On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

6813-1_Box

Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

Advertisements

On Pollution and Grace

There was once a vibrant oasis in the Western United States. Over time, with the introduction of harmful human activity, the oasis became polluted to the point that flora and fauna struggled to survive.

A local group, concerned about the rapid decline of that ecosystem, began to take steps towards repairing the damage that had been done. They removed large amounts of waste from that environment, quarantined a few areas around the lake, and put forth several measures to prevent further accumulation of harmful substances.

Over a short time, the oasis began to recover. Plant life began to recover, the ph balance of the water was improving, and the soil composition was getting back to what it needed to be. The nearby town began introducing new life into the ecosystem; fish and several plants to further improve the quality of the soil and water. However, there were still noticeable issues with the levels of pollution that were found.

Once again, the people involved in monitoring the situation saw improvements. This time, however, the improvements came slowly. They began doing water treatments to further cleanse the lake, and introduced soil treatments to remove even more pollutants that were found in the ground. Improvements still came, but noticeable differences were difficult to observe.

After some time, the people became frustrated with their progress. At several hundred thousand dollars spent, the nearby town was thoroughly invested in removing all pollutants from the oasis. But, the tests still showed the presence of pollution. Even though the current levels of harmful substances were a tiny fraction of what they once were, further measures were enacted to continue the purification process.

Aquifer rehabilitation, plant scrubbing, animal cleaning, numerous amounts of sprays, and chemical spreads were introduced. At this point, the economic cost was well into the millions of dollars and national finances were being used for the rehabilitation project.

As these methods were taking place, the situation – surprisingly – began to get worse. The levels of cleaning chemicals ended up killing most of the fish in the lake, as well as the plant life surrounding it. The town had to declare bankruptcy because of the inordinate level of costs it had undertaken. And, in a brief span of time, the oasis became a desert.

cost-benefit-analysis

I’ve heard this story used as a thought experiment for cost-benefit analysis in economics. I feel it works equally well in a social setting.

There is a nasty habit that has evolved in our midst; the tireless pursuit of perfection. Every possible negative instance is heavily scrutinized and swiftly punished. There can be no imperfection in our society; no room for error. Whenever a comment is made that is racist or sexist (or if it could be taken as such), a cleansing process must take place to eradicate it.

I have been concerned for a while that our culture is committing the same self-destructive process within our own social fabric. With these trends of racial reconciliation, gender equality, mutual tolerance, and open-mindedness becoming increasingly radical, I cannot help but wonder if our Western ideal of perfection is going to kill us.

Now, I am not in favor of racism, sexism, bigotry, or whatever other ideologies exist that elevate one type of person over another. However, I also feel that it is a problem to relentlessly pursue their eradication.

Let’s face the reality: people will be bigoted. Racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, xenophobia, and similar negative traits will exist wherever we go. It is good to recognize these realities and seek reconciliation, but we should also acknowledge that there comes a point where pursuing perfect justice will ultimately lead us to creating an environment in which we, ourselves, cannot even live. We will have cultivated an ecosystem that is so purified that no form of life can survive.

I am still wresting with this line of thinking, and am curious to see where the logical end of it lies. I feel very strongly, though, that instead of asking ourselves, “How can we get rid of these social ills?” we should begin asking, “Can we show grace in the midst of human imperfections?” Following the direction of the general philosophy of our culture, the answer to the latter question is quickly becoming “no.” In such an environment, no one will be able to survive.

Integrating this line of thinking into the Church, we should not be surprised by those who say, “I am not good enough to be a Christian.”  The more we pursue our idea of perfection (whether we are talking about politics, theology, or whatever else), the more it will come at the cost of our own humanity. We won’t be able to live in the world we’ve created. We would do well to walk with humility in these times, especially since we are wading through a growing paradox of increasing legalism and the simultaneous extension of self-sovereignty.

On Inquiries and Rejections

I was talking a while ago with my friend back in the States about my time here in East Africa. We had been to this part of the world together on multiple occasions, so it is nice being able to talk to someone with whom you share experiences. In the course of our conversation, he was asking about how I was doing and mentioned that he was jealous that I have this awesome opportunity. But, I admitted something to him that I have found true during my time here: It is really difficult living here.

