gave up his university teaching position to care for people who couldn't care for themselves. Yet I also understand the pull of selfishness, in not wanting to give our lives to serve others. Still I know what the Bible tells us to do for other people and I know how dangerous selfish desires can be to my relationship with my Creator and Savior.

God has allowed this stuff to perkolate in my mind since I first drove into the graveyard yesterday. And I think I am even more grateful for the gift of life, yet more aware that my life is not my own. I have been bought with a price. My undying praise and thanks to the One who bought me, and thanks as well for continuing to shape me into His image.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Of Dogma and Spiritual Birthdays

My spiritual birthday is this week. I think it would have been yesterday. Monday of Holy Week. I've explained a little about the celebrations of Holy Week when I was growing up in this post. But it was more than just the Love Feast on Thursday. During the week we also had special services most evenings. Always we had something happening on Monday and Tuesday nights. It was at one of those services that I stepped forward to publically acknowledge Christ as my Savior. We had a special evangelist in town for that week. I don't have a clue who he was. I can't even remember how old I was -- probably ten or eleven. But I had decided that the next opportunity I had to step forward, I would do it. During that service I sat in the choir loft and awaited my opportunity. Then when an invitation was made, I stepped out from the loft still wearing the goofy looking white robe from the children's choir performance.

There was no life-altering feeling I got afterward. Many people came up to congratulate me, but I am not sure I got the significance even then. I was just doing what I was supposed to do, after all. In one sense, we were all expected to respond to an altar call. But in another sense, I knew that Christ was calling me. That was part of my confusion about all the congratulations; after all I was just being obedient.

I saw an interview with Cal Ripken, Jr., the former Baltimore Oriole shortstop who set the major league record for consecutive games played. Although he understood that breaking that record was important, Ripken said that he didn't think it was as big a deal as everyone made it out to be, after all he was only showing up for work -- just doing what he was supposed to do. I had a lot of those same emotions. I hadn't had a hit-rock-bottom moment, I just knew that He wanted me. So I obeyed. But the fact that it was during Holy Week made it that much sweeter. I was experiencing spiritual rebirth while the church was celebrating the sacrifice which made it all possible. Just another reason why Holy Week stands out to me.

It's funny, but my Holy Week those thirty plus years ago didn't seem to be a lot like Jesus' last week in Jerusalem. Looking back on those Scriptures, during much of that week Jesus spent a lot of time in confrontation with the religious leaders of the day. Sure there were many times when He and a crowd of followers had a fantastic time of teaching, but we saw a different side of our Lord when He came up against those who had so corrupted the Mosaic Law. The righteous anger burned in His eyes as He took some cords, made them into a whip and started cleaning house -- His Father's house! There's something about seeing people take truth and twist it that is very frustrating. And multiply the frustration by 40 when those truth twisters are the religious. In Jesus' case it was the religious leaders. But we see the religious truth twisters today also.

Over at Walking Circumspectly, Kristen has shared part of her experience with a cult. Certainly there are many groups who claim to have the truth, but have twisted and trimmed their Scriptures to the point where only a shadow of truth remains, stuffed with legalistic and manipulative lies. Reasoning with such people is highly frustrating because they are not interested in what a passage teaches; they are only interested in how they can use that passage to fit their preconceived notions.

I've been debating with an individual over the past week who claims to know the truth, but his idea of what Scripture teaches doesn't square with exegetical interpretation -- that is the meaning taken from the text. He has his own ideas about Jews and Gentiles, about spirit and body, about divisions and unity. Yet if I show him carefully from multiple places in Scripture where his ideas contradict clear biblical teaching, he asserts that I am simply repeating "the dogma of man" instead of truth. No matter that Paul says clearly that he is mistaken, it's the dogma of man. It makes no difference that Peter makes his intentions clear, it's the dogma of man. And in truth, it gets frustrating because it appears to me that he is doing exactly what he is accusing me of doing! Yet all I can do is continue to provide the evidence and watch him try to find an excuse for denying it. And it's more frustrating yet since I believe this man is likely a sincere believer, but he has some strange ideas.

I can only imagine how Jesus must have felt when the Pharisees came up trying to ask Him a trick question, knowing that they really didn't want the answer, they wanted a reason to get rid of the One whose presence threatened their comfy power structure. I couldn't blame Jesus if it mentioned somewhere in Matthew 22 that He was banging His head against the wall of the temple! It's tough to explain truth to someone who is convinced that God is on their side, despite all evidence to the contrary.

But my little debates are just peanuts. I can deal with the frustrations. And all the research and debate only makes me sharper. But I think of all the times over the past thirty or so years since my spiritual birthday. There have been times when I have been stupidly ignorant. Ignorant because I didn't know, and stupid because I didn't bother to check it out. But gradually my dogma gave way to truth. And it continues to this day. I told my small group tonight that my picture of God will be different in ten years because I will understand more about Him. I don't know what areas God will reveal Himself to me, but I know it will happen. Perhaps it would be better described as God leading me to where He has already been revealed, but you know what I mean. I cannot be content with where I am in my spiritual journey. Just as I cannot stay 39 forever, neither can I remain stagnant in my relationship with my Savior. And that could be the most important lesson I've learned since that first birthday.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Enthusiasm

There's nothing like a new hobby that really is fun and exciting. I've had many in my life -- some of which are still passions, while others faded away. As a kid, I had a huge black superball. Actually it wasn't a superball because it was some sort of tough black rubber which was slightly smaller than a baseball. But had a great bounce. In the summer when I had a chance, I would play my own baseball games. With a mitt on one hand and the ball in the other, I played out games featuring real major leaguers, a few of my friends and any other names which came to mind. I'd often do play-by-play, although quietly so that anybody happening by wouldn't hear me.

