“Stay focused! Disruptions are coming!”

“Stay focused!  Disruptions are coming!”

I recently returned to yoga.

Though I’m not a big fan of most forms of exercise, I do really love yoga!   Yoga provides a teacher-led, group-based, meditative practice, building strength from head to toe, burning fat, increasing flexibility and balance – all things I desperately need.  For an hour, or so, yoga consumes the full focus and effort of my whole being.  I generally leave a yoga class physically depleted, emotionally centered, and soulfully re-charged – not to mention, pretty sweaty!

My Monday instructor is a young, petite woman, named Ariel.  She has a gentle voice, clear instruction, a steady pace, logical movements, and she challenges me to push my limits.  I’ve had a number of yoga instructors, and she rates among the best.

This morning, Ariel had us begin, lying on our backs, relaxed, slowing our breathing, and finding our “center.”  All of a sudden, the classroom doors banged open, as chatty students from a different class returned exercise mats they’d borrowed.  Then, some students showed up late to our class.  Then, a maintenance guy came in, drilling something.

Chaos, rudely interrupting our feeble efforts to achieve inner peace.

In the midst of the noisy disruption, Ariel quietly arose, walked to the center of the room, and with a strong, clear voice said, something to the effect, “Stay centered.  Focus on your breathing.  Life is full of distractions and intrusions, just like these.  You have to learn how to stay relaxed and centered – in life and in yoga – even when there are interruptions.  Hold on to your peace.  Stay focused!”  Then she returned to her mat, and continued the class.

I have to say, I was very impressed with her composure, focus, and ability to turn a challenging situation into a teaching moment.  She saved our class, and provided a great life lesson.  “Life is full of disruptions.  You have to learn to stay focused.  Don’t lose your peace.” 

Honestly, if Ariel hadn’t taken control, I was on the verge of getting up and walking out.  I’d quickly lost my focus, and was becoming increasingly irritated.  Her strong, clear instruction calmed me, helping me regain my center, leading to a great – though challenging – workout.

The truth is, that kind of thing happens to me all of the time.  I begin everyday with prayer and meditation.  I start every day centered and spiritually grounded, or try to.  But, as they say, “stuff” happens.  Something on the news or social media irritates me.  Someone misses an appointment.  A driver offends me.  I feel stressed by my “to-do” list.  I spill coffee on my freshly-ironed shirt.  Unexpected crises disrupt my well-planned schedule.  The car won’t start, or I get a flat tire.  Whatever the issue is, the peace I worked so hard to establish, and wish to maintain, flies out the window, leaving me in a frenzied state of irritable distress.

I lose my peace, all of the time.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t take much.

I bet you do, too.

As Ariel took control of today’s class, I wondered if she could possibly follow me around, everyday, reminding me when the disruptions come, over and over: “Stay focused.  Stay centered.  Breath.  Don’t lose your peace!”?  But, I’m guessing that might seem a little strange.  And, she might actually have other commitments and obligations – like yoga classes to teach.

Maybe I need to learn how to stay centered and focused on my own.

How about you?

Transcending Hell

Transcending Hell

“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.” 

C.T. Studd

Some think of Hell as a literal place of punishment, awaiting sinners on the other side of death…

  • an eternal destination for the damned…
  • a deep abyss, beneath the earth….
  • a burning lake of eternal fire and brimstone…
  • a state of eternal torment and suffering, where there’s never-ending weeping and gnashing of teeth (what is teeth-gnashing, anyway?)…
  • the underground lair of the Devil and legions of demons…
  • unending, irreversible separation from God.

I’m increasingly doubtful of Hell as a post-life destination.  I just don’t read much evidence in Scripture to support Hell being more than a metaphor for eternal separation from God, which I do believe in.  I could be wrong.  Maybe Hell is a literal place.  I guess we’ll all find out, eventually.

To me, belief in an eternal Hell feels more like a threat, motivated by fear.  God doesn’t need threats to attract us.  God is good, and the offer of eternity with God is very good.  God doesn’t need the fear or threat of an eternal hell to motivate us.  That sounds a bit too mobster for me.

