Tag Archives: christianity

It’s a Good Thing

I have been told that I ought to be a good person.
But I know that I am not a very good person.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being a good person.

I have been told that I ought to be generous.
But I am selfish to my core.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being generous.

I have been told that I ought to work hard.
But I am lazy enough to consider it one of my defining characteristics.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by working hard.

I have been told that I ought to have courage.
But I am afraid more often than not.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by having courage.

I have been told that I ought to show kindness to strangers.
But I often find strangers to be…strange.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by showing kindness to strangers.

I have been told that I ought to believe in myself.
But I think that is a stupid idea.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by believing in myself.

I have been told that I ought to be an outstanding husband.
But…just ask my wife.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being an outstanding husband.

I have been told that I ought to be religious.
But I don’t really understand what religion is all about, and I’m not sure I’d like it if I did.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being religious.

I have been told that I ought to have good theology and doctrine.
But I’m pretty sure I don’t.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by having good theology and doctrine.

I have been told that I ought to have grace.
But I have withheld grace from those most desperately in need of it.
So it is a good thing that I am saved by grace.

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Learning How to Hate

Alright, get ready to witness a conversion…of sorts.

If you know me at all, or if you’ve read this previous blog, you are probably aware of my longstanding hatred for all things Apple.  I could try to persuade  you to agree with me, as I have so many times in the past, but that would be counter productive to the intent of this post.  Because I am hereby renouncing my hatred of Apple.

Snicker if you must.  For you, this might seem kind of goofy.  But if you know me, you’ll know that this is actually kind of a big deal.  It comes as the result of some soul searching and conviction by the Holy Spirit; and it goes beyond my preference for consumer electronics vendors.

Here’s the story:

The other day I was reading this article about people who are beaten, raped, and killed as they attempt to escape sub-Saharan Africa to find freedom in Israel.  I got about half-way through the article and…I don’t know…maybe I got bored.  Maybe I just didn’t want to make my mind go there.  Maybe the whole issue was just too real for me.  Whatever the reason, I closed that tab, and opened this one, which is a video making fun of the iPhone.  Because, man do I hate the iPhone!

Ok.  Let’s think about this for a second…what do I hate?  I hate a cell phone.  I hate a brand.  I hate a consumer electronics corporation.  This is where I  chose to expend my hatred.  Because let’s be honest, you can’t hate everything.  We’ve only got so much hate to give.  And I use much of mine up on this:

Why does this logo get my hatred, while people being bought and sold, abused, raped, objectified, and murdered in their pursuit of freedom gets…me to close a tab on my browser?

Hatred, I think, gets a bad wrap.  Because it is so frequently used improperly, people assume that hatred is always a bad thing.  But it’s not.  In fact, hatred is commended in Scripture (see Proverbs 13:5 and Romans 12:9, for example), but only when we hate the right things.  When we hate injustice, we hate well.  When we hate wickedness, we hate properly.  When we hate pride and lust and greed and selfishness and deceit and murder and malice and slander and objectification and all forms of evil, we use hate the way God intended us to.

But when I hate Apple, I substitute something ultimately neutral for the things that are crying out for my hatred; the things that the Holy Spirit is demanding I turn my wrath against.

And so, I repent.

I repent of the hours I have spent bickering with people about their digital choices.  I repent of the times I have self-righteously explained to someone why they should not patronize Apple Inc.  I repent of my upturned nose at my brothers and sisters who have made different, albeit ultimately insignificant choices.  I repent.  And I move on to hate the things I am called to hate.  The great injustices in the world and the small injustices in my world.  The sins of mankind and my own sins.  I will be a better steward of my time, my energy, and my hatred.

Let us not swear off hatred itself.  But let us swear off hatred of the things which matter so little.  And let us turn our hatred toward the things that stand against the Kingdom of Love.

-Tim-

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Christian Pastors Should Suffer

If you’ve stuck with me for a while, you know that I’ve been obsessing about the idea of suffering.  It’s a word that God put in my head a few months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then.  But, I promise that this will be my last post about suffering for some time.  Maybe I’ll move on to some happier topic soon (ponies anyone?)

