Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Confession

Hi, my name is John, and I'm a complainer. You show me just about anything, and I can find something wrong with it. I have the spiritual gift of complaint.

I call it different things: discernment, critical thinking, observation. It's complaining.

I'm sitting here in Starbucks with my headphones on because I don't like their taste in music. How many times do we need to hear Burl Ives singing, "Have a Holly-Jolly Christmas"? Never mind the fact that I'm sitting in a dry, warm place with a full belly and a laptop computer. I just want them to stop the horror that is Burl Ives.

Oh, and I'm also ungrateful. I think the two may go together. I rarely say thank you to my barista. I never thank God for my ears. Or my taste buds. I just take things like that for granted.

Whew! That felt good. Just knowing that there are four or five people who know this about me helps.

Okay, here goes...I'm going to attempt a thankful sentence with no complaining: There is nothing wrong with "Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor," and I am grateful for headphones and http://www.mostlyclassical.com/.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

In Case You Were Wondering

I know that for every person who speaks up, there are probably five people who are thinking it but choose not to say anything.

So, for the five of you who may still be wondering: Distraction.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

To See Him As He Is

Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the workload. Whatever it is, it's got me in a funk, and I can't seem to shake it.

I'm in a time of need right now, and I'm trying to fix myself -- pump myself up -- get myself psyched up, but it ain't working. I can't muster my gumption any more than I can pick myself up off the ground by my own shirt collar. How easily I forget that my greatest need in times of great need is to see God as he really is.

I suppose the timing is good after all. We enter this week into the season -- the one time of year when it's okay to deal with God as he really is: humble and approachable, fiery and exasperated, noble and holy. We learn from Jesus who God really is, what his heart's desire is, how he would act and what he wants from us.

Other times of the year we give thanks for the death he died. This time of year, it is entirely appropriate to give thanks for the life he lived. To see him as he is -- to come undone in his presence -- to ask him to put us back together again. That's my greatest need in times of great need.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Opportunity or Distraction?

Sometimes I wonder what in the world I'm doing. I am a writer, and a church consultant. That is how I make my living these days. I don't know how many of you have tried it, but writing is really hard. I frequently spend my mornings crafting some brilliant piece of writing only to spend my afternoon coming to grips with the fact that what I've written is terrible.

I know deep down that I'm not really a writer. I'm a teacher. Rick Hazelip told me that years ago, and he was right. I'm a teacher, and teachers teach because they need to teach. I write because people pay me to. I write so people will ask me to come and teach. My regular teaching gigs here in Atlanta pays me absolutely nothing. For some reason, I teach for free.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy writing. But it doesn't fill me with life the way teaching does. Jill says that sometimes I glow when I teach. It makes me happy. So, I'm trying to figure out how to make more of my living come from teaching. I'd still like to write, but I'd rather have my income tied to the thing that brings me great joy (wouldn't we all?).

So, imagine the thoughts swirling through my brain when I checked my email this afternoon and found two messages -- one from a seminary asking me to consider interviewing for a teaching post and one from some people who are planting a church asking me to consider being their teaching pastor.

Both have an upside: Steady salary and benefits, intellectual stimulation, some measure of prestige.

Both have a downside: I would have to move my family...again. And I really don't want to do that. I mean I really don't want to do that. We just bought a house. We have the greatest friends in the world. I have tremendous opportunities and established relationships. I do not want to move.

So, I'm asking: how do tell the difference between an opportunity and a distraction?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Hello, My Name is Mel

Mel (not his real name) is a jerk -- plain and simple. He has attended church for decades -- even served in a leadership capacity for some time. But instead of becoming more like Jesus -- instead of becoming more winsome and approachable -- all he has to show for his time spent in church and in Bible study is a judgmental arrogance that alienates others and distances them from him. He's become less like Jesus in the past few years -- not more like the one he's supposedly trying to follow. Everything is a big deal. Every point of doctrine is a salvation issue, and if you don't agree with him -- look out. He'll let you have it in as public a way as possible. He's petty, small-minded and downright mean.

What's weird is that no one seems to be surprised by this. Oh, that's just Mel. We expect him to know more and do more, but we don't expect him to really change.

