On Christmas and Church

Maybe Trump’s election caused more of a mental disturbance than I thought. The “Safe Spaces,” therapy dogs, free counseling sessions, and petitions to have the Electorate change their votes were certainly not what I was expecting following November 8. (Just to be clear, I am not endorsing nor condemning the President Elect). But now, we are having to have discussions around whether or not to gather for worship on a major Church holiday?

For those who may not have heard the buzz flying around the interwebs this season, there is a conversation/debate going around Christian circles over whether or not to have an organized gathering on Christmas. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, and thus many churches are deciding not to have a service.

I simply don’t get it. Why is this even a conversation? Have we run out of things to discuss?

In all seriousness, let’s have a chat about this. Christmas is less than 2 weeks away, and although this post is, no doubt, late to the party, I still think there is a lot we need to talk about when it comes to this particular topic.

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I will be blunt: I think it’s a poor choice to cancel church on Christmas. I will try to be brief, so here is my reasoning:

1. Most Americans are closet Gnostics, already. American Christianity struggles with understanding the value of creation and the material world (Thank you, Plato). The Incarnation is an incredible opportunity to teach this – and a necessary one. God becoming flesh – literally occupying physical space – carries profound density that could take a lifetime to explore, but how often do we wrestle with this idea? I cannot think of the last time I was at a Christmas service where the Crucifixion/Resurrection was not the climax of the Christmas Story. If we cannot appreciate the significance of the Incarnation without burying it under the Cross, then we have a problem.

By cancelling church on Christmas, we communicate a theological message about the value of the Incarnation whether we mean to or not.

2. It’s not just another Sunday. I don’t know why many pastor’s I’ve heard from use this as a justification for cancelling services: it’s just another Sunday. Truth is, it’s a major Christian holiday. What better place to celebrate a Church holiday than on a Sunday? We should be excited that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year – the day that the Lord meets with his Holy Church Universal! Think of what it would be like to cancel church during Easter because it falls on a Sunday.

I know the reasoning behind this, which brings me to the third point:

3. Family is not more important than Church. The number 1 reason I have heard for cancelling church revolves around: “This is time I can spend with my family. I’m not going to neglect my family for the sake of a service.” Here’s the problem I have with this thinking: it assumes a false dichotomy. Family is not at odds with Church. Family time and Church time are not mutually exclusive. See one of my latest posts for more on this subject.

I understand that family is important, but we are treading dangerously close to making family an idol by assuming that families are somehow being damaged by worshipping together. If we can’t worship with our families for an hour on a Sunday morning without suffering damage, then I suggest counseling rather than sleeping-in and opening presents. Are we such bad family members that we can’t take advantage of the other 364 days in the year and spend adequate time with our family? We only have this one day to show our families what they mean to us?

Now, I get the pressures of being a pastor, and that it isn’t “just an hour” you have to put into a Sunday morning service. But here’s the awesome thing: You’re the pastor! You don’t have to plan an hour-long service. Personally, I’m planning a simple Christmas morning service that, at most, will go for about 45 minutes with Scripture readings and no worship team. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we have to go full-throttle on the choirs, songs, videos, and all that jazz. But, gathering as the community of faith is an important thing to do.

4. It’s one Sunday out of the year. I understand we want to spend time with our families. Again, I am not against family time because I don’t believe the lie that Church time and Family time can’t go together. But, if we truly need that time together as a family on a Sunday morning and can’t survive without it, then why not take off the following Sunday? Or the Sunday before? Christmas is not just “another Sunday.” Have we truly forgotten what a holiday is? What’s more – it’s one of the most significant holidays of the year! (and I’m counting the Church calendar, not just the Hallmark calendar)

Another major argument I’ve heard for churches closing is that “it’s only one Sunday out of the year. No big deal!” My point exactly: it’s only one Sunday out of the year. Why not make a small sacrifice and worship?

5. Mixed messages. I will never be able to count how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” If that is true, then why can’t we acknowledge that on Christmas, of all days, by actually observing that message?

By preaching, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and turning around and saying, “No church on Christmas,” we mark ourselves as hypocrites and preach a different message. More often than not, as far as I’ve heard/read, the message is: “Family is the Reason for the Season.” As Christians, we are called to be set apart; to follow a different way of living. Where Secular Culture decides to treat Christmas as a time to worship family, we should be setting an example by taking that time to worship Christ.

I have heard it argued that canceling church is not a problem because church is not the same as Jesus. I get it. But we have to be careful in that thinking because Christ himself saw the regular gathering of the community as important. And, he also established the Church and set her up to be his bride. Perhaps this is over-spiritualizing things a tad, but I would argue that by gathering consistently, especially on holidays, we honor Christ’s bride and thereby Christ himself.