My house had a large brick section at the front. There were no windows in the brick; just a sidewalk which ran almost next to the wall. The game was simple. To pitch, I would throw the ball hitting the sidewalk first, then caroming off the brick back toward me. If I caught it in the air, it was an out. If it came off the wall as a grounder, then I had to field the ball like an infielder and throw it off the wall on the fly and catch it for the out at first base. Runs were only scored when I couldn't catch something or if I couldn't hit the sidewalk on the pitch.

I must have played that game for at least half my waking sunny-day hours for three or four summers. Then something must have happened. Maybe the ball got lost. (There was no replacing that black super ball.) Or maybe it was the added responsibilities of my life -- more baseball, more chores, more helping at the family store. Maybe my voice was worn out from so much play-by-play. Whatever it was, my enthusiasm for the game just wasn't there anymore. I'd love to have that enthusiasm back. Shoot, I'd love to have that black super ball back.

I often wonder about the people who spread their cloaks and palm branches before Jesus that Sunday. Why were they so happy? What were they expecting from Him? Were they just waiting for Jesus to begin the long-awaited uprising to drive the Romans from the land of Israel? Were they celebrating the arrival of a new king? A prophet? A celebrity? Were they simply caught up in excitement and joined in? I wish I knew. I wonder what happened to those people. Did the same people who shouted "Hosanna!" also shout "Crucify!"?

I've always been fascinated by Acts 14. The people of Lystra had received Paul and Barnabas with great pomp and circumstance. After Paul had healed a man who had been crippled since birth, the Lystrans try to worship the two evangelists as Greek gods. The text says that even after explaining everything to the people, many still wanted to sacrifice to them. Paul and Barnabas were stars! But then some of Paul and Barnabas' enemies showed up and whipped up the crowds to the point where they got a hold of Paul and stoned him, drug him out of the city and left him for dead! We're not told exactly how long a span of time it was between worshipping and stoning, but the text seems to imply that it wasn't very long at all. The people who had to be held back from worshipping Paul and Barnabas had in short order became those who tried to kill them. Why? Were they too easily led? Were they disappointed by Paul and Barnabas' refusal to be worshipped? How can a person go from wanting to worship to wanting to kill in such a short period of time?

There are times when we move from one extreme to the other as well. We can flow through the process of infatuation with another person until it finally dies out. We can rush headlong into a hobby for a while until we get burned out. It can happen spiritually too. Our desire for prayer and closeness with God can move from hot and heavy to "when I get around to it." The Bible, which once called to us, begging to be read, can turn into a silent, dusty decorative item on the bedside table. Our enthusiasm can wane. Our relationship with our Creator can grow cold.

In my imagination, I can see the face of Jesus looking out at the crowd of people calling for Barabbas instead of for Him. And I see Him recognize a face; the face of a man with hatred etched in the wrinkles of his skin. But Jesus remembers him from another day. On that day, he wore a smile and threw down his cloak for His donkey to walk across. And a tear runs down Jesus' cheek. The same kind of tear which ran down His cheek on that Sunday as He was reminded of the rejection of His own people. And He looks at the man who is shouting "Crucify Him!" Then suddenly the man sees he has been recognized and he runs back to his home. There he sits, wondering why the enthusiasm he had felt for this arriving prophet had faded and been replaced by hatred.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

I Love Holy Week

Tomorrow it begins in earnest. It truly is my favorite time on the Christian calendar. Sure, Christmas is nice. All Saints Day is interesting. Pentecost is wonderful. But this is Holy Week. This is the time when we especially celebrate the event which all of history hinges upon. To paraphrase Paul, if there is no resurrection you might as well chuck it all out the window. And this week gives us the reason (or maybe excuse) to dig back into the final week of Jesus' earthly walk and absorb more of the meaning of what exactly happened in Jerusalem way back then.

I know that not everybody feels that way. I have debated numerous times the reason for celebrating holidays in spite of their often pagan origins. Some Christians will not even use the word "Easter" because of the pagan roots of the word. I understand why some feel that way, but I think they miss out on the experience if they lapse into a legalistic way of looking at the holiday. God has always been One to look upon the heart. And I know in my heart that when I use the word "Easter" I am not giving any sort of honor to some ancient false goddess. It's the same as a garden variety pagan giving Christmas gifts. Certainly they don't mean to honor Christ, now do they? Holy Week is important because I am honoring the sacrifice to end all sacrifices made on my behalf and the conquering of death so that I can inherit eternal life. It seems like that's worth celebrating, don't you think?

