Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Time in Jacksonville

I had the opportunity to take a class on Bible and Race this past January. The class was administered by a black professor in his 60’s who God had led into the ministry when he was 21 years old. He had served a variety of roles in his life from prison chaplain to pastor of a predominately white mega church, but race relations had always played a prominent role wherever he was. He started pursuing the idea of a class like this ten years ago and finally was able to land it this year in Jacksonville. The class consisted of 25 students in a nearly 50/50 Black/White split.

There was a heavy conversational tone in the classroom. The professor wanted to make sure students had a chance to hear each other and ask questions. Everyone even had to give a 5-10 min presentation the last day on their racial experiences and what they’d learned from the week.

Truthfully, I thought I had heard everything to hear entering this class. I was not sure there was going to be great amount of application nor insightful information. I was wrong. I’ve been processing what I learned for the last 7 weeks and I know it will continue for much longer. Here is some of what I learned that week that will forever change my outlook on racial reconciliation:

  • Corporate Sin Is Real: We tend to focus on sin as being an individual thing that is unique and contained to us. But in scripture, sin is never contained to the individual, it always seeps into the surrounding lives of the offending person. If this is true for David or Saul, how much more so is it of a whole group or nation? Tim Keller (start @ 26min if you want to just watch Tim) has a great word on the corporate sin of racism in our country.
  • Racism still is a White problem: Joseph Barndt’s definition of racism = prejudice + power and he claims that white people have and continue to hold the power in this country and so when we are prejudice (even just a little) we are racist. Prejudice without power he says, is just prejudice - its effect is mitigated for its lack of impact. This was a point I disagreed with until reading more of his book and hearing from other black students in the class share their experience with racism in the last 20 years (ie. 1996+).
  • The generational effects of segregation and Jim Crow: are still being felt in our society and will for years to come. Having an opportunity to hear from black classmates that they have friends (or themselves) that often change their entire demeanor, speech, and posture when a white person walks into the room because they were raised hearing “you better not embarrass us!” was eye opening. The reality is, many black people in this country are still being raised hearing the message that they are inferior because the color of their skin.

We have a to seriously consider where God is calling us to make an impact with the ministry of reconciliation that he has entrusted to us. We are all brothers and sisters, whether we know it or not. As a famous black preacher once said:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
….
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
….
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Treason of Tradition

Driving home from school the other night during Hurricane Joaquin was an adventure. The rain was fairly constant for most of the trip but got extremely bad as I was crossing the Va border. What few cars there were on the road had pulled to the shoulder and turned on their hazards. Rain was coming down in sheets so thick I literally couldn't see but maybe fifteen feet in front of me. I straddled the middle line marker (slowing way down) because it was the only thing I could see to know I was still on the road. Fortunately, the torrential downpour only lasted 5 min or so. And as the rain subsided, it was as if this thick gray curtain was pulled back, and I could see clearly the road before me and the shoulder markers and the treeline beyond them. For a moment though, it was as if I was traveling blind, in the dark, in a one ton ball of steel.

To me, this is the perfect metaphor for my most recent trip to class. The subject was Greek and my professor started by taking 45 min to ask everyone why we would ever want to study Greek (which admittedly, I thought was the question I came to ask). After some entertaining answers, he began to explain the struggle that our Church faces today. After hearing him out, I was convicted.

We have a growing problem in our country. No, not just childhood obesity, but the fact that our Church has become so traditionalized. Our focus is on creeds, confessions, organization, and scheduling. Yes even the evangelical non-denominational Church, has moved to a place of idolizing structure and form. We have lost something in our Church that it desperately needs to recover.

What has been a blessing of a ministry journey so far (in that I've been exposed to a variety of experiences and teaching that will shape me for a lifetime) has also been something that has desensitized me to the essence of revelation.

God's word is alive.

When one reads and reads and reads, books, magazines and blogs.. one begins to glaze over the words and search for key ideas and themes. The process becomes far too comfortable and second hand. As with anything that is done repetitively, our nature looks for ways to package and label it so that it fits neatly into one of the thousands of actions we do throughout the week without thinking.

