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The Evaporating Center of the Churches of Christ

Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.

I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.

When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.

Now, the joke is on the middle.

The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.

I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.

  • I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
  • But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
  • I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
  • Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
  • I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
  • Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
  • I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.

I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.

I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.

It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.

Grief and the Loss of a Pet

Munchkin

Munchkin

This post has nothing to do with theology – or at least the academic kind. I suppose it is very theological in the sense that everything we do relates in some form or fashion back to our Creator.

This past Friday we had to say good-bye to one of our little pets, a cat named Munchkin. We have owned a total of 7 cats, and now we have had to say good-bye to 4 of them. Each has been difficult in their own way – we had Half-Pint for 19 years. Mouse was the quirkiest little cat you could imagine -and he was almost telepathic. I think he knew when we would be hurting before we knew it. Bear we only had for a couple of years, but he was an absolutely gorgeous orange tabby and he had the heart of a full-fledged saint. He always curled up on my lap when I would do my daily Bible reading. Munchkin was a feral kitty we “rescued” (she would say kidnapped) from our backyard. We had her for 11 years – the second longest lived of our cats. Our cats (and now our puppy) are not just pets – they become a part of our family. Now we are down to Callie, Raven and Duchess, and these three have taken on an even greater significance as they age and fill the void that Munchkin left.

I don’t know why the death of a little animal touches me so deeply. But, I’ve pretty much quit fighting the emotions. Friday I was a blubbering, sobbing wreck. I bonded very closely with little Munchkin, and losing her was like losing my right arm.

Its the little things that still knock me for a loop. Saturday, a little more than 24 hours after we took Munchkin to the vet, I went to feed the other cats. We had been feeding Munchkin on her own separate plate so we could keep her strength up. I grabbed three saucers instead of  the two I needed to feed the others. I lost it. Today the garage door blew open and I had to count noses to make sure none of the cats had escaped. Instead of stopping at three I briefly started looking for #4, even getting so far as to call out for “Munch…..” I lost it again.

I grieve the loss of all my pets – even the dog I had as a boy growing up. I was in college when my father had to take her to the vet for the last time. It just breaks my heart to know what he had to go through.

They are precious little gifts, our pets. If you own a cat or a dog do me a favor and give them a hug for Munchkin’s sake for me. And one for Half-Pint, Mouse and Bear as well. As for me, it’s time to cuddle with my little Duchess. She’ll tell me all about her day and go to sleep against my tummy purring contentedly.

If only pets could live as long as the love they give is complete…

Thanks for letting me rattle on for a while. Maybe this week I can get back to thinking theologically.

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The Awesome Power of a Genuine Compliment

de: Pferd macht ein Kompliment (Zirkuslektion)

Yesterday I received a compliment. This pat on the back came from someone I only have a professional relationship with, someone who I have spoken with on the phone, but have not met in person. The person is accomplished in their chosen field. This person also served as a mentor to me through a recent course of study. So, when I received his compliment I felt like I had been given a rare and priceless jewel. I cannot describe the feeling that came over me.

Isn’t it amazing the awesome power of a genuine compliment. Of course, we should understand this when we stop and think about the brutal destructive power of hateful words. The little children’s ditty – “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is just so flat out wrong. I have seen young children absolutely crushed by the destructive power of an unmerited criticism, or even the harsh condemnation of a very minor offense. I have to be reminded of this time and again as I react to my own daughter, especially in times when I am hurting, or tired, or frustrated with another issue. So often I lash out with harsh words when a gentle correction and helpful instruction would be so much more appropriate.

No deep theology or profound esoteric questions today. Just a deep, profound “thank-you” to a person who had such a huge impact on my life with just a few words.

May we all have the opportunity to build someone up with a genuine, heart-felt compliment, and may we never lose an opportunity to speak that kind word.

A Word To My Younger (and maybe not so younger) Readers

Comfortable in My Own Skin

Comfortable in My Own Skin (Photo credit: meganhutchh)

Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.

Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.

It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.

English: Provinceton-Boston Airline Cessna 402...

English: Provinceton-Boston Airline Cessna 402C N83PB at Key West Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.

During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 fil...

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 film version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?

Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.

Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.

Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.

And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!

Book Review – You Lost Me (David Kinnaman)

03.365 (02.08.2009) Faith

03.365 (02.08.2009) Faith (Photo credit: hannahclark)

You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.

At the outset I must admit a certain degree of discomfort in reading this book. Most of it comes from the title, You Lost Me. As I interpreted the title it appeared to me that the author would join with the multitude of authors who are bashing the contemporary church and are listening exclusively to the next generation(s) to fix all of the identified problems with the church. There is a sense in which the title, You Lost Me is a reflection on this youth infatuated mindset. Notice the implied accusation – you, the church, the ones who should have it all together in a nice neat little package that fits all of my needs and my wants – you are responsible for losing me, the center of the whole entire known universe. I recoil from that accusation. If that kind of accusation could be leveled at anyone, how many and with what fervor could certain individuals make that accusation against Jesus.

After reading the book I am partially convinced that this is not what Kinnaman had in mind. I say partially, because a large portion of the book is devoted to listening to the cries and complaints of those who have left the church. I understand the methodology – Kinnaman and his group at Barna desperately want the church to listen to a generation that is finding the church (and sometimes even Jesus) to be something they can do without. Kinnaman himself is passionately devoted to getting the message of Jesus out to a new and doubtful generation. He just wants the rest of us to be as “in tune” with the coming generations as he seems to be. He genuinely has a gift at understanding young people, and I applaud his efforts at teaching the rest of us who might be a bit blind or deaf to what the coming generations are saying.

With that goal in mind, I would recommend this book to all who are concerned with the youth of their congregation. I would definitely read this book along with his earlier book, Unchristian. I feel that the first book was more valuable, as the topic of that book was how non-Christians view the church and how we might be able to respond to them. This book is about those young people who, at least on some level, had a connection with the church and a vibrant faith, and for one reason (or a host of reasons) decided to leave the church. Reading the book is painful, because if you work with young people for any length of time you will recognize the stories of the young people Kinnaman profiles through your own experiences. I saw several of my friends and former students in this book, and even occasionally saw myself.

A couple of weaknesses – at least from my limited point of view. One, I never really resonated with Kinnaman’s description of the young people as “nomads, prodigals and exiles.” It seemed like he was trying to come up with a somewhat biblical way to describe these young people, and the descriptions just seemed stretched to me. I kept having to remind myself of what each group really was, because to me there was way too much overlap between the groups as he has defined them.

Two, and this relates back to my discomfort with the title, Kinnaman only tangentially places any kind of blame on those who are leaving. In other words, it remains the church’s fault that young people are leaving, the church is going to have to change, the church is the source of the problem, the church is forcing all these wonderful, saintly, kind, and most of all, brilliant young people out of its doors. This was the part of the book that just kept grating on me. To be fair, towards the end Kinnaman does in a round-about way mention that these young people are responsible for their own decisions, but it is a very subtle and almost apologetic acknowledgment.

At one point I wanted to scream, The church IS exclusive! Get over it! In an appraisal of the younger generations that I’m sure will turn most of them off, I have to say that in many respects the group of young adults from 18 – 30 represent one of the most narcissistic, inwardly focused generations I have ever seen, and that is saying quite a bit because I came along right at the tail end of the baby boomers. But stop and think about these generations – from what have they ever been deprived? What hardships have they ever faced? These were the children whose parents got into fistfights so they could obtain a Cabbage Patch Kid. These are the children who have had a cell phone virtually from the time they could talk. They have been coddled, breast-fed and then spoon fed their whole lives. They have been protected and over-protected. They do not go out without a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads. If their feelings get hurt they sue. If they get a bad grade they have their parents confront the principle. If they get a bad job review they leave – if they stay in a job long enough to get a job review. Yes, a large part of their problem relates to their parents and grandparents (the aforementioned baby boomers) but to even remotely suggest that this group of navel gazers has all the right answers and the church should somehow contort itself to make itself more “attractive” to this age group is just preposterous. Maybe that is not what Kinnaman is saying, but I know that is what many others are saying, and maybe I just misread Kinnaman.