But today at the church office I was going through an old binder full of students’ medical release forms that have accumulated over the past few years.  As I flipped through the binder, I passed the names and medical details of numerous students who are pursuing Christ and are making great strides in their faith, and I found myself encouraged by the lives and faiths represented by those names, birthdates, and medical policy numbers.  But the longer I spent flipping through that binder, the more names I noticed that belong to students who I knew well, but who are no longer actively pursuing Christ in community.  I don’t speak out of an arrogant assumption that just because they don’t show up to church every week it must mean they are off worshiping the devil.  I speak from the knowledge I have through my passing interactions with them and their friends.  I speak as an observer, witnessing their lives unfold via social media (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)  I feel my heart ache a bit every time I see evidence against the Spirit of God guiding their decisions.  I want so badly to see them re-enter the fold of their faith; to return from a prodigal journey all the wiser to the rich love and grace they nearly walked away from.  I ache.  I hurt.  I suffer.

Now a confession, and a plea for forgiveness.  I have been accused (rightly so) of being too pushy at times.  My zeal to see students embrace the call of Christ has often taken on an unintentionally forceful tone, and my eyes are being opened to the fact that this may serve to push more people away than it draws in.  And so I ask for forgiveness from anyone who has felt cornered or harassed by me.  Please have grace with me.  I beg you to bless me with the room I need to grow.  And I beg you to try to see what is at the core of my “pushiness”: a desire to see the Church grow and Christ transform.

So, back to suffering.  Today, I suffered.  I experienced the suffering that is perhaps only shared by pastors and parents; the suffering that comes from seeing someone you have nurtured make a series of decisions that you believe will bring them harm.  It is an awful feeling.  I hate it.  I don’t wish it on anyone…

…Except for every Christian pastor in the world.

A little while back, I was having lunch with a pastor friend/mentor.  He imparted some important wisdom to me regarding the role of a pastor.  “A pastor,” he said, “must be comfortable feeling like a victim.  Being hurt.  Suffering.”  What a job description, huh?  Who in their right mind would sign up for this?  But as he expanded on the idea, my eyes were opened to the truth and beauty that exists within the call for a pastor to be constantly willing to suffer, and to expect it every day around every corner and in every situation.

There are two types of pastors out there, I suppose: those who are willing to suffer, and those who are not.  And within the subcategory of those who are not willing to suffer, I suspect that there are two reasons that pastors do not suffer:
1. Because their church community is made up of perfect people (never mind, this doesn’t exist).
2. Because their hearts are not willing to be hurt by the losses they must necessarily witness regularly in ministry.  They are either calloused or they are blind to the the people in their community who are attempting to wriggle free of the Father’s grasp. 

As our culture grows progressively…”flexible” (I suppose that’s a nice way to put it), I suspect that we will see more and more people walk away from Christ when it becomes boring, inconvenient, offensive, or difficult.  Any pastor who ministers in a church made up of human beings will experienced this from time to time, and will be forced to stand by and watch, feeling helpless, attempting to encourage and convict, but witnessing some people drift (or sometimes run) further and further from the God who loves them so deeply.  The time to suffer has arrived.

A suffering pastor is, paradoxically, a healthy pastor.  The moment I begin to feel completely content in the health of my ministry and my flock, I must be quick to check if my contentment is based on true health, or if it is a result of the fact that I have stopped caring for those who are lost, hiding, hurting, and/or escaping. 

I want every Christian pastor to suffer, because suffering means that they are tuned in to their community; they see how many people are forfeiting their lives to gods other than Christ, and they are unwilling to let them go without a fight.  And so they fight.  And they suffer.

So may our pastors suffer, suffer badly, suffer long, and suffer well.  But never stop suffering.  Because when pastors stop suffering, they have closed their eyes to those who most desperately need a pair of loving eyes to rest upon them.

-Tim-

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Go To Heaven and Suffer for All Eternity

For the past week or so, the word “suffering” has been on my mind.  If ever a paradox existed in the Christian worldview, “suffering” is its name.

Suffering is something that Jesus seems equally set on removing from some and promising for others.  It’s something that we’re called to address and correct, and something that we’re called to embrace.  It’s something that is an integral part of the life of a Christ-follower, and something we’re promised ultimate escape from.  How are we, as Christians, supposed to make sense of this?

While Scripture provides a number of paradoxical ideas concerning suffering, perhaps the most troubling conflict for me involves questions of suffering’s place in the Kingdom of God.  I am of the theological persuasion that the Kingdom of God is not only to be found in the life after this one (i.e. “Heaven”) but is also present in what God is doing here and now. And our role as followers of Christ is to prepare ourselves and the earth for the eternal reign of Christ. Essentially, we’re called to bring Heaven to earth as best we can.