I do not say “difficult” as a slant against the people I work with. The people here are wonderful, and there is a lot to be admired from the way East Africans live. I say “difficult” because you have to almost completely change you way of life in order to function here.

For one, you have to completely alter your standard of living. Unlike how that expression is normally used, I am not implying that one has to move from a higher to a lower standard of living (or vice versa). What I mean is that you have to completely change how you operate from day-to-day. You have to pay attention to things you aren’t using to paying attention to. You have to forego any familiarities with life ‘back home’ such as food, fashion, driving style, road manners, and interpersonal communication among basically everything else.

It is true that on a short-term mission trip you are exposed to all these, you really only interact with them on a superficial level; you are an outside observer performing some interactions with the local culture. At the end of the two weeks, however, you return home having only tasted life abroad. But, as is the case for me, the changes in lifestyle are not applied only on the surface. You have to take them on yourself entirely.

The way people here think, which can be quite different than the way people think in the States, has to become the way you think. There are expectations that are placed on you that you are not use to, and you have to learn how to adapt in order to meet those expectations (and it’s another thing entirely to know which expectations you should and should not adapt to). Overall, there are many challenges to living – rather than visiting – a culture that is foreign to your own. If I can be honest, there is one main challenge I have been struggling with ever since I arrived here.

It’s the way I am treated simply because I’m white. I would say “because I’m American” but a friend of mine who is also American lives here and is black, and he is treated like a normal everyday African even though he is still trying to learn some basic Swahili.

America

Sometimes it’s not that big of a deal, and I even find it flattering in some cases the amount of attention I get because of my skin color. When attending a soccer game I may be the only white person in a crowd of hundreds or thousands (besides the team coaches), so I like being called out and recognized as special because I am cheering for the same team as everyone else. What I struggle with, however, is when people assume that simply because I have a United States visa I have personal connections with people in high places who can supply jobs, money, and transport to the U.S.

At first I let it slide off my back whenever a random stranger would come up to me and ask for employment, or money, or what have you. But not too long ago I suppose you could say I reached my tipping point.

I was at church, a place I like to think of as one where I can let my defenses down a little and just enjoy being with my Spiritual Family, where there is neither African nor American, rich nor poor. A man was there, and talking casually with other people present. Then he saw me, and came up to engage in conversation. I’m not averse to meeting new people, so I obliged. After sharing about some of his life’s difficulties, I could tell where the conversation was going. When he got around to asking if I could supply him with a job, I politely told him I’m not in a place to do so. He became a bit frustrated and then asked me for money. Again, I politely told him I could not and made up a reason why. Then, he kept looping his requests until I just stopped responding. I think that was the moment when it became too much for me, and I couldn’t handle being treated like a stereotypical rich, connected, all-around better citizen of the world because I’m white.

I remember lying in bed that night, still frustrated by the whole experience, and deciding not to fight those ideas anymore:

“Fine, I have more money than you do because I’m American.”

“Okay, I have personal connection with the president of the United States and the owner of British Airways.”

“Yes, my life will always be better than yours in every conceivable way.”

“Of course, you can’t do anything right on your own and need us ‘white saviors’ to come and do everything for you.”

Although I completely disagree with the above statements (and their presuppositions), when you frequently receive these messages in some form or another throughout your stay and some people even outright say these things to you, it can be tedious.

That is just one example of what I have been learning about myself (and long-term missions) while I have been here. I could talk about more, like how I always have to be careful about what I say regarding Kenya’s politics, leaders, international affairs, lifestyle, etc. whenever I am around other people because I do not know what will offend and what will not; or how the rate at which life flows is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating; or how difficult it is to suppress my ‘Americanisms’ almost all the time. But, hopefully this should suffice to get my point across: life in a foreign place is difficult.

Because I have chosen to live in Kenya and work with the church during this time, some people have assumed that I am planning on being an international missionary. While I have seriously thought about it, I have also learned that I am not gifted or graced to perform such a task. I do not know how the missionaries here do what they do, and handle with such grace and humility the situations in which they find themselves.

I thank God for the people he has called to build his kingdom overseas, because it’s certainly not something I can handle.

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

bait-and-switch

You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?