Faith

How to Save a Life

I’ll never forget the day I saw 20 or so children go up for an altar call and become saved. I was in an urban church in Durham, NC. I was there with a group of college students who were on a mission trip in our own town. We were there to help with some sort of VBS event at this church and after some singing, dancing, and a very passionate altar call, these 20 or so kids, all between the ages of 4 and 8, went up to the altar, got down on hands and knees, and accepted Jesus.

I was standing next to a regular volunteer and he must have picked up on the stunned look on my face. Honestly, I don’t really know what I was feeling. I knew this was supposed to be an amazing thing, for this many kids to accept Jesus, it was a book of Acts kind of thing, but mostly I was just shocked. I’d never seen anything like that before. And that’s probably what he saw on my face. So he brought me back down to earth by saying,

“Oh don’t get too excited. Most of them have done this about 30 times before.”

Not knowing how to react before, his words gave me good direction. It seemed so worldly wise and cool to be above it all and just dismiss this. So I gave a knowing chuckle, a sarcastic, “Yeah, I hear ya” and went about my life.

Perhaps that was the turning point, I can’t really be sure, that I started looking down on so many faith experiences I had had up until that point. This whole notion of becoming “saved.” I clearly remember hearing FCA talks saying, “If you cannot tell me the date and time and place that you accepted Jesus, then you cannot be 100% sure you’re going to heaven.” And then we were told to open up our Bibles and write down today’s date and the time. “Here’s your chance. Do you want to be 100% sure? Not 95, or 99.5, but 100%. Then just write your name”

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I listened to enough of these talks myself that I learned how to do it. At my senior year of high school church camp, during the closing worship, I used a bad car accident I had been in to make my own fervent plea for folks to shore up their eternal plans and become 100% sure. And man, did it work. 40 something people came up. I remember the rush of feeling like I could be the next Billy Graham.

But thanks to my new friend dismissing those 20 or so children at the altar, I was now armed with the proper tools of cynicism to see through all that. To understand that it’s all a farce, that nothing is really happening in people’s hearts.

Since then I have learned how hard it is to save a life. How much time you have to spend in someone’s recliner chatting or next to their hospital bed praying or on your phone texting before the message you want them to hear will have an open ear to receive it. And I have learned that it’s never a finished process. That we can never write down a date and time in our Bible of when we were completed.

As the recently passed Maya Angelou once said,

“I’m grateful to be a practicing Christian. I’m always amazed when people say, “I’m a Christian.” I think, “Already?” It’s an ongoing process. You know, you keep trying. And blowing it and trying and blowing it …”

In fact the transformative process is so hard and so drawn out that it’s much easier not to really try at all. Wouldn’t it be easier just to stand back with some people who are at about the same place in faith that we are and agree that we’re doing just fine? Wouldn’t it be easier to fold our arms and just laugh sarcastically at all the “little people” struggling to get saved?

Why, yes, it is. I know from experience.

So how do you save a life? I am an ordained minister. There are still a lot of people who view my role to be “winning souls.” The only problem is, my soul still needs a lot of winning. You know, I keep trying, and I keep blowing it and trying and blowing it…

A good friend in ministry shared some golden advice when she said,

“I realized that I had to stop trying to save the church. The church already had a Savior.”

So how do you save a life? I’m convinced that we don’t do the saving, and that the long, hard transformative process happens most beautifully and most effectively when we get saved together. When we share our saving process with each other. When we hear of another’s experience, radically different from ours, and celebrate it rather than try to dismiss it or shoehorn it into our own experience.

Listen, I’ve seen a lot of emotional manipulation to try to get people to this idea of being saved that is frankly shallow and unbiblical (in my opinion). I’ve done it myself. I’m not for that.

What I am for is all of us to experience the truly deep transformation together. What we all need to do is stop standing in the back with our arms folded, looking down on others. What we need to do is go up to the altar with those 20 or so kids. We need to fall flat on our face not just once. Not just one time that we notate on the cover page of our Bibles. We need to go up every week, every day.

I guess those kids had it right to begin with.

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Faith, Life

At What Point Does Someone Become Unworthy of Love?

This morning when I pulled into church I found some very unexpected visitors. Nine adorable little puppies were apparently left here overnight in a cardboard box lined on bottom with a black garbage bag. My heart was immediately broken and my first reaction was anger: who would do this? I made a couple phone calls to some true pet lovers and found the best place in town to take care of them and find them a home.