In light of this, many of the things we are called to do as heralds of the Kingdom make perfect sense. We are called to make peace, which is something that we would hope to see for eternity in Christ’s kingdom. We are called to live a life of love which is something else we would hope to see exist eternally in the Kingdom. We are called to rejoice and worship which we would expect to see play huge roles in the Kingdom. And then, among the list of things that we would expect to be present in an eternal utopia, we find the peculiar call to suffer. It is relatively simple for us to see the purpose that suffering has on this side of the grave (Romans 5:3-4 makes the benefits of earthly suffering explicit ).  But what role does suffering play in the eternal Kingdom? More precisely, why are we being trained to suffer if we are promised ultimate and eternal escape from it?

These questions have weighed heavily on me recently as I have reflected on the call to suffer. I only barely understand what that means and how it ought to affect the direction my life takes. I have quite a ways to go in terms of comprehending the role and purpose of suffering. But, if you will indulge me, I have a theory concerning the role suffering plays in the eternal destiny of Christ-followers.

Let me reiterate that this is a theory. It is not something that I can explicitly back up with Scripture, and I’m not sure that it’s even something that fits well with God’s nature. I recognize the possibility probability that I am wrong, and I am open to correction and dialogue. But so far this is the best way I can figure to reconcile our call to suffer with the promise of the eternal Kingdom. So consider this an exercise in theoretical theology. Here goes…

Consider the following statement: “To be in the presence of God is to suffer.” Is that statement true? I have no idea. But what if it was? What if God is so excruciatingly holy and righteous and good that we could not stand to be in His presence without encountering unfathomable suffering? Consider God’s comment to Moses that no one can see Him and live (Exodus 22:30). This is the same God who reigns in the Kingdom. If to merely experience Him by sight is to face certain death, then what would it be like to exist fully in His presence? I imagine it to be unimaginable.

Could we someday find ourselves on the shores of eternity anticipating an island getaway only to be faced with a raging volcano? And could we learn to be content with this situation? Could we discover that the volcano is ever more beautiful and worthy of our eternity than any beach-front paradise could have promised to be? To enter into the full presence of God will be a beautiful thing, but I suspect it will be a difficult transition. The rusty and raw cog of humanity grinding up against a grand and glorious gear of God. I suspect that there will be friction. And how much more there would be, were the whole beautiful machine not lubricated with the blood of Christ!

Lest you think that I have neglected the role of the Spotless Lamb in all of this, Christ plays two large and indispensable roles in this theoretical framework. First, it is by His righteousness alone that we are even welcomed into the presence of God. Without His work, we would find ourselves hopelessly unwelcome in this eternal Kingdom. Second, Christ serves as our guide and our advocate as we experience the suffering that is necessitated by the collision of a holy God with a most unholy people. Without His taking our hand and leading us into the presence of God, we would find it unbearable and ultimately un-beautiful. But by His leadership we find a way to understand this suffering for what it truly is: an incredible intersection between God and ourselves. Until, perhaps, the day arrives when we become so overwhelmed by the presence of God that we learn to experience the suffering in a new way – in a way that draws us closer to God. And just as a deep tissue massage hurts in the beginning only to become enjoyable in the end, we may find that, by Christ’s guidance, we begin to appreciate what we would have first described as suffering. The sensation has not changed, but our perception of it has; in the same way that we are called to reimagine suffering on earth and see it as the refining tool that it is, we may come to reimagine the suffering that we experience in God’s presence. We may come to appreciate it. We may come to enjoy it. We may wish to spend eternity in it.

So, if Heaven is suffering, what then is Hell? Eternal bliss? In a way. But a bliss that people are not willing to embrace. In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful parable The Great Divorce, Lewis gives us a picture of Heaven as a place where the grass is too real for some people to walk on; it cuts their feet like razor blades because they are unprepared to engage the reality of Heaven. It is common to hear people say that Hell is the absence of God. But what if it was the opposite? What if Hell was the full presence of God without the welcoming embrace of Christ and without His guidance and advocacy? What if Hell is to attempt to experience the full suffering that God’s presence brings about, but to attempt to do so without the help and hope of Christ? Surely, this would be hellish. I imagine we might describe God’s presence here as “wrath.”

Parenthetically, I recognize that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 defines eternal punishment as exile from God’s presence, but I also take into account verses like Romans 2:8 (among others) that define punishment as the presence of God’s wrath. How is it that God can manifest His wrath without being present? I do not say this to disregard the verse in 2 Thessalonians, rather I say it to suggest that we not formulate an entire theology based on one description among many.

