Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More Truthfulness

Angela and I saw a funny little movie a few months ago called “The Invention of Lying,” which depicted a modern world where people were only capable of telling the truth. It was quite imaginative, and it got me thinking of some truth-telling I’d love to hear in 2010.

· “Your call is not very important to us, otherwise we wouldn’t keep you waiting for twenty minutes.
-- the recording you hear while on hold with XYZ Company

· “It is about the money. I want to be paid as much as I can get because I don’t know how long I will be able to play in this league.”
-- professional team athlete

· “I have the time. We all have 168 hours per week. But you haven’t convinced me this is important enough to make the time.”
-- church member responding to a request to volunteer, instead of saying “I don’t have the time”

· “This has only happened to me once but I think it is indicative of a larger point which I want to share with you.”
-- preachers who tend to say “I can’t tell you how many times such-and-such has happened to me” in order to dramatize our next point

· “We do have the money, but we’re not willing to change our priorities to spend it on the thing you are suggesting.”
-- church leaders, parents, or anyone who says “I/we don’t have the money” as a reflexive response

· “You look wonderful.”
-- husband responding to wife’s question, “How do I look in this new outfit?” (There is no other response. Period)

· “I’m really struggling.”
-- anyone who is struggling and is asked “How are you?” and feels they ought to say “Fine”

· “I don’t want to put in the hard work to do it.”
-- instead of saying “I can’t do it.” (It is amazing what we can do when we put our mind and heart to it)

· “I had an early deadline and I was drawing a blank on something deeply spiritual or timely or noteworthy to write about so I decided to express myself on this peculiar little topic which, I believe, does in fact have a spiritual dimension.”
-- preacher who writes a weekly essay

May we speak and live as truthfully as possible in 2010!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not Only for the Desperate

When family members ask me what I want for Christmas I don’t know how to answer. I enjoy clothes, books, and golf gear, but I have plenty of each, even a surplus. I enjoy eating out but I actually have several gift cards to restaurants I haven’t used yet! The fact is, I’m one of those people for whom it is hard to find a gift. What do you get for the person who has everything (materially)?

I recall a book by William Willimon called “The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything” that challenged me greatly. Willimon, a preacher and scholar, reflects on what has become the standard Christian testimony, which goes something like this. “I was miserable, then I found Jesus.” This pattern hearkens back to influential church leaders in history like Augustine and Martin Luther, who indeed had dramatic conversion experiences arising out of personal crises. But Willimon asserts that we short-change the power of the gospel when we insist, in effect, that people can only come to saving faith in Jesus from personal despair.

“Look at the many ways people are called by God in the Bible. Abraham, a rich and contented desert sheikh, was out gazing at the stars one night. Moses was a murderer hiding in the wilderness. Isaiah was at prayer in the temple. Peter was fishing. The little man in the tree (Zaccheus) was curious. Matthew was at the office counting money. Paul was on a pious errand.”

When we narrow the gospel’s ability to transform peoples’ lives by framing it as medicine for only troubled souls, we inadvertently convince people who don’t feel an overt need that the Christian faith has nothing to say to them (until they are in crisis).

Willimon notes how much greater credit it is to the power of the Christian gospel for a person to be able to testify:
“I was happy and fulfilled. Each day was a joy to me, and life was a shower of blessings. Then Jesus showed me how much more joy I could experience when I rose above the selfish pursuit of my own happiness and a preoccupation with my own problems. In losing my life for others and for him and his work, in using my blessings for something greater than myself, I found my true life.”

In many ways this describes the journey to my baptism into Christ in 1983 at age 20. I didn’t feel any overt personal need for God; my life was indeed looking very promising. But what grabbed me about the gospel was Jesus’ call to give myself to something bigger than myself, to be (re)claimed by God for his purposes. Scripture says that in Christ “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). Did I need to be forgiven of my sins and saved “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)? Of course. But the gospel spoke even more powerfully to my need and desire to live for something bigger than myself through a relationship with Jesus.

I’m going to be thankful for any gift I receive if only for the thought behind it. And I’m thankful to God for the gift of his Son, who came not just for the desperate but for everyone. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Silent Struggle

A superstar athlete has been in the news all week due to an eruption of salacious information about his personal life, but it was a story about another elite athlete that caught my eye and tugged at my heart. Robert Enke was a German football (soccer) goalkeeper at the top of his game and widely considered to be a leading contender for the German number one spot at the 2010 World Cup. He committed suicide by leaping in front of a train on November 10th. He was 32 years old and left behind his wife and an 8-month old adopted daughter.

Enke and his wife had lost their 2-year old daughter in 2006 due to a heart birth defect. His wife told reporters that he had been dealing with severe depression and seeing a psychiatrist for some time, but kept it secret from teammates and coaches because he was afraid their adopted daughter would be taken away if his condition became public.

The public response to Enke’s death has been overwhelmingly warm and supportive. Fans immediately flocked to his team’s headquarters to lay flowers, light candles, and sign a book of condolences. The teams for whom he had played held moments of silence before each game, and his current team, Hannover 96, will wear a patch on their jerseys all season commemorating him. Five days after his death over 45,000 attendees filled his team’s stadium for a memorial service. Forty-five thousand.