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As I drove them over there, I was comforted by the fact that they were going to be adopted quickly. These were tiny puppies, probably not even fully weaned, and I knew that compared to all the older dogs in the adoption center there would be a lot of children ready to embrace these little pups. So my comfort was suddenly tinged with a nice blend of sadness and guilt when I thought of the older less cute dogs that would be left (thanks Sarah McLachlanWarning: In the Arms of the Angel).

I wondered, at what age do the dogs become unworthy of love?

The answer of course is never. Of course, they deserve love always .Of course that’s how we make our decisions on who to love and who to take care of.  Of course every one of God’s creatures, whether four legged or two, is equally valuable. And of course every one deserves a fair chance. Of course we give it to them and design our society to make that happen. Of course. Right?

I wonder now, at what age do people become unworthy of our love?

If you have ever seen a child sleeping, as I love to watch my boys, you cannot help but be overcome with a sense that this living, breathing being though small and in many ways weak, is nonetheless the most valuable and important thing in existence. And it doesn’t matter if that child is white or black or brown. It doesn’t matter if she sleeps in a designer bed or on a makeshift palette on the floor. Of course this child deserves to be loved and nurtured and given every opportunity possible. Of course.

So at what age does a person no longer deserve love? At what point does a person lose their right to a fair shot?

For every baby blissfully snoozing with that cute baby snore there’s

  • An 87 year old woman without any family left who sits in front of her nursing home waving at total strangers hoping they’ll stop for a chat
  • A 76 year old inmate wrongfully accused but on death row (or even if guilty, I wonder, who would Jesus kill?)
  • A 68 year old woman living on the streets because she was born with a mental handicap
  • Another prisoner, this one 57, who stole $50 from a store when he was 16 and has never been able to escape privately run prisons that profit from his incarceration (did you know that ⅔ of released prisoners will be arrested again within 3 years?)
  • 40-something middle class parents signing their bankruptcy papers because their son needed an emergency life-saving surgery to the tune of $150,000
  • A 32 year old single mom working 60 hours a week but still unable to live in a safe home for her children.
  • A 22 year old college graduate rewarded with a diploma and a $40,000 student loan who can’t find a job because she is either overqualified or needs 5 years experience.
  • A 14 year old teen with incredible computer programming skills, musical abilities, and also severe autism, who stays in his room all day, increasingly disillusioned at a world that has judged and rejected him at every turn.
  • A 6 year old boy who is zoned for an elementary school, middle school and high school that are grossly underfunded and are only unique for producing dropouts.

So in that list above, where do you draw the line? At what age do we stop deserving love? At what age do we lose our right to a fair chance?

Puppies need good homes. But there’s something even more beautiful and powerful when that ragged 14 year old lifetime stray finds a home that will love her for the rest of her life.

It is good to love and nurture innocent children. It is good to love people like you. But there is something much more beautiful and powerful when you cross the aisle or the railroad tracks, when you forgive someone seventy times seven times, or when you leave the 99 to bring back the 1 wayward soul, or when you love the very person you’re not supposed to.

As Christians our call to love doesn’t have an age limit. There is no three strike rule. It doesn’t make sense and frankly most of the time it sucks, but it is the only way.

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Uncategorized

What if a Wine Critic Could Review Jesus’ Wine from the Wedding in Cana?

I don’t know where I got this idea, but it seemed too much fun to pass up. Here follows a review of the wine from Jesus’ first miracle by a fictitious wine reviewer (no I did not go to Hawaii for my honeymoon, and yes my father is alive and well.)


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Red Wine (unknown type), From Palestine, around 30 CE

A Review

You have heard the story. And now I have tasted the wine.

Jesus, at the wedding in Cana, got the bridegroom in trouble. You see you were supposed to serve the best wine first and when they ran out, and under his mother’s direction, Jesus took six jars of water and turned them into wine so good that the bridegroom was scolded for saving the best for last. Was it really that good?

In reviewing such an historic wine, I feel strongly compelled to show my hand a bit as a wine reviewer, to pull back the curtain. While we reviewers all have different tastes and preferences, what we value above all is that perfect mixture of complexity and cohesion of flavors. Another way I’ve described this ideal to friends is “decipherable complexity.” We want our wine to be complex, but no so complex that we cannot pinpoint the flavors.

By those standards, this wine is a bit of a disaster. In place of decipherable complexity I am overwhelmed, even in just the nose, by a bewildering complexity. Whatever palette I’ve developed after reviewing over 3,000 wines is feels somewhat useless here. I want to describe the flavors in easy ways for you to understand: black cherry, nutmeg, almond essence… what have you.