So then, what role does suffering play in preparing us for an eternal Kingdom? Perhaps it serves to ready us for our encounter with the divine. An encounter so real that it causes us to experience unparalleled suffering as we are overcome by its unparalleled beauty. An experience so unfamiliar and uncomfortable that can only be endured by the power of Christ, and to attempt to do so without Him would be…hellish.

-Tim-

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I Shall Not Want Want

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.

Behind John 3:16, this is likely the second most memorized verse in the Bible.  If not, it’s at least one of the most popular.  Just go to Google and type in “Psalm” and see which Psalm is suggested to you first.  (Spoiler: it’s this one.)

But if you would indulge me, I’d like you to consider how two words, appropriately affixed to this verse, can alter the way that we think about “wanting.”  Consider how your perspective changes when you read the verse like this:

If the LORD is my shepherd,
Then I shall not want.

If, in our mind’s eye, we allow this verse to become a conditional statement, it may challenge us to consider the relationship between our connection to God, and our desire for…desire.

Let me explain how this came about for me.

Last night I was laying on my couch, watching the news out of the corner of my eye, aimlessly fiddling with my cell phone, sitting next to my wife, and I slowly realized that I wanted something.  Food?  No, I had just eaten recently.  Water?  No, I wasn’t thirsty.  Did I have to go to the bathroom?  No, I just went.  Did I need to say something to my wife?  No, we had already debriefed our days with one another and were now winding down for the evening.  So what was it?  What did I want?  I looked at the TV, I looked at my phone, I looked at my wife, and it occurred to me that I was waiting for each of them to tell me what I wanted.  That’s what I wanted; something new to want.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  Consider the annual announcement of the newest iPhone.  (By the way, I don’t own a single Apple product, something that has on occasion called into question my eligibility to youth pastorship. But I digress.)  Every year bloggers, news sources, and technophiles speculate and prophecy about the upgrades and updates that will come along with the next “revolutionary” device.  For those of you not paying attention, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S are…pretty much the same thing.

(Primary difference? The letter “S”.)

 

Nevertheless, every year the press line up to get a glimpse of the latest piece of hardware.  But why?  There’s usually a considerable delay between the announcement and the actual release, so it’s not as if anyone is going to walk out of there with a new iPhone in hand.  It seems as if people aren’t  lining up to get what they want as much as they’re lining up to be told what to want.  The desire is no longer the desire for something, but a desire for desire itself.  Perhaps the best business model in the world is not to create a great product, but to create a great desire.  (On a side note, I find it highly bizarre that the late Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which teaches that the desire for material things leads to suffering.  Ok, I’m done ripping on Apple now, I promise.)

It’s Pavlovian in a sense.  We like to hear the bell because we know that it means food is on the way.  But unlike dogs, we soon find ourselves more enamored with the sound of the bell than with the food itself.

But lest you think I’m unfairly critical of Apple fans, I readily and shamefully admit to my own ever insatiable maw of want.  So I as I’m laying on my couch analyzing the desire for desire I sense inside, I begin to question my standing before the LORD.  Is He my shepherd?  If He is, then why do I so often find myself wanting something new to want?  Why do I make it a part of my daily ritual to check certain blogs and websites that try to sell me the idea that I need something?  Why do I watch the Superbowl on mute only to turn the volume up when the commercials come on?  Why does my heart race during the “Coming Attractions” before a film?  Why do I wander aimlessly around Best Buy looking for something that I didn’t even know existed so that I can hope to own it?  Am I addicted to desire?

Lest my rejection of desire sound too spiritually “Eastern,” I want to pause to recognize the importance that desire plays in the Christian faith.  Understanding God’s desire for us is paramount to any type of Christ-centered spirituality.  And our desire for Him is central to a theology of worship.  Human desire for relationship is a key component to Christian community.  Other examples could be given as well, but these shall suffice to show that desire is not wholly evil.

But western culture at large is hardly in danger of eschewing desire to the point of calling these truths into question.  Quite the opposite.  We are in love with our desire.  We celebrate it at every turn.  We allow it to dictate our identity.  So what is the call to the Christ-follower in a culture oversaturated with manufactured need?

The call, as I see it stated in Psalm 23, is to allow our desire for desire to set off a warning signal that we may be wandering just beyond our Shepherd’s immediate reach.  He is making us lay in green pastures and leading us beside quiet waters (which, in keeping with the shepherd/sheep motif leads invariably to a full belly!)  If we are near Him, what else is there for us to want?

If the LORD is our shepherd, then I suspect that we will find ourselves wanting less.  And as we walk with our Shepherd, we will find our needs largely met (always spiritually, and often materially) and we will certainly find that we have a decreasing desire to desire desire or want want.

