I honestly can’t believe it was fifteen years ago. Britney Spears was the darling of the pop-music world and her latest single had just been released. Contained in that single Oops!…I did it again were the now infamous lines, “I’m not that innocent”. Now granted, I don’t want to give Britney Spears too much credit, but it seemed as if a new age had been ushered in. Maybe it was due to the coinciding of a new millennium, but it seemed as if all of a sudden everything in the world was turned against innocence. Now little girls were being asked to grow up into their teen icons faster and the fashion industry started targeting tweens. Little boys were being exposed to violence and pornography through video games and the internet at an astounding rate. And the result of a this over-exposure? We have become a calloused and cynical society that sees the world as overly hostile and beyond hope. And childhood…well, let’s just say it ain’t what it used to be.*
I sometimes even find myself being a little over cynical. Who wouldn’t? Look at the news around us. A biker gang fight in Waco, TX. Civil unrest in major US Cities. International chaos from earthquakes to civil wars. But then I stumbled across a story this week that made me hope again. I’m not sure if you saw it or not, but it was about a 5-yr-old little boy in Alabama who decided he needed to feed a homeless man at a local Waffle House. You can see the video here: http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/19/living/5-year-old-feeds-homeless-man-waffle-house-feat/ . And I thought for a second, maybe all of the innocence hasn’t gone out of the world. That’s the amazing things about kids in their innocence. They don’t see someone who is homeless, of a different race or gender, someone who we might deem unworthy because of their circumstances or our preconceived biases. They see a person. And honestly, they see better than us someone who at the end of the day is really no different than them.
There is a verse in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church that many people interpret differently than I do. It’s this weird verse in chapter 13 that is just sandwiched in there, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11. I’ve always thought of this verse as a Lament for the loss of childhood and the innocence that comes with it. I know that childhood comes with some pretty crazy things sometimes. Children can be temperamental, selfish, whiny, etc. But children can also be the most generous, the most loving, the most accepting…really the most innocent when it comes to the world and the people living in it. Maybe we as the “adult” church need to take a lesson from our children and reclaim the way we look at those around us. After all, Jesus did say, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3. May we find our innocence again and love like the little children.
* On a related note, I think it is so important for us to find ways to protect and foster the innocence that is such an important part of childhood and healthy development!
How many of you love watching the news? I for one, am not one of them. I actually prefer to read my news in digital format these days because it seems as if the news is always just bad. Granted, reading it isn’t much better, but at least then I don’t think it has quite the same shock value. Every once in a while however, I find myself watching one of the early morning news programs. And it seems that every time one of these comes on one of the featured stories involves some sort of court room drama. There is some high profile case that is being decided/battled out in our courts and they just can’t wait to tell me all about it. And it’s not just the news stations that are court room obsessed. Have you turned on daytime TV lately? I think nowadays that when you are promoted to the bench it comes with a television contract.
Our obsession with the courtroom is weird. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I do think it may have something to do with all of our uncertainty in the world today. With all of the upheaval and chaos, here is a place where at the end of the day a verdict is handed down and someone is proved right and someone is proved wrong. The scary part of this for me is that this culture sometimes enters into the life of the church. The church finds itself also caught up in a culture of uncertainty and subsequently battle lines are being drawn over every issue and at the end of the day someone has to be proved right and someone has to be proved wrong. But I am not sure this is the script we are called to. I once saw a church sign, so who knows where this originated, that read, “Christians aren’t called to be judges or lawyers, but to be witnesses.” And I love that, as corny as it may be. It reminds me of that powerful verse in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
So let’s play out the courtroom analogy for a bit. Christians aren’t called to be judges. There is one judge and we all must face Him eventually…so that responsibility is off our shoulders. Christians aren’t called to be lawyers. We don’t have to extricate the truth for those around us because the truth is completely embodied in one person, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). We are called to be witnesses. And what do witnesses do? They share their experience, their story. You see, the gospel that brings freedom for captives, sight for the blind, love for the loveless, hope for the outcast is not something that can be handed down like a verdict. It can’t be argued for in a court of opinion. It must be experienced by an encounter with Jesus. And how can people know who Jesus is unless we are sharing our encounter, our experience, our transformation? Three of the most powerful words in all of scripture may be all that we need to be true witness, “Come and see…”. May we today come to the realization that people cannot be brought to Jesus unless they can see the difference He has made in us and want to experience the same.