I have become too comfortable with scripture, traditionalizing it to its best and most practical case uses. I don't need to read through Romans to do a study on it because I've read through Romans already - I get it. The Bible has become an almanac of ministerial authority and guidance. But while indeed it serves that purpose, that's not what it is. 

My professor explained that learning Greek and Hebrew is not just a parlor trick for sermon support, but it forces us into looking at scripture with unfamiliar lenses. Far too often we (Americans especially) imagine English as the most developed language...as though it English is the best way to communicate and everything else is inferior. But who says English is the best language for communicating anything at all? The value in looking at the Greek is that it wipes away preconceptions and allows the language (Greek in this case) to speak to us. For that is the purpose that  has always been intended for scripture: God's eternal prophetic revelation into our lives.

This is by no means earth-shattering information. But for me, this shift from revering God's word, to appreciating it, to traditionalizing it has not been overtly conscious. As with many sinful attitudes of the heart, the slip is imperceptible at first. I wonder though how many Christians would feel that they've begun to approach God's word the same way, with the same malaise.

The purpose of the Church is to get people into God's Word and God's Word into them so that they may hear from the God of the universe, the God who created them. He breathes life through his words, he convicts, convinces and transforms.

For our day, we have gone the way of the people in Isaiah's time. We've exchanged the glory of God for something far less, a church structure, a confession, a model, or mission statement. But God has a word for this type of behavior and any other that would take His place in our lives.

I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God.
...
All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
...
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”

They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”


Sitting in that classroom the other week, I was suddenly woken up from my daze. At once I could see the error in my ways and the foolishness of my actions. Truly, the God that sees all is merciful when we struggle with Him. God will not be packaged or labeled. He will not be confined to tradition. God speaks! Let His words wash over you even now.

“Remember these things, Jacob,
for you, Israel, are my servant.
I have made you, you are my servant;
Israel, I will not forget you.
I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
your sins like the morning mist.
Return to me,
for I have redeemed you.”

Monday, August 10, 2015

And To Know So Little Else

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. - Gal 1:10

Humanity is now in an aggravated state of narcissism. Accelerated by social media and the daily epiphanies of new communications trends, our society longs for interaction but feigns the physical substance of it. We can’t seem to put our phones down long enough to acknowledge the person right in front of us. Consequentially, many people have become more interested in their digital community than their immediate community. Their “likes” and “follows” diluting their own sense of physical worth and value.

Everyone has seen satires of this in the media (they even had a show called “Selfie”, yes a show that’s founded on the idea of taking a picture of yourself for others enjoyment, last year that met an untimely end six episodes into its first season - critics lamented the lack of character depth and repetitive plot) and many know friend who are little social media monsters. New social media startups are being forged weekly hoping to become the next Snapchat. But what is driving this craze?

Paul said it’s pride. How does one serve God and please people? They don’t. The two are at odds. Not simply because one is Holy and the other is not, but because one feeds the ego and one divests itself of it. #Winning the approval of man is a game that takes the player on the wrong trajectory. The one who pleases God, is the one who aims low to become a servant of Christ - the One who became lower than any other.

Social media is based on people’s desire to be liked and more liked than their neighbor. But God doesn’t show favoritism. In Christ, we’re all brothers and sisters. This is the reality of being adopted into the family of God; being co-heirs with Christ, not only in his glory, but also in his sufferings.

This is the primary reason that we can’t please both God and man. In pleasing God we are united with his Son and are therefore going to suffer as he suffered. Many reject this spiritual reality, but suffering is the path of the believer (not necessarily continual and not sought); a path that ends in Glory.

Culturally, we attempt to gain the favor of those around us to benefit our own life (whether intrinsically or extrinsically) somehow. This makes sense logically. But scripture makes such a point of God’s action towards us, even in our sin, that when viewed as a whole, it’s hard not to feel foolish for it. God made a pact with Abraham and all his offspring that was eternal, and he put the weight of that promise on his own shoulders - not even requiring Abraham to seal the covenant on his part. Why?

