Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Question Of How We View God.

I've been thinking about how we sometimes criticize God. I've heard people try to use the Old Testament as evidence against His goodness or justice. If He says "don't murder" why did He command His people to go to war? If one of His attributes is Omniscience, then how is it possible Abraham and Moses seem to change His mind with their prayers?

And then there's the classic, "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?" I could get into the fact that people aren't good in the first place, but something else has occurred to me.  When we criticize Him, aren't we appealing to a sense of "good" over God? But if God is sovereign, then doesn't He set the standard of what is good?

I have a feeling our sense of justice is fueled more by our emotions than our understanding. Who has a better understanding of the law? The person who wrote it, or the people who interpret it?

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Do I Stop Saying Lame Prayers?

Have you ever felt like a wimp when you pray? Your prayer was trying to enjoy a day at the beach, not doing anybody any harm. Then without warning, someone else says a prayer that walks by and kicks sand in your prayer's face. Doesn't it make you want to feed your prayer raw eggs and give it an album by Survivor?

A few weeks ago, I told a woman at my church she didn't have to feel self-conscious about the way she prayed. Prayer doesn't need oratorical magic. I've heard plenty of stories where people prayed stumbling, half-thought-out prayers and saw God move powerfully. John Wimbur once told a story of a woman who couldn't see. She asked one of the church leaders to pray for her and the man misheard her request. So he prays for God to heal her from the flu, or something, and God restored her sight. I mean, shouldn't that make us feel more confident in God to answer our prayers, even if they don't have a set of free weights?

But I've felt like a wimp when I pray. I don't know how else to describe it. I know that Jesus gave his followers authority in Luke 9:1-2 and Mark 16:17-18, but I don't always pray as if I had that authority. Sometimes, I hear myself asking God to please heal someone or to restore a marriage and yet I don't feel very authoritative.

I wonder if I'm still unlearning my childhood lessons on prayer. The "God, if you would just..." or "Be with them, Lord..." schools of prayer. What if I tried a little more boldness, tried to pray like the people in Acts? Wouldn't it be crazy to hear someone throw out a "Be healed!" during a prayer circle?

But what if it came out wrong? Well, what if they've all been coming out wrong? I have the feeling God already gives us a lot of grace. Why wouldn't He overlook stumbling prayers for the flu and heal a pair of eyes anyway? If I'm listening to the Holy Spirit as I pray, I think I can expect Him to tell me how to pray with greater power and authority. Maybe my first question should be, "Lord, how do I pray for this?" Then it's only a matter of following God's direction in obedience.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Treating God Like A Famous Person

I can't remember a time when I said to myself, "Hey! A lot of very famous people live in Nashville," and then felt excited at the thought of running into them. Once, Carrie Underwood walked by me in a store where I worked and I didn't notice her, despite her picture on the cover of the magazine directly in front of me. I would not be here telling you this story if my friend Bruce hadn't brought it to my attention. That's how much I don't think about it.

However, I am human, and have experienced a "star-struck" feeling at least twice in my adult life. Once, I stood next to Patrick Stewart in Vancouver. Even then, I enjoyed the moment a little too late. I didn't realize it was him (because he stands about as high as my shoulder) until someone called his name and he replied "Over here" in that spectacular accent.

Then there was the time I found myself standing next to John Davis of Superdrag in a crowded bar. He looked up (also a shorter man. I guess I'm most impressed by people shorter than me) and said, "How's it going?" Instead of saying something normal and friendly, I panicked and asked him if he'd let me through to the bathroom. 

We've all wondered what we would say or do should we meet someone famous. I'm sure we have. At least once. Some people think about it more than others. I know because I met them on the Rachel Leigh Cook Fan club message board.

But why? Why do we want to meet famous people so much? Considering the quote referenced in this post, would it have been ironic to feel giddy if I met pre-death Joe Strummer? It's hard to tell. The definition of irony has blurred a little in our culture. 

Fame is so weird. You can't measure it. You could argue over a person's ability to produce or commodify fame, but I probably wouldn't agree with you. I think it's most like a currency. Its worth is determined by the faith or value given to it by people. 

This could be why I've never really liked the song "You are the Lord, the famous one." I know it's accurate in the sense that a lot of people know about God. Still, I can't shake the feeling it describes God as if He were on the cover of Self Magazine (although, maybe that would be fitting?). If meeting Patrick Stewart and John Davis says anything, I don't want to treat God the way I treat famous people. Would I not realize He was there? Would I panic and go to the men's room? 

