Monday, January 30, 2012

Ask Yourself Honestly - A question for other Christians.

If you're a Christian. I mean if you believe in Jesus. I mean if you believe Jesus is God, and you trust everything He said is, well, God's honest truth, then ask yourself this question.

Do you think the best way to share the gospel is to not share the gospel?

I wonder if this attitude really exists in the American church and not just in my imagination. It seems like Christians have tried to think of all sorts of ways to exhibit their faith without nutting up and telling people about it.

Lots of people toss out quotes to explain why they avoid talking about Jesus. Quotes like this: "Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words."

St Francis? He preached to birds and squirrels. If paintings tell us anything, I think St. Francis felt most comfortable sharing the gospel with harmless, unresponsive animals. Even you might feel alright telling your cat about your Lord and Savior.

But people? Telling other people? Face to face? Does it fill you with a cold sense of dread?

I wonder why we feel like this. And I do say "we". I have this problem just like a lot of other Christians. Lately, asking myself "why" has led me to think about how I view the gospel. Do I really believe it's the hope of the world? Do I really believe it's good news? How good? Good enough to get excited about it? Good enough to tell people? Do I really believe that Jesus changed my life? Do I believe that He has the power to transform other people?

Do you?

Because if the answer is "no", I think the next logical questions are much, much harder to face.

Listen, I don't want to bum you out. I do want to agitate you, though. Get uncomfortable. Think about what you believe. Think about why you hesitate.

Now, read 1 Peter 3:13-15 as if it were written to you. "Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect."

Maybe it's an Our Daily Bread kind of way to end a post, but I don't think I could say it any better. Thanks, Pete.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Don't You Dare Bury It.

In my pursuit of re-entering the academic world, I met with an advisor at Tennessee State University yesterday morning. She asked me what classes I had taken. As I went through the list on her form, I realized how little focus I had given myself over the last, like, decade. I sometimes wonder if I set the stage for a drawn-out quarter life crisis somewhere in my adolescence. Seriously.

Music? I can play it. I've lived some of that life.

Writing? Someone besides my dad and I thought the book was good and published it. You can buy it for yourself to the right of this post.

Film? I took some courses and went to Vancouver. My name pops up on imdb (for music, but still).

And now I think I want to finish my BA and move toward teaching higher education.

Looking at the list of courses in the advisors office, I wanted to apologize for taking the woman's time and trudge back to the visitors parking lot all Peanuts style.

So why have I decided to take you, my twelve readers, into confidence? Because, of course, I saw a parallel with my life and the Bible.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about a business man entrusting talents (a large sum of money in that culture) into the care of three servants. One servant gets five talents, another servant two, and the third one. When the business man returns, the first two servants show how they've doubled the money in their care. Of course the business man is happy. Then the third servant says, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

I don't think the business man cared so much about the money. The dude had so much money, John the Baptist wannabes probably camped out on the Jericho Road in protest. So why would he react like this? "But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant!'"

Okay, I know Bible teachers love the ease of comparing money to abilities when it comes to this story. For a long time, as a kid, I thought certainly Jesus was talking about actual talents. Like the first servant could suddenly create oil paintings and play the piano. So maybe it'll sound cliche when I make the same comparison. I don't care. I knew this story and I still treated my talents like something I could hide in the ground and hope God wouldn't mind.

God wants me to use what He's given me, even if it's simply to invest it in other people. I don't think this is a matter of earning God's happiness, but I do think it makes Him happy when we use our gifts and talents. I think this includes creative, administrative, intellectual, and spiritual gifts, among others. Does God measure our success by what we produce? I think not. But if we trust God's confidence in us to use our abilities, I think He takes pleasure in it.

Any other people out there going through a life crisis? What gifts do you feel you have? Are you using them?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Does It Bum You Out?" - What The Violet Burning taught me about grace.

First, let me say, I realize I'm a bad blogger. I totally neglected to write Monday's post. But since we've talked about grace so much on the Press, I've decided to not feel bad about it.

As I've thought about last Friday's post, I remembered a story from my past and realized how bad I am at receiving grace sometimes.

I've played music for a long time. I mean, if you want to count the birthday parties I played at the age of twelve, I've done this for seventeen years. For over three years, I only asked for recording time as Christmas and birthday presents. I spent two savings accounts on DIY tours. So I like to think I appreciate what musicians put into their work.