So let us frequently fast from our desires long enough to discern what desires lead us in the way of our Shepherd and which lead us to more meaningless wanting.  And may we find that desire has a role in our spirituality; but it is not as central a role as our culture might have us believe.

-Tim-

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The Parable of the Youth Pastor

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Once upon a time there was a youth pastor who lived in a house that he had built atop a rock.  He had lived in the house for as long as he could recall.  The rock upon which the house was built was large and beautiful.  Although there were many rocks cut from the same stone, his was one-of-a-kind; worn and beaten by years of terrifying waves and winter storms, it had gained a unique luster and sheen that added to its beauty.  It was not perfect, and the youth pastor did not understand it completely, but it was his, and he loved it.

Young people from the surrounding area would come to inquire about the rock.  “Where did you get your rock?” they would ask.

“It was a gift,” the youth pastor would respond.

Many would ask about the rock and then go on their way.  But one day a boy came along and said, “I’m building a house.  Will you show me how to get a rock like yours?”

“I’m glad you asked!” the youth pastor responded.  Before either could utter another word, the youth pastor ran to his supply of stone and began carving away.  Chipping the brittle corners, sanding the rough edges, and carving out nooks.  After a time, he called the boy to come behold the rock he had shaped for him.

“What do you think?” the youth pastor asked proudly.  The boy surveyed the rock thoughtfully for a few moments.

“It looks just like yours,” the boy finally said.

“Of course!” The youth pastor responded.  “I’ve spent years watching my own rock get worn and shaped by the storms and waves of life.  I figured I’d save you the trouble of having to go through all of the long worrisome winters that I’ve endured.”

The boy apologized, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I’m looking for.  I’m not even sure my house will fit properly.  Thank you very much for all you’ve done, but I can’t use this rock.”

“I don’t understand,” the youth pastor said with dismay, “I thought this was what you wanted.”

“No,” the boy said.  “What I wanted was for you to show me how to get a rock like yours.  Instead you gave me a copy of your own rock, which I cannot use.  You have shown me nothing, and I have nowhere to build my house.”

The boy and the youth pastor were both very sad for neither got what they wanted.

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I Logically Cannot Find God

I cringe every time I hear some well-meaning apologist attempt to “prove” that God exists.  It is my firm conviction, as a Bible-believing Evangelical that, no, in fact, they cannot prove that God exists.  If they could, there would be a planet full of logically minded theists, whereas in reality we see a rapidly growing contingent of atheists and agnostics, many of whom cite logical reasons for not believing.  So what is going on?  Does logic lead us away from God?

Maybe. Probably.

At very least, logic, when viewed as the exclusive claim-holder on Truth, will lead us away from a Chistocentric worldview.  I’d argue that logic (at least post-Enlightenment logic) will at best serve to inform us about God’s creation, and at worst will lead us away from Him. But it will never prove Him.

These are very hard words for me to write, as I have been described by many of my friends (and myself) as a logically-minded individual.  And I want very badly to hang on to the idea that if only I could acquire more empirical information, I would be left with no choice to worship the Lord! But it’s time for me to give up the ghost on my logical search for God.

As a teenager, I was terrified of discovering some damning evidence that would finally close the coffin on my faith in God.  (This was the beginning of my struggle with anxiety, mentioned in my first post.) As a result, I spent many hours pouring over well-meaning books that claimed to be able to logically bolster my faith in God or even prove God’s existence.  At that formative state in my life, these books did provide a service in that they gave me new perspective, albeit perspective that I would later largely come to disagree with.  But they most certainly did not prove that God exists.  And I’ve come to accept that I’m unlikely to find such proof.

So why am I not an atheist or an agnostic?  Why do I still believe that Christ is who Scripture claims He was?  For me, it seems to boil down to language.

When I visit a foreign country, I’m always reminded of how difficult it is to communicate with someone whose language you don’t share.  Something as simple as asking for an extra napkin can become a frustrating and humiliating game of charades. My mom once told me a story about a time when she was in Taiwan and a co-worker attempted to thank someone in Taiwanese, but instead he made a comment about “a little boy’s peepee.” Common language is pretty essential, especially when attempting to convey important ideas.

So what language do all humans share? Well, definitely not spoken language, as there are about 6,500 languages actively spoken today. And definitely not written language, as there are about 6,000 of those floating around. What about drawings or pictograms? These vary wildly based on culture, time, location, and origin. This would be a very poor method of universally conveying information.