Maybe Holy Week means so much to me because of my upbringing. I was raised in the Church of the Brethren -- Dunkers as we had once been called. One of the distinctives of the Brethren was the Love Feast on Maunday Thursday. As a child, we would go to the basement of the church for a special meal. Ladies sat on one side of the room, men on the other. The meal was always the same -- pot-roasted beef cooked tender, with a side dish of "sop." Sop was bread soaked in the beef broth. I loved that beef. I could have eaten pound after pound of it. The sop I didn't care for. It was good if you like wet bread, but I prefer my bread dry. Picky eater, I know.
We would also wash the feet of the person sitting beside us. A basin of water started at one end along with a towel which tied around the waist. Slowly, the tub would be passed down the length of the tables. I would have my feet washed by the man on one side. Then it was my turn to wash the feet of the man on my other side. Often after a man's feet were washed, he would stand and give a holy kiss to the man who did the washing. I was always a little too squeamish to try the holy kiss, so I settled for a handshake. Later in my life, women that I dated would also try to get out of giving me a kiss by shaking my hand. Perhaps things were just coming around full circle!

The final part of the Love Feast was Holy Communion. We usually only celebrated Communion twice a year at our church; once on an autumn Sunday, the other time at the Love Feast. On the table, covered by a cloth were the elements. There was a small cup of grape juice for each chair at the table and long strips of unleavened bread. When time came to break bread, I took one end of the strip while the person across the table from me took the other. When instructed to, we broke the bread between us and we each ate the part we held. I even loved the taste of the bread. It was like that portion of 1 Corinthians about not gorging ourselves celebrating the Lord's Supper was written by Paul especially for me!

But the beauty of the services from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday have always been a highlight for me. I'm sure that those memories will crowd their way into my posts over this next week. But it's not just the memories. It's the realization of what I will inherit only because of what happened that week. I love Holy Week.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Comfort of a Christian Nation

I've always wondered what it would be like to be a Christian in a culture where most others are not only non-Christian, but anti-Christian. Granted, I have been to places where if I had decided to pull out a bullhorn and start reading Galatians aloud I would have been beaten to a bloody pulp. But that's not exactly what I'm talking about. What would it be like to have been a First Century Christian at a time when the Romans would use our brothers and sisters as Purina Lion Chow? For that matter, what is it like for Christians in China or Syria or Sudan? Would I have the strength to stand for Christ boldly, or would I make it a point to find my prayer closet and stay there for a few years? Would I share with someone who asked me about Jesus if I knew it was against the law?

In America, we've really never had to deal with anything like that as Christians. Sure we've had times when Christians had to stand up to other Christians and confront them on issues like slavery and civil rights, but we've never faced real Christian persecution. Now I've heard people moan and wail about things like the Ten Commandments monument in Alabama and Christmas decorations being moved off public property, but that's not persecution. If you want to hear about persecution, talk to a foreign missionary. They can tell you some stories that will at once inspire you and break your heart. In America, we don't know what persecution is.

Some would say that's because we live in a Christian nation. Others will tell you that this used to be a Christian nation, but now it is a secular nation. Still others say that while we claim to be a Christian nation, we are truly not -- kind of a stealth secular society. But among many, there is a big push to make the United States a Christian country once again, if we're not already. Or something like that.

I found this article about the recent Reclaiming America For Christ conference. Now I have the utmost respect for many of the things D. James Kennedy has done. I especially appreciate his work in the field of evangelism. One of my college roommates went through Evangelism Explosion training, so I've seen a bit of how God has used his talents for the good of His people. And I've watched his television show and seen him standing in his pulpit which has to be about 76 stories off the ground. I swear, the ushers at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church must issue binoculars to worshippers so they can see where Dr. Kennedy is standing. To me, it is similar to what it would look like if someone built a giant lectern at the edge of Pride Rock from The Lion King.

But anyway, I truly applaud James Kennedy for his service to the Kingdom, but I wonder if this emphasis on making America a Christian nation again is really the best use of his talents. Is it critical that America be a Christian nation? Now naturally I want all Americans (and all non-Americans) to be Christians. But is it a matter of life or death? Let me explain.

In this country we have it pretty easy as Christians. And I'm glad I don't have to fear being imprisoned for preaching in church on Sunday or to worry that my congregation will not be allowed to attend worship services by governmental order. But how healthy are we when we get too comfortable?

I've seen surveys where anywhere from 75-95% of Americans claim to be Christians. Yet surveys also show that well over half don't understand simple Christian doctrines such as salvation through grace or the deity of Christ. Many never even share the Gospel or even attend corporate worship. What kind of faith is that? Is that the faith to which Christ called us? There are a whole lot of people walking around with those rectangular stick-on name tags which say, "Hello! I'm ___A____CHRISTIAN_____." It's still fashionable in most circles to wear the name Christian, after all it makes you look like a good, honest person, right? Yet behind these name tags are people who claim Christ when it's convenient, but otherwise try to get my on the bare minimum of anything faith-related. An occasional emergency room prayer. Listening to the Christmas story in December. Wearing a cross necklace when it matches the outfit. These folks have fooled themselves into thinking they are truly Christians when they don't even consider putting Jesus first in their lives. What a danger a self-deluded nominal Christian can be -- to herself and to others.

Now let's take all those people and send them to China. (Not literally, but figuratively. I don't have that kind of credit limit!) What happens to the nominal Christian when there are earthly consequences to being a believer? Almost every one will turn away. If it is not comfortable to be a Christian, these people won't bother to claim Christ. Is this an improvement? Well, they won't be fooling themselves any longer. Will they be any farther out of the Kingdom? I would seriously doubt it.