But, that being said, I do still believe in Hell.  Perhaps there is an eternal state of Hell, for those who choose it (for more on this, read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce).  But, if Hell is separation from God, Hell isn’t necessarily a future destination.  Hell, for some, is a PRESENT reality.  Hell can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

Hell is anywhere a person feels cut off from God.  I don’t really believe anyone or anyplace – including Hell – is cut off from God, entirely.  Psalm 139:7 asks, Where can I go from your Spirit?Where can I flee from your presence?”  The answer?  “Nowhere!”  But, undeniably, there are times, places, situations, experiences in this life when a person might FEEL cut off from God…

  • When a victim is abused or assaulted.
  • When a person is trapped in addiction.
  • When trust is betrayed.
  • When a person is sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
  • When someone has lost their way, and keeps wandering farther and farther and farther astray.
  • When a person is belittled or dehumanized for their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • When fear is greater than love.
  • When a person is a victim of injustice.
  • When lies speak more convincingly than Truth.
  • When a person is caught in endless, grinding cycles of poverty.
  • When EVERYTHING seems hopeless.
  • When a person is haunted by the sins of their past.
  • When it feels like there’s nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
  • When a deepening darkness blots out the fading, dimming, failing light.
  • When pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – overwhelms.
  • When a person cannot escape the consequences of their sins.

I recall a recent conversation about the success of so many conservative, mega-churches, and how many have transitioned from being historically “traditional” to something much more modern and contemporary.  I wondered aloud if their success has anything to do with their belief in Hell?  I wonder if believing “lost” people go to an eternal place of suffering motivates members to “save” people, no matter what it takes, before it’s too late.  I don’t wonder.  I’m sure that’s the case.

But, what if the Hell people need saving from, most, isn’t in their future?  What if the “lost” are already in Hell, in this life?  What if the “saving,” lost people need, isn’t just from a future Hell, but a current and present one?

What if Hell exists in…

  • broken homes and families,
  • poverty-stricken neighborhoods,
  • brothels, strip-clubs, porn-studios, and red-light districts,
  • the bottles or needles of every addict,
  • loneliness – real or perceived,
  • racist/discriminatory attitudes, practices, and policies,
  • where the abuser’s hand touches the victim’s flesh,
  • unsafe school yards,
  • the bully’s threats and verbal assaults,
  • corrupt, unjust governments and leaders,
  • the hearts of many men and women, children and teens, young and old, friends and family, neighbors and coworkers,
  • prisons, homeless shelters, mental hospitals,
  • the minds of the mentally ill,
  • the bodies of the sick and dying,
  • the news of a tragic death or suicide,
  • broken, betrayed hearts…

What if the person/people we live with, work with, ride the bus with, eat lunch with, do business with, is/are currently living in a Hellish state, and we don’t even realize it?  What if they desperately need us to realize it?

What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to rescue people from their current Hell; not to avoid their Hell, or to stand back and judge them for it?   What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to set people free from their current Hell, and to invite them into a new, better, godly reality?  What if our job is to be Heaven on Earth, even in the midst of the Hell people are currently enduring?  What if our job is to enter the Hell of others, while remaining deeply anchored in a higher spiritual reality?  What if our job is to find them in Hell, and lead them out?

What if Hell isn’t an eternal state, but only lasts as long as a suffering person must wait for you or me to crash down the gates, keeping trapped inside.

What if our job, Christians, isn’t to avoid Hell, but to dive into the thick of it, shining our light into the inky darkness, releasing the prisoners and rescuing the captives, transcending Hell together, into God’s glorious light?

Transcend:

transitive verb

1ato rise above or go beyond the limits of

bto triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of 

cto be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

2to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality, or power

intransitive verb

to rise above or extend notably beyond ordinary limits

Who do you know currently residing in Hell?  What are you going to do about it?

Another question to ponder, Church:  based on my definition of Hell, have we (The Church) done more rescuing FROM Hell, threatening WITH Hell, or treating people LIKE Hell?  Think about it.

 

Look for the good

Look for the good

A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.

I’ll never forget the first book.  None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections.  I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book!  Obviously, HE like it.

I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections.  He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book.  Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas.  Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership.  You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not.  In my class, I don’t want to see another critique.  I want to know what you learned.”

That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day.  By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything.  I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me.  But, the point of the assignment was to learn.

How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing?  What arrogance!  What a loss!

I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator.  But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else?  Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t.  But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect.  Affirm the good.  Celebrate the good.  Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”  

Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are.  What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).

