Monday, April 24, 2017

A Gloriously Imperfect People - The Church

The Church receives a great deal of bad press. Her sex scandals and stories of hypocrisy make their rounds. Her "outdated" morals, "inconsistent" Bible, and logical lapses get attacked. Her members are pegged as judgmental, hateful, bigoted, and naive. At 2.1 billion members of various tribes and tongues, the Church is a big and broad target.
Not all the criticism is unfounded. Any social group includes examples of excellence and miserable failures. Look at any corporation, political party, classroom, or sports team, and both role models and cautionary tales stand out. The Church, and each of her local embodiments, has its faithful witnesses and fumbling wretches. Most of the members fall well within the margins: average, ordinary, up-and-down, inconspicuous examples of Jesus Christ.

Early Church was no stranger to this reality. As her story emerges in Acts, develops in the epistles, and runs her course in history, she displays humility in her self-critical posture. The book of Acts exposes sins of deception, division, and jealousy. The letters reveal a penchant for sexual immorality, disunity, drunkenness, favoritism, and pride. Patristic literature echoes similar correctives.

Such self-criticism does not excuse sin (e.g., Romans 6:1-2), but acknowledges the work of spiritual maturation is incomplete. By calling out these errors, without blushing, biblical authors do not assume holiness, but admit sinfulness. In fact, this awareness only intensifies their longing for Jesus' return, who would make them blameless, spotless, and glorious in his coming (see Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Corithians 15:50-57; Jude 24-25).

Somewhere along the way -- many blame Constantine or the Religious Right -- the Church's criticism turned outward. Rather than striving for God's internal cleansing, she sought to scrub the dirt off society. Rather than being content to live as a window into God's New Creation, she acted like a mirror of secular morality. Rather than bowing like a servant for public good, she took an elevated stance on political grounds.*

The time is ripe for Christ's beloved bride, for God's called out people, for the Church to reawaken to the Spirit's work within her (Ephesians 3:20-21). The long-term, tedious work of developing Christ-like character through corporate worship, shared life, and spiritual disciplines will put a fresh shine on God's gloriously imperfect people.

Bad press will not disappear--Jesus forewarned us--but good faith may triumph. If not now, when the bridegroom returns to put his finishing touches on his fragile people.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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These thoughts are inspired by a recent sermon: Church - Chapter 5 of God's Big Story.

*Certainly God may raise a prophetic voice or two for social causes, but the Church, as a whole, does not serve these purposes. Her mission is more about being a Christ-like, Spirit-empowered people (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 4:11-16), than propagating political and moral opinions.






Monday, April 17, 2017

Following Jesus at a Reduced Price

My mother instilled the value of living frugal whenever she announced her savings at the grocery store. Sorting through weekly flyers and clipping coupons was a religious act. The receipt at Kohls, with its crudely scratched circle over final savings, was sacred. I, too, learned to love the clearance rack, shop for lightening deals, and recite the mantra: BOGO.

Unfortunately, this notion of saving money and stretching my meager resources, at times, translates to cheap faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church against cheap faith. "Jesus bids us come and die," he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. This is costly faith: We cannot cut corners or coupons in our pursuit of Jesus.
A college student at our church has recently wrestled with "cheap faith" pervading evangelicalism. Following a sermon about "tensions" Christians feel in our culture, he emailed the following sentiments:

I seem to always conclude that something is off. Something is very wrong with how comfortable people are, and how just with the tension being felt right now, so many Christians are already getting weak and, like you said, they are drifting. What happens when the real persecution comes? How many Christians will there be in America if things get violent, if laws are created against God's law, and if people start to be physically and mentally targeted and attacked? I sometimes feel like I want that persecution to come [here], because maybe that would push me over the threshold of timidness or whatever holds me back from really making a stand, from really being different, from making excuses why it isn't a sin to see certain movies, listen to certain music, and such. I would probably regret it if that kind of persecution came upon us, but right now it seems like that would be the best way to get myself and the church to really recognize what righteousness and the pursuit of God looks like.