In 1998, I saw The Violet Burning play at a festival. Their show blew my mind despite the tyrannical heat and mid-afternoon time slot. I really wanted to get one of their albums, but I only had a few extra bucks to spend before the end of the week. Getting an album seemed even more hopeless when I saw their prices. They weren't especially unreasonable, but everything cost five or ten dollars more than what I expected.

Meanwhile, Mike Pritzl, the singer, stood there as I examined everything on the table and put it down. Finally, I picked up a cassette and asked how much it cost. "Six dollars," he said. I put the cassette down, feeling totally bummed and embarrassed. As I began to walk away, he stopped me. "How much do you have?"

"Five bucks."

"Here," he said, "you can have it."

"Have it?"

"Yeah, have it." Then he handed me two of their CDs and asked what size T shirt I wore.

"I can't afford these," I said.

"I know that," he said. "Come on. What size shirt do you wear? You look like a medium." And he handed me a rolled up black T. I tried to give him the five dollars, but he refused it. He said he wouldn't take my last few dollars.

The next year, I saved fifteen dollars to buy one of their CDs. When Mike saw me at their table, he sold me the CD and gave me a live VHS. "I don't need that," I said.

"You don't want it?"

"Well sure I want it, but I only saved enough to buy an album."

"Don't worry about it. You can have it."

I took the tape and said, "One of these days, I'll make it up to you."

A few years later, my band had signed a record deal and our label got us a spot at the same festival. We played to a good crowd. We met a lot of people. Things were going well.

Then one day, I saw Mike walking near a friend's campsite. I chased him down and began rambling, "Hey I'm sure you don't remember me but you give me free stuff every year and I told you I would get you back one day so here's my band's album and ten dollars to use for whatever you want or need." I put the disc and ten dollar bill into his hands and felt awesome. I had finally given back to a dude who gave me so much.

But Mike didn't look quite as happy. He stared at the CD and money in his hand. Then he said, "Does it bum you out when I give you free stuff?"

I was stunned. I expected him to appreciate it. I wanted him to thank me, dang it! The question stung. I didn't know how to respond. I murmured something like, "I don't know, I guess." We walked away from each other without another word.

I wonder if God asks us this question when we expect our behavior and will-power to please Him. In Isaiah 64:6, we're told all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags. I've heard more than one person say "filthy rag" was a polite way of saying "used menstrual pad". Imagine putting that in God's hand and expecting Him to be grateful for it.

How many of you struggle with feeling like you need to pay God back?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Total Unfairness of Grace - Part five of Questions From The Lifehouse Youth Group.

I know some of the youths at Lifehouse struggle with the concept of grace. I notice when they feel like they haven't been "good enough". I see the look on their faces when confessing something in small groups. I've heard a few talk about observing the Sabbath as if they were wizened Hasidic men arguing over different Rabbinical interpretations. "Nu, does it begin when three or four stars appear in the sky on Friday night?"

So our youth group began reading Terry Virgo's book Enjoying God's Grace, a summarized version of his book God's Lavish Grace. As we talked, the youths asked a lot of questions. We talked for so long parents and younger siblings poked their heads in to gauge how long they would have to wait.

I think our youths expressed widely shared concerns. Teenagers, adults, Christians, we all want to perform well. I'll bet even Stephen Malkmus practices that sweet adolescent crack in his voice. In Enjoying God's Grace, Virgo writes, "The Old Covenant focus was on performance, and Jesus's performance completely satisfied his Father. If God looks on his Son and through him accepts us, how can we gain God's extra approval by returning to a treadmill of dead works? We can't."

People often criticize Christianity as an endless set of rules, and some denominations aren't helping to set the record straight, but I don't think God cares how well we perform or how much we produce. I don't think we'll get a bigger and better golden mansion with hot chocolate fountains in Heaven just because we swore less or refused to drink (let alone enjoy) beer. I have no idea where the concept of Beverly Hills Heaven developed, but I don't buy it.

One of the youths asked if Christians went straight to Heaven after they died or if they would first be judged. As if striving to be good in life wasn't hard enough, he wanted to know if Heaven had a waiting room. I asked him if he remembered the two criminals who died next to Jesus. One of the criminals said they deserved their punishment but Jesus had done nothing wrong. Then the criminal said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." I asked the youth if he could remember Jesus's reply. The youth couldn't remember. I told him, "Jesus said, 'Today you will be with me in paradise.'"

What did that criminal do to deserve paradise? Nothing. Why did he get to go there? Why does anyone get to go there? It seems unfair, doesn't it? Well, grace is unfair. No one gets what they deserve when it comes to grace because grace by definition is an undeserved gift.