If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing.  C was considered average.  Think about that.  Average: normal, typical, to be expected.  C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm!  Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs.  But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!

There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose.  ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary?  Pastor.  Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary?  Pastor.”

And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong!  I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School.  On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests.  As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.”  Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation!  It was still a failing grade!

My point?  Perfection is impossible.  But, better than average happens all of the time.  Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed.  A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!

Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose.  But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).

When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.

If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me.  I seem predisposed to it.  I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course.  The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s.  The downside is, critics can be JERKS.  Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it!  I really don’t want to be a jerk…

So, here’s my suggestion.  When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…

  • The benefit of the doubt:  Maybe you misunderstood.  Maybe there’s more to the story.  Maybe you missed something.  Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
  • Celebrate the Good:  Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
  • Acceptance:  Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates.  We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement.  But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful.  Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
  • Humility:  Are you really so perfect?  Never burnt a meal?  Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class?  Never misunderstood something?  Never said something you wish you could take back?  Never taken half-measures?  Never spilled your milk?  Never changed your mind?
  • Receptivity:  Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut).  Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open.  Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.

Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!”  She seemed so surprised!  In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive.  On others, I’ve very traditional.”  All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.”   Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years.  I responded, “That’s really not unusual.  Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.”  She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”

The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole.  Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others.  No single word defines me!

Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate.  I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.”  That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.

My advice – look for the good.

 

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

I should confess, from the start, I don’t watch professional sports.  I’m not into it.  I actually have some strong objections to professional sports, for a number of reasons.  But, for now, and for the sake of this particular conversation, let’s just say, professional sports aren’t my thing.

But, I’m aware, especially with the release of the new Nike ad, starring Colin Kaepernick, of the controversy surrounding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem.  Though the “kneelers” have many supporters, there are many others, including our President, who are deeply offended by their actions.  Everyone, on both sides, seem to have strong feelings, for or against.  Few, are neutral!

While my point is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of professional athletes  – or anyone else, for that matter – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, it only seems fair to begin by attempting to objectively explain both sides of the debate.

At the start of the 2016 season, NFL.com quoted Kaepernick, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  To Kaepernick, and others who have followed his lead, kneeling is an act of protest against the unfair treatment, and killing, of African-Americans by an unjust system of law enforcement and criminal justice, and the expression of their First Amendment right to free speech.

From the opposite perspective, encouraging the NFL to require players to stand for the National Anthem, in May, 2018, Fortune.com quoted President Trump saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.”  I’ve heard other’s, of similar perspective, argue that kneeling during the National Anthem is a direct offense and assault on all who’ve fought for our country, and the freedoms we all enjoy, including professional football players.

My point, here, is not to argue for either side of this debate, or the rightness or wrongness of this particular form of protest.  A brief study of the facts will demonstrate, incontrovertibly, racial discrimination does, in fact, exist, in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, to shocking degrees.  If you don’t believe that is true, study the facts.  Like I said, the facts are undeniable.

But, the facts aren’t really the point, are they?  Something about the act of taking a knee deeply offends some Americans – I mean, REALLY offends!

Some players who kneel have thoughtfully articulated their motives and intent.  Kneeling, thus far, is not a violation of NFL policy.  Kneeling, doesn’t break the law.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have significant impact on game attendance, viewership, or profitability.

But, it sure does make people mad!

So, yesterday, after a sermon on discipleship and spiritual transformation, I was asked my position on the kneeling controversy, and if my denomination has an official position for or against it.  I have to imagine this person wasn’t listening to my message, if kneeling was the topic on his mind.  It’s not the first time I, as a pastor, have been asked my opinion on this.  Usually, the person asking is against the players kneeling, and assumes I am too.  And, asking me, as a pastor, implies the “asker” assumes the act must have some theological significance.

In other words, if it offends, it must be a sin.

It’s not.  It’s not a sin.  Kneeling, during the playing of National Anthem, may be offensive to you.  It may even be “wrong.”  But, it’s not a sin.

Whether or not professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is the “right” expression or venue for protesting this particular issue isn’t for me to say.  As a white man, who has never experienced the particular injustices being protested, I have no right to judge or condemn the rightness or wrongness of the particularity of the protest.  Arguably, if the act has offended, it’s achieved it’s purpose.  The question is whether those offended will condemn the act, or willingly listen and learn about the reason for the protest.  And, will the protest lead to real societal change?