But when it comes to this miraculous wine. I am at a loss. At first taste the bewildering complexity is exhilarating, as though you’re on the climb of an ancient roller coaster that you’ve never ridden before and with each *clink-clank* you’re imagining the loops and turns ahead. But then as you cross the apex and dive into the taste, this wine frustrates because I simply cannot put my finger on what I am tasting. It assaults my palette unlike anything I’ve had before. It offends my developed sensibilities.

I feel like a classical art critic, accustomed to Raphael and Rembrandt, trying to review Picasso’s Guernica, or like a colorblind reviewer trying to describe the beauty of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The vocabulary of this wine is simply written in a different language. And no matter how much I study its diction and sentence structure, it is always one step ahead of me.

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Picasso’s Guernica, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to a person with color blindness.

So you will have to indulge me as I try to describe some of its flavors.

At one moment one of the notes smelled just like my grandmother’s closet. It was like a small hall that led from her bedroom to her bathroom. It was lined on either side with flowing floral dresses, less-than-elegant leather working shoes, and sheer scarves and shawls that would move with the slightest breeze and seemed to reach out for me as I passed. She kept the tiny window open in any season except the coldest part of winter and so the aroma of pollen and freshly cut hay would come and go.

At another moment the texture took me to the couch in the funeral parlor during the visitation for my father. I was supposed to stand and shake everyone’s hand and be cordial, but I just couldn’t. So I parked myself on their couch, an out-of-fashion but sturdy piece, and fiddled my anxiety away by rubbing my fingers back and forth on the arm. Rather than a mere print, it had actual clothe grooves, made to look something like intertwined ropes.

And finally, in the taste I was transported to a cup of coffee I enjoyed standing on the balcony of our bed and breakfast near Huelo Maui during our Honeymoon. It was probably just a normal cup of coffee. But it was my first cup of coffee as a husband and sipping it while smelling the salty breeze made it taste like something completely new. It was an adventure asking to be had, not in any way disguising its struggles and pitfalls. But as I stood there drinking that cup of coffee I knew that if I didn’t embark on this journey with my wife, neither of us would ever feel like we had really lived.

I hesitate even to attempt to articulate these flavors, not because I’m revealing too much about myself, but because much like quantum physics, the act of trying to document this wine’s exact location on a taste profile defeats the purpose. Even now as I write this, I’m thinking: “I remember those notes, but that’s not even close to describing the taste.”

If you are interested in a traditional wine, I could not discourage you enough from tasting this bottle. You will be forever ruined. But if you can think back to your first drink ever, perhaps at a romantic dinner, perhaps sneaking into your friend’s attic where she had hid some beanbag chairs and the last quarter of her dad’s bottle, and remember the exhilaration that came from tasting the unknown, then perhaps this wine would be for you.

Let us imagine that there is enough from this bottle for everyone. It demands a decision from you. Do you favor the known quantity that is sweet and satisfying and never gets old? Or do you heed the call to jump blissfully ignorant into a red sea of mystery, in which you will never know the full story, but you will know that you are known and that there is always more waiting for you ahead?

 

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Uncategorized

7 Things Christians Like More than the Bible Does – Part 1: Tithing

As a Pastor the question is always in my head: what are we missing that God really wants us to see? But the opposite question is probably more urgent: What are we focusing on so much that is distracting us from what God really cares about?

So here are 7 things that I see the Church (in the U.S.) focusing on disproportionately more than the Bible actually discusses. For Part 1, I’m going to tell you why we don’t need to worry so much about tithing. Got your interest? Good.

Tithing

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You would think tithing is the eleventh commandment or is Jesus’ third great commandment after loving God and loving our neighbors. But the truth is that in the Bible the principle of specifically tithing 10% comes down to:

  1. A shadowy priest/king in Abraham’s time (we’re not even technically sure who gave the tithe, who received it or why),
  2. Mandates from the Torah that applied to agricultural produce and really served more as a tax (which allows us to introduce Christians’ favorite thing to do with Mosaic law: beat others over the head with laws that serve their purposes and blissfully ignore all the challenging/weird stuff), and
  3. A total misreading of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.

That last one deserves some attention because it is the launching point for some Christians to make tithing a New Testament practice.

It boggles my mind that people use this verse to defend tithing, but here goes, Luke 11:42: ““Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

See, See, Jesus directly mentions tithing, so there you have it, give our church 10% of all you make.

Wait, but isn’t Jesus telling them that without justice and truly loving God, giving is pointless?