Jesus told us that we would face persecution. Jesus told us that we are blessed when we are persecuted for His name's sake. Jesus even implied that there must be something wrong if we are not being persecuted. If the Gospel truly is an offense, then shouldn't we offend people by our beliefs? I'm not talking about pulling out the bullhorn. I mean we should not only know what Christ taught, but be able to live it out. Shouldn't it be a warning flare to Christians and to churches if we realize we have become comfortable?

Anything with perceived value is worth effort. If I had given up the first two times blogger lost this post for me, then my words wouldn't have meant too much in the first place. Yet I tried again. We have such a craving for comfort in this country that many will never make a commitment if it requires sacrifice. Christianity requires that we sacrifice our will for God's will.

Persecution can really be seen as a gift from God. We are as silver being refined when we go through the fire. If we refuse the fire, how can we call the Refiner our Lord? The Christians of Sudan, Sierra Leone, China, Iran and countless places around the globe understand that we are strengthened through adversity and persecution. Too many American Christians become caught up in desiring the comfortable life that we miss out on being conformed to the image of Christ Jesus through the bad times.

Our concern as Christians should not be the number of Christians in government. I am glad there are believers in positions of authority because they can push for things which are best for everybody -- morally, enviromentally and legally. However the government is not effective in evangelism. In Constantine's day, the government produced many nominal Christians. Why would we expect a different result today? Nominal Christians aren't Christians at all. What we want is for people to come to Christ, fully aware that God changes lives and usually not by making lives more comfortable. Our goal then is not for a Christian nation, but a nation (or indeed a world) full of Christians. Still we know that will not happen. But like our Father, we pray that one more would turn to Him, not to be comfortable, but to be comforted. Not to be our own, but to be His.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"I'd like to thank the little people..."

Last night I caught part of the TV Land Awards on television. If you are unfamiliar with this award show, it is to honor the actors, directors and so forth whose work we see in reruns up and down the TV remote. This is usually a pretty good show in some respects. I only got to see a little bit of it last night, but I did get to see a reunion of the old Bob Newhart Show (the one where he plays a psychologist), C. H. I. P. S. co-stars Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as well as Alan Young, who played Wilbur Post on Mr. Ed. Alan appeared with a horse, although I doubt it was the "real" Mr. Ed. Still it was entertaining while I watched. But I must admit that it was entertaining in the same way a high school class reunion is entertaining: I often found myself just wanting to see how these people looked after all these years.

What makes this award show so different is that usually the stars aren't as pretentious as the folks you see gripping trophies at the Emmys or the Oscars. In fact, it appears many are just thankful for a little attention. One of the honorees was veteran character actor Charles Lane who is now 100 years old. You probably don't know the name, but if you've spent any time watching 1960s sitcom reruns, you've seen his work. He could be best remembered in "I Love Lucy" as the "other" expectant father sitting at the hospital while Ricky Ricardo was nervously awaiting the birth of Little Ricky. Lane is the man whom Ricky asked, "Is this your first baby?" Lane answered in an annoyed, gruff voice, "It's my last." Last night, with that scene fifty years in the past, Charles Lane blew out a birthday candle and spoke into a microphone to any casting people watching, "If you're interested, I'm still available!"

But let's face it, the major award shows are all about stars and fashion. There are pre-shows to discuss what everyone will wear and post-shows to gossip about how badly some people were dressed. The awards themselves seem to be an almost an afterthought -- except to the people who were nomiated. But again, the awards game is so political that one has to be part of the in-crowd to even be noticed. I heard a comedian one time as he imagined the Grammy for Best Album going to a no-name band who could be at the ceremony because their van broke down and their manager could get out of a shift at the video store to make it!

Perhaps the most enduring image of the award show is of the acceptance speech. A few are truly touching. Most are truly boring. And a few are truly annoying. Who could forget Sally Field walking on stage to accept an award, exclaiming, "You like me, you really like me!"? But the stereotypical speech is probably one which grew out of urban legend or misunderstanding. However, maybe there was a winner who stood up and said, "I want to thank all the little people who made this possible." Of course the meaning was that they were "little" people compared to the "big" star. That sort of ego display doesn't stir my emotions as much as it stirs my stomach.

So why do we have award shows? I would guess that originally the cause was fairly noble; perhaps something like honoring great performances or amazing achievements. Today it's not as much an affirmation of a job well done as it is a cultural rite of celebrity worship. I'm sure there are people who can't be a part of the in-crowd who could really use the encouragement. But the "little" people will have to be happy with a brief, condecending mention in the big star's acceptance speech.

As a "little" person here on earth, I'm glad the big star is God. There is no condescension from Him -- there is love. Unending love. He gives the encouragement and affirmation I need. He isn't nice to my face only to insult my clothing behind my back. He doesn't look at me as a little person, but as His child, adopted into His family. His ways are not to ignore me, but to use me. If I'm still on this planet at age 100, I want my response to God to be the same then as it is now: "If You need me Lord, I'm still available!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Remembering Wild Oats Not Sown

A friend of mine was in the airport in Kansas City last weekend when he noticed a group of college-aged young adults who were waiting to board charter flights to spend spring break in Cancun and Acapulco. Apparently they were getting warmed up for the activities of the next week or so as many were already noticeably intoxicated at 7:00 in the A. M. And there was the young woman who dressed in such a way that little of her skin remained unseen while awaiting boarding. It seems like of the three major activities of a collegiate spring break -- drinking, being promiscuous and getting a tan -- only one remained unexplored. My friend had an odd observation about the whole experience. He said, "I never went anywhere on spring break in either high school or college, yet I don't feel like I missed anything, and even after seeing [this scene] at the airport, I still haven't changed my mind."