And Mel is this way -- not in spite of the way we do church but precisely because of the way we do church. We reward cranky, bitter people by inviting them to sit on committees and teach Bible classes. We tell new Christians that if they just apply themselves, one day they can become more like Mel.

And we wonder why they never come back.

Oh, how I really want to blast Mel. Tell him what's what. Give him what for. I could probably do it, too. I could take him. I'm smarter than he is. I've read more than he has. I know more Greek than he does. I could take him.

But when I catch my reflection in plate glass window right now I see how much I'm starting to look like him. The things that most repulse me in Mel are easily discerned in my own heart. I'm petty. I can be pretty small-minded. I can get downright mean if pushed hard enough. I'm an arrogant jerk -- often.

I, too, miss the mark regularly. Before I throw a rock at Mel, I better take a long look inside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Good News / Bad News

The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is a classic good news/bad news story. Joseph is his father's favorite -- that's good. But his brothers hate him -- that's bad. Joseph gets a special robe -- that's good. Because of the robe his brothers sell him into slavery -- that's bad. Joseph goes to work for Potiphar and gets put in charge of everything in the household -- that's good. Potiphar's wife tries to seduce him -- that's bad. Joseph resists her -- that's good. She falsely accuses him and gets him thrown in prison -- that's bad. In prison Joseph interprets a dream for the cupbearer, and they make an agreement for Joseph to get out of jail -- that's good. The cupbearer forgets the deal for two years -- that's bad.

On and on it goes -- back and forth -- good news and bad news. Stories like this...we want to jump to the end and see how it resolves. If it ends with good news, then we can put up with all the bad news. In fact, we can deal with just about any measure of bad as long as it ends with good. If things resolve well we can believe that all the disappointment, all the heartache, it all means something. There's a point to it all.

The whole Bible -- the whole of human history -- is a good news/bad news story. God created the heavens and the earth -- he spun this planet and this galaxy and at the climax of this creative genesis he made human beings in his own image -- that's good. But humans spurned God, defied his will, destroyed his community, chose sin and guilt and death -- that's bad. So God began again with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob -- a pretty motley crew. He gave them his law, his word, his presence -- that's good. But they forgot his word. They oppressed the poor and dismissed the weak. They chased after idols and were jealous and stubborn -- that's bad. So God sent his only Son so we could behold his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. When he came to earh, angels cried out, "Glory to God in the highest." That's good. But he came to his own, and his own did not receive him. He was rejected and betrayed and denied and abandoned and murdered. They put him in a tomb -- that's bad. But on the third day...well...that was good.

Ever since that third day, whatever bad news may enter your life -- it has no power to separate you from the love of God. Our story is a good news/bad news story. Life is filled with bad news -- pain, disappointment, failure, sickness, guilt, death. But life is also filled with good news. Nothing will ever separate us from the love of Christ? Not hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword. Rather, in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

This is the ultimate good news: I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor demons, nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Behold Ye The Amish

The Amish people live in seclusion, cut off in many ways from the rest of society. They live under close scrutiny and tight control. But when they turn 16, Amish teenagers are allowed the freedom to explore the outside "English" world -- including sex, drugs and rock-and-roll -- before deciding whether to join the Amish church for life or leave the community altogether.

I just finished watching a documentary called Devil's Playground. It's about a group of Amish teenagers who are going through this period called "rumspringa" -- when they must choose between the outside world and joining the Amish church.

I lived in Maryland for a couple of years and would often drive up to Lancaster County, PA. The Amish people I encountered there were friendly and easy-going. They make incredibly food -- most of it homegrown. Their arts and crafts are charming. I would find myself transfixed by their pace of life, work ethic and sense of community. But I always felt that something was wrong with being so totally out of step with the rest of the world.

Maybe part of me felt guilty -- like somehow that was what real Christians were supposed to do.

Devil's Playground is a documentary that focuses on several really wild teens. When I say "wild" and "Amish" in the same sentence...well, that can be kind of misleading. Trust me, these kids party like Vikings. It takes a while to get used to seeing chain-smoking, foul-mouthed Amish kids talking on cell phones and playing Nintendo with cans of Coors Lite in their hands.

