Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Fallacy of Fairness

          On Sunday, I preached about Jesus healing a man who had born blind (John 9). A part of that sermon has stuck with me, and I havent been able to shake it since. It has to do with the seeming unfairness of that mans life, and the apparent cruelty of God.

            Sometimes bad things just happen because we live in a messed up, broken down world. With the bite of that mango or pear or nectarine, Adam brought death into the world. And with death came the gradual decay of our world. Prior to the Fall, would there have been a super typhoon wiping out 3200 people in the Philippines and causing 600,00 more to be homeless? With the limited information we have about the pre-Fall world, I don't think so. Bad stuff happens, and Adam was the bad stuff inaugurator.

            Other times God brings bad stuff on folks because He is punishing or disciplining or honing them. Punishing is bringing sins just retribution upon those who have not had it dealt with by Christs sacrifice. Disciplining, on the other hand, is Gods hand smacking the backsides of Christians who are not living the lives to which He has called them. Finally, honing is that process we find in Romans 5:3-4 where God is preparing us for deeper faith and greater service. Just like a chef runs his blade across a rough steel, God throws us up against hard times so that we can become sharper instruments in His hands.

            But then theres this poor schlub in John 9. Jesus disciples automatically figure that the second option above is the explanation for his sad state - someone sinned, so this guy is paying for it. In todays world, we typically go for option one - bad things happens - stinks to be you (using my remember-pastor-people-in-your-congregation-are-going-to-read-this vernacular). Jesus, however, bypasses one and two, and throws in a third option:

            Neither this man nor his parents sinned, said Jesus, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:3)

            So, let me get this straight - this man was born blind, and lived his whole childhood never being able to see his parents or his siblings. He never knew what a duck looked like; or a camel or a cloud or the color red. As he grew, he would have been ostracized from others his age - kept away from the fun and games - a defective outcast. Then, when he became a young adult, he was passed over when it came to apprenticing someone in a trade. After all, what could he do? Actually, there was one job he was suited for - one professional title he could claim - beggar. And thats what he became.

            A sad life for a sad man. Was it divine retribution? No. Was it just bad luck? No. Instead, Jesus tells us it was an intentional decision on the part of God for this man to live so many years of sadness - for so much of his life to be wasted - all so, at just the right time, He could use him to make a point. Talk about being the ultimate pawn - helpless in the hands of what seems to be a very unfair God.

            What do we do with this? How do we respond to this seeming cruelty? The first answer is uncomfortable; its the one we find towards the end of the book of Job - Im God; youre not. Shut up. In other words, the Creator can do whatever He wants with His creation. You got a problem with what Hes doing? Get your own planet, then you can set your own rules (for my Mormon readers, that was a hyperbolic hypothetical - please dont read too much into it).

            There is also a kinder, gentler (yet still somewhat uncomfortable) way of looking at this situation, and that is to realize that the concepts of fair and unfair really have no place in the Kingdom of God. When we see things through Gods eyes - with an eternal perspective, rather than our tree trumps forest view - suddenly those things that seem like the end-all-be-all of our existence quickly fade in importance.

            Lets say youre about to serve dessert to your two boys. You reach into the pantry, pull out a pie tin, and know immediately that youve got problems. There are only two pieces left, and one is noticeably larger than the other. Hoping for the best, you lever them onto a couple plates, and set them down in front of the kids.
            Now, what is the first thing that these little kidlets are going to do? Look to their brothers plate. The reaction is as expected - one exults in the glory of being the favored child, while the other cries out, No fair! Mayhem ensues. You shake your head, because they just dont get it. You know that in the grand scheme of things the size of a piece of pie simply doesnt matter. The pie will be eaten, and life will go on. But to the boys, this apparent favoritism is the most important thing in their short-sighted existence.