Immedately my mind went into flashback mode. Nobody went anywhere on spring break in high school unless you were with your parents. But in college, juniors and seniors planned for spring break in Florida. First of all, it was usually only upperclassmen who had saved up enough cash to make a trip like this, and second it was usually only upperclassmen who knew the best places to go. Or at least that's what they said. I heard more than a few stories of eight guys crashing in a teeny room with two single beds and a television padlocked and chained to the wall. My own roommate made a trip for spring break one year. He had a gorgeous girlfriend, so he supposedly went to get a tan and drink. I'm sure he did a lot of that. But he didn't share a whole lot of stories about Florida when he came back. I've always wondered if the abundance of peer pressure and beer pressure was too much for him.

Secretly I wanted to go with him back then. At least I thought maybe I'd like to go. Or maybe I just wanted one of those "sowing my wild oats" experiences. The alcohol wasn't a temptation. I never liked beer and only rarely was there anything alcoholic in college I even tried. I had always been a picky eater. Turns out I'm a picky drinker too! So potential drunkenness wasn't an issue with me. Getting a tan sounded nice, and I couldn't remember reading, "Thou shalt not darken the skin of thy body with sunshine," so that wasn't a real issue either. Two down, one to go.

That left promiscuity. And in truth, that really wasn't an issue for me anyway. I've already described one occasion when I showed off my lack of appeal to the co-eds. After my high school sweetheart dumped me a few weeks after she arrived on a college campus, my confidence was pretty well shot. I was overweight and usually pretty shy around women, having been through some humiliating experiences just trying to find a date for a concert. Casual sex wasn't an option simply because women found me either unattractive or too shy to worry about. So in the end the decision not to go was an easy one. If I wanted a tan, I could do it a lot cheaper in Indiana than Florida. Plus I would have to deal with rejection and drunks.

Since that spring, there have been times in my life when I wished I would have gone on that spring break. My imagination conveniently lacks much of the common sense thinking which helped make my decision back then. And in those fantasies I was free to reject the beer, but the ladies wouldn't reject me. After all, wouldn't that have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience? A rite of passage into manhood? The part about it being a selfish, indulgent sin-fest could easily be swept under the rug.

Thankfully those times don't come around anymore, and like my friend I can look back and say that I really didn't miss much. But I can go a little beyond that. I can look at those times and see Divine protection in all of that mess.

As I mentioned earlier, I never liked beer. At a college with a party reputation I tended to stick out a bit, but I never minded that much. Having no taste for alcohol kept me out of a lot of situations where I could have really gotten myself into trouble. I was never worried about a DWI citation. I wasn't worried about spending the night with my head in a toilet (except for when the dorm cafeteria served burritos). Now I had an appetite for sex like most college students, but with a "raised-in-the-church" kind of guilt about it. But since the college girls had no sexual appetite for me, I was spared all kinds of emotional and possibly physical damage. I didn't have to worry about drunk driving or unplanned pregnancies. Now 23 years ago I never would have thought to thank God for being visually unpleasant to females, but I've got to admit now that given my state of mind as a college student, I would never have had the willpower to say no. And had something happened in school, I would not have been available to the one to come who would love me for who I am. I have my wife today due in part to not being corrupted by the peer pressure and beer pressure of college.

I usually think of God protecting me by means of giving me inner strength or by placing some sort of shield around me. But it just may be that God does his best protecting in ways that we would never expect and often would never appreciate. It's yet another reason why God's will is best and my will is usually found wallowing in my selfishness. I thank God that even though I wanted to sow some wild oats years ago, today I am not plagued by the weeds of a life lived to glorify the idol of self.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Good Reading

I realized that I get so much stimulating reading by surfing various blogs, but I rarely pass it along to the three or four readers of this blog. So until I get my thoughts finalized, here are a few places to get your mind a square meal.

At Allthings2all, the Science and Christianity Showcase is posted. Lots of great thinking there. Also see some of the related stuff Kevin has written on the subject over at Short Attention Span.

Tom at Brain Twitch has posted an idea similar to something I have been working out mentally, but he stated it better than I was even envisioning. He sees the pastor as the leader of an expedition.

Amy at Poor Mouth writes about A Thing of Beauty -- "how beautiful" and "seductive" have become almost synonymous.

Kristen writes about that beautiful, mysterious relationship called marriage at Walking Circumspectly.

Wilsonian at biscotti brain discovers the Gospel According to Kramer.

At The View, Teresa writes about the woman in Atlanta who talked a killer into surrender and about the people God brings into our lives.

And at the Thinklings, Jared posts about visiting a church. You'll read more about this from me in the near future, I'm sure.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

C'mon, everybody! Sing along!

It's been over twenty years, but I still remember that night. I had stopped by to see a friend of mine at work. She worked at the front desk of a dorm, so mainly it was a time to sit and talk. It was the mid-80s and the radio was blaring out the incipid hit from Kool & the Gang, "Joanna." Being a star radio DJ (or as much of a star as I could be playing top 40 music on AM radio in the 80s), I noticed the song but tried to ignore it. Suddenly my friend turned to me and said, "I can't understand why they wrote a song about Edna!"