Their German forefathers must have been spinning in their graves. Coors Lite? If you have to go through rumspringa, must you drink that swill?

Here's what I don't get: After all the running around is done, about 90% of the kids end up joining the Amish church and community. The highest retention rate in the history of their movement. It's like they get it out of their system or something. One person in the movie says it's like being inoculated.

I think their theology is unsound -- even unsafe at times -- but maybe the Evangelical community could learn something from them. Our dropout rate is 65-80%.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Two Ways to Live

I recently read Larry Crabb's book The Pressure's Off. Here's some of what I learned:

Right now you're living one of two ways. Either you know what you want out of life and have figured out how you're going to get it, or you don't really have a name for what you want but you realize it's beyond your reach.

Either you've got a good idea where you're going and how you will get yourself there, or you're just trusting God to provide.

Either you want what you want, or you want God -- and nothing else -- not even his blessings will do.

If you're in the first camp, you're probably stressed out like me. Those of us in the first camp know -- deep down inside -- there is no stepping off the treadmill. There are no days off. Life is pressure. One bad move, one bad decision can wreck all your plans.

I want to move to the second camp. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that this is where rest lies in wait for me.

I'm tired of going quid-pro-quo with God. It doesn't work. I mean...it does for a while, but I always end up feeling like the weight of the world rests on me. I'm ready for the new way -- the new and better hope -- the hope of his presence.

I'm through being satisfied with what's in his hands. I will not be satisfied until I have him, and I am willing to dip seven times in a muddy river if I have to or march seven times around a walled city or camp out with nothing but a pitcher, a torch and a trumpet.

There are two ways to live, but only one leads to Life.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Robe

I bet Joseph never went anywhere without that stupid robe -- probably wore it in his sleep.

See, the robe wasn't just an article of clothing; it was a symbol of status. I know it's hard for us to understand their culture, but apparently they believed you could tell how important someone was by the kind of clothing they wore. Silly primitive people!

When Jacob gave Joseph that special robe, he wasn't just saying something to Joseph -- he was saying something to the other 11 sons. Joseph is the favorite; the rest of you are not.

Every time Joseph put the robe on, he felt special. Every time the other brothers saw him with the robe on, they felt overlooked. For Joseph it was a blessing. For the other brothers it was a curse.

A robe like this damages everyone -- the ones who did not receive it, the one who did and the one who gave it. When you introduce a special robe like this, no one gets out unscathed.

And yet...

There once was a man who knew how to live with the robe. He received it surely. A voice from heaven boomed out: "This is the One. I love this One. Listen to Him." He had special powers and abilities. He was destined for greatness and enjoyed the special favor of his Father from the time he was born.

And yet...

Once he was with a group of his friends, and, while they were arguing over who was most important, he took his robe off, wrapped a towel around himself, took a bowl of water and washed the feet of everyone in the room.

The next day a group of soldiers were making fun of him. They put a heavy robe and a pretend crown of thistles on him and said, "Look at the King!" Then they tore that robe off and tore that man's body to shreds.

And one day...

Because of what that one man did, all of God's children will receive a white robe that God himself has specially made for each one of us. That day, there will be no division, no bickering, no rivalry or envy. And that robe will bring healing and peace to everyone.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Another Sign of the Apocalypse

I'm sitting in a Starbucks, and they're playing Christmas music.

Hello: It's November 10.

Friday, November 05, 2004

This Is How We Overcome

I've been getting all kinds of email from angry people who think fighting is the best way to resolve things. Whether it's politics or church issues or family dynamics, fallen people in a fallen world tend to think the only way to get what they want (which always seems to coincide with what God wants) is to fight, to argue, to use force or pressure.

What I'm about to say comes from Mark Buchanan's book The Holy Wild. He says, "Victory, God-style, almost always looks like a defeat in the making, a catastrophe brewing." What a remarkably different perspective!

Think about the people God used in the Bible: Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Rahab, Peter. These are not the best and the brightest. These are not a few good men. They do not inspire confidence in us -- not if we are honest. They are deeply flawed, almost comic figures who manage to triumph in the end because of their great God.

In fact, the central character of the Bible -- Jesus himself -- came as "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain."

I don't know about you, but that image doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me.