Throughout this book I kept hearing a sub-message, “the culture has changed, the church needs to align itself with the culture to be relevant again.” I reject that premise. The culture into which the church was born was immoral, unjust, sexually dysfunctional and economically challenged. So what did the apostles and early disciples teach? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, the early church leaders said the church, God’s manifestation of his Kingdom on earth, was different. If you wanted to be a part of culture and the world, so be it, but do not claim to be a part of Christ or of his church. Joining Christ meant you left this world – not literally, but your heart, your mind, your soul was transformed. I am sure a lot of the early converts realized how radical Christianity really was and they high-tailed it back to their comfortable ways – just like people turned their backs on Jesus and walked away from him once they discovered that he really meant “cross” when he said “cross.”

I do not buy the concept that the church has to be more tolerant or accepting of homosexuals to keep from hurting someone’s feelings. I do not buy the concept that the church must relax its teaching on gender just because a few 18-30 year olds find it exclusionary or old-fashioned. I reject the call to rewrite 2,000 years of church doctrine just because someone with all of two decades of existence (or less) finds it to be out-dated or somewhat stuffy. They are more than welcome to leave the church if they so desire. It is tragic when they do, and I am not saying the church should push them out. But when they leave, they should not have the temerity to blame the church for their decisions. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess – but they will not be able to tattle or pass the blame.

I would like to end on a positive note, because I do feel the book is a valuable read. Kinnaman does offer some valuable suggestions along the way. I found chapter 11 to be particularly beneficial, but it was also in chapter 11 that Kinnaman returned closer to a classic view of the church and moved further away from the “let’s make the church look like contemporary culture” strain that moved ever so slightly beneath the earlier chapters. Just to tease a little, in chapter 11 Kinnaman stresses relationships, a biblical view of vocation, and a return to the way of wisdom. These are solid responses to the problem, and, as I mentioned, I found them particularly beneficial.

I want to stress that this review is purely my own response – your mileage may vary. I enjoyed the book, I recommend the book, and I suggest you listen to what Kinnaman is saying. I just wish he had offered more in response to these young people by way of challenge. There is a reason God expected young people to look up to, listen to, and respect the wisdom of their elders. Youth is full of folly, and nowhere is that folly more evident than in the narcissistic views of our youngest adults. The church will not long survive if we follow their lead. The church may be in trouble now – but let’s make sure the cure is not worse than the present disease.

Defeating the Demons of Doubt – The Man in Psalm 73

"Doubts", Henrietta Rae, 1886

“Doubts”, Henrietta Rae, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes we as teachers or preachers or even parents begin to doubt the effectiveness of our words. We teach or preach seemingly for hours and yet nothing happens. We are tempted to think that our efforts and our words are in vain. But I want you to stop and think – why are you a teacher or preacher? It is most likely because someone in your past encouraged you to become a teacher or a preacher through their words and their example. And, I’ll bet my dollar against your dime, they had periods of time in which they questioned the effectiveness of their teaching.

Once such teacher in my life was Mike Lewis. He taught the courses on preaching while I was in my undergraduate program at ACU. I remember a lot of things about the semester course I had with Dr. Lewis, but it was a series of chapel speeches that I remember the most. I cannot remember the year or the semester, but Dr. Lewis spoke during chapel for an entire week on Psalm 73. That series of lessons has always been special to me. I cannot read the psalm without thinking of Dr. Lewis and that series of lessons. Yes, our words can have a profound impact, even years after we speak them. Which, as an aside, is yet another reason why we should be so careful in how we use them.