Even some of the brightest minds of the previous century had a difficult time coming up with a method of communicating information in a universal manner. Take, for example, the Voyager Golden Record. Intended for an alien culture, the record is designed to convey simple information about life and culture on Earth. But considering we have no way of knowing the preferred method of communication of its intended recipients, the fact that it contains images, words, and sounds, is almost laughable. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for space exploration, and if there is life out there, better we send something rather than nothing. But considering that we have no way of knowing if alien life forms have any means of processing visual or audio input, we can scarcely hope that they will be able to make heads or tails of our attempt to communicate.

Ok, back to Earth now. So what is the only common language that humanity shares? None, really. At least not any spoken, written, artistic, or cultural language. Humans, divided as we are by time, space, and culture, maintain no universality. With one important exception: we are all human. Humanity is the common language of humans. We might not “get” someone else’s spoken/written language or culture, but we understand what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, our only shared characteristic.

So what of God’s language then? Why, if God were out there somewhere, would He not have sent definitive and logically demonstrable proof that He is in fact God, thereby putting all speculation finally to rest? Why is God, at least as far as logic has shown, not discoverable? Perhaps we’re speaking the wrong language.

We must be humble enough to remember that logic (especially as it manifests itself in the scientific method) is not a universal language. It does not transcend culture and time. It has not been employed throughout history. It is not the preferable method for conveying information to all cultures. This is not in any way an attack on logic or the scientific method, both of which stand to do far more good than harm. It is simply a recognition of the fact that neither have been universally employed throughout human history.

Perhaps God chose not to reveal Himself through logic because it would not have been the most universally understood language through which He could have spoken. It is, possibly, arrogance on the part of the modernist Western mentality to believe that God is in any way obligated to be logically discoverable. Logic is wonderful and we are better off with it, but it’s simply not a language to which most of human history would be tuned. Perhaps God chose a more universal method. A method which reaches to all humanity without bias to education, location, time, gender, ability, etc. The method of humanity itself.

This, in part, is why I continue to believe that Christ is the incarnation of God; because above and beyond any other language God could have chosen to speak, He chose to speak the only language common to all humans.

Humanity.

I cannot conceive that such a perfectly orchestrated and beautifully consistent method of communication between the Divine and the human could have been concocted by the latter of the two. I believe it is too far-fetched.

And there’s the subjectivity; the reason that this blog post can’t be used to “prove” God’s existence. “I believe.” I cannot prove it, and I won’t attempt to. But neither can I reject it.

Christ the man is the language that God chose to speak. A beautifully human and perfectly intelligible way to speak. Finely tuned to be discernible to any human who has an ear to hear. The language of the Divine. The language of the human. God as a man.

And to think; I used to wonder why Scripture called Jesus, “The Word.”

-Tim-

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The Lost Art of Praying Angry

Lately I have found myself doing something new: praying with a soundtrack.  I like to pray with music in the background because it gives me something that helps to drown out some of the noise that I find otherwise distracting.  Here’s one of my favorite songs to pray to: Spoiler Alert: It’s just a dude screaming.

How can I feel comfortable praying to breakdowns and blast beats?  I found it difficult to understand myself at first.  Before I get to an explanation, let me back up a bit.

You see the first sentence in this post?  Allow me to truncate it to an equally true statement:

“Lately I have found myself doing something new: praying.”

Prayer is new to me.  Or at least it feels new.  The truth is, I’ve always hated praying.  It required me to slow my mind down to a submissive pace.  I hate that.  As such, I have grown to find prayer to be a nuisance to my otherwise busy and well-occupied spiritual life.  I even began to feel quite bad for the people who brought their prayer requests to me, knowing that my “lifting them up in prayer” would probably be something along the lines of: “Dear God, please help __________ with _________.  Amen.”  (And I’d usually be saying this in my head as they were talking to me just to get it over with).

Dear God, please tell these people to stop asking me to pray for them.

Recently I was encouraged by a local sage [read, “woman who works in my office”] to probe the reasons behind my aversion to prayer.  I had a long drive into LA recently, so I decided to dedicate that time to meeting her challenge by praying about…prayer.

My prayer began similarly to most prayers I’ve prayed in the past.  Praying about prayer, (or as I like to call it, “metaprayer”) is an interesting thing in that there really isn’t a formula for it like there is for so many other kinds of prayer.  And, as a subject that I rarely reflected on, it took a level of introspection on my part.  Following the direction of my office mate/spiritual director, I began to explain to God why I don’t like praying.  I tiptoed around the issue for a bit, still praying the way I’m used to, (i.e. “Dear Lord, I don’t understand why I don’t pray.  Please help me pray better.”)  But after a while I got frustrated.  Actually, I got angry.  After trying unsuccessfully to pray a proper prayer for a while, I just gave up.  That’s when I heard these words come out of my mouth:

“You know why I don’t like prayer, God?  Because I think it’s a huge waste of time!”

