God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Who is My Enemy?

Who is My Enemy?

My day began, preparing for my Friday morning Bible Study.  We’re currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, and our passage today was the end of Matthew 5, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Included in that group of teachings is the instruction to love our enemies, which raised the question, “Who is my enemy?”

I’ve been chewing on that question all day.  The Greek word for enemy, used in the New Testament, is “echthros,” which means someone who is openly hostile, hateful and actively seeking to do me harm.  With that definition in mind, “Who is my enemy?”

A few moments ago, I had an unexpected visit from a family from New York, who are members of a Bruderhof community.  Members of Bruderhof communities are Christians, living in community, sharing all things in common.  Their purpose is to live as close to the values and ways of the New Testament Church as possible.  Bruderhof communities began in Germany, but now exist all over the world.

This particular family is here, in Coral Springs, to serve our community in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Their primary message is the need for love and forgiveness.  Can you imagine traveling across the country, giving more than a week of your life, to share about forgiveness?

So, my day has been bookended by two common themes – “Who is my enemy?” and forgiveness.

I know I’m not everyone’s favorite person, and that some may not like me at all.  But, I sincerely hope no one thinks of me as an enemy.  Though I’m the target of an unfriendly word from time to time, I know that comes with being a pastor and a leader… and being an imperfect human.  But, the messenger, no matter how harsh the message, is not my enemy.  As the New Testament defines “enemy,” I’m grateful to say I don’t have any that I’m aware of.

You’re not my enemy if you disagree with me.  Your’e not my enemy if you yell at me.  You’re not my enemy if we vote for different candidates.  You’re not my enemy if we have different theologies, or interpretations of Scripture.  You’re not my enemy if you leave an angry reply to this post, or any other.  You’re not my enemy if you leave something distasteful on my social media (though, I’ll likely delete it).  You’re not my enemy if you cut me off in traffic… well, maybe…

Jesus, undeniably had enemies.  They crucified him.  The earlier Church had enemies.  They were persecuted.  Though I’m not always popular, I’m thankful I’ve never experienced having an enemy, actively seeking to do me harm.  At least, not yet.

But, forgiveness, is a different matter.  I need to be forgiven, for a lot.  There are lots of people I need to forgive, that aren’t necessarily my enemy.  I need to forgive family, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ.  I need to forgive people I love.  I need to forgive some people I don’t particularly like.  I need to forgive myself.  I may even need to forgive God.

And, I wonder if the longer we don’t forgive someone, the more likely we may begin to see them as an enemy?  I wonder.

Whose your enemy?  Who do you need to forgive?

 

 

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

About a year ago, I heard a Korean-American, female pastor challenge white, male, North American pastors to stop reading white, male theologians for the next year.  Her point was, we need to broaden our theologies and perspectives by adding new voices into our learning.  And, I think, her point was, white men reading white men was a bit like reading in an echo chamber – just hearing the same voices repeated over and over and over, reinforcing firmly-established belief-systems.

I didn’t obey her challenge perfectly.  I’ve still read a few white, male authors.  But, I respectfully took her point, and have expanded my reading by intentionally selecting a broader range of authors, than I  have in the past.  And, I’m so glad that I did!

Over the last year, or so, my reading has included, in no particular order…

  • Desmund Tutu – male, South-African
  • Pope Francis – male, Argentinian
  • Dorothy Day – female, Anglo-American
  • Makoto Fujimura – male, Japanese-American
  • Renita Weems – female, African-American
  • Ta-nehisi Coates – male, African-American
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – male, African-American
  • Deidra Riggs – female, African-American
  • Lisa Sharon Harper – female, African-American
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – female, Anglo-American
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – female, Nigerian
  • Bryan Stevenson – male, African-American
  • Oscar Romero – male, El Salvadoran

This is a challenge I’m glad I accepted, and intend to continue.  The truth is, my shelves are covered with books authored by white men.  While many of them are brilliant and deeply spiritual, they do tend to speak from a vernacular of common life, education, and experience.