Psalm 73 is a story of one man’s journey into and out of doubt. He begins with where he wants to be, moves through what reality seemingly teaches him, recognizes his own false conclusions in the matter, and following an epiphany in which everything suddenly becomes clear, moves through to proclaiming God’s glory. Thus he ends where he started, but at the end of the psalm the confession is real, whereas in the beginning there is just the slightest tinge of hesitancy (does “surely” end with an exclamation point or a question mark?).

What I find to be so powerful in the text is that the psalmist receives his epiphany while in the act of worship in the house of God. In the psalm up to this point all we have is the most bitter of questions and statements pointing to the futility of faith and a good many reasons why worship would be the last thing the psalmist would be doing. Yet, in v. 17 that is exactly where we find him, resolutely worshipping the God he doubts, doing the things that his neighbors would think he was a hypocrite for doing if they knew what he was thinking. The man in psalm 73 defeated his doubts by doing the very thing he doubted – by expressing his worship to God.

I have been through enough tough times to know that there is no “silver bullet” that slays every demon or destroys every doubt. But I cannot help but wonder if the reason so many people leave the church is because they quit practicing that which their faith calls them to practice. If you can only improve your golf game on the golf course, if you can only learn to be a surgeon in an anatomy lab, if you can only perfect your artistic skill by hours and hours of practicing on your instrument, doesn’t it make the slightest little bit of sense that the only place one can strengthen their faith in in a place of worship doing what centuries of faithful (and doubting) Christians have done? In other words, does it not make sense that practicing belief would serve to strengthen that belief?

I am not saying that “in church” is the only place one can come to faith, nor to strengthen it. But on the other hand the message of this text is that it was in the presence of God in the sanctuary that the psalmist received the answer to his doubts. There were many reasons for the psalmist not to be in the sanctuary. But he was there, and it was there he received his answer. If we believe that the Bible is God’s word spoken to man, then we need to give this passage serious consideration when it comes to answering one of the most basic questions of a disciple – what do I do if I start to have doubts about God? The man in psalm 73 suggests, rather gently by the way, that the one who feels such doubts should go to the sanctuary. Go worship. Enter into the presence of the eternal one. And let Him help you with those doubts.

For some reason the man in Psalm 73 speaks to me. Maybe it is because of life’s experiences, maybe because of the beautiful way in which the psalm is written, maybe it was Dr. Lewis’ passionate lessons from the text, maybe it was all these reasons plus some others. I have borrowed on Dr. Lewis’ talk many times in my ministry, and it is always with a prayer that what I have to say communicates to others what the psalm communicates to me.

Always Take The High Road

Hammer and nails

Hammer and nails (Photo credit: Anders Illum)

As the old joke goes, experience is a wonderful thing. It allows you to recognize the same mistake the second time you make it. As you get older you (hopefully) gain a lot of experience. That means you either have made a lot of mistakes in your life, or you are wise enough to learn from the mistakes of others. I do things the old-fashioned way and learn by stubbing my toes and smashing my thumbs with the hammer. Amazingly, sometimes I have to hit my thumb two or three times before I learn to hold the nail with a pair of pliers. Like I said, experience is a wonderful thing.

Over the past couple of posts I have shared some experience that I have gained in my years as a minister/preacher. The things that I have written about have not been profound, but if a young man reads them and gains some valuable wisdom, then so much the better. Actually, I think that what I wrote is valuable for every Christian, but maybe has a little more application for the life of a preacher. Certainly we can all learn to hold our tongues when we are angry and also to learn to withhold our criticisms. Today I would like to continue in this thread, but hopefully change the tone slightly. Today I would like to focus on a positive character trait that will serve anyone well, but especially someone who is serving in a professional ministerial context.