The look on my face must have been something to behold -- one eyebrow raised, eyes darting around the room trying to find another radio playing a different song, mind racing every which way trying to think of ANY song referring to a girl named Edna. My friend must have realized that I was confused. To clarify, she said, "THAT song!" Pointing to the radio speaker, she began to sing, "Oh, Edna, I love you. . . " By that point I was unable to even blink.

"Uh, Tina," I finally began to speak very slowly, "That song is called, 'Joanna' not Edna."

"Oh," came the embarassed reply.

I never let her forget it. But to be honest, things like that happen to everyone. You think you know the words, and you've sung along with the song for months or even years only to find out that you've been singing the wrong words the whole time.

I remember taking a request at the radio station one night. It was a man wanting to dedicate a song for his lady friend. He wanted to ask for the Kool & the Gang song (them again?), "Cherish," featuring the lyrics, "Cherish the love we had. . . " but apparently he had been confused by something because he was convinced the song was called, "Chariots of Love." I did my best not to laugh, but in my mind I could hear the guy singing in his girlfriend's ear, "Chariots of love we had. . ."

There are plenty of other examples. You can feel free to add yours to the comments section. Maybe you were the one singing "Fire and Rain" with James Taylor, only you were warbling, "Obscene Fire and Obscene Rain." Or perhaps it was a good friend of yours who belted out "Ain't no woman like the one-eyed Gott!" Or maybe still you crooned Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" with the fellas at work, except you were the one yelling, "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," instead of "Kiss the sky."

Let's face it, many times it's the singer's fault. It took my the better part of 20 years to figure out what Elton John was singing during "Crocodile Rock." And John Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival even has fun with the popular misconception of the lyrics for "Bad Moon Rising." I heard him sing it wrong on purpose at a concert, "Hey the bathroom on the right," instead of "the bad moon on the rise." I've got to admire a rock star with self-depreciating humor. Even the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was lampooned by Weird Al Yankovic playing off the fact that no one could understand the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

But you know, it's not just song lyrics that we mishear, think we know, then make fools of ourselves by singing them at the tops of our collective lungs. The same thing happens to us when we aren't really paying attention to God. We loudly sing what we thought we heard, or worse yet, what someone told us once but we never checked to see if it was true. Then sometimes we find out that what we had been singing the wrong words.

I've talked to people who were unafraid to sing out that God is an old man with a beard, yet when you check the lyrics in the Bible you find that God has no physical body, and even though He's been around forever, He never gets old. I've heard people belting out the tune that Jesus never claimed to be God, yet when I check the lyrics in the Gospels (especially John) those folks have the same command of facts as the man who called me at the radio station asking me to play Lionel Richie's "Say You'll Save Me" ("Say You, Say Me")

Why do these things happen? Often it's because we respect the person who first taught us the "faulty lyrics." Sometimes it's because we can't bear to think that we were wrong. Occasionally we refuse to consider facts because it could undermine the rest of our belief system. Usually though it's because we're too lazy to behave like Bereans. You remember the Bereans? They are the ones who got a hold of Paul's letters, but didn't take his word for it. They went back to the Scriptures to check out what Paul wrote. Sure they respected Paul, but they didn't want to be caught singing the wrong lyrics.

Laziness is inborn in most of us. I know it is readily available in my life. But Christian and non-Christian alike try to take the easy way out instead of facing a few hard facts. Like the fact that Jesus is who He said He was. And that the Bible is actually true. And that the truths of the Bible can be proven, if you're willing to work to figure it all out. But that four-letter word, work, keeps many away. And another four-letter word, fear, stops another large percentage. I hold in the highest esteem those people who are willing to look at the facts with an open mind, even if it means that something that they had sung over and over again could be wrong. And in Christians, this is a quality which is not only appreciated by God, but also expected.

You must be unafraid to examine what you believe and test it to determine whether you've been singing the right lyrics or if you've spent 28 years singing, "Welcome to the Hotel, can't afford ya'." I'm glad I'm singing the right words, and that I can stand for the truth of what I believe. The only way I can do that is by checking what I sing in the light of truth. I invite you to do the same. And if you find some lyrics that I have wrong, let me know and we'll check the sheet music together.

Friday, March 11, 2005

100 things I am not

I've noticed some bloggers who make a list to help the readers get be more familiar with whoever is posting. Many of these are lists of 100 things about the blogger. Well, it's a cute idea and everything, but I'm not big on being like everybody else. So with that in mind I give you 100 things that I am not.