6. Christmas without a cost. I don’t know, maybe this is a cheap shot, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one major reason for our lackluster approach to Christmas this year is that we want to treat ourselves. We don’t want to have to work. We want some time off. We want a holiday that doesn’t cost us anything (well, anything beyond the $500 we spent on Christmas presents). Our time spent shopping was enough time away from home.

But Christmas is about giving, not getting. Am I seriously having to say this to a mostly adult audience? So why not give some ti—…….       you know what… I think I’ve made my point by now.

 

There are other reasons for why I will have church on Christmas morning, but these are the highlights. And, honestly, I still can’t believe we have to have this conversation. It’s not like this is the first time Christmas fell on a Sunday. It happened 5 years ago, and I’m pretty sure we were all good with it back then. So what happened?

And, frankly, if we can’t take an hour or two out of one day of the year to worship as a family because “that’s the only time we have together,” then maybe we’re too busy with filling our lives with things that don’t matter.

On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda (Part 2)

Some of you probably noticed a few writing errors on my last post shortly after it was published (I know I did!). As I was going through and making some minor edits on misspelled words, I began to sift through it and add hyperlinks to various parts that I thought were relevant – parts where I thought, “you know, maybe someone wants to know more about what I just said. I’ll include hyperlinks to show where I’m getting my information.”

But then I encountered a problem… About 2/3rds the way through my last post, I began saying things like, “Read YouTube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology.” Here’s the problem I encountered: I couldn’t find a demonstration of this. Sure, as I looked through YouTube videos discussion religion/faith there were a few spots where things got a bit heated in the comments section. But, for every post I found that belittled Christianity I found another that belittled non-Christians. Overall, for all the vitriol that YouTube comments hold (“cesspools,” as some people describe them), there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong leaning one way or the other. In fact, there are some good conversations that take place, albeit rarely.

As I scoured the videos I watched in days-gone-by where I thought I was getting a hint of anti-Christianity, I soon began to question myself… Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda?

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I began to search the internet even more, looking beyond YouTube into Reddit, Facebook, and even 4Chan to see what kinds of anti-Christianity existed. What I found was that there certainly is an anti-Christian presence on these sites, but there is also a pro-Christian presence. In fact, most of the views held by both sides of the conversation tend to stay within their own circles, like different cliques of people sitting together in their own section of the bleachers during a school event; having their own in-house meeting while occasionally slinging mud at one another, but having no real engagement between the two.

Then, I began to think through my personal interactions with those I’ve met who are atheists and agnostics. Interestingly enough, I cannot recall one hostile conversation I’ve had with such people throughout my life. Maybe one or two heated discussions during my Middle and High School days between classmates, but even then it was more a conversation of exploration and testing than persecution-levels of animosity. And, in my adult years, I have actually been frustrated more by Christians than non-Christians (but this is probably due to my high exposure to Christians compared to the latter).

In fact, I recently attended my 10-year High School reunion. I admit I was a bit nervous about the fact that I am now a pastor, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my classmates if/when they discovered that fact. To my surprise, they were perfectly fine with it and a couple of them even opened up to me about their lives and some of what they are going through (this happens even with strangers – more often than you’d think). My being a Christian, and a pastor, actually allowed for genuine conversations rather than creating a hostile environment between people of different religious perspectives.

As I thought through this, I juxtaposed my personal experiences and ‘research’ with what I have been presented by Christian media. I grew up inundated with Left Behind ideas of a stark contrast between peace loving Christians and war mongering atheists who love to trip-up believers and knock them down as the inferior species. As I entered college, Christian media started to actually gain some real production value (they actually felt like movies instead of made-for-T.V. specials). Yet, for all the developments in technology, the underlying themes remained the same: Christians = good, atheists = bad; Christians = smart, unbelievers = stupid; Christians = victims, non-Christians = persecutors. You can imagine how such consistent messages can influence one’s perception of reality. And, that is exactly what propaganda is designed to do – influence one’s perception of reality.

I asked myself again: Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda? By assuming, without solid references to back it up, that Christians and Christianity are attacked and belittled, I was promoting these notions that Christians are a discriminated group worthy of pity and able to claim victimhood of near 1st century levels of persecution.