If you choose a people helping profession to earn your living (or even to volunteer!) you will get hurt. It is a horrible fact of life, but it is absolutely certain that either the people you are trying to help will hurt you, or someone closely related to them will hurt you. Maybe the same is true for accountants and engineers and carpenters, but when you sign on as a preacher, a teacher, or a counselor you open yourself to some harsh and sometimes vindictive emotional attacks. It is in the nature of the service. The closer you get to the center of someone’s life the greater the danger of exposing their wounds. When those wounds are opened up it causes a great deal of pain. The most obvious response is to strike out against the one who exposed that pain, and with very few exceptions that means you, the preacher, minister, teacher or counselor. When that occurs (note I said when, not if) you have a couple of options.

The first option is the “low road.” The lowest road of all would be to retaliate in kind to the person who hurt you. Return their fire – if it is an elder, a grumpy church member, a defiant divorcee – whatever, blast them with everything that you have. This is frequently done from the pulpit or teacher’s lectern, so as to be cleverly disguised. Except that retaliation is very seldom disguised as much as we think it is. Of course, by taking the low road you will virtually guarantee that the person who attacked you will simply elevate their level of antagonism and will return your fire, but once the battle is joined there is little that can be done to alter that response. Also, it is a fairly certain reality that by joining in the conflict you will shorten your tenure wherever you are. If you a minister/preacher, you will be asked to move on or you will decide that the grass will be greener and the people more loving somewhere else, and you will just move your family and your baggage. Eventually, though, the next person you counsel will hurt you and you will respond by firing back, and the cycle will repeat itself once again. Remember that experience thing that I mentioned in the first paragraph?

Another low road is to retaliate against the person who hurt you by striking out at a safe person, someone you believe will not attempt to hurt you in return. So we yell at our husband or our wife, lash out at our children, or kick the cat. The insidious part of this response is that it is all done unconsciously. We do not intend to do so, we certainly do not want to do so, but we have these pent-up emotions and we have to get rid of them somehow. Bingo – we shoot at the nearest target, and those we love the most bear the brunt of our wounded pride. This behavior has its own punishments, however, and so the downward spiral of pain and retaliation simply takes another course and all too often the end result is either divorce or alienation from our children. This is certainly not a happy place to be.

Now, let’s consider the alternative. Take the high road. This road can be described in by referring to several different passages of Scripture, but the basic thought is the same. Do unto others as you would like them to do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. As far as it is dependent upon you, live at peace with others. Bear one another’s burdens. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus the Christ. If “firing back” is the best way to describe the low road, the high road can best be described by “unload your weapon and put it down.”

I will be the first to admit that taking the high road is not a natural response. I am pretty good at firing back. Maybe not at the person who hurt me – I am too clever to do that. I shoot at people who are utterly clueless as to what has hurt me. Remember my luck with nails and hammers? Well, other people’s thumbs are in danger any time I pick up a hammer. And given the fact that I am frequently asked to preach or teach, my opportunities to lash out at innocent bystanders are numerous. I have learned that I have to be very careful when I have been wounded not to carry that wound into the pulpit, or to carry it home. Sometimes I can succeed, all too often I fail.

But Jesus did not come and die to bless or justify sinful human pride. He came to expose the nature of that sinful pride and to remove it. He also provides the heart that is to replace that sinful human heart. It is a heart of self-sacrifice, of loving others with the love of His Father. It is the heart that David prayed for in Psalm 51. It is the heart that searches for, and then walks, the high road. The more pride we have, the lower the road that we are forced to take. The more that we allow God to destroy our pride, the higher we can go.

Walking the high road means we do not retaliate, either against the one who hurt us, or the safe people who surround us. We do not “return fire,” we unload our weapon and work to help those in pain safely unload theirs. We absorb the barbs, the jabs and the slanders and we return love and forgiveness. We may need to challenge and correct where it is necessary (never allow sin to go unchallenged) but we do so in humility, knowing full well that we all bear a heavy burden of sinful human nature. We keep our eyes focused on Jesus, knowing that he is our great example of being humiliated beyond description, yet remaining silent and even praying for those who hurt him the most.

I cannot say that I am where I want to be in this regard. I’m just too short-tempered. But I’ve got enough bandages on my thumbs to know that I need to work on this issue, and I pray that I am better at handling attacks than I was a few years ago. I pray that I am better next year than I am today.