Last week I picked up the conversation with the student while we jogged. I confirmed his feelings and talked about keeping a pure conscience. Convictions and passions differ among Christ's followers, and each person is responsible to live according to his convictions. Complacency comes naturally in a culture of comfort and ease.

I cautioned against pursuing discomfort and pain as an antidote. Masochism and asceticism are no more discipleship, than weekly church attendance and lukewarm, religious affections.

We ended our run and conversation, committed to talk again about the cost of following Jesus. In the meantime, Easter has come and gone, and the shadow of the Cross looms large. Moreover, I've started reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, in which author, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield recounts the losses she sustained (e.g., lover, social connections, career) upon leaving her lesbian identity in pursuit of Jesus. Her conversion and Calvary contrast sharply with my personal account of debits. For your reading pleasure, I disclose the following costs of following Jesus:

  • a monthly tithe of a few hundred dollars, which I could otherwise spend on myself or family
  • several hours of sleep each week, given instead to spiritual disciplines
  • the prospects of a prosperous career in something other than full-time ministry (e.g., international spy)
  • the weight of conscience and the reduction of pleasure (including binge sessions of TV shows)
  • the restless concern for others, and not just what they think of me, but what they think and how, giving the opportunity, I might connect with them
  • a sense of purpose I will never fully realize this side of death
I admit the list is pious. Worse, it is remarkably painless. These costs comprise personal habits, at first difficult to hone, but once established, they require little notice to maintain. Giving a tithe does not feel like death. Skipping TV has not stopped my heart. Waking up early brings more joy than hurt. 
Jesus took nails for me. Bonhoeffer lost his life for Christ. Butterfield lost her career and more. Apparently I am getting a pretty good deal. In the end, however, I wonder how much I've actually saved?

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Farted in Church and Other Embarrassing Moments

I farted in church yesterday. The noise was subtle, but the PA system picked it up. It amplified the sound. When I muttered "Excuse me," I left little room for doubt. The pastor, indeed, broke wind.

To clarify, my flatulence was not live. It was background noise on the back end of a YouTube video I shot the day before. I've aired a reflection on each of Jesus' beatitudes during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. "Blessed are the pure in heart," started yesterday's reflection. Like each preceding video, this one closed with an invitation to meditate on the theme for forty seconds.

The infamous fart occurred as I recorded the last scene in my garage with my thumb pressed over the camera lens. I remember immediately thinking, "I have to mute that," but haste subverts short-term memory. I exported the video, uploaded it to YouTube, and left it with the A/V team to broadcast.

My rude reminder came in the company of my congregation. "Take a minute to meditate on what is beautiful, pure, wholesome, and holy," said my recorded self.

[Fade to black. Boost the music. Cue the fart.]

Pfft... "Excuse me." 


My meditations were cut short. A string of panicked questions ensued. Did I forget to mute that? Did anyone else hear? Do I say anything? Do I plunge forward with no remark? Do I blame the kids?

I was not sure how many people noticed the offence, so I played it cool. I feigned meditation on purity. I dismissed the kids quickly. I commenced with my sermon immediately.

All illusions of ignorance, however, dissolved as soon as I returned home. My children betrayed looks of embarrassment. "Daddy, why did you fart in the video?"

"You heard?"

"Yes, we heard. And you even said, 'Excuse me.'"

"I was hoping no one heard," I confessed.

Unfortunately, my family was not alone. My kids witnessed a family across the aisle suppressing their laughter. Later that day my friend told me his wife could hardly keep from cracking up. And at the close of Sunday evening, I received a text from a friend telling me he "heard a toot during the sermon."
I'm guessing most of the congregation heard my fart. My cover-up failed. My haste indited me. Purity of heart is no rival to a pastoral fart. Had I checked and double-checked my work, I would have avoided this party foul. But, alas, haste makes waste (and funny noises).

I will merely add this incident to my list of embarrassing moments. I once preached an entire chapel message to high school students with my fly down. I once made an awkward comment about my conjugal rights in a sermon. I once read a quotation from Augustine about boys playing with "balls and nuts" without a second thought to it being misunderstood by modern (i.e., perverted) ears.