            The phone rings, and, thankful for the chance to escape the melee, you snatch up a receiver and slip out of the kitchen, leaving the boys to attack each other with their plastic forks. On the line is a good friend of yours, who says, Cant talk long, but Im so excited! Bob got the promotion! That means we can finally get all the way out of debt, and probably even build that house weve always dreamed of! I wanted to tell you right away, because I knew youd be so happy for us.

            After sitting down at your desk, you offer some tight words of faked elation, then say your good-byes. When you set the phone down, it settles on a stack of credit card bills and a statement from your landlord that hes raising your rent. You look out the window at your fifteen-year-old beater thats pushing 200k on the odometer. Your retirement strategy is Work until I die. Closing your eyes, you say, God, its just not fair!

            Meanwhile, Gods shaking His head, because you just dont get it. He knows that in the grand scheme of things the size of a piece of pie simply doesnt matter. The pie will be eaten and life will go on. But to you, this apparent favoritism this is the most important thing in your short-sighted existence.
            Our culture is all about fairness. We live in a Wow, must be nice world. Like Sally says as shes dictating a letter for Santa to her brother Charlie Brown, All I want is whats coming to me. All I want is my fair share. And, if our fair share is a little more than someone elses, thats okay. Just as long as its not less.

            Contentment will never come until we forget about the pie - until the words fair and unfair are expunged from our vocabulary. We are here on this earth for two reasons: 1) love God, and 2) love others. And, since real love is all about you-first sacrifice, if we are truly to love God and love others, then our lives need to be all about them. When we finally accept that and live it, then God promises that He will take care of our needs. Unfortunately, comfort does not qualify as one of our needs; neither do a nice house or a nice car or a retirement fund or health or a spouse or children or vacations or a perfect home life or anything else that we see others enjoying that we wish we had (I say wish we had because covet is such a nasty little word).

            If we dont rise up to view our beautiful little forest of a life from Gods perspective, were going to spend all our days bumping into trees. If youve committed yourself to Christ, then youve got an eternity waiting when this life is over. And, during this life, we have the joy and privilege of serving God, of sacrificing all for Him. Along the way, He may bless us with some things - a little comfort, a happy family, a car that you dont have to push then pop into gear to get started. But our call is to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then let Him take care of all the rest (Matthew 6:33).

            Oh, and if you still feel a little shorted on the piece of pie that Gods served you, spend a little time on www.persecution.com, then get back to me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I am an Island

            Last night, Nancy and I watched the premier episode of Church Rescue, a reality show on the National Geographic channel about this cadre of three guys (the Church Hoppers) who travel around the country saving troubled churches (think Restaurant Impossible with more God, less mold, and smaller biceps). Initially, I was a little put off - NatGeo makes its money off of finding the strangest freaks and geeks, then creating a series around them (What, you build underground bunkers to protect against zombie attacks? Cool! What, you dance with snakes and drink poison and hold fire to your skin, so that you dont go to hell? Excellent! What, you weigh 1400 lbs and have fathered a brood of Icelandic, chainsaw-wielding, tuna-fishing, UFO-hunting, foreign prison-surviving, vertically-challenged Alaska state troopers [sorry, I mean, you and your three wives]? Well, then, just smile into the camera with the few teeth you have left, and well start rolling!). Now that their lenses have turned to pastors in churches, however, that means that suddenly the freak appears to be me (well, me and my three wives).

            The episode was about Pastor Larry Roseboro and New Hope Baptist Church. Pastor Roseboro desperately wanted to build this big-old sanctuary, and it took the Church Hoppers to convince him to instead make better use of the facilities that he already had. He was resistant at first, but finally accepted their wisdom. At the end everyone was happily singing, dancing, and sweating in the little Bapticostal church. Good lesson - good show.

            As I was watching, one key principal stood out to me - a pastor cant do it on his own. If he tries, the church will inevitably collapse around him. So, why do pastors try to do it on their own? Two reasons - both equally destructive: 1) they want to, or 2) nobody steps up to help.