Maybe I can even get to the point that people do not run for their lives when I pick up a hammer.

Customer (Dis)Service

English: Emotions associated with anger

English: Emotions associated with anger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just gone through one of the most painful experiences of my professional life. I will not reveal the name of the offending party (because I don’t want to give them any advertisement, good or ill), but about a year ago I contracted with a “Christian” web site hosting service to design and host a web site for me. It has been nothing but one nightmare after another. When then gave me the first “proof” the name on the site was wrong. The artistic aspects of the site were wrong. I had to go find my own picture because they just used a stock picture and it was not even in the same category that I requested. The blog section was a white screen with no helps or assistance. I was not given any technical assistance on another page. I was not given a page that I specifically asked for (although, come to find out, I used incorrect terminology. I thought that is what the “professionals” were supposed to help me discover!). Despite being told that my monthly subscription fee covered technical assistance, I was told if I had a complicated question I would have to schedule an appointment with a tech pro and incur additional expenses. Of course, the definition of “complicated” was totally up to them to determine. After months of trying to get everything fixed and trying to get the site operational I just gave up. Now mind you, they would not release me from my contract, but they certainly made no effort to meet my needs. Well, the year is now up and I am free from their (dis)service. I got a nice email from the president of the company telling me that despite me being the biggest pain in their posterior, they were sorry I was leaving and they would love to try to fix the problem and keep me as a customer.

Just how stupid do I look? (um, okay, don’t answer that)

But, as painful as the experience was, it got me to thinking. How often do church members leave our congregations and we just shrug our shoulders and say – “they were never happy here anyway, I hope they are happy where ever they go.” In other words, we do not look to see if there is a systemic problem within our congregation, we identify THEM as the problem and thank God when they leave.

I learned a very valuable, albeit very painful lesson this past year. I really wanted this website to work. I dreamed and worked and plotted and planned. All in all I payed this company almost $500.00 and got nothing in return. When I walked away I was blamed for the issues. That’s right – I pay $500.00, get nothing in return, and I am blamed for the failure. I am beyond fuming.

But, I don’t think I will ever view someone leaving a congregation where I serve in quite the same way again. People just do not become members of a church, attend regularly and even pitch in to help only to leave if there is not a deep problem somewhere. Yes, the problem might be theirs, but I will bet dollars to dimes that the problem is a systemic one and it is one that had better be addressed by the leadership immediately or there will be much larger problems in the future.

There are times when leaving is a mutually beneficial process. But in the overwhelming majority of cases when a person or a family leaves it is because of a deeply rooted sin somewhere. I learned the hard way what it is like to be forced out of an organization despite my every effort (and considerable expense) to stay in it.

I pray I am never the cause of someone leaving a congregation of the Lord’s church in the same way I was forced out of that web site hosting company. And I hope that I have an entirely new appreciation for the idea of customer (and church member) service. I certainly learned what disservice means.

By the way, since I am on the subject, if you would like a blog of your own, I wholeheartedly recommend WordPress. They are amazingly easy to work with, offer all kinds of assistance, and make you look like a pro. As negative as I am about that other service, I can only praise WordPress.

WordPress

WordPress (Photo credit: Adriano Gasparri)

What Made Jesus Happy?

Happy face high res

Image via Wikipedia

At the risk of getting myself into trouble (which I am only too competent at doing) I want to make the observation that the New Testament nowhere reveals that Jesus was ever happy. I am relying on a thin memory, to be sure, but it seems to me that the closest statement that is ever made concerning Jesus’ happiness occurs during the conversation with the woman at the well when he tells his disciples that he had bread to eat that they knew nothing about. This might be an indirect way of referring to his joy at teaching the woman and having her respond so positively.

We are told Jesus loved several individuals, that he became angry several times, that he told some parables and other parabolic type stories that had to induce some chuckles in his immediate audience, but we are never told flat out that Jesus was happy. Why?