I often sing off-key and tell lame jokes. (What kind fish is in the circus? Pause: An acrobat fish.) I regularly misstate dates names. (I've called Peter, Paul and God, Satan.) Weekly I misplace my sermon notes, Bible, or clicker during the service. And I always mispronounce words. (In fact, I once confused flatulation for flagellation when talking about disciplines gone awry.)

The more time one spends in public light, the greater his exposure to humiliation. Hopefully pastors find the occasional dose humility becoming. It purifies the heart, which is especially important when he's breathing in his own exhaust fumes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Year after First Impressions - An Adoption Update

We had our first meeting with Sensi a year ago, but it feels like yesterday. I still have vivid images of his orphanage in my head: the entry gate and guard, cement walk and flowers, playground and scuffling children. We made a few introductions before anyone tracked down Sensi for our initial contact.

I remember him shuffling down the steps, guided by one of the nuns, a vacant look on his face. "Sensi, this is your family," the sister said, turning his head so it pointed toward ours. "He's just embarrassed," she explained, slapping his cheek.
I reserve my most honest first impressions for God and my wife. But I can admit to holding my breath.

This maiden voyage to Ethiopia, this first visit with Sensi, has surfaced in many conversations in recent weeks. We talk about the outpouring of gifts and prayers for our family. We recall the flurry of travel plans and packing of bags. We cringe at the interminable flight and mental, emotional exhaustion we felt. We remember God's faithfulness in big and little ways. We recite the smells, sights, tastes, and sounds we heard in Addis Ababa. And, of course, we reminisce about our precious few hours with Sensi before crossing the ocean again and leaving him to wonder who these strangers were and when they might return.

A year after first impressions, life with Sensi is beginning to feel normal. It doesn't feel the same. It does't feel easy. But it feels normal. We're accustomed to his early bedtimes, nighttime nosebleeds, stomping feet, contagious laugh, sense of humor, creative drawings, loud chewing, nervous pooping, hyper-focus, short attention span, and dawdling at the doorway. Liz and I have developed a divide-and-conquer approach to parenting necessary for family rhythms in a household of five. Claire and Margot have settled in as the less-asked-about sisters of Conspicuous Number Five (but if anyone asks, they are remarkable).
A year after first impressions, I've stopped holding my breath. I've started moving forward with greater hope in God's bright future for my boy. Caring helpers surround him, building his confidence, speech, and physical strength. A loving family embraces him, cheering his victories and calming his tears. (Just the other day, his sister soothed his tears about his uncomfortable orthopedic braces.) And a heavenly Father molds him, so that childhood suffering will not have the final word on his life. 

A year after first impressions, God is writing a better story for Sensi. I am grateful to be part of it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Death, Funerals, and Grieving Words

I attended a funeral this past weekend. The deceased, Jeremy Sprague, was a former classmate and friend. When Liz and I moved to Phoenix, he arrived some weeks later and spent a month on our floor. For the following two years we shared life: meals, house church meetings, hikes, concerts, and weekly consumption of Arrested Development (binge watching was not yet a thing).

Then Liz and I moved to Denver. Our contact with Jeremy was minimal. We saw each other once in the past ten years; we received one or two Christmas compilation CDs. Otherwise, radio silence. News of his death came as a shock.

We drove to his hometown, Lima, Ohio, for his memorial service. On the way, Liz and I shared memories. We shook our heads at the idea of a classmate and peer dying. At thirty-seven, we are too young to die, but death is no respecter of ages. It takes infants and elderly, sinners and saints, healthy and infirmed.

Liz and I mingled momentarily in the visiting room before sliding into the chapel to secure a seat. As we waited for the crowd, casket, and family to claim their spots, I took note of the odd layout and decor of the room. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh glow over floral couches and folding chairs. Soft, piano music played from a PA system. Nothing in this funeral home reflected the style and flair of the deceased.

But the dead are given little voice in these matter. We must speak for them. Ironically, our speaking for the dead also has an odd shape to it. In our state of shock, grief, or disbelief, we try and make sense of death with selective memories and sentimental tropes.