Suddenly, as if scales fell from my eyes spirit, I was…you know…actually praying.

Now I’m sure I’ve prayed real prayers before.  But this prayer seemed somehow different.  It was as if all of a sudden God was actually listening to me.  It was like the second I decided to take my “spiritual filter” off, God began to believe what I was saying.  This was the first time I could ever remember “praying angry.”

Let me pause because I’m sure that there are some who could misconstrue my attempt at honesty as irreverence.  In no way am I encouraging insolence or disrespect, especially to God.  In fact, if there’s something I’ve learned quickly in my journey of prayer, it’s that each prayer ought to begin with a humble recognition of God’s holiness (i.e. “hallowed be thy name“).  No, I feel quite strongly that I am endorsing exactly the opposite of irreverence.  When we pray, I contend that we show a lack of respect for God’s omniscience by muting our emotions, language, ideas, frustrations, etc as if He weren’t already aware of them.  When we run our lives through a filter before they reach God, we lose the ability to bring all things to God.  And yet this is what we do so often; attempt purify our prayers before bringing them to the God who purifies.  We scrub away any offensive ideas, harsh language, anger, bitterness, and then pray a spit-shined prayer, which, in my opinion, is no prayer at all.  How can we possibly “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2. Cor. 10:5) if we can’t bring Christ every thought?

If anyone is having trouble embracing this idea, I encourage you to read the Psalms.  You don’t have to look far to see people being brutally honest with God, even complaining (sometimes whining).  Some decent examples would be: Psalm 13; Psalm 22; and Psalm 74.

Sometimes the Psalmists even ask for things that we would consider immoral to pray for today like asking Him to break people’s jaws or kill people.  These are the “R Rated” uncensored prayers of imperfect people bringing themselves fully to God.

So why do we sanitize our prayers?  Probably through years of learning to “pray proper,” we have lost the art of praying angry.  But not just angry.  Praying happy!  Praying frustrated.  Praying tired.  Praying grumpy.  Praying hopeful.  Praying worshipfully.  Praying delighted.  Praying in anguish.  Praying scared.  Praying silly.  Praying imperfectly.  Praying clean.  Praying dirty.

Praying honest.

I’m not arguing against form.  So if you pray with the “thees” and “thous”, by all means keep it up!  As long as it’s real.  As long as you mean what you say.  As long as your prayers are uncensored.  Let God censor your prayers.  But if all of the dirty, grimy, day-to-day stuff that makes up our lives never makes it to God, then how can we expect Him to intervene?  How can we expect to show God to our world, when we’re afraid to show our world to God?

So I listen to aggressive music sometimes when I pray because it reminds me to be real.  It reminds me to be angry when I am angry, and to be at peace when I am at peace.  It reminds me to let my words be few, but be weighted with meaning.  And it reminds me to let God direct my words, thoughts, and emotions, but always as a result of bringing my words, thoughts, and emotions to God.

-Tim-

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How Small is Our God?

ImageThere’s a car in my neighborhood with this sticker on the back of it.  I don’t know who drives the car, but I know that the sentiment expressed on the sticker causes me to think every time I see it.

I suspect that the phrase, “God is too big for any one religion,” is used to convey the idea that organized religion is small-minded.  Certainly if God is as big as our religions claim He (or She) is, then He/She must be far too large to fit into the ever-encroaching framework of our organized religions.  I would guess that there are even some “progressive Christians” (a term that I find redundant) who would revel in this idea as it indicates a perceived attack on the stuffy, small-minded, traditionalism of conservative evangelicalism.

It’s certainly an interesting idea.  God is too big for our religions.  How big He must be!  He is overflowing the boundaries of our religions, and (if this concept is taken to its logical extreme) He is pouring into and overflowing the boundaries of all religions.  This is an attractive concept.  But it is one that I can not ascribe to, as I find it distinctively counter to Christ.

Some might read that last statement and make up their mind that I am just one of the small-minded individuals to whom the sticker’s sentiment is directed.  And they’re free to believe so.  But I would propose that the idea of God being “too big for any one religion” represents a paradigm that is not particularly constructive, and is, in Christian terms, called into question by the nature of the Gospel.