By adding new and varied influences, my perspective is being broadened and deepened.  I’m increasingly, painfully aware of the inherent advantages I have as a white, Southern, college-educated, man – advantages I’ve taken for granted, perhaps even assuming I have “earned.”  I’m increasingly aware of the disadvantages others have, simply because of their gender, skin-color, ethnicity, or country-of-origin.  I’m increasingly aware of injustice and unfairness, ways that I’m complicit, and ways that I’m called to live and lead differently.  I’m increasingly aware of my wrong assumptions, attitudes, and biases.

My eyes, and my mind are being opened.  And, while that’s not always easy, I am thankful.

While white, male authors are not permanently banned  from my bookshelves, I plan to continue reading an increasingly diverse group of authors.  I plan to continue being challenged, stretched, and deepened.  I encourage you to do the same.

I wonder, any non-white, male authors you might suggest I read next?

 

Ignoring the Bible

Ignoring the Bible

I’m always reading fiction, along with whatever else I might be studying.  I’m currently ready Annie Dillard’s, An America Childhood.

Dillard speaks as a girl, growing up in Pittsburgh, in the mid-Twentieth Century.  About midway through the book, she describes the character’s exposure to church, summer church camp, and the Bible.  She writes,

“The adult members of society adverted (referenced) the Bible unreasonably often.  What arcana!   Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes?  If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it.  They didn’t recognize the vivid danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a case of its wild opposition to their world.  Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them.”

Read it again, and let it sink in.

Now, read it again.

“this scandalous document…”

“they would have hid it…”

“vivid danger…”

“its wild opposition to their world…”

“and ignore them…”

According to Dillard’s character, the Bible is a scandalous, dangerous document, that through repeated exposure can awaken us to the fatal flaws of this world, and that we act like we believe, but usually just ignore.

What if Dillard is right?  What if Scripture is dangerous?  What if we didn’t ignore Scripture?  What if we, instead, through repeated exposure, caught “a case of its wild opposition to their world?”  

I think we need a lot more of that!

 

The Black Panther and the Church…

The Black Panther and the Church…

Sunday afternoon, I watched the long-awaited and much-anticipated movie, The Black Panther.  I thought it was excellent.  But, when it comes to super-hero movies, I’m easy to please!

The Black Panther is both a super-hero and the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda; a small central-African nation, presenting itself to the world as poor and “third world,” while concealing incredible wealth and advanced technology.  Tradition, and fear, have kept the advanced Wakandan society hidden from the world, for generations, all-the-while possessing gifts that could address the world’s greatest needs.

Underlying the primary story-line of the movie are questions about Wakanda’s purpose. Should Wakanda remain hidden from the world, keeping its precious gifts to itself?  Or, should Wakanda use it’s technology to improve, or possibly punish, the world?  Are these gifts to be shared, protected, or hoarded?  Does Wakanda exist for itself, and its personal hoard?  Or, does Wakanda exist for the sake of the world?

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t help but think of the Church.  We also have a treasure the world desperately needs.  We, the Church, also struggle with the purpose of our existence.  Do we exist for ourselves?  Or, do we exist for the world?  Are we a kingdom in hiding, or a kingdom advancing across the earth?  Is this treasure intended for us to keep to ourselves?  Or, is the treasure meant to be shared?

Many would argue the Church isn’t hidden, that our doors are open, and that our treasure (God) is available to all.  True.  But, I would argue thousands drive by our churches every day, with no knowledge or understanding of what we are, what we do, or why we do it.  For all practical purposes, we might as well be hidden.

But, we don’t have to be.  We have the greatest treasures of all (God, and each other), and there’s more than enough to share.  We have treasures the world needs.  We have treasures that can change the world.