1. I am not a spring chicken anymore.
2. I am not someone who has to comb his hair every morning. (Bald has it's advantages.)
3. I am not ashamed to call myself a Christian.
4. I am not satisfied with my prayer life.
5. I am not one who keeps a clean desk.
6. I am not one who keeps a clean office.
7. I am not a good example of neatness for my children.
8. I am not one to back down from a good debate.
9. I am not a person who likes a daily routine.
10. I am not an afficianado of classical music.
11. I am not a Calvinist.
12. I am not a true Arminian either.
13. I am not attractive to women.
14. I am not attracted to other women aside from my wife.
15. I am not writing #14 because I'm afraid my wife will read this.
16. I am not a morning person.
17. I am not a sharp dresser.
18. I am not a fan of network television.
19. I am not "high church".
20. I am not as free of pride as I wish to be.
21. I am not a computer expert by any means.
22. I am not impressed by fame.
23. I am not impressed by materialism.
24. I am not immune to materialism.
25. I am not fond of asparagas.
26. I am not sure how to spell asparagas.
27. I am not worthy of what Christ has given me.
28. I am not saved by my works.
29. I am not the most important person in my life. (Although I forget that sometimes.)
30. I am not wearing shoes.
31. I am not comfortable living in a city.
32. I am not especially comfortable living in a town of any size.
33. I am not a good enough worker.
34. I am not even halfway done with this list.
35. I am not into poetry.
36. I am not a musician. (Although I love music.)
37. I am not using all the talents God has given me. (Although the blog helps.)
38. I am not someone who can spend a lot of time talking about guns.
39. I am not without my faults.
40. I am not giving up anything for Lent.
41. I am not ready for Sunday's worship service.
42. I am not getting any more ready by typing this list.
43. I am not a Rush Limbaugh fan.
44. I am not a Michael Moore fan.
45. I am not a person who wants to be pigeonholed by politics.
46. I am not allergic to any medication.
47. I am not familiar with most top 40 artists today.
48. I am not easily stumped on music trivia (provided it doesn't cover the last 10 years.)
49. I am not offended by profanity except when it comes from a Christian.
50. I am not a reader of much fiction.
51. I am not sure why you've read this far.
52. I am not looking for fame by blogging.
53. I am not writing as much for the reader as I am for myself. (At least at this point.)
54. I am not sure about a proper end-times theology.
55. I am not a fan of the Left Behind series.
56. I am not comfortable going a week without being in a worship service.
57. I am not as mature in my faith as I think I should be.
58. I am not happy with the way the church is stereotyped by many people.
59. I am not suffering for my faith the way I could be.
60. I am not as understanding of a husband as I should be.
61. I am not kidding.
62. I am not overcome by worry. (Although I do have a long to-do list.)
63. I am not afraid of death. (Although I'd really enjoy sticking around this earth for a while.)
64. I am not planning on ever retiring.
65. I am not planning on joining the circus.
66. I am not doing enough planning for my future.
67. I am not any happier than when I am with my wife and children.
68. I am not opposed to being alone for a while each day.
69. I am not from a large family.
70. I am not as important as I think I am.
71. I am not getting to bed as early as I should.
72. I am not a fan of televised golf.
73. I am not normally a viewer of tennis on TV. (But when I was a kid, I sure was.)
74. I am not happy that we as Christians get too comfortable in our faith.
75. I am not happy when I get stuck in my own comfort zone.
76. I am not happy waching people simply go through the motions of worship.
77. I am not an American first. (I am a Christian first.)
78. I am not sure what my kids will be like in another 15 years.
79. I am not pleasing God with all that I do.
80. I am not reaching out to people as I want to.
81. I am not as caring to people whom I don't know. (And I hate that about myself.)
82. I am not the example for people to follow.
83. I am not comfortable asking for prayers for myself.
84. I am not consistent in the way I treat people.
85. I am not sounding very Christian, based on the last few items.
86. I am not the same person I was in college. (Thank God for that!)
87. I am not good at using my time wisely.
88. I am not too embarassed to buy feminine hygiene products for my wife at Wal-Mart.
89. I am not expecting most Americans to come to Jesus. (Although I'd love to be wrong.)
90. I am not funny. (My wife keeps telling me that.)
91. I am not the right weight for my height.
92. I am not the righ height for my weight either. (I should be 12 feet, 4 inches!)
93. I am not a bad guy.
94. I am not perfect (by any means.)
95. I am not going to proofread this list because I'm sick of it already.
96. I am not my own -- I've been bought with a price.
97. I am not as big of a fan of Christmas as I am of Easter.
98. I am not worth much of anything without my wife.
99. I am not a full-time pastor, even though I put in full-time hours.
100. I am not the smartest or the most talented, but I thank God for what He has given me.

Oh, and one other thing: I AM glad I've reached #100. Hope you are too.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Finding God in Sports Illustrated

Sometimes I have to work at it to find God in a particular situation. This blog gives many examples of how my mind will occasionally race around in different directions before I relate an event to my heavenly Father. So when I encounter Him clearly someplace where I don't expect, it takes me off-guard. But then again, He's been taking me off-guard for 43 years now.

Today, the new issue of Sports Illustrated arrived in the mail. Our subscription just began around Christmas sometime. I believe my wife got it free in one of those website deals where we get a few months subscription in exchange for approximately one ka-jillion pop-up ads. She got it for my boys, who at ages 11 and 13 can devour sports information faster than I can plow through a plate of Little Debbie snack cakes.

So while leafing through the magazine today, I noticed a quick answer sidebar with three baseball players who are playing for New York teams for the first time this season. The three were asked things like their favorite New York landmark and things they put on hot dogs. Then the last question was "What is the one thing every New Yorker needs?" Carlos Beltran, the newest outfielder for the Mets answered, "Christ in their hearts." After I picked the magazine up off the floor, I checked it again. Yup. That's what it said.

I leafed on to the college basketball spread. One of the featured articles was on Kansas University player Wayne Simien whose life was changed by Jesus Christ about 18 months ago. Simien spoke for 28 minutes to a basketball crowd on Senior Night, telling them that he wished they would "have the same love and relationship with Jesus Christ as I do." Wow. I managed to hold on to the magazine this time.