But is this true? Are Christians in America really being lambasted for their beliefs? Are we being persecuted for wanting to worship in relative safety or being open about our faith? I submit that we are not. Perhaps we can claim particular instances where it seems we have been mistreated for our faith, but a look beneath the surface of what is going on will show that most (if not all) of these instances rely almost entirely on our subjective interpretation of what is going on instead of what is actually going on. “SayGoodnightKevin” does a good job of going through some of these particular instances at the end of his review of ‘God’s Not Dead.’

We have been groomed to think we are the persecuted minority. We have been taught to see strangers as Christian haters, worthy of neither our engagement nor our love (though we may throw them a tract or two, because – you know – John 3:16). But what ultimately happens is we end up sitting in our own circle of friends, the “Christian Club,” in our own section of the bleachers. We become hopelessly unaware of what life is like outside of our own bubble and construct faulty understandings of reality, but do not challenge them because they empower us. Victim mentality does that.

Once that happens – once a victim mentality is established – then engagement ceases to matter. “They” hate us because of what we believe, and so there is no reason to mingle with the likes of them. “They” become the enemy, and should be proven they are in the wrong. “They” should be attacked in order to preserve our way of life and to protect our rights. Our way of life is, after all, the superior one.

And then Christianity becomes a hermit kingdom, with the Great Commission being reduced to a bumper sticker on the back of a rusted out Hummer in an abandoned lot somewhere in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda

I was watching a documentary today on Netflix. Not a particularly unique event. For some odd reason I began finding dramas and action movies wholly dissatisfying a couple years ago and found myself scouring Netflix and Youtube for any historical clips, intellectual debates, and foreign films based on cultural ideologies or philosophical examinations.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I came across an independent film titled, “The Propaganda Game” I almost instantly added it to my list. The cover is a North Korean soldier, and having been to Korea and studied some of its culture over the last couple years – even learning some of the Korean language – I thought this would be an interesting watch.  I wasn’t disappointed.

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The film follows a Spanish filmmaker throughout his exploration of the country and how the North Korean culture perpetuates itself within the system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). I recommend everyone to watch it. It is truly fascinating to see the contrast between what we see/hear of North Korea from news sources and what people experience when they actually visit the country.

I admit that I struggled while watching this film. And, as the filmmaker admits at the conclusion of the movie, it is difficult to tell what is true and what is not. Are the lives people live simply a façade, carried out through fake smiles and rehearsed lines in order to appease the powers-that-be? Or is that simply our perception of what is going on, built up by misinformation and speculation, and fueled by anti-communist mentalities? In reality, I think that many who live in North Korea truly believe that they are the greatest country on the face of the earth, that the Juche ideology will carry the Korean people to world dominance and full independence, that it’s leaders are deserving to be worshipped and respected above all others, and that the West (particularly America) is the enemy of freedom and an imperialistic power.

We hear such positions, and we immediately infer that they derive from propaganda. Constructed out of lies, deceit, and subjugation over decades of ideological conditioning and brainwashing. We hear what happens within the country and we cry “foul,” demanding that human rights have been violated and sanctions should set against it for the sake of the DPRK’s citizenry.

However, I found something to be entirely fascinating throughout my viewing of this movie. I was entranced and fixated on this one singular point that served as the undercurrent, and I have been wrestling with it all day. The point is this: Are we not living in the same reality?

As much as we look at a country like North Korea and say how abusive it is that television, news networks, and cinema are manipulated in order to condition the thinking of its people, does our culture not do the same? How the police and military forces are used to enforce strict laws that would punish those who work against the established system, and are used to root out anyone who would disrespect the Great Leaders and their position – do we not do the same?

A rudimentary look through Facebook would reveal how our culture punishes its people for not standing up during the National Anthem. Read Youtube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology. Watch the news, and see how it condemns other countries (including North Korea) for not functioning the way a country ought to, even though the standards we use to judge the efficiency and functionality of other cultures is based on Western ideas.  Watch any movie that has come out in the last year, and you will see how our own American culture produces its own propaganda: alternative sexual lifestyles should be celebrated, the sovereignty of the individual is the greatest moral achievement, freedom of choice in every aspect of life is the highest ethic to be pursued, science reveals all truth, and the Western way of life is the ideal way of life.

With only few exceptions, see what happens when anyone counters those ideas. I am willing to bet that many who are reading this have automatically assumed, whether subconsciously or consciously, that most or all of the aforementioned ideals are good, noble, and true. However, could we not conclude that such ideals are the product of decades of our own propaganda?

Taking this one step further, in the direction of how it relates to Christianity, we ought to be aware of how our own cultures have affected our beliefs. I find it fascinating that Christians in the West gravitate towards Biblical themes of liberty, freedom, and autonomy, while Christians in parts of Africa gravitate towards the themes of patriarchal authority, communal living, and piety.