The idea of happiness seems to be a recurring theme with me. I remember one Sunday after I preached a sermon on marriage a friend came up to me and used a section of my sermon against me quite effectively. He said, “Let me get this straight – you said God never intended for humans to be happy, yet you also said that God fully intends for us to stay married? Right?”  Touche.

I am convinced that humans, especially Americans, place far too much value on happiness. We even enshrined it into our Constitution – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now, I believe the framers of the Constitution had a much different definition of happiness in mind than we do (what we would call contentment or peacefulness), but the word remains and as words change in meaning so do ideas and consequences.

In politics this can be a problem, but in our relationship with Christ it can be fatal. How many marriages are destroyed because one partner or the other just does not feel “happy” in the marriage? How many lives are destroyed through this pursuit of happiness that leads through sex, drugs, gambling, or status seeking? How many congregations are divided because someone is not “happy” with the preacher, elders, or some effort that the congregation is involved in? You see, our world seems to revolve around the concept of happiness, and I’m not sure it is a biblical concept at all.

Back a few posts ago I critiqued a new translation of the Bible on this very point. The translators chose the word “happy” to translate the word which is more frequently translated “blessed” in the Beatitudes and Psalm 1, just for a couple of instances. There is a huge difference between being blessed and being happy! And to introduce the false idea of happiness into the sermon on the mount or Psalm 1 is to do significant damage to the concept of spiritual (and even physical) blessedness. But the cat is now out of the bag, and I’m sure the number of sermons on the “Be Happy Attitudes” is going to swell exponentially.

If someone can point out a passage where the New Testament writers specifically point to Jesus being happy, I will reconsider this post. But, until then I am going to maintain my mantra. God is greatly concerned about our blessedness or lack of blessing, but God is truly disinterested about our happiness or unhappiness. And, yes, God does intend for us to stay married. I just need to do a better job of combining those two sentences in a sermon.

Rely on your feelings and you die

One of the difficult concepts to convey to a newbie instrument student is the danger involved in relying on their feelings, or senses. Spatial disorientation is not just a weird feeling. In instrument conditions it can kill.

So, there is a procedure to bring the message home. It begins when the student is flying with a “view limiting device” blocking any outside references. The student is then told to close their eyes, and remove their hands and feet from the controls, unless a command is given for them to turn the plane. A good instructor will slowly provide inputs to the plane’s control systems that cannot be felt by the student. A really good instructor will then ask the student to slowly turn the plane. With his or her feet the instructor will counter-act the student’s inputs. Then the instructor will tell the student to level the plane, or even turn in the opposite direction. If everything is done slowly, with just a few subtle changes to the flight controls, the plane can end up in any number of “unusual attitudes” and, if not restored to straight and level flight, will eventually crash. When everything is really good and discombobulated the instructor will tell the student to open his or her eyes, look at the panel of instruments, correctly identify the unusual attitude, and bring the plane back to normal flight.

The thing is, if done correctly (and I had an instructor who was a master at this!), the unusual attitude will feel normal to the student, and a sudden return to “normal” flight will feel unnatural. It all has to do with the function of the inner ear and our sense of equilibrium. Wrong becomes right, and right becomes wrong.

The application for the church should be obvious. There is a reason Satan wants to “fly under the radar” so to speak when he wants to corrupt the church. Division, heresy, all manner of false teachings are not introduced on Sunday and implemented on Monday. Satan is patient. He will work for years if he must to change the equilibrium of the church. And once changed, a return to orthodoxy feels painful – indeed it is painful!

Jude faced just this same situation. Wanting to write a letter of encouragement, he faced a scandalous situation and had to resort to some fairly harsh language (see Jude 4). But time was of the essence, the church was flying in an “unsusual attitude” and had to be set straight.

Flying in the fog is demanding. Our feelings work against us. We have to rely on the instruments, and we have to use all of them together because at any one given moment one or another might fail.

Take care, folks.  Let’s keep the shiny side up!

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