I was recently privy to a conversation online where someone had taken a passage of scripture of the Quran and used that one piece of scripture to paint a picture of what the entirety of Islam looks like. Now I realize at this point I may have lost some of you, but I beg you to stay with me because I think this discussion leads somewhere important. The problem I had with the conversation had nothing to do with Islam really at all, but the danger of taking something out of context. Take for instance some of our scriptures. If you took Psalm 137:9 out of context it could really be detrimental to our message.* How can you communicate a story of grace with a verse like that being taken out of context? But we do it all the time. We love to judge people by small representations of their groups and then it is much easier to avoid them. I mean can you imagine what would happen if the entire world judged the church by the likes of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church? I shudder at the thought. And yet, we demonize all sorts of groups of people just because of the actions of a few, or their words/stories taken out of context.
It kind of reminds me of a story in scripture where even Jesus’ encounter with another leaves us wondering. In Mark 7:26-29 we find the following encounter. “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus initially came with a message for the Jews and even seemed apprehensive at getting involved with a Greek/Gentile woman. But all the same as her imploring took on a note of a plea for compassion, we see Jesus attitude towards her change and he relents and brings healing to this woman’s house. Now I realize that some of this is up for interpretation and debate, but doesn’t it seem like Jesus perception of this non-Israelite was changed by the above encounter? And if God allows change to occur in his human interactions then how much more should we?
What I guess I am saying is this…We should never alienate or distance someone until we know their whole story. You never know how someone may have been judged or mistreated all because of an off-chance word or misaligned ideology. We are all God’s children and Christ has died for all. So shouldn’t we be willing to extend arms of grace and fellowship to all? And maybe that is as simple as hearing the whole story…
* Psalm 137:8-9 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. This verse is of course alluding to the judgment of Babylon for all they had done to Israel, but still tough to read.
Sitting and watching people in an amusement park can be very enlightening. For instance I now know exactly which tattoos to avoid. I have deduced which footwear is perhaps the most comfortable to wear around an amusement park (maybe this is more from personal experience). But I have also noticed a few things that have disturbed me a bit; a shirt with a request for hot girls on a boy no older than 10, a dad singing along to the lyrics of “We Are Young” to his five year old daughter and young girls more scantily clad than should be decent in any setting to say a few. What has happened? Did we stop having standards? Or is it something worse…did we stop paying attention?
I know you may say, ‘How can not paying attention be worse than not having standards?’ That’s just it….one involves a conscious decision and the other does not. As humans we have been given the gift and the ability to reason, to discern and when we don’t exercise that we become no better than lower animals and that becomes scary. And I think that is what has happened. We don’t think about the things we expos ourselves too. We don’t think about how the way we let our children dress could define their behavior and how others define them. So where does it end?
1 Peter 5:8-9 reads, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” I don’t want to give the devil too much credit (he already gets way too much in a lot of our churches) but you can’t help but see all of the evils of society that do easily prey upon us. Even if they are of our own creation, if we don’t pay attention and work through our lives with sober mind and judgment we find ourselves being subject to those very things we consider base and are called to avoid. So wake up! Think! And then maybe you will find yourself in a better place the the intrigue of a pastor sitting on a bench at Cedar Point.
It comes around about every two years. And you would think I would see it coming. But all of a sudden I am blindsided by it. Sometimes it sneaks into conversations. Other times I am blasted by it over the airwaves. Lately it seems like Facebook has become the ultimate venue. I’m talking about a little thing called “political banter”. And I wish I could say that most of this banter was nice spirited and even tempered…but the internet is no place to lie. The truth is that the country in which we lived is thrown into a maelstrom of political rhetoric and all to often battle lines are drawn in the sand and people are demonized before we even think about the body count on the other side of the issues. And the scariest part about all of this…the church doesn’t seem to look any better than the world of mainstream media. I see cheap shots and insults levied against political candidates and people who are taking stances by those called Christians without any consideration of the fact the person at whom said comments are hurled at is indeed one of God’s children; created to live into His image.
In regards to a solution, I guess we should start by looking at the life of the early church and their struggle with differences in their midst. Paul writes to the Ephesian church, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:13-16) This specific text was written to Jews and Gentiles who were struggling through unification issues, but don’t we seem to create the same divisions in the church over stuff that in all honesty won’t carry a lot of weight into eternity. I am pretty sure there isn’t a sorting line in heaven for Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. In fact…I hate to say it, but I am pretty sure the title American won’t exist there either.