In light of this it is especially sad that Enke was afraid of disclosing his painful struggle. People would have bent over backwards to help him.

I have some experience with suicide, both as an individual and a preacher. I have preached two funerals for people who ended their lives. There may be no more painful experience for survivors than to go through the hurt, regret, confusion, and yes, the anger of losing a loved one to deliberate death. A good friend of mine walked this road a few years ago, and asked me to write down some thoughts to help him and his family understand it. Here is some of what I wrote:

Suicide is a selfish act, but it is one usually borne of desperation. God imbeds in us a very, very strong will to live. It is part of our human condition. People endure unimaginable suffering and depraved conditions almost solely by their will to live. …This gives an idea of what powerful forces of depression and/or despair are at work when someone takes his own life. He has to “break through” his own human will to live… One of the hardest things for survivors is that people who commit suicide do not always manifest outward signs of despair. This makes it all the more difficult to reconcile how they were acting versus what they did. But people often compartmentalize quite effectively, and not necessarily insincerely. On the surface they are coping but deep down there is a reservoir of pain and despair. In a vulnerable moment, this reservoir can well up and overcome the coping mechanisms.

There is a great deal of mystery in people. No one is completely known by others. They are only known by what they choose to reveal. Many people leave a lot unrevealed.

Here is my plea to anyone in the midst of the silent struggle. Reach out for help. God loves you and your life is precious. Allow people to love you. You are worth it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What's Next?

Recently I was talking with a man preparing to be baptized. He asked me, “What happens after my baptism? What’s next? I don’t want to stumble out of the gate” (my paraphrase). That’s a good question! Too often in the church we baptize someone and say, in effect, “We wish you well; keep warm and well fed” (James 2:16). We tell them to get involved in the life of the church and we assume that will provide the care and sustenance they need. Sometimes it does; often it does not.

I found myself answering this man’s question off-the-cuff. It’s not like I had a now-that-you’re-a-Christian training program to give him (though that intrigues me greatly!). Here is what I told the man:

“Jesus does not leave us on our own (John 14:18). God’s Spirit comes into our hearts as a pledge of our inheritance towards redemption (Ephesians 1:14; Acts 2:38) and as an active presence (advocate, counselor, comforter, helper, friend) in our life. God’s Spirit will urge you to be God’s man and to fulfill the purpose for which God created you (Ephesians 2:10). Your Christian life will not be only a matter of self-discipline; you will have a Helper.

Having said that, the Christian life is one that takes discipline. After all, we are ‘disciples’ of Jesus. You should plan on developing certain practices and habits. The first of these is to actively worship God in the weekly assembly of the saints. Make Sunday mornings a priority. This is when you will praise God in song, participate in the prayers of the church, come to the Lord’s Table to celebrate and remember, hear the Word preached, and encourage and be encouraged by others. There is no substitute for this. You can’t live the Christian life well apart from a community of faith.

Develop the discipline of reading and studying God’s Word. Commit to an adult Bible class. Some of it will be over your head in the beginning but you will absorb and learn more than you realize. I have several personal Bible-reading plans I can recommend.

Develop Christian friendships. Tell people at work you were recently baptized. You might be surprised to find there are Christians in your workplace who have been quiet about it but who will encourage and support you. We’ll help you find a Life Group to be a part of. This will become an important part of your Christian journey. Fellowship, encouragement, and accountability within a small circle of Christian friends will be invaluable for you.

Paul says in I Timothy 4:8, “Train yourself in godliness, for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for both the present life and the life to come.” Just as an athlete trains for her sport, a Christian trains for the often rigorous life of service and sacrifice that characterizes following Jesus. Godliness is both personal and social. Do your best to put away selfishness and put on generosity and self-giving. Consider yourself part of the people-of-God deployed into the world to help redeem and reconcile it. You are not your own. You are a redeemed child of God and follower of Jesus.”

That’s what I told him, with great excitement! New beginnings are exciting, and God’s mercies are new every morning.

How about you? Are you willing to train for godliness? What’s next for you?

Fascinating Witness

Several years ago I read a preacher’s observation that college students were eagerly devouring a book by Shane Claiborne called, “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.” Claiborne’s book has been described as mixing “evangelical zeal” with “grassroots activism,” and indeed his philosophy is compelling. In short, he calls American Christians to a faith in Christ that moves beyond “private piety with affluent conformity,” beyond our “safe Jesus” into the world alongside the least and the lost.

I found the book quite inspiring, and was particularly intrigued by how it resonated with teenagers and young adults who are hungry for more than just “go to church” Christianity. I got that message loud and clear.

Recently Esquire magazine asked Claiborne to write a short article addressing those who don’t believe. Following are some excerpts:

* The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to believe.

* I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of the Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

* I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology”—that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits on it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him (the priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day). In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.”… This is why the triumph of the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

* It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

I need to hear words like this. They remind me that I follow Jesus as I roll up my sleeves and enter into the hurt and pain and messiness of peoples’ lives.
They remind me that as much and as often as I want to choose the “safe” path, that is not usually where Jesus goes.
They remind me that discipleship with Christ takes me into the world, not out of it, and that this is part of the fascinating witness of the Jesus who redeems the dirty.