Shhh, don’t read that part. Just give me your money. See? That’s why you need me, to interpret the scriptures for you…

What the Arc of Scripture Actually Emphasizes

  • God wants devotion and mercy more than material sacrifice (Hosea 6:6),
  • If money has a hold on you, it would be better to give it all to the poor and follow Jesus (Mark 10:21),
  • Following Jesus means giving up my whole life, control, decisions, time, material, but is worth it (Matthew 16:24-26)
  • 10%? That’s child’s play. If you only give 50% instead of 100% and then lie about it, you might die on the spot (Acts 5:1-11),
  • When Abraham apparently gave 10% to Melchizedek, that was a beautiful act of faith, but because we have a perfect priest and king in Jesus, our reward is no longer on the line (Hebrews 7-9)

My Personal Conviction

It would be easy and comfortable enough for me to cast a disapproving glare on Christians for missing the mark so widely on what the Bible so obviously wants us to focus on. But the truth is, on each of these 7 points, I miss the mark terribly in my own practice of faith. So here is my personal conviction.

Giving money is an essential discipline of Christian faith. If we take anything away from Jesus’ teaching, 10% is actually pretty weak. I need to give more. I need to give with joy and empathy. I need to stop giving as a personal barometer of holiness. I need to give in the hopes of directly alleviating injustices that shackle others and the greed that stifles my own spirit. I need to have a giving spirit in every part of my life: how I give my time, how I give my mercy, how I use my talents and skills, how I give my care and concern.

There is no formula for this, there is no set requirement other than giving all I have. There is no quid pro quo, I do this and receive that from God, except that if I give out of love my heart will become like God’s. I suppose that’s what I’m most afraid of, what we’re all most afraid of, is that if we actually do what God says, we will start to see the world the way God sees it, and then we’ll be totally, beautifully ruined.

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Media, Parenting

Do We Love our Children More than We Love Their Picture on Facebook?

I hope this will be the first in a series: The Most Important and Unexpected Things I Hope to Teach my Children. I came into parenting with a lot of preconceptions almost all of which I have thankfully shed. What I thought I needed to teach them has changed a lot too. Here is one I certainly didn’t expect to be so important.

Several months ago I had a seemingly small but powerful revelation. I had my two boys at the mall playground. I sat down, thankful to have them preoccupied for a few minutes, so I could pull out my phone and try to shut down my brain for a bit.

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“Daddy, look at me!” I glanced up and saw Isaiah who had just climbed up the foam helicopter. Then he jumped. Such a big boy. The revelation then hit me when I looked around and every single parent there was staring at their phone, just like me. Wow. We were all missing it.

Here’s a whole tumblr blog showing pics of parents on their phones. Such a funny, cute, postmodern problem to have right? But I was left with this startling question:

Do we love our children more than we love their picture on Facebook?

This statement sounds trite. Of course I love them more than their picture on Facebook. But we are the first generation of parents to be raising children in a constantly-connected smartphone-always-within-grasp world. Now it seems that the distance from our hands to our pockets is too far, demonstrated by these bluetooth/smartphone watches that make notifications that much closer.

Picture this scene, which is all too familiar to me and plenty of other parents I’m sure: You’re playing with your children, having a great time. You’re all laughing. Then your child does something so excruciatingly adorable that it would be a crime not to capture the moment and then share it with your friends. You post it to Facebook immediately. Fast-forward three minutes: the playing has stopped. Now you’re on the couch, phone in hand, watching the likes and the comments pour in, updating every minute to see how many other people think your child is as cute as you do. Your child has stopped laughing, your attention having passed from them to their picture on Facebook. I am guilty as charged.

Of course I don’t love the likes and the comments more than I love them. But does my child know that? They are born with a sophisticated understanding of attention and love; they are not born with any awareness of the function of social media. I want to make sure that they know they are always more important to me than anything virtual. Sadly, I have to work on this, being present with them even at the end of a long day when I just want 20 minutes to veg out.

I’m not saying we all have to take an ascetic vow of technological-poverty. I am saying that I don’t think any of us has a good estimate of what effect this could have on our children over the course of their upbringing. No one’s ever done this before.

I want to make sure that in their memories of their childhood, looking to me for attention, love and approval, that they see me looking back, and not looking at my phone.

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Faith

Love in 274 Words – Paul and Me

Last week, a friend shared this article entitled “Preach it like Lincoln”. It had a juicy challenge: “what would it be like to preach a sermon in just 272 words?” (the length of the Gettysburg Address, an astoundingly brilliant and short speech).