So why do we let these conversations divide us? Why are we allowing hostility to creep into our midst? What if we, as the body of Christ, were discussing these “political” issues in a proactive way without relying on the “polls” to make the difference? I for one in my short life have come to the realization that placing hope in kings, kingdoms and governments will always fall short. Maybe we could come to the realization that spewing political word vomit on Facebook and the like really does make the Church look divided. And maybe then we could become creative instead as we seek to confront the evils of this world as One Body united through the blood of Christ with the mission to bring peace and make disciples of all nations. Now that sounds like a pretty good political campaign ;).
I have been pretty heartbroken lately. And it’s not what you may think. All of my relationships couldn’t be better. My family is well and I myself have great health. But I still have been a little heartbroken. You see, I belong to this group of people called the church. And we have this amazing calling. We are called to go into all the world and make disciples. We are called to baptize these same people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are even called to show these people what is looks like to follow after Christ. And what is more amazing is that this calling goes back even further. Several thousand years ago God spoke to this old man in the middle of Mesopotamia and said to him that he was going to be a great nation. All peoples on earth would be blessed through him. And this is where the heartbreak begins…
Genesis 12:2-3 says, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is an incredible promise given to our Father Abraham so long ago. And we, as children of the promise through the new covenant of Christ blood must realize that this promise is ours as well. God is going to perform this amazing action on our behalf and all we are called to do is be obedient. The problem (and thus the heartbreak) is that sometimes we usurp God’s position in the promise. God doesn’t say, “I am going to make you a blessing so you can decide who to bless and who to curse.” No….emphatically no! God says that He will take care of the blessing and the cursing. He will take care of the stamp of approval or the label of judgment. It is His action to take.
So why do we as the people of God so often find ourselves in the judgment seat for blessing or cursing? It is so easy for us as Christians to label this person as righteous and this other person as unrighteous. It is so easy for us to exclude from fellowship this person who behaves this way and allow in someone else whose behavior matches ours. I am reminded of a quote from the concierge in “That Thing You Do” (a great movie by the way) when he looks at a valet out of place and exclaims, “That’s not yo job”. Church wake up! All people of the earth are to be blessed through us….all this other stuff, that’s not yo job! Let’s trust God with the blessing and the cursing. Let’s get to loving on people and making disciples. Let’s get to living out our lives as Christ lived out His. Maybe then my heart might be a little less broken.
It’s funny that goodness is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit. I immediately think of the story of the rich young ruler who approaches Jesus, ”Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.’ And then Jesus proceeds to ratlle off some commandments. Of course the rich young man has kept all of these and is morally above reproach. And then the punch, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ Ouch! Someone who has been able to control his path, manage his wealth, manage his morality and have a relatively stable life is called to abandon everything that he has accomplished and engineered under his own power and follow God unabashedly…that doesn’t sound so good.
Often times we think, that since goodness is one of the fruits of the Spirit that we are measured on the morality that we exude and therefore we start to judge ourselves (and sometimes other) with a sliding rule of commands instead of being in a love relationship with Jesus. The word used for goodness in Paul’s list in Galatians speaks of ‘uprightness of heart and life’. I think it could be that maybe goodness speaks more of the motivation of our character versus the character itself. I ran across a great Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote recently that puts this into perspective, ‘Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will’. All to often, especially in Holiness and Evangelical circles, we tend to find ourselves so bent on identifying/avoiding sin and moral failures that we forget that we are not put on this earth to be moral blueprints for society. We are here to be disciples of Christ, not moral hall monitors.
The rub comes when this becomes our faith versus Jesus. Moralism is something we have control over and is set out in a clear defined path. I can read the Bible and put everything into a black and white category and be absolutely above reproach. Or I can follow the Jesus of scripture, embark on a path of uncertainty trusting only God and never again be ‘safe’. Trusting in God’s goodness can only come about by experiencing him in an every day walk. And our resulting “goodness” is a heart trait born out of wildly following a God who is at best unpredictable and awesome. The journey of Christ is not about morality…it is so much more than that.
And just to leave you with something fun about God’s goodness…this is one of my favorite excerpts from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver…’Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.'”