            Pastor Roseboro was of the first type - he did it on his own, because he wanted to do it on his own. There were some circumstances that led to the position he was in. However, his pride and lack of teachability kept him in that position.

            Please dont get me wrong - Ive got nothing but love and respect for Pastor Roseboro. He was out in that country church doing the Lords work. I suspect he was simply working things the way that he was taught to work them. There is no doubt that he has a deep love for the Lord and a passionate love for his church. Also, after some initial push-back, he humbled himself and accepted the guidance of the Church Hoppers. That is major pastoral studliness!

            The church was never intended to be a sole proprietorship. Church, from the first century on, was about community. When there was disagreement in the early church, the Twelve didnt appoint Stephen to take over and fix it. They appointed Stephen and Philip and Procorus and Nicanor and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolas to deal with the issue (Acts 6). Even the fact that there were Twelve leading the Church, as opposed to just Peter, shows that Church is a group project.

            Another reason the led-by-me pastoral philosophy is a mistake is because led-by-me most often becomes all-about-me. Leading a church of devoted parishioners without anyone around to anchor a pastor to the ground is a dangerous road for anyone to walk. The local church was not designed to be a dictatorship; it was designed to be a republic. If you are in a church where it is all about the pastor, you are in the wrong church - run away, run like the wind.

            Some control-issue pastors want to do it all on their own, but many more find themselves in that position through no fault of their own. As Malvolio once said in Shakespeares The Twelfth Night, Some pastors are born its-all-about-me, some achieve its-all-about-me, and some have its-all-about-me thrust upon them.

            At my church, Ive got a great board of elders, fantastic deacons, and a congregation well-stocked with godly servants. Many other pastors are not quite so blessed. Everyone has a calling in the Church of God and all have been gifted to fulfill that calling (1 Corinthians 12:7). However, if you could show me that even 50% were actually stepping up and fulfilling their role in the Kingdom of God, then I would gladly eat my shoe (although I might first argue with you that eating my shoe, in actuality, has nothing remotely to do with the situation at hand).

            Why dont people serve? The excuses are legion. My personal top ten:

1.     I dont know what to do.
   Ask your pastor, ask an elder, ask the nice lady who sits next to you every Sunday. Better yet, ask God to give you some direction. Im thinking thats a prayer Hed honor. Also, its possible the calling God has given you lies outside of the church proper. Ive often told my congregation that I dont care where you serve, as long as you are serving somewhere. The Church is much bigger than just that building where we get together to sing and listen to the pastor pontificate.

2.     I dont have any spiritual gifts.
   Oops! Dont you hate it when God lets folks slip through the cracks? He promised to give gifts to everyone, but thats a pretty tall order, especially when you consider just how big everyone is. But God can be excused - eternity is a long time - eventually its got to catch up with Him. Even Jesus in his humanity is working with a 2000-year-old brain, right? Cant you just picture Him tearing apart heaven, digging through all the cushions in the Throne Room, sending angels wading into the glassy sea, desperately looking for where he left the keys to His white Mustang (see what I did there? Yeah)?

3.     I dont have time.
   Yes, you do. Fix your priorities, then get back to me.

4.     Isnt that why we pay the pastor?

5.     Ive messed up so badly in my past, God could never use me.
   Paul imprisoned, tortured, and murdered Christians, and God seemed to use him to a fairly large extent. Isnt the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of our God wonderful? (Besides - little secret here - chances are that the pastor or teacher or elder youre looking up to has got some pretty herky stuff in his or her past, too.)

6.     There are so many others who have so much more experience and are so much better at it than me.
   "If a church only used experienced people to serve its ministries, Captain, it would, logically, die off in a generation" (said in a Spockian monotone). And, in ministry, better is a word that has absolutely no practical meaning.

7.     I need to work on my spiritual walk first.
   Gods not looking for perfect servants, otherwise every pulpit would be empty and every boardroom table would be collecting dust. God knows who you are, and still Hes called you to serve Him. How cool is that?