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That got me curious. My text for this past Sunday was 1 Corinthians 13 — a passage similar to Lincoln’s in its brevity, familiarity, and beauty. So I counted. In the NIV, it has 274 words. Sweet, I got two bonus words to try to preach Love like Paul did.

Here’s what I came up with:

If you point out that someone is in a ditch, and tell them that they shouldn’t be in that ditch, and tell them just how deep that ditch is, and then throw them a shovel to dig that ditch deeper, that isn’t love. No matter how sweet you are about it, you’re not loving them.

If you keep the rules: don’t swear, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cheat on your spouse, read the Bible daily, pray for the brokenhearted, give your money away, that isn’t love. Congratulations, you’ve won a prize that’s incredibly hard to get but not worth a dime.

If you surround yourself with people who see the world the way you do, agree on everything (anything important anyway), take them casseroles when they’re sick, exchange Christmas gifts, that isn’t love. That’s a holy huddle. But turn around: you’ll find some people who really need love (and may even love you back).

Love walks the line. Love forsakes the right to pick who’s in and who’s out, who’s right, who’s wrong, who deserves and who does not. Love lives on Calvary. Watching slings and arrows from every side: Pharisees, Romans, conservatives, liberals. Love never gets to settle in. Love is never comfortable.

We can do all that other stuff. It will be fun and probably make us feel good. That’s fine. But we can’t call ourselves Christians until we’re ready to love. Until we’re ready to follow the man who died on the cross, forgiving his executioners. Until that love turns us upside down, and makes us see every last scoundrel as God’s beloved. Then we have loved. Then we are Christians.

It was a good, if hopeless, exercise. It reminded me of a quote I can’t find (I want to say it was Walter Brueggemann) that the most important words that are shared every Sunday in worship are the words of scripture. It was a good dose of humility, reminding me what an awesome and terrifying calling it is to preach God’s Word for God’s people every Sunday.

How would you preach love in 274 words?

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Faith, Life

Forcing the Call: Why I Want to Thank Jonathan Martin

There’s this play in football made by defensive players at least once a game. If they see an offensive player move, or twitch, or do anything that could be called false start, they are not supposed to just wait for the refs to blow the whistle. They are now coached to stand up, cross the line, touch or push the offending player and force the refs to make the call. At this point they have to throw the flag, one way or another. The player forces the refs to have a discussion about who is at fault.

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I want to thank Jonathan Martin for crossing the line and forcing us to make the call.

When one valuable player resigns and another is suspended, we have to pay attention. Now we’re having the discussion: Who is at fault?

Now, maybe Jonathan Martin had no such grand designs when he resigned. Most likely he just decided that this kind of abuse was not worth it. Just that is saying a lot, I’m sure he didn’t decide to give up such a dream job with a lucrative salary without a lot of soul-searching.

But in effect, as this story has spilled over from sports talk to GMA, CNN and Fox News, he has forced us into a national discussion. What is acceptable? It’s one thing to hear of bullying in the middle school hallways. It is another to hear it from a 6 foot 5, 312 pound professional people pusher.

So who is at fault? As I write this, USA Today has an article on its front page called “Blame the Victim” with a picture of Jonathan Martin. It details players who are criticizing Martin:

  • A real man would handle this himself.

  • Incognito, his tormentor, was just trying to toughen him up.

  • All rookies deal with this. This is how it works.

The article tells us that these are reactions we might not expect. But what can be more unsurprising? Those who benefit from a system of hazing that depends on secrecy are blaming the victim who stepped across the line to force the call.

Just because former victims (hazees, now become hazers) went through it doesn’t make it right. And if these players are defending Incognito’s verbal abuse as normal in the NFL, well, good luck with that argument.

I want to thank Jonathan Martin, because somewhere a scared middle school girl, who’s bullied for being too tall, too skinny, too fat, too pretty, too white, too dark, too anything is going to read about this intelligent, gigantic man and realize:

“Wow, if he can be bullied, anyone can.”

Perhaps she’ll stop listening to those voices and realize how strong and beautiful she is. And perhaps, if there’s someone there willing to listen, she’ll have the courage to force the call like Martin has done.

I want to thank Jonathan Martin for performing what is to me one of the most obvious parts of our calling as Christians, whether he realizes it or not. He is taking a stand for the powerless and giving a voice to the voiceless. Not just NFL players, but victims of abuse everywhere. Doing so at such a high level and in such a public sphere takes even more courage and has an even wider effect.

I want to thank Jonathan Martin for standing up, crossing the line and forcing the call. Now, as a nation, we are huddling together and it is on us to decide: who is at fault here?

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