Is it possible that some Christians treat God like a famous person? Do they think about what it would be like to meet God someday, but not really feel comfortable meeting Him in real life? Is it more of a fantasy than a relationship for them?

Just wondering. What do you think?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Means and End - Considering the purpose of our efforts.

A short while ago, I wrote about how people either secretly or unknowingly try to worship idols alongside God. You know, just in case He doesn't answer our prayers the way we want or expect. This morning, I realized I had only addressed the means in that post, but not the end.

The end of James 4 and beginning of James 5 address the attitude of both means and end. James 4:13-16 focuses on the means. "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.' Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.' But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil."

We can make plans and never even consider asking God what steps to take. All of our experience and education can flop in a moment, but we still trust our brilliance. I never thought about it like this before, but is it godless when God's not in it?

James 5:1-3 confronts the ends with a heavy hand. "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!"

Why do we want money, success, comfort? Do we want to have more to give back to God and bless other people? Do we want a nice home so we can show hospitality to more people? Or have we fallen into America's Biggest Religion and simply want to satisfy ourselves? "Come now, come now," says James, "Consider the purpose of your efforts."

So I wonder, what does it look like for someone to keep God at the center of both the means and end of something like a business, a home, a relationship, or a church? Anything, really.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Teach More Than I Speak - Part four of Questions From the Lifehouse Youth Group

In my youth group, all those years ago in the 90's, a guy named Tim helped lead during the meeting. He wasn't a pastor, but he had a little more authority than the twenty-something college intern leaders. And on the four or five Sundays when he gave the message, I sat on the edge of my seat. If beanbag chairs have edges.

Did Tim have really compelling, life-changing messages? Yeah, definitely. Was he just young enough to know what music and movies to reference? Enough, sure. But that's not why I got excited to see Tim take the microphone. On those Sundays, I thought to myself, "Oh dang, anything can happen. Five bucks says he accidentally swears again."

As a youth leader myself, I like to think I'm the Tim of the Lifehouse youth group. Yes, I also have accidentally sworn during a meeting. Apparently Apples To Apples can occasionally pull the "D" word out of me. This past Wednesday, I learned of one huge difference between Tim and myself. Tim may have been a bit of a wild card and have fun with the youths, but he also had great leadership in his teaching.

The elder who oversees the Lifehouse youth group was away on business and gave me the responsibility of leading the meeting. We planned on beginning a series on grace, but I let myself get so busy I forgot to plan an actual message.

My solution? Buy candy as an object lesson, give a three paragraph explanation of the difference between grace and mercy, then ask "any questions?" Guess how many questions I got? Not as many as I needed to fill time. Mostly crinkling Starburst wrappers and smacking noises. Instead of pulling more teaching out of thin air, I decided the best thing to do was play games for an hour and a half.

James 3:1 says, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment." I used to read that passage and tell myself he was talking to people who thought they wanted to be teachers, but it applies to anyone. Even if you don't want to be a teacher, think about how much advice you give, or think about how people might watch what you do and adopt your traits. We're always teaching, even if we're not speaking.

Now, I thought I was doing the right thing and not imparting half-thought-out teaching to impressionable teenagers, but I forgot that people teach way more than they speak. Did the youths learn more from how I forgot to pray before the message? Did they learn that having fun is more important than digging into the subject of grace? I don't know, but I hope not.

Thankfully, verse 2 of James 3 says, "For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well." So I didn't get a hit this time at the plate. I've taught at least one good message out of the three I've now given, and that's a good average in baseball terms. I'm still learning. That's why church leadership only has me pinch hitting once in a while. They don't just forgive me for the blunders, they keep giving me opportunities.

Now that's a gift I don't deserve. I wonder if maybe I learned more about grace from this experience than any of my youths.

Have you ever found yourself on the spot and unprepared? How did you handle it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Putting the "Pun" in "Pundit"

So after bringing up how nobody pays attention to Millard Fillmore, I decided to look up facts about him on Wikipedia. Turns out he put an end to the shame of bald world leaders. Yes, after Millard, you never saw another Whig in the White House.

I should sell that one to Laffy Taffy.