8.     Im too __________.
   Old, young, new in my faith, infirmed, fat, thin, tall, short, smart, dumb, German, whatever word you want to put in that blank, write it in. Good, now scratch it out, because its a bunch of hooey. Now, over it, write, “…useful to God to not be serving.

9.     My pastor wants to do it all himself.
   No, he doesnt. Hes doing it all himself, because youre not helping. Now, if you happen to be in one of those megalomaniac-led churches we spoke of earlier, please heed my previous advice and hoof it on out of town.

10.  What if I find out that I dont like what Im doing or that Im no good at it?
   Then stop doing it, and find something else. No harm, no foul. Sometimes discovering your calling is like a neon sign. More often, though, its a jigsaw puzzle. It takes time and experiences to place piece after piece. But eventually youll see the whole picture. It took me forty-four years to find my way to a senior pastor position, and I still dont know if this is the whole puzzle or just another piece (and I may never know this side of heaven).

            So, heres to Pastor Larry Roseboro and New Hope Baptist Church. Heres to all the small churches (and the big uns, too) who are in the trenches doing the Lords work. Heres to the pastors who are slogging it through day by day (often feeling alone, but knowing deep down that they are actually part of a much larger band of brothers and sisters). But, most of all, heres to the people of the church - sacrificing their time, loving each other, serving their Lord. Those people right there, they are Church.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stalking the Wild Side

          Yesterday, my big day-off task was making my backyard leaf-free (after two-and-a-half hours of mulched leaf dust blowing on me, I was looking much like the Ghost of Autumn Past). At one point while I was dealing with these wilting, unwanted cast-offs, Lou Reeds voice began crooning into my ear buds. The song he sang is from the Duets album by The Blind Boys of Alabama. Its a simple, beautiful, melancholy song. Not too many words - just a heart-felt plea repeated three times over in Reeds gruff, cigarette-laced baritone:

            Jesus, help me find my proper place.
            Jesus, help me find my proper place.
            Help me in my weakness, cause Ive fallen out of grace.
            Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

            As I strained to listen through the whining motor and the barking mini-Schnauzer (who was apparently taking the whining motor as a personal affront), a couple things came into my mind, particularly in view of Reeds death last week. First, people can be so close, yet so far. That song was such a humble, heartfelt cry. And the way he sang it - so simply, so sincerely, so honestly. Yet, even though it sounded simple, sincere, and honest, there is no evidence that either of the last two were really true. They were just beautiful words emotionally sung - nothing more (which is a great description of the worship you find in much of todays church - but thats another blog).

            To think that if that plea had been truly from the heart and not just from the lyric sheet, Reed would be experiencing something very different than he is right now. That is heart breaking - truly heart-breaking. Speaking words of truth is not enough. Believing words of truth is not enough. Committing to truth is what is required to make Jesus both our Lord and Savior.

            The second thing that came to me is what a song like that says about the Church. Now, before I get too far into this, let me say that yes, it is just a short song, and yes, I am reading into it, and yes, I am making up my own back story. That being said

            Heres a guy who is calling out to Jesus to find his proper place with God. Hes a man who is broken and desperate. He wants to get right with Christ, but he doesnt know how or to whom he should turn. My question is where is the Church? The answer is that for too many searchers, the Church is just not a viable option.

            While this song may be hypothetical, I believe it is not atypical. Too often, people in need of spiritual answers have no place to go, because the Church has surrounded itself with a barbed-wire fence of lifestyle requirements. If you dont look like us or talk like us or act like us or abstain like us or marry like us, then what in the name of Holy St. Petersburg are you doing in our house?

            The line that gets me most is when Reed heart-wrenchingly confesses, “…’cause Ive fallen out of grace. While it may feel like its Gods grace that hes fallen out of, its not. Gods grace is too strong and extends too wide. If we want His grace, its right there for the taking.