Christians – particularly white, patriotic, American Christians – offended by players kneeling, ought to keep in mind Jesus’ awkward relationship with the authorities of his day.  Jesus offended, with frequent regularity.  The religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – were constantly offended by Jesus’ actions, by his teachings, by his lack of respect for their religious practices and traditions, and even their positional authority.  You may recall Jesus treating the political rulers, Herod and Pontius Pilate, rather dismissively, saying he was the King of a heavenly kingdom – which happened to be invading the Earth!

Though Paul taught about maintaining peace with political authorities, he also said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12)  In essence, earthly governments and laws can be evil, and evil must be exposed and resisted.

The entire Book of Revelation is a deeply-coded protest against Caesar and the Roman Empire.  I’ve no doubt Caesar and his supporters would have been deeply offended, if they just could have figured out what all those colors, numbers, and beasts represented (them!)!

And, like Jesus, in New Testament times, offending the governing rulers often led to dire consequences!  Offending those in power, and in the majority, often does.  Maybe, that’s the point players are trying to make.

But, we live in a different place and time.  We live in a nation of laws, intended to be just.  We live in a nation that allows, and supports, freedom of speech – even when it offends.  When injustices occur, in our nation, public protests result; like it or not.

So, what is the appropriate Christian response to NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem?  There isn’t one.  But, may I, humbly, suggest the following…

  • Remember, the Bible always sides with those who are victims of injustice.  Whether you agree with this particular form of protest, or not, learn about the injustice it is protesting.  Don’t allow the offense of the protest to blind you to the reality being protested.
  • Remember the Bible’s teachings about not judging, allowing for diversity of opinion, and even loving your enemies.
  • Remember, the Bible affirms the sacred value and worth of every person – even the person who offends you.
  • Remember the biblical teaching on humility.  You might be wrong.
  • Remember, patriotism is not the same as faith in Christ.  While you may deeply love your country, love for the Kingdom of God is something entirely different.  Our primarily allegiance is to a heavenly King and his laws.  What offends you, politically, isn’t necessarily a sin.
  • And, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on how the values of professional athletics align (or don’t) with the values of the kingdom of God.  Maybe, from a Kingdom perspective, there’s a lot more sin to be offended by in professional sports, than whether or not a player stands for the National Anthem!  But, that’s a conversation for another blog.

Perhaps some advice, for Christians, from the Book of James, is a good way to close… My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Have I offended you?

Worship: Where is everybody?

Worship:  Where is everybody?

Last Sunday, I played guitar and sang at our contemporary worship service.  I don’t play in church very often, and I don’t claim to be very good.  In fact, I play and sing so rarely, my meager abilities are always on the far-to-rusty side.  But, in spite of my rust and musical limitations, I love the rare opportunities I lead people in worshiping God in song.  At one point, Sunday, as I sang, I was overcome with emotion and nearly cried.  Crying and singing is really, really hard!

While I don’t play and sing in worship, often, I do preach on an almost-weekly basis.  Preaching is my true passion.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon preparation.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon writing.  I hear some preachers struggle with nerves, delivering sermons.  I hear some preachers are worn down by preaching EVERY week.  I don’t struggle with any of that.  I love it, from beginning to end!  I’m not claiming to be a great preacher – I just love doing it!  If I could give 100% of my time to preaching prep and delivery, I gladly would!

In fact, I enjoy all facets of worship – traditional/liturgical and modern/contemporary.  I love planning worship.  I love spontaneous worship.  I love singing hymns and contemporary worship songs.  I love traditional liturgy and technology.  I love the “smells and bells” of “high” church worship, and hands lifted in praise, in contemporary services.

I love planning worship.  I love leading worship.  I love worshipping from the pew.  I love all of it.

But, in spite of my passion for worship, I have growing sense something about worship isn’t “working.”

Throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, Sunday morning worship – regardless of form or style – has been the primary function of every local church I’ve known and served.  Yes, churches have meetings, Bible studies, missions, fellowship, etc. throughout the week.  But, worship draws the crowd.  Worship requires most of the church’s collective time, energy, focus, talent, facility, and funding.