Could we not conclude, then, that our own faith may be subject to culture’s propaganda? After all, if we take an honest look at American ideologies and Biblical teachings we will find many conflicts. Where American teaches freedom of choice in all areas of life, Christ teaches self-sacrifice and full submission to the will of the Father. Where America teaches the sovereignty of the individual – the power we have to define ourselves – Christianity reveals that the only freedom we have is the freedom to either follow or reject Christ, and if we choose to follow Christ we forego our “rights” or any claim of self-sovereignty. Where America and its culture teaches that we must respect the American flag and pledge our allegiance to it, Scripture teaches that we pledge allegiance to Christ alone and no other.  America teaches that we belong only and exclusively to ourselves, and are held accountable by no one above us, while the Bible teaches that we are but singular parts of a greater whole who are taught to hold one another accountable and to be responsible for one another.

In many ways, it seems that Christianity has more in common with North Korea than with America.  But can we see through the haze that is our own Western propaganda machine – a machine that force-feeds us philosophies, ideas, “truths,” ethics, and morals through television, video games, magazines, movies, newspapers, books, sports, education, and social media?

I am not commending the DPRK as an ideal which we should follow. I am merely pointing out how inconsistent it is that we, as Americans, condemn that which is not like us simply because we have different worldviews. Ironically, we condemn North Korea for doing the same.

Perhaps this can be a step toward liberating our Americanized church from nationalistic tendencies, and perhaps we can begin to see ourselves – the Church – as a nation without borders, whose sole philosophy is “Jesus is Lord.” What if we allowed ourselves to be conditioned in that way of thinking, rather than be conditioned into an American way of thinking?

On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

On Ministers and Open Gates (Part 7)

I can remember every single one.

Every single instance.

Those moments, not always brief, but profound. I can remember them all.

One was in the passenger seat of a car. One was during a tour of a church. One was sitting in my kitchen chair in Nairobi. Another was with my parents as we sat around the large chest/coffee table in the entertainment room. One was in my brother’s and sister’s living room in front of the t.v. And one was in the basement of the home of my previous pastor, Jake.

All of these were moments when I wrestled with opportunities to pursue pastoral positions.

As was mentioned in a previous post, it is an incredibly tempting thing to jump at any and all opportunities. In a culture that teaches us that with education comes golden opportunities (and that they come quickly), it is easy to assume that the first open doors we come to are the ones through which we should walk. Especially for a young minister, full of other’s advice and eager to prove his/her own competence, there is a strong pull to accept whatever position opens up. And, if given the opportunity to interview for those positions, there is almost no question: pursue it at all costs!

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I remember those moments because they were all times when I felt a mixed concoction of excitement, anxiousness, and worry. It seemed that for every good thing about a particular position (or, at least, every ‘potentially’ good thing), I could find something else that may have been not-so-good. I tried to balance the pros and the cons. I talked my way through the possibilities, how my strengths and weaknesses would be used or challenged in different ways, attempted to discern a vision for the particular context and where the people were in their discipleship journey…

Attempting to discern the will of God is a difficult thing. Maybe it gets better with age and experience, or maybe it’s easier depending on the circumstances, I don’t truly know. But what I’ve come to discover is this: When the time is right, the will of the Lord is made clear.

It is good to wrestle with things. It is good to think through decisions, to seek counsel, to discern according to the best of our cognitive and emotional abilities. But, at the end of the day, we must recognize that even our best decisions making skills submit to the will of our Heavenly Father.

Many times our decision making skills align with His will, and so it is easy to discern. Other times, it almost goes in the opposite direction.

Most recently I was in that basement, pacing around nervously while I waited for a phone call from my new District Superintendent. My phone began to ring. I had been praying about this moment for a couple of weeks by that point. I had weighed the good and the bad, the pros and the cons, attempted to learn as much as I could about this particular church in order to make an informed decision. But I still was not completely sure what to do.

I answered. I don’t remember much, except this phrase: “The vote was pretty strong. But I don’t know how you could get a vote stronger than unanimous.”

For me, that was the moment of confirmation.

I want to be clear, though. My confirmation was not in the approval of what other people decided. I have had strong supporters for other positions before. In the end the decision to pursue what is now my first senior pastorate position fell upon the kind of confirmation and affirmation that can only come from God himself.

And, after all is said and done, he is the one to whom we are ultimately accountable.

“But seek first his Kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:33-34

When we seek first the will of our Lord, our way will be made clear. Perhaps not as timely as we would like, but when it matters the most.

 

Welcome to the life of a disciple.