Yet, it was this very Lamb who claimed, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." The apostle Paul agrees: "Having disarmed the powers and authorities...[Christ] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them."

As I look at our world, it seems to me that either Jesus' words hold a deeper meaning that few of us understand or they're meaningless altogether.

The Bible tells us that God will overcome at the end of the ages. Everything that's presently upside-down will be turned rightside-up...eventually. But the Bible also tells us that God has triumphed right here, right now. Paul insists that we are more than conquerors.

I'm ready to affirm the first statement; it's the second part that causes us consternation, isn't it?

The Book of Revelation is a mixed bag for most Christians I know. They have bits and pieces of it, but -- on the whole -- they see it shrouded in mystery, incomprehensible.

But it tells us more about this hope we have than any other portion of the Bible. In these pages we see God's final victory. We see God banishing death and demolishing evil. Yet -- even here -- we find that Christ overcomes the world, not by military strength or legislation, not through political parties or lobbyists or protest petitions.

Jesus Christ overcomes by the power of the Cross.

Revelation 12 looks about as dark as it gets. The devil is a raging dragon, wreaking havoc and destruction. But the promise of Scripture is that the children of God defeat this mighty force of evil by "the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." They overcome him because they do not "love their lives so much as to shrink from death."

By following our fearless Lamb into the slaughter, this is how we overcome.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Good Start, Oh Boy!

Sitting with some very dear friends recently, I overheard a man say this: "Looking at the election results, I have to say I was wrong."

Good start, I thought.

"I had no idea there were that many stupid people in America!"

Oh boy, I thought.

Do I say something, or do I just let it go? This has been a recurring theme for me. Usually it happens while I'm sitting in Starbucks, but that's not the only place I run into the opportunity to say something. I tend to vacilate between two extremes: either I say nothing at all or I overspeak. I wish I was more like Greg Taylor; he always seems to know the gracious way out of a situation like this.

I tried to say something. "I'm not sure the people who voted for Kerry are stupid. Maybe they're naive or something. Maybe they just have a different perspective on the issues. I know some very intelligent and thoughtful people who voted for him, and so do you."

The guy looked at me and said, "You're right. Stupid may be the wrong word."

Good start, I thought.

"Maybe a better word is idiots!"

Oh boy, I thought.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Religion and Politics

Three things to keep in mind as we prepare for what appears to be another political log jam between now and Thanksgiving:

  1. God's agenda is not tied to any political party or nation. God's people pre-date democracy and will outlive it as well.
  2. It is not safe to have any conversation -- especially a political conversation -- without reminding yourself that the ground is level in the shadow of the cross. We're all morally bankrupt people at some level, and none of us has achieved omniscience.
  3. Christians involving themselves in politics must take into consideration the whole counsel of God -- not just one or two pet issues. Abortion is evil. So is poverty.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Who Is My Neighbor?

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Luke 10:25-29

Hmmm...he wanted to justify himself. Sound familiar? What do I have to do in order to get eternal life? What can I do to earn it, to put God in a position where he owes me something?

In response to the guy's question, Jesus does what he often does: he tells a story. A man is headed to Jericho -- the road there is a bad one, filled with danger and dangerous people. The man gets mugged, and the criminals beat him up pretty badly, throwing him in a ditch barely alive.

Something's got to happen. Someone's got to help him or he will die. Who will show him mercy? A Priest? A Levite? A Samaritan?

Most of us know the story by heart; we've known it since we were children. And most of us know that the moral of the story is this: if someone's in trouble, we should help them. Anyone in trouble is supposed to be my neighbor.

Isn't that the moral of the story?

Look how the dialogue ends. Jesus asks,

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Luke 10:36-37

The neighbor is the one who has mercy. Did you see it, or did you read over it? Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is not the one who needs mercy from me; my neighbor is the one who shows mercy to me.

Well, if I'm not the one who's supposed to show mercy on people who are in trouble, who am I?

I'm the one in the ditch. I'm the helpless one who will die if someone doesn't show mercy on me. That's the point.

All this time, we've thought we could earn eternal life if we just knew the right thing to do. We want so badly to justify ourselves. And all along we were the helpless naked ones who are desperately in need of mercy.