            Instead, the grace hes fallen out of is that of the Church. Where could a counter-cultural, bisexual, alcoholic, former heroin addict like Reed go to find his proper place? What church is swinging its doors wide open begging him to come inside? Now, before you go Googling counter-cultural churches or gay friendly churches, let me save you some time. The answer should be Mine.

            Before I get labeled as some liberal theologian or permissive pastor, let me clarify. Everything that I have thus far said refers to those who dont know the Lord and are seeking Him. In John 8, Jesus tells us that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. So, when non-Christians sin, they are just doing what they are compelled to do. Its like a junkie destroying his life bad decision by bad decision in order to get his next fix. Why does he do it? He cant help himself. Hes addicted.

            For us to require people to clean up their acts before they can come into our churches is like telling the tweaker, I want you to quit meth before you can come into our rehab facility. Jesus said, I came for the sick, not the healthy. As the Church - Gods representatives here on earth - we need to open our/His arms of love and mercy and grace to those who feel like theyve fallen out of grace. We show them the love of Christ, then we let God take it from there. Its our job to love them; its the Holy Spirits job to change them.

            One final clarification - I said that all this refers to those who dont know the Lord. The standards are very different for those of us who do. When we commit ourselves to following Christ, we are committing ourselves to a holy lifestyle - holy meaning sanctified, set apart; in other words, different from the world. This is where I depart from most of the liberal churches and denominations.

            Too many in the Church have become comfortable with their lives; with the level of their sacrifice, with the depth of their commitment, with those sinlets that they tend to sweep under the rug as no big deal (With all the murdering and thieving and fornicating going on, God wont take mind of this little thing [said, for some bizarre reason, in a Southern belles voice]). They treat church as a big comfy couch. They go there to feel good and cozy - they talk with their friends, they sing some fun songs, they get entertained by a sermon designed to make them feel happy. By the time theyre ready to go back home, theyre feeling great, because nobody judged them, nobody told them they were doing anything wrong, nobody challenged them to serve or to sacrifice or to get uncomfortable/messy/sweaty for Christ. Instead, they heard just the opposite. God is a giant fluffy teddy bear and all He wants is for you to snuggle around in Him a while. Its a win/win for God and us - He gets His desperately needed love fix and we get to feel good while we throw Him that bone.

            When we become Christians, we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). This means a total change in who we are - putting off the old, putting on the new. So, what does that new look like? Well, its not legalism - its not a bunch of rules and regulations. I dont care if you smoke, tattoo, or chew, or go with girls who do. I dont care if you drink in moderation or forget to recycle or vote Democrat.

            However, that doesnt mean that Christianity is an anything goes frat party. Nor is it a Joel Osteen mushy God-is-just-plum-happy-with-you-no-matter-what-you-do smile-fest. The New Testament lays down some very clear rules about sexuality (both when and with whom), how we should treat each other (you-first, me-second), and what things in this world we should avoid (witchcraft, idolatry, etc.). Were also promised that if we stray from those standards, God loves us enough to discipline us back into compliance in oft-times quite uncomfortable ways (spoken as one who has felt the Lord's belt across my tush a time or two).

            Does God understand that were going to sin? 1 John 1:8-9 makes it clear that He knows we will and provides forgiveness when we do. What Hes looking for from us is a commitment to following Him - a desire to serve Him and make Him what our life is about. Thats what that whole Lord part of Lord and Savior is about. And, as Christians, were also called to encourage each other, challenge each other, and hold each other accountable to striving for that same standard.

            Summing up this ridiculously long blog, we are called to a high life standard - a standard of holiness. However, just because we must live up to this standard doesnt mean we should expect non-Christians to live the same way. They cant do it; we can. Theyre on their own; we have the Holy Spirit to help us. And before we go condemning and rejecting and walking away feeling smug, we need to remember that the only reason weve been spared the same sin-addicted life is because of the sacrificial, undeserved grace of Jesus Christ. If someone in the Church had shown Lou Reed that same kind of grace, maybe he would have finally discovered his proper place.