Every Marvel movie has an added post-credit scene – sometimes more than one.  In one of the two post-credit scenes, the Black Panther, as King T’challa, stands before the United Nations, announcing Wakanda’s plans to share its treasures with the world.  One of the UN delegates, not knowing what Wakanda has hidden, ignorantly asks, “What can a third-world nation, like Wakanda, possibly have to offer us?”  The scene ends with T’challa smirking.

Perhaps the world is asking the same of the Church.  “What can the Church possibly offer the world?”   We know.  Lets show them!

 

 

Heroes

Heroes

“God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory.” St. Augustine

I’ve been thinking about my heroes.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I heard something, or read something about heroes.  Perhaps it’s the talk of the heroic acts of students, teachers and coaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Perhaps it’s just a thought that randomly popped in my head.

Actually, I’ve been pondering what my particular heroes say about me.  Is there something about who they are (or were) or what they do (or did), that speaks to who I strive to be?

As an only child, I spent a lot of time, growing up, alone – as most only children do.  As an introvert, I didn’t mind.  That space, I think, helped me develop a lively imagination.

In third grade, I discovered comic books and super heroes, and I was enthralled.  I quickly discovered a small comic book store, within a bike-ride of my house. In addition to new comics, and boxes and boxes of preserved comics in plastic bags, there was a box of old, used, worn and torn comic books, for only $.25.  Just about every quarter I earned, found, or was given, was spent buying $.25 comics.

By the way, I still have most of them.

My favorites were Superman and Batman, but I loved them all.  At one point, I created and drew my own super heroes.  I loved their courage.  I loved their super-powers.  I loved their cool hideouts, vehicles, and weapons.  I loved how they always saved the day, no matter how terrible the schemes of their evil foes.

Though I haven’t read a comic book in ages, I absolutely love all of the super hero movies of the past decade.  In fact, while some are more critically acclaimed than others, I’ve yet to see a bad one.  A “bad” super hero movie, to me, is still better than just about anything else!

While I still love the heroes of fantasy, I’ve also accumulated a growing list of real-life “super” heroes.  Though most of my heroes are “known,” at least in certain circles, few are/were rich, or powerful, or successful by “worldly” standards.  Though some have risen to honorable positions, and received accolades, few are/were motivated by such things.

My heroes of history include St. Francis, who abandoned wealth and comfort to serve God and the poor; Mother Teresa, who ventured into the dangerous streets of Calcutta, to serve the sick and dying; John Wesley, whose passion for God and dissatisfaction with the spiritual status-quo sparked a movement; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor; Oscar Romero, who was martyred for standing with the poor of El Salvador;  Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred for his fight for justice on behalf of people of color.

My living heroes include Pope Francis, as he leads the Roman Catholic Church (and all of us) from a place of humility and love for ALL people; Barack Obama, who consistently demonstrates leadership with character; Jimmy Carter, who may not be remembered as a great President, but has given his life to Christ-centered service; Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, author and activist, fighting for the lives of death-row inmates unfairly tried and sentenced.   Dona Maria Tomasa, an incredible Mayan woman, and dear friend, who overcame the destruction of the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal murder of her husband, to lead a weaving cooperative for widows, called “Ruth and Naomi,” that now sells hand-made products internationally; my Bishop, Kenneth Carter, who leads from a place of consistent, grounded, Christ-centered hopefulness; and many, many, many of my former students from the Florida State University Wesley Foundation, who are now leading and serving to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on my heroes, I see themes emerge: leadership, humility, dissatisfaction with the status quo, authenticity, fearlessness in the face of opposition, service and sacrifice, courage, commitment to change, depth of character, belief that a better world is possible, perseverance, overcoming hardship and resistance, and a deep passion for God.

As much as I love the “super” heroes of my childhood fantasies, I’ll never possess a superpower.  But, as I look at my list of real-life heroes, I see much I can strive to imitate.

I wonder if that’s why certain people become our heroes?  Perhaps they represent who we wish we could be.  Or, perhaps, they represent, to some degree, who we can be.

Who are your heroes?