When I was younger, I worked at a hotel with a Moslem fellow who would often allow me to provoke him into theological conversation.  One dialogue I recall in particular included my attempt to explain the incarnation, and his subsequent rejection of it.  He said that he could not believe that God became man, because God is too big to become man; too holy to become man; too good to become man.  God was “too big” for the Christian religion.  I have to admit, his logic was hard to argue against.  Allah had never become man, and therefore was not as small as my God, who had lowered Himself to the human form.  In this instance, I engaged in the battle over whose God was bigger, and (so far as my co-worker was concerned) I lost.

Now consider Christ.  Consider the way He taught.  Consider the backwardness of His teachings about the nature of the Kingdom.  Consider the fact that in Acts 17, his followers were described as those who “have turned the world upside down,” (ESV).  And consider for a moment that in Christ, God is rejecting the ever-present bickering between religions about whose God is “bigger.”  In a world where the best faith is presumably the one that can shout the loudest to prove that their god is the biggest, Christ comes to quietly cull a minority of individuals simple-minded enough to believe that God could be like them, even if for a moment in history.

While much of the world was pointing out their gods in the stars and constellations and mountain tops and the sun and moon,  Jesus spoke in terms of seeds, fish, coins, bread and soil; things we can hold.  Small things.  Big gods exist elsewhere.  Jesus exists here, making first things last and big things small.

Is God too big for any one religion?  I have no idea.  I don’t put much stock in religion as it exists today anyhow.  But I know that I am not compelled to belief by an enormous religion-devouring God in the same way that I am compelled to belief in a God who rejects our concept of how big He ought to be so that He can be as small as we need Him to be.  So allow the religions of the world to argue about whose god(s) are bigger.  It’s an argument that I, by the grace of Christ, don’t find compelling.

-Tim-

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Lies This Christian Tells Himself

I was tempted to title this, “Lies Christians Tell Ourselves,” but I’ve read too many Christians who seem far too interested in defaming the Church for whatever reason, and I have no interest in that.  But I don’t mind a little self-deprecation if it serves to make a point.

Here are some lies I’ve told myself recently:

“Worship is about the way I live.”

“I practice friendship evangelism.”

“My prayer is a constant conversation with God.”

If you’ve been in/around the Church for any extended period of time, these are probably statements you are familiar with.  I must confess that these statements are lies (at least when they are coming from my mouth).

I don’t worship with the way I live.

I don’t practice friendship evangelism.

My prayer is not a constant conversation with God.

So why do I bother to tell lies like this?  Probably the reasons are twofold.

First, to say such things paints myself in a powerfully spiritual light (as if those who are powerfully spiritual have any interest in painting themselves to appear so).  With these statements draped over me, I can feel comfortable in my spiritual intentions.  I begin to appear to be a real spiritual soldier who has surrendered every waking moment of my life to the noble pursuits of worship, evangelism, and prayer.  The type of man any Christian damsel would throw herself at in the hope that I am not so pious as to reject her affections in the name of asceticism.

Second, to say such things allows me the freedom of never actually following through on my intentions.  If I say that I worship with the way I live, there is no obligation to actually set aside time designated for worship.  Same goes for evangelism and prayer.  Nobody can hold me accountable on these items because they are no longer items; they are a “part of who I am.”  This creates a tremendous barrier of subjectivity through which I can hardly be called to account.  Were someone to ask, “How do you evangelize?” I can simply respond with the nebulous, “With the way I live my life.”  This deflects the question while throwing an impressive “flash-bang” of meta-evangelism in their direction which serves to confuse and astound.

Now, for clarification’s sake:

I do believe that worship ought to be a lifestyle.

I do believe that evangelism is most fruitful in the context of a relationship.

And I do believe that prayer ought to be constant.

In that respect, these statements are not lies.  But when I personalize these statements to refer to myself, they become untrue.  Because they do not (even on a highly subjective level) reflect the reality of my life.  The problem does not exist in these statements.  The problem exists in the infrequency in which these statements are followed up with intentional action:

Actively seeking out moments of worship.

Creating spaces in which the Gospel can be conveyed.

Practicing the discipline of frequent purposeful prayer.

What is the point of all of this?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the point is that I am ashamed of myself for claiming to so many things that I do not adhere to.  Or maybe I find myself frustrated in the comfort I find in painting my own spirituality as it is not.  Or, it could be that I wanted to write a blog post about how ashamed and frustrated I am with myself so that you would see me as spiritual without requiring anything of me.

Hmm…

-Tim-

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