In Jesus's parables, was it fair for the landowner to pay all the workers the same wage, even though some only worked an hour while others worked the entire day? No, it wasn't fair. The man doesn't even argue the point. He simply says, "Don't I have a right to do what I want with my own money?" I can see God saying the same about grace.

Do you struggle with performance? Do you constantly feel like you blew it or that God is disappointed in you?

Do you have a hard time understanding God's total disregard for fairness?

Or do you celebrate it?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Relief Or Responsibility - Wondering about the motive of an argument

Way back in the days of 2009, I worked at an assisted living home. I didn't make a lot of noise about my faith, but if you talk with me long enough, you'll learn what I believe. Sometimes the residents and co-workers would ask me questions and I would readily answer them.

Once, a girl in the activities department asked me, "Do you think Jesus is the only way to go to heaven? What about people who won't have the chance to hear about Him? Do you think God is just going to send them to Hell?"

If you ask me this question because you want to know what I really think, then I will say this: Yes. Jesus is the only way. Scripture leaves no room for discussion on this. In John 14:6, Jesus, who is God, said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." 

I thought about my conversation with my co-worker the other day and realized something. I had never considered her motive for asking this question. At the time, I recited the verses and explained the theology to her. But I didn't take the time to look through her question to see the reason why she asked it in the first place. 

It's a common enough question, to ask about those who won't hear the gospel. I wonder if people ask because they knowingly or unknowingly want the conversation to stay abstract or hypothetical. Maybe they don't want to talk about where they stand with Jesus and use this as a diversion, sort of like people who want advice for "their friend" who "has a problem". 

Do people ask this question because they want me to tell them it's okay to not follow Jesus? That all is not lost if they don't want to follow Him? Are they looking for relief from their conscience and want me to give it to them? I couldn't say it. I can't. I won't deny or diminish Jesus to make people feel more comfortable or make myself more likable. 

Whether it applies to my friends or strangers who haven't heard the gospel, I think these questions should constantly remind me of my responsibility to tell them about Jesus. If I really believe the Bible is true and Jesus is the only way, what keeps me from sharing the gospel? I may be quick to answer a question, but I'm not so quick to bring up the topic outright. 

Do you find yourself asking those questions about Jesus? Or are you like me, sure in your faith but aware of your shortcomings in sharing it?

Friday, January 13, 2012

"When Should I Pray?" - A trustworthy impulse.

My friend Funky, yes, Funky, cuts a pretty intimidating pose. He's taller than me, which is fairly tall. He's tatted all over, with a pretty killer one on his throat reading, "Let The Dead Bury Their Own Dead" or something like that. He wears a leather jacket. He played in a great punk band back when he lived in Nashville. What I'm trying to say is the guy always struck me as a tough dude.

So I love it when I get text messages from him every morning with Bible verses and quotes by theologians. After my house caved in, destroying my Bible among other things, this was the only Bible I read. He found out about this and sent me an ESV paperback. He's just about everything I admire in people. He's punk and a solid Christian.

Today, I received a quote via Funky-text: "Always respond to every impulse to pray. The impulse to pray may come when you are reading or when you are battling with a text. I would make an absolute law of this: always obey such an impulse. - Martyn Lloyd-Jones" My pastor made a similar statement recently during a meeting. "There are some things you really don't need to pray about. 'Should I pray?' Yes. 'Should I tell this person about Jesus?' Certainly."

I know I've realized this in my own life. I once felt like God sent me to a particular floor of a particular library so I could pray for someone. I sat in a chair on that library floor without a single person walking in for over an hour. Then a guy popped his head around the corner and asked for directions. I didn't feel a good lead in to pray for him. He didn't have a cast on. There was no look of desperation in his eyes. I felt fear, panic, that I would scare the guy with my asking to pray for him. So I asked God, "Do you want me to pray for this man?" And to both my confusion and relief, I heard, "No." I gave the man directions and decided to wait for someone else.

After a few more lonely minutes, I felt God telling me to go home. I asked Him what happened. "You knew you were supposed to pray, but you were afraid. You didn't trust me even though you were acting obedient. I would rather have someone else pray for him than have you pray for him without faith."

The second half of Funky's text came from Phillipians 4, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." This leads me to think there's never a good time to feel anxious and always a good time to pray.