Then I skimmed the cover story about an writer's experiences with baseball's Toronto Blue Jays to find a description of a chapel service led by minor league outfielder Gabe Gross. The football star-turned baseball prospect gave a small sermon, "I know if I put my trust in God, that's really what matters most." I still held the issue in my hands, but I was really beginning to wonder. That's when I turned back toward the front of the magazine to see a picture of three elderly men on the golf course wearing nothing but hats and shoes. Yeah, a golf course at a nudist camp. Thankfully the private parts were covered, but the bellies on these guys should be kept private also. I closed the magazine knowing that Satan was still active and ugly in this world.

But I opened it up again to see the Letters to the Editor. This issue is a special issue. In college we used to call this issue the "Please Cancel My Subscription" Issue. You see, it's the issue with all the reaction letters to the editor about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

We got our copy of the Swimsuit Issue the day my wife went away for a three day shopping trip. I had no idea we were supposed to get one. I looked at it briefly, then filed it away to teasingly show my wife how generous she had been to me. Truthfully though, seeing scantily-clad women half my age isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be. The magazine went in the trash.

You'd think that most people with an interest in sports in general and sports magazines in particular would realize that for at least twenty years Sports Illustrated puts out one issue which shows women in skimpy bathing suits. Yet every year there are always angry letters in which an apparently startled reader cannot understand why there are nearly naked women pictured where articles about baseball players should be. This year was no exception. A few people got what they didn't expect from a sports magazine. And they were mad.

God doesn't always give us what we expect. Or what we want. I think of Paul praying three times for God to take away his thorn in the flesh but God telling him "My grace is sufficient." I remember Job asking, almost demanding a private audience with God for a good explanation about all his recent problems. Job got his audience, but not his explanation. I am reminded of Abraham pleading with God to save the city of Sodom, but that didn't happen either. Scripture doesn't tell us if Paul, Job or Abraham were upset with God for doing what they didn't expect, but I know human nature. We don't like it when it's Thy will be done instead of My will be done.

So what do we do about it? We learn to trust God. We begin to understand that we're not smart enough to know what is best for us. And even when we're taken by surprise by seeing God where we don't expect or when we don't get what we expect from Him, we know that He is in charge, that He is faithful, that He loves us with an undying love. What a great realization.

And even though I don't know everything in God's will, I'm pretty sure He'd appreciate it if those old guys on the golf course would put on some clothes. I know the neighbors would.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Mailbox

Today I finally finished putting up a new mailbox in front of the house. It was a necessity. We live in rural America on a country road. The mailboxes out here sit on 4 inch by 4 inch posts, about 4 feet off the ground right at the edge of the road, which makes them vulnerable to the dreaded Great American Snowplow. Mine was living on borrowed time since the first incident two years ago. The plow driver had even come back to help me remount the box on the cracked post and platform. But the healing process wasn't complete. About a month ago, a wave of snow, salt, sand and sleet off the V-shaped steel hit the box with a vengeance and broke it off the post. I managed to get it reattached, but last weekend a plow hit it full bore and knocked it off for good. Yesterday I was doing my best E. R. doctor impression, trying to get the container patched up and serviceable for another month or two. But I had to stop C. P. R. The patient was a goner. So today, the new receptacle was installed. Now I'm ready to receive snail mail again.

In my life, I've had all kinds of mailboxes. I've had the little cubbyhole post office box, the indoor apartment house box, the outdoor apartment house box, the mailbox sitting in a long row with a bunch of other people's mailboxes. . . they all do the same job. They collect the messages people, credit card companies and politicians want to send you. Now, of course, the important stuff comes in the email box, which is a new way of accomplishing the same thing.

In the Peanuts comic strip, Charles Schultz often drew the tragic hero, Charlie Brown, sitting at the base of his mailbox waiting for a valentine. The mailbox seemed to mock him at times as his heart seemed as empty as the box. Just one valentine. That's all he wanted. Especially if it was from the object of his affection -- the little red-haired girl.

Sometimes I feel like I'm sitting outside that empty mailbox, waiting for a letter; wondering why I've been ignored by my heavenly Father. My prayers seem to bounce off the clouds, or as one saint once put it, "The heavens seem as brass," with the prayers reflecting off the burnished surface. I think everybody goes through periods like this from time to time. Dry periods. Yet even when it seems the mailbox is empty, I still have a storehouse full. Sixty-six letters to be exact, bound together in one Holy Bible. And I still have the memories of the way God has brought me along and directed my path when I would let Him. And I still have the assurance of my adoption into His family, not to mention the true peace which He has given me. And if I stop to think about it, I have His presence in my life as well. The trouble is, it's easy to forget that when we get wrapped up in our feelings of rejection and isoloation.

Some Christians continue to seek new revelation. They ask God for a sign or a special "word" just for them. I don't understand why they want more than what we have already been given. Even in the driest of days when my mailbox is full of dust and cobwebs, I know that God has communicated His love for me through Jesus and made sure that the Bible was preserved so that I could read the special revelation of salvation which He gives me, but which I do not deserve. Plus He has given me an invitation to drop by anytime to talk. Even if it doesn't feel like He's there -- He's there. Feelings aren't good indicators of truth anyway.

Even if a snowplow takes out my new mailbox, God's delivery has already been made. Now it's up to me to use what he's given me, and to keep seeking His guidance.