Stuff: Compulsion and Attachment

Stuff:  Compulsion and Attachment

I’ve been thinking about stuff lately.

My stuff.

Literal “stuff.”

I have a lot of stuff.

I have an office full of books and religious mementos, and even more at home.

I have a “growing” collection of bonsai trees, orchids and cacti.  I also have a collection of bonsai pots, most of which are really too small to use.  But, I think they’re neat and fun to look at.

I have collections of statues – monks, asian “mud men,” and carvings of saints from Guatemala.

We have more chairs in our home than we’ve ever entertained enough people at one time to use.  We, likewise, have enough cups and glasses to serve beverages to more people than could actually fit in our home, including if a few were double-fisted drinkers!

My garage is packed wall-to-wall with tools, Christmas decor, future projects, my Harley, and misc biker paraphernalia.

My closets are stuffed with more clothes than I need, including, thankfully, many items that are now too large for me to wear.  Given my history of weight fluctuation, I haven’t had the courage to give away the fat clothes yet.

Though I’ve greatly reduced the collection I had, I still have an assortment of musical instruments, ranging from bongos to guitars to an 8-string ukulele.

I do have a lot of stuff.

Why so much?  Well, I’ve been reflecting on that.

None of my “stuff” is of great monetary value.  But, a lot of if has great value too me.  In some cases, the value is knowledge, as in the books I own and read.  In some cases, the value is enjoyment and entertainment, as in the plants I tend and the instruments I play.  In some cases, the value is pragmatic, as in the different clothes I wear for different occasions and climates.  In some cases, the value is beauty, as in the items decorating my home and office.  In same cases, the value is sentimental, as in the items I’ve collected from varying life experiences.  In some cases, the value is utilitarian, as in the tools in my garage.

Somehow, I confess, I’m comforted by my things.  I enjoy being surrounded by them, looking at them, using them, and remembering where I got one thing or another.  Each thing, unless it is purely utilitarian, tells a story for me.  While some feel pleasure and freedom in simplicity, and some enjoy minimalist design, I like environments that tell a story through the objects on display.

Come into my office, and we could spend hours discussing where all of the different things have come from, what they mean, and why they matter to me.  The same thing could happen in my home, or on my back porch.

I also particularly enjoy the process of searching and finding different things.  It’s like a treasure hunt!  And, at times, I enjoy passing my finds along to others, so they can enjoy them.  (BTW – I have a few plants I’d be glad to share with anyone who is interested!)

But, I also recognize my accumulation of “stuff” might be a problem.  Though I never spend a lot of money on any one thing, the accumulated value of my things is likely greater than I’d like to admit, and those dollars probably could have been used in better ways.  Things take time to maintain – especially plants and Harleys – which is time I could use for other, better, activities.  And, someday, when I’m gone, someone will have to deal with getting rid of all of it (sorry kids!).

The area I likely need to work on most is the way “stuff” can be like a drug.  I’ll admit, there’s a “high” that comes from finding the “unexpected.”  Always on the search for another book, another piece of clothing, another plant, another bonsai pot can be rather compulsive, and perhaps an escapist method of looking for comfort and pleasure in things rather than God.  It can be a way of avoiding, or numbing, negative feelings, too.

Some call it, “Retail Therapy.”

While I love all of my varied and miscellaneous things, I’ve been reflecting on how attached I am to them.  I’ve sold a few things lately, and I’m working on selling some more.  Some things I hold on to because I’ll likely want or need it later.  There are other things, though, I think I could part with… if I had to.  I don’t necessarily want to.  But, if life demanded it, I could part with any number of things I like, but don’t necessarily need.

I think that’s the goal.  Regardless of how much stuff a person has – a lot or a little, minimalist or maximalist – the issue is compulsion and attachment.  Does the thing really have value, beyond the feeling that drove the acquisition?  And, how attached am I to the thing?

In pastoral counseling, I often ask people to hold out their hands, palms up, and to imagine whatever hope, dream, desire, need, demand they have, resting in their open hands.  The point of the exercise is that when we want something badly, we tend to grip it tightly.  But, even with hands open, we still hold the thing.  The difference is, when we stop gripping the thing, it can be removed from our hands, possibly to be replaced with something better.  Or maybe having open, empty, receptive hands is good too.

So, yes, I confess, I have a lot of stuff.  I’m working on the compulsive collecting, and appreciating what I already have.  And, I’m working on holding all things loosely.

How much stuff have you got?

Enough’s Enough: Smear Ads, Social Media Posts, Gossip, and Run-of-the-Mill Slander

Enough’s Enough:  Smear Ads, Social Media Posts, Gossip, and Run-of-the-Mill Slander

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt

It always happens, as election days approach.  The TV ads switch from the candidates’ dreams and promises, to smearing the character and career of their opponents.  While I must confess a general suspicion of most politicians, I doubt many are as corrupt, immoral, and self-serving as they’re portrayed.  In fact, today, I’m watching in disgust, as long-time civic and national leaders are being maliciously disregarded and disrespected.