I wish I could say I've learned my lesson. I wish I could say I always pray for people when I notice the need or feel the impulse. But I don't. Not always. Maybe the more I think about Phillipians 4:6 and the library incident, the more I'll dismiss the discomfort of praying for people.

Feel free to pray for me to get better at this, should you feel the impulse.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Practicing Abiding - How to do anything worth doing.

According to my weblog stats, I have a few international readers. I can't make any assumptions on your part, but I will say this about Americans: We like to get things done. I mean, we at least like to feel like we're getting things done. Xbox only calls them "Achievement Points".

Activity matters to us. We ask people, "What do you do?" Family and school reunions make a lot of noise over what we've done. Did you get married? Where do you work? have you moved away from home? And while some of us might roll our eyes at such meaningless talk, we also feel compelled to prove ourselves by our activity.

Even our rest is active. What did you do on your day off? Went for a hike? Bike ride? Clean the house? Catch up on reading? We might enjoy those things, but accomplishment underlays all of it. I know this is true in my house. We're always doing something. It's a special day when we sit down without an agenda.

While praying this morning, I felt like God called me out on this. It's a habit for me to ask Him what He wants me to do that day. I don't think there's any harm in asking God to guide my steps, but this morning I felt like He said to me, "Hold on a second. Let's hang out. Sit with me for a few minutes." And, well, it was uncomfortable. I could sense the Holy Spirit. I sat there with him, not saying anything or asking any questions. By the end of it, my anxiety faded and we enjoyed each other's company without my push to do something with the time.

This reminded me of John 15, where Jesus said, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."

Is it possible our drive for activity and accomplishment actually wastes our time? For all the energy put in, do our actions bear fruit? Is it helpful to take what Jesus said as "apart from me you can do nothing worth doing"?

Of course, this doesn't mean people should sit praying and never do anything else. If you try to use this post as an excuse to become lazy, forget it. Lazy people aren't holy. They're lazy.

What do you think it means to Abide? Do you understand it but have a hard time living by it? How do you practice abiding?

Monday, January 9, 2012

I Wonder Where The Wonder Went - Getting used to God.

Last night, my pastor asked me to read Daniel 3 at our church meeting. I didn't know about it until he got onstage after worship and announcements. He stepped to the microphone and said, "I didn't plan on doing this, but would you come up here, Isaiah?"

All this to say I didn't have a chance to read the passage before the meeting and get the internal commentary out of my system. Even though I read the Bible, which I love, I kept noting the passage's repeat phrases. For example:

  • "The satraps, the prefects, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces" - 2
  • The image King Nebuchadnezzar "had set up" - 8
  • "The horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music" - 4
  • "Burning fiery furnace" - 7

Seriously, try reading that passage aloud to yourself. You'll see what I mean. While reading it in the meeting, I almost got numbed by this to a point where I could have missed what God was saying. He's mightier than any King. He's able to rescue in the most impossible circumstances. He alone is worthy of praise and we should have courage to declare it.

But it almost happened. I almost missed all of that because I have a tendency to read as if I already know what the author wants to say. "Satraps, prefects, and so on and so on. Horn and pipe, yep, got it." I was getting used to the words, to what God was saying. Getting used to God.

How many of us have become used to our faith, the Bible, or God Himself? We think we've learned all the big stuff and expect the rest of eternity to be commentary, details. Do people lose their sense of wonder for God because He became less wonderful? Or do they decide at some point to "snap out of it" so they can go back to "business as usual" in "the real world"?

Maybe we need to have the truth repeatedly said to us because we're too proud to listen the first time.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thoughts In Song Form - (Shout out to Greg Privett!)

In addition to today's post, I thought I'd let the Press readers hear a song I wrote about this topic.

The Summer County
Optimistic Streak

Here's the thing
I've got an optimistic streak
I know that everything's going to go down perfectly
Because my Lord
He is perfect, but
Even Jesus found Himself covered in blood and dust

And these minor chords
Are found in major keys
In the kind of ways that make you want to sing
How it's going to be better tomorrow
Just you see

I'm working hard
And I'm waiting patiently
I'm wading through the space and the commas and ellipses
But I don't feel brave
Even though my book will read
Of how I overcame all the troubles that weighed on me

And the hero's death
Gives context to the scene
In a way that makes you shout triumphantly
How it's going to be better tomorrow

Rejoicing Insofar - Typing out loud about suffering.

This is going to sound gooshy. Gooshy to the point, the threshold, of bragging. I'm warning you now.