What’s the largest (and least used) building on a church campus?  The sanctuary.  What’s the largest portion of the budget?  When you add up everything – from salaries, to utilities, to property maintenance and insurance, to the cost of music – I suspect Sunday morning worship represents the largest chunk of a church’s expenditures.  Why do churches require so much parking?  Only one reason: Sunday mornings.

Likewise, throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, worship attendance – across the nation and across denominations – has been, and is, statistically in decline.  Sanctuaries and church parking lots are less and less full on Sunday mornings.  Even the super-successful, fastest-growing mega-churches are noting a decline in weekly worship attendance.

Why?

One reason is, younger people aren’t attending worship services like the older generations.  We’ve all heard about the growing numbers “nones” and “dones.”

Another reason is the growing affluence in our country.  In spite of many claiming to have financial struggles, overall, more and more people can afford to travel, participate in sports, buy a boat, go to a concert or movie, renovate their home, pay to run a marathon, own a boat, or go to the beach for the weekend.  When you can’t afford to do those things, you might be more likely to stay home and attend worship.  But, when you can, you do.

Another reason is technology.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can watch or listen to the very best preachers and worship bands, often “live,” from the comfort of your own home and Laz-i-boy recliner, in your boxers and bathrobe, rather than getting dressed, dragging the kids, dealing with the traffic, sitting in a hard pew, and being hounded about giving your tithes and offerings.  Oh yeah, you can avoid human contact too!

Which leads to another reason: consumerism.  Rather than viewing worship as something we do, together, in service and duty to God, we’ve turned worship into a spectator sport – a form of spiritual entertainment.  If worship is just entertainment, we’ll never compete with what the world has to offer.  Whether it’s a 3-D surround-sound movie theater, a sporting complex, or Walt Disney World, church-as-entertainment can’t compete.  Nor should we.  We aren’t in the entertainment business.  But, as long as we approach worship as consumers, rather than contributors, worship will be little else.

And, another reason is the current climate of divisiveness in our country.  We are as divided and polarized as ever.  I find everything I say “from the pulpit” is scrutinized more than ever before, for signs of hidden biases and agendas.  I do have biases and agendas.  But, they aren’t hidden.  You don’t have to search for them.  I’m usually pretty open and honest!  If people don’t agree with the pastor’s preaching, rather than being challenged to think and reconsider their beliefs, they just leave.

I’m sure there are as many reasons for NOT regularly attending a worship service, as there are people who regularly do not attended worship services.

So, I’m beginning to wonder, what if it’s time to reevaluate the Sunday worship gathering as the PRIMARY function of a local church?  I’m NOT suggesting we should stop worshipping together.  Rather, I wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, corporate worship will be in smaller, less formal settings, and not necessarily in church sanctuaries, on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps worship will happen more organically, and even more frequently, when Christians gather to share a meal, or for a small group Bible study, or to serve together.  I wonder if worship, in the future, will be more relational, more face-to-face, more conversational.  If wonder if worship will be less professionally driven – by paid preachers and musicians – and more lay-led.  I wonder if worship will happen less in sanctuaries, and more in homes, parks, coffee shops, yoga studios, gardens, around dinner tables.

And, I wonder if Church will become more dispersed; perhaps, fewer large-group gatherings, and many more smaller gatherings for study, service, worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, etc.

Think of worship in the Bible.  Yes, we can all think of some large gatherings – the Sermon on the Mount, the day of Pentecost, the annual Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.  But, I get the impression that most corporate worship, in biblical times, wasn’t very much like what it’s become.

Please hear me.  I’m not trying to be prophetic, predictive, or prescriptive.  I’m not implying any “shoulds.”  I love the ministry of corporate worship, and am saddened to watch it decline.  It’s what I know and what I love, and I hate the idea of losing it.

But, I’m just wondering.  I’m wondering.

I do think there’ll continue to be a place for the Sunday worship gathering, at least in the foreseeable future.  I do think corporate worship continues to be worthy of our best efforts.  I still think there’s a role, thankfully, for professional preachers, worship leaders, organists, etc.  I still think there are opportunities to offer both traditional (and contemporary) worship services, as well as new and innovative worship experiences.  There are still churches with growing worship attendances, and we should pay attention to how and why that’s happening.

But, perhaps its time to expand our minds.  Perhaps its time to expand our understanding of what worship is and who it’s for.  Perhaps its time to expand our vision for what Church can be.  Perhaps – brace yourself – it’s time for change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?