Lying While Shaking Hands - A question on the source of peace

In grade school, your teachers want you to love your country and its leaders. I had a history book with something nice to say about all but one president (Millard Fillmore, his name wasn't even written in bold face. They just parenthetically threw him in there like I am now. So, just for the heck of it, I want to see what it looks like: Millard Fillmore). When they got to Jimmy Carter, the writers of the book went on and on about how he succeeded in peace talks between Israel and Palestine. I remember thinking it strange to see an illustration of Jimmy smiling with two middle eastern men as they shook hands when I had seen news footage of scud missiles and kids chucking stones in the street. I raised my hand and asked my teacher, "Were those men lying?"

Yesterday, I spent some time thinking about James 3:13-18. Verse 18 says, "And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." The verses leading up to this talked about the fruit of human wisdom creating disorder and evil, while wisdom from God brings reason, gentleness, steadfastness, and so on. The fact that James tied up this talk on wisdom with a verse on peace made me ask this question:

Can human wisdom ever bring true peace?

Monday, November 14, 2011

"What Do I Do Now, Knowing What I Know?" - Seeking God in my outrage.

If you're one of the fifteen people who read my post about anger last month, you might remember my friends Tim and Kelsy. They both have a heart to expose and end human sex trafficking. Kelsy has worked with a group of people making a very important and unsettling movie about the topic. You can watch the trailer here, if you want.

My wife and I went to the Tennessee premier last night and I didn't know how to define what I felt when it ended. I wasn't heartbroken or shocked, exactly. I knew this stuff existed. It took a few minutes to realize I felt outraged.

Emotionally, I've found myself in this place before now. It's possible I'm an easily outraged person. I used to get caught up in campaigns and causes, telling people why they should also care with the same kind of conviction. Every time, without fail, my zeal would fizzle out or get replaced.

Part of this, I think, is because I operated out of my human wisdom. Last night, I was able to recognize this. So I said to God, "What do I do now, knowing what I know? Because I won't do any good unless you give me your heart and your wisdom." Within moments, and I mean just a handful of moments, I received wisdom and direction for how God wanted me to respond. I didn't have emotions zooming around my insides anymore. I had something to do.

At this moment, I can't recall any passages in scripture where God told his people to react in their outrage. Maybe there are a few. If so, you can tell me where to find them. However, I do know that loving God with everything is the basis of all we should do and I know He wants to give us wisdom.

How do you respond to outrage? What do you see happen as a result?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Human Wisdom - How I used to be the smartest idiot.

You know what I'm doing this weekend? Finishing my FAFSA application. If things go as planned, I'll begin my third year of college this coming August. Nearly six years will have passed since I last went to school, but I'm totally psyched about going back. Any other adult students out there with me?

I love learning. I love it enough to pay someone to teach me. This may explain why I lasted as long as I did in my Baptist background. They may be stiff, they may be legalistic, they may even think it holy to listen to the worst music, but the Baptist church loves to teach the Bible. At four years old, I had already become bored with Sunday School and joined my parents in an adult class as they went through a video series on Francis Shaeffer's How Should We Then Live?

That church shared the gospel with me. I became a believer there. I got my first Bible from them. It was a good place. But when I described Sunday mornings to my classmates, a number of them had the same impression. "It sounds like school." Without saying so, I agreed with them.

Years later, for all sorts of reasons, I began my eighth grade year at an Assemblies of God school. If you don't know what that means, I'll leave it at this: It was a big change. They might have frowned upon social dancing and going to the movies, but they taught me the importance of God's presence in a church meeting.

I'd be a dope if I tried to compare myself to Paul, but I like to think Paul had a similar experience. He grew up as a Pharisee, lovers of learning and scriptural prowess. He studied and studied and studied, but he hadn't yet experienced the presence of God. And when he did, BAM, lights out.

But he didn't toss his learning away. He let the Holy Spirit give him wisdom to finally understand what it all meant. He explains some of this in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13. "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words."

When I first experienced the Holy Spirit, I thought to myself, "Why didn't I ever get this before?" I thought I was a smart kid. I had read the whole Bible. I won scripture memorization awards. But nobody ever brought up the importance of the Holy Spirit. The answer to my young question was this, I thought I was wise, but I was really a fool. I had relied on my intellect rather than the Spirit, thinking He would make me roll around on the floor and babble crazy words. I was the kind of person Paul described in the next verse, "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised."