Funeral services are rife with selective memories. Time and again I have wondered if the person remembered was the one that I knew. The deceased performed heroics. The deceased epitomized humor or hospitality or kindness or grace. The deceased knew no failings, but glowed with virtue and grace. We tell these stories to ease the sting of death.

In the preface to his book, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card admits his discomfort at the way every person is cast as a saint in her eulogy. Selective memories, he argues, do not grant true honor to the dead or freedom to those grieving, but leave people shackled to a lie. His novel makes a compelling case for honesty. (If my children speak at my funeral, I hope they laugh at my crazy eyebrows and annoying habit of teaching lessons.)

Our sentimental tropes go beyond trying to ease the sting of death; they deny death altogether. People often say, "He's still alive; I carry him in my heart." (So common is this phrase, one can purchase it at the funeral home souvenir shop.) Or they assert, "She'll always be present with us, even though she's gone." Such comments betray our unwillingness to accept death.
I can understand: death is a bully and thief.

But we must be careful not to let sentimentalism delude us. We do not carry people in our hearts. Disembodied souls do not remain present with us. These cliches are likely the fruit of our culture's fledgling, Christian imagination. We no longer say, "Absent from the body, but present with with Lord." Our modern refrain is: "Absent from the body, but present with us." And we envision the dead eternally resting in our indulgent hearts. I know my own heart: to dwell there forever would be a punishment as cruel as hell.

Death hurts. It stings. It rattles us and robs us of people we love. Selective memories and sentimental tropes will not win them back. God grants us full right to grieve for as long as we need to, but he wants us to leave the dead with him.

So may Jeremy rest in peace.

Monday, March 13, 2017

In Search for Inspiration - Turning Duty into Delight

On Monday's I post to my blog. Some articles have inspiration written all over them. A catchy title, nagging comment, or personal experience takes possession of my fingers as they hit the keys. Other weeks, I cycle through the routine topics I care to meditate on - family, adoption, Christian spirituality, and pastoral ministry.

(Disclaimer: If I'm simply looking to boost readership, I just put the words "Adoption Update" in the title. You people seem far more interested in my family life than my theological ramblings. I suppose I should feel flattered.)

However, many Mondays I approach the blog more out of duty than delight. Consistent writing is a discipline. If I want to clarify my thinking, grow my platform, widen my sphere of influence, publish books, and, some far-off day, unburden my church from the weight of my salary so our people can invest in my successor, then I must write. It is my duty.

Sadly, duty often moves forward with little help from its accomplice, delight.

Writing is work. Parenting is work. Marriage is work. Friendship is work. Witnessing is work. Pastoral leadership is work. Work is work. If we wait until inspirations strikes to make progress, we will might as well take a seat. Just be warned: the bench is full.
Image result for steve martin parenthood
Of course, no one wants to settle for mere duty. When Steve Martin's character in Parenthood laments, "My whole life is duty," one can't help but pity him. We have all felt the same way at times. We don't want to go to church, have company over, or attend a youth sporting event. We don't feel like shoveling the snow, giving money to Salvation Army, or folding the laundry. Inspiration does not spring us from bed at dawn; duty calls with the morning alarm.

I must admit, however, that inspiration is overrated. N.T. Wright exposes inspired feelings as an idol of Romanticism. In fact, if virtue only counts (i.e. "is justified") when it's spontaneous, then we have simply created a new legalism, Wright argues.

Moreover, we must not put duty and delight in opposition with one another. They are co-laborers in all fruitful work. We need duty to overcome lethargy. The manuscript will not write itself. The casserole won't put itself in the oven. The shelf won't organize its amassing clutter. We need delight to spur on further work. Satisfaction follows effort.  Publishing an article, taking a bite, and clearing the clutter produce a sigh of relief and belch of gratitude.