I have an incredible wife. It's true. If you met my wife after meeting me, you would soon use the words "married up" in your inner monologue. And I would agree. If we want to discuss deserving, I admit I don't deserve her. The guy who was once called King of the NCMO (Non-Commital Make Out) by his friends, who didn't have a savings account until he was 25, who drank too much and cussed out strangers? That guy doesn't deserve a beautiful, intelligent, and lovely wife.

That's why I often tell my wife she's evidence of God's grace in my life. Not only has God forgiven me of all my youthful (and adult) foolishness, he gives me wonderful gifts.

In Raised With Christ, Adrian Warnock tells this story. "I remember trying to explain grace to a room full of children. Without warning, I took a large chocolate bar and gave it to the child who had been misbehaving the most all morning. The look of surprise and pleasure on the child's face told me he understood that this was far from what he deserved. A chorus of howls from the other children of 'That's totally not fair!' told me they had grasped it too. 'Exactly,' I said. 'That's grace!'"

But what about when terrible things happen? What about when you or a loved one is sick or hurt? What about disappointment, heartbreak, or betrayal? Does God give me that, too?

Pastor Mark Leech asked that question at The Livingwell House in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "How many times have I had this conversation, even with myself, when you start to feel an ache in your body or something begins to go wrong in your finances? Immediately, our brain goes to the Accuser and says, 'What have I done? What is God trying to teach me? I must have done something wrong. He's punishing me for this sin.' He's not. If He was, you'd be dead. Because there is no other punishment. There is no other judgment. The wages of sin is death. So you'd know if God was exercising judgment because you would be dead."

I know this bell rings a lot here, but I feel like many Christians (and I sometimes include myself in this group) don't understand why God would let us suffer. For some reason, we tell ourselves it doesn't seem fair to have eternal life and yet still have to deal with pain like everyone else.

1 Peter 4:12-13 says, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed."

This passage used to baffle me. Rejoice in suffering? Christian masochists? But then I caught the word "insofar". When I had my big toenails pulled off for the third time, and the anaesthetics weren't working, I didn't rejoice at the pain. I didn't love the suffering itself. But I'll admit that at one or two points while the doctor used her foot on the table for leverage, I thought to myself, "If this is bad, I wonder how bad it was for Jesus." Maybe that's rejoicing "insofar" as sharing in Christ's suffering. Whether I'm wrong about that or not, I hobbled away appreciating more of what He did for me.

This isn't a simple topic. I know it isn't. But here's where I've landed while I think about it today. If we've sinned, and we have, then we deserve death. But I'm still alive and I have so much good in my life. I feel like God demonstrates His love for me constantly. I don't understand why the hard stuff happens, but I know He loves me and wants to do good for me. I know that Jesus cried when His friend died, even though He knew He was about to resurrect the guy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Great Silence - What do I do when I don't hear anything from God?

Now that the holidays are over, I'm going to tell you a secret. I don't get very excited about Christmas. I mean, I love celebrating Jesus, but I can do without the trees and cookies and shopping and so on. I can't remember where it started, but I stopped asking my parents for Christmas presents during my teenage years.

Of course they still wanted to give me gifts. So for three years, my Christmas and birthday gifts were hours of recording time at a studio in West Michigan. Over those three years, I made my teenage angst album, The Great Silence.

I knew at the time God spoke to people and I had heard him during times of prayer. But for a while, I didn't hear much. Every Sunday afternoon, my family would take time to pray and listen for God. More often than not, I wouldn't feel the Holy Spirit putting anything on my heart. "Why not?" I would ask myself. "Is God mad at me? Am I screwing up? Have I lost all favor? Should I become a monk and earn His acceptance?" Those years were bleak and I didn't handle them well.

Sometimes I'll get messages from people who have read Stark Raving Obedience and I regularly hear this question: "What do I do if I don't hear anything from God?" My go-to answer is, "Don't worry. God wants to guide you. If you pray and don't hear, make a decision you think would make Him happy. Through it all, keep praying. Then be open to change if you feel Him telling you to do the contrary." But I've never loved that answer. It may be correct, but when you're in the middle of your own Great Silence, it can sound lame.

I went through something like this again when the ceiling of my old house fell. My wife and I lived in spare bedrooms and kept asking God what we should do. For three weeks, I didn't hear much. By the end of the month, we had a great new home and I had a new job. God had orchestrated a huge blessing in the background of a hard trial.

I thought about this again today when I read the latest post on Stuff Christians Like. Please read it. I think it will encourage you.