Now I experience God's presence on a daily basis. I've seen miraculous things. I've begun to understand the gifts of the spirit like prophecy and discernment. But more than that, the Bible came alive. I understood it in a more full and complete way.

And looking back on all of this, I wonder, what's the point of reading the Bible and going to church if the Holy Spirit isn't a part of it?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pray Quickly - Understanding how to bear one another's burdens effectively

Throughout my years as a Christian, I've participated in a lot of prayer circles. We gather around, share our requests, then pray for each other. Sometimes we call dibs on requests ("I'll pray for Tony's ear thing."), other times we pray as we're lead. If there's a recognized leader, he or she might dictate who opens and closes the time of prayer. Often, the leader chooses one of those spots. The point is, I've done this at least a thousand times in fifty different ways.

Recently, I've thought about one consistent element to prayer circles, and that's the person who unloads all of what they're going through as their request. Now, before you think me heartless, I should say how I really do care about the person's struggle. I feel compassion for their suffering. But my gut reaction says, "I don't need to hear this." When it comes to praying for others, I find my prayers don't much change even after I've been educated on the back-story of the request.

If I'm honest, though, my attitude has tipped toward never wanting to hear about a person's struggles. And I already know it's incorrect. Scripture talks about holding each other accountable. It also tells us to comfort each other. I especially think of Galatians 6:2, which says, "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ."

My attitude developed slowly during years of prayer circles and other times of ministry. For example, when I was sixteen, I read somewhere that the Greek translation of Galatians 6:2 intended people to bear one another's burdens as if it were their backpack. Literally take on their struggles and give them a break for a while. At the time, I lead worship for six hundred teenagers a week, and some of them would talk to me as if I were their pastor. Seriously, I wish I had never heard some of those things. I remember telling one girl she didn't need the spiritual advice of a teenager, she needed to go to the police. But misunderstanding Galatians 6:2, I kept trying to carry more and more backpacks. One day, I found I couldn't walk with that weight anymore.

I've learned a few things since then. First, I was wrong to take on those burdens the way I had. In a sense, I was trying to be Jesus for those people. But Jesus has already taken on the price and the weight of that evil when he died on the cross. Those people didn't get much help from me in the long run and I ended up wearing myself out.

Second, I never balanced Galatians 6:2 with other verses like 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Yes, I'm supposed to show compassion and care for people who are suffering, but not out of my own power. I need to first receive comfort from God so I can share it with people who need it.

All that said, I still think it best to pray quickly for people in the setting of a prayer circle. The faster we pray, the sooner we give the burden to God, the quicker we see His peace come into the situation. After that, we can listen to their story. It might even change the way they tell it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Idols In The Threshing Wall

I went on a mission trip eleven years ago to help Jewish people immigrating to Israel. For one reason or another, though, we only ended up having about four days worth of real work to do in Jerusalem. The rest of the time, we hired a tour guide to take us around the country. So yes, I too have gone on a mission trip that doubled as a vacation.

But even so, in the two weeks I spent over there, I learned more about my faith and its Jewish roots than all of my college religion courses combined.

On several occasions, the guide took us to places where the people of Israel tried to integrate idols into their worship of the one true God. Some were more obvious than others, such as the alter in the city of Dan where the people sacrificed to a statue of a calf. But one day, we went to a large and ancient threshing floor to learn about their agriculture. The builders had left small recesses inside the round wall circling the floor. Someone asked our guide if the people threshing there had put lamps in the walls to light their work after dark. "No," he said. "That's where they put idols to bless and prosper their harvest just in case they didn't see God answer their prayers."

Okay, so I've read the Bible. I know that God's people struggled with idolatry all the time. Maybe the threshing wall shouldn't have shocked me, but that was the moment I realized these people would have called themselves believers in God. They went to the temple. They put on the appearance of obeying God's laws. But inside of their home or their business or their relationships, they had idols. Just in case.

Ezekiel had the same kind of revelation in chapter 8. An angel takes him throughout the temple and shows him where the leaders and all the people really worshipped idols inside.

I know I'm not innocent of this attitude. In the past, I had plenty of days where I said, "God, I trust you, but I'm in real trouble if I don't get enough money for rent." Or, "God, I trust you, but I feel like I'll never get married if I don't do something about it myself." With those instances, and lots of others, I made decisions with a just-in-case mindset. I put idols in my threshing walls.

Have you ever found yourself saying, "God, I trust you, but..."?