I need this reminder on uninspired Mondays, when my fingers hover over the keys. Certainly I am not alone. Inspiration eludes most of us as the hours pass and days go by. But we press on, dutifully, knowing that joy comes often comes once our fingers have hit the keys.
It is true that our hearts are often sluggish. We do not feel the depth or intensity of affections that are appropriate for God or his cause.  It is true that at those times we must exert our wills and make decisions that we hope will rekindle our joy. Even though joyless love is not our aim... nevertheless, it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided that there is a spirit of repentance that we have not done all of our duty because of the sluggishness of our heart. (Piper, Duty of Delight, 31)
_________________________________________
Inspired by a brief but meaningful conversation with a fellow writer-as-a-second-(or-third)-career.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"I" Joins Civil Suit against LGBTQ for Letter Exclusion - On Cultural Conversations

I have a gay aunt. Who doesn't these days?
I have a transgender cat; well, technically, it's neutered.
I have a Black son whose life matters.
I am raising educated girls who outperform the languishing boys in their classrooms.
I work with Hispanic students and worship a migrant Messiah, each who keeps a low profile.
And I have plenty of biblically informed convictions on culturally volatile topics. The problem: I just don't know how to talk about them without feeling controversial.
It's tough being a Christian in this "present, evil age." Any misunderstood gesture, statement, opinion, or explanation can be used against you. We are not helped by naive and flippant Christians who use social media as a bully pulpit to dehumanize people who identify differently in matters of race, religion, politics, gender, and sports teams (yes, we should even love Michigan fans). These folks are, to use the apostle Peter's words, troublesome meddlers (1 Peter 4:15), and all Christians suffer needlessly because of them.

Moreover, Christians suffer because of anti-Christian trolls, psuedo-Christian politicians, and vigilant, special interest groups who are so easily offended by any sign of slight. They brand a difference of opinion with the new scarlet letter: "I" (for intolerance).  They denounce, defame, and leverage the same democratic power plays they despise from the Moral Majority. The ground has shifted, Hollywood and professional sports constitute the new moral majority. (And we thought we were just being entertained - ha!)
But I'm not writing to vent or gain pity for the poor, misunderstood Christian. (We'd never get it anyway.) I simply want to surface the problem deeper than yoga pants and popularity contests. Beneath the rhetoric of love and tolerance in our country is a current of hate. Differences of opinion divide us because cultural conversations are messy and misunderstandings abound when social trust is a veneer.
In this "present, evil age," it's tough being a human. We receive more sympathy from Siri and Alexa than our fellow man, fellow woman, or fellow gender-fluid neighbor. But if we think critically, we should see more unites us as a human race than divides us. We share longings for intimacy, impact, and a sense of order (e.g. integrity). We have wants and needs, hungers and thirsts, convictions and confusion, pet peeves and personality quirks, deep hurts and heroic moments. We each bear the image of God and bloodstain of sin.

Our cultural conversations would benefit from finding common ground before leveling objections, joining civil suits, or taking offense. We can disagree gracefully and still grant dignity and show love, which is the highest calling of the Christ-follower (John 13:35). Love and disagreement are not mutually exclusive; however, to coerce someone into my conviction (be it monogamous, heterosexual marriage or culturally defined tolerance) is not loving.

Christians might consider practicing cultural conversations "in house" before airing them in public. Convictions range even among fellow believers; we may learn to talk through these topics (e.g., gender, politics, racism, entertainment, immigration) in humility. We may learn to listen reflectively before responding defensively (don't join the civil suit against the LGBTQ; it's not real anyway).

Most importantly, we may begin to redirect the cultural current of hate with a steady resolve to love.

NEXT STEPS:

  • Gather a group of Christians you trust to have a cultural conversation (different generations and life experiences will enrich the dialogue)
  • Covenant to reflective listening, not defensive responding
  • Pick an hour or two to meet
  • Choose a current, cultural topic (racism, gender, sexual-orientation) and give people a chance to pray, research, and formulate questions
  • Gather for a discussion and appoint a facilitator to begin, end, and moderate fighting
  • Join in big group hug and sing Kumbaya at the end (optional)

___________________________
Inspired by a conversation during Leesbug Grace's Sunday morning Engaging Hour (9:00). Two good primers on this topic includes: David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons's Good Faith and David Platt's Counter-Cultural