I always hear like-minded people say, “I just can’t wait for Election Day!”

But, the critic’s voices won’t stop after the election, will they?  Whoever loses will quickly fade from the lime-light, and the criticism will become more narrowly focused on the winners.

And, it’s not limited to politics, is it?  Depending on the day, and the issue at hand, someone, somewhere is the target of our collective ire.  The more famous one becomes, and the more public one’s judged flaws or failings, the more vocal and wide-spread the critique.

“Can you believe she wore THAT to the reward show?”

“Did you read what he tweeted?”

“Can you believe the coach made THAT call?”

“Have you heard what that pastor did?”

As I write this, I’m imagining disparaging social media posts, gone mega-viral.

I’ll confess, I do it too.  Like many others, I’m in perpetual evaluation mode, judging people according to my personal ethics, politics, theology, philosophy, and personal tastes, preferences, and biases.  And, frankly, much of the time, people just don’t measure up.  Sometimes, I verbalize by critiques.  Sometimes, I verbalize my critiques publicly.

Let me say that again.  People, much of the time, just don’t measure up to this guy’s impossibly high standards and expectations.  That’s right.  In my eyes, people come up short – WAY SHORT – all of the time.  Any given moment, on any given day, I’m keenly aware of the faults and failings of just about everybody.

  • I didn’t get treated with the respect I’m sure I deserve.
  • I didn’t receive the applause, the acclaim, or the adoration I must be due.
  • The meal, the service, the sermon didn’t meet my expectations.
  • I didn’t get the call or email I was expecting.
  • Or, I’m just feeling annoyed.

I’m exaggerating, slightly.  SLIGHTLY.  But, before judging ME for my rampant judging, YOU’d better check yourself.  I suspect you might be a guilty-critic, too.

In spite of my uber-propensity for judging others (friends, family, and strangers, alike), if I’ve grown weary of the criticisms I hear and see on TV, social media, and everyday conversations, perhaps I need to reevaluate my own critical tendencies.  If I don’t like it, why do I do it?  Perhaps, the television ads and social media posts are nothing more than public manifestations of the same demon that lives and works in me… and quite possibly in you.

  • Who am I to judge and attack the character of another, when I still have so much to work on?
  • How dare I critique another for falling short, when I can’t live up to my own standards?
  • Who am I, to condemn someone, when I don’t know their whole story?
  • Why jump to false-conclusions, based on rumors and mis-information?
  • Who made me the standard-maker, the judge, and the jury?
  • Why does my opinion matter?
  • Why be a critic, when I really don’t want to be criticized?
  • Who am I to judge another’s performance, when I’ve never attempted to do their job?

What if we critiqued others less?  What if, instead of judgement and criticism, we looked for the good?  What if, before jumping to conclusions, we gave others the benefit of the doubt?  What if we were less quick to participate in the rumor mill, and remember what we all learned in preschool…

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

What if we were more freely accepting, forgiving, and grace-giving?  What if we practiced gratitude more, and judgement less?

The truth is, the ones we criticize the most, are usually the one’s who are striving to do something good, maybe even great.  The old saying is true, “The bigger you are, the harder you fall” – and we can all think of politicians and celebrities who’ve taken hard falls.  But, setting moral and ethical failings aside…

  • The player who dropped the ball was actually playing the game, not sitting in the stands…
  • The politician you don’t like, actually ran for office…
  • The celebrity whose award acceptance speech offended you, actually won an award for their work…
  • The artist who took a creative risk, actually created something…
  • The activist who fights for a cause you disagree with is actually fighting for a cause…
  • The meal you didn’t enjoy, the sermon that offended you, the movie you hated, the class you thought was boring, etc., etc., might have actually been enjoyable for someone else…

The point is, the ones we criticize most, are actually showing up, and probably doing the best they can, for the best reasons they know.  No one – NO ONE – always sings in key, or always throws a perfect pass, or always makes EVERYONE happy.  For the most part – with some notable exceptions – everyone is doing about the best they can do.

And, here’s a closing thought to ponder.  Has criticism ever really inspired you to be better than you are?  Or, has criticism just made you feel more insecure and self-conscious?  Has it made you more defensive?  Hasn’t criticism just made you second-guess yourself more than you already do?  If I’m right – and I’m pretty sure I am – who does the criticism benefit, anyway, besides the critic’s own sinful, fragile ego?

Let’s quit being critics.  Enough’s enough.  And, let’s get in the game.

 

 

“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.