Because he loves us. Because he’s not a distant dictator in the clouds. He’s an intimate, personal creator who longs to be in relationship with his creation. His desire for us far exceeds our ability to run from him. His will cannot be coerced and his plans cannot fail. He will be reunited with his people again for eternity.

If scripture is true (and the little we know about God through it accurate) then O God... help me please You and no one else!

Friday, June 26, 2015

World View

I loved watching cartoons as a child; especially Batman and X-Men. I think I saw all the episodes produced between 1990-2000. I loved the super-powered, completely believable, likely re-enactable, dispensation of justice on all the various nefarious scum that challenged the heroes. Inevitably, justice would prevail. The batman logo that shown in the night sky or the silver ‘X’ on every meticulously tailored costume; these were the symbols of justice of my childhood.

We downplay the role symbols have in our world today, but they are really inescapable. From a pragmatic view, they’ve been incorporated into the fabric of our lives and language. Yet two people speaking English in our country doesn’t guarantee understanding or consensus (certainly not peace), as we have been painfully witnessing of late. A wink can mean a variety of things from “I like you” to “I have something in my eye.” Kissy lips are an offense to most women in the states but Latin Americans kiss directions to and fro without ever thinking twice about a personal affront.

The reality is everything that we know about the world is interpreted from symbols, millions of them, when processed together, form our view of the world. This world view, or symbolic universe, is the umbrella that we live under; the lens through which we interpret life. This umbrella must be held up by supports: something that makes this objective reality plausible. Plausibility structures are like the columns supporting the arches of the Sistine Chapel, each one balancing the weight of its masterpiece.

All religions throughout history are such symbolic universes or umbrellas; each held up by their own plausibility structures. [SIDE NOTE: the term religion should be applied to any movement whereby people join together to find meaning and significance and not simply for those that seem to be altruistic or moral. Nazism was a religion. Communism is a religion. The Green Bay Packers are a religion and Bart Starr is their God (Jk….but seriously).] Those that have maintained their supports or replaced them with newer, more lightweight ones have remained standing. Those that have failed to keep the weight of their particular view balanced have come crashing down (like the Berlin wall in Soviet Russia).

An interesting example is Judaism. The reform and conservative movements in Judaism are over 100 years old, yet looking at their developmental timelines; one sees a marked shift in their belief structures and rules after WWII. It was a traumatic moment in history when nearly half the world’s population of Jews (~6 million) was exterminated. The holocaust destroyed many of the columns of their worldview. The God of Abraham had abandoned them, clearly leaving his people to fend for themselves. Left with no options (after all, you can’t just stop being Jewish, it’s a race!), their structures had to be rebuilt – redefined. Judaism (conservative and reform) scrapped the stringent adherence to the letter of the law and sought a deeper heartbeat. God became a guide for life and less of a king; the people seeking sacred times of Sabbath rest to remain Holy and continue to make right the wrongs that they may have committed. It moved from doctrine to deeds. In doing so it has redefined what is acceptable among the modern Jewish communities around the world and kept its symbolic universe from crashing down.

However, this is not just a social trait, but a human one. We do this every day. Symbolic universes are constructed in businesses, families, churches and marriages. Each being held up by the structures that make their understanding plausible. When a father loses his job, it threatens the family. When a pastor commits a heinous act, it threatens the church. When a child falls ill and dies, the marriage is in peril. These things aren’t supposed to happen, they break the lens through which one understands and attributes meaning to the world.

As the tide of the rights movement (race, women, gay+, etc) swells, several SU’s are competing for the same footing. Plausibility structures are being built on top of or grafted onto or demolishing one another. The result is many world views that have remained intact for hundreds of years are starting to groan under their own weight as the pillars of what used to be are being remade or in some cases eradicated.

Thus the imperative for a firm foundation, for building on something secure and solid, that won’t shift with the winds or the tides.

****

What’s the point of all this symbolism mumbo jumbo? Simply that its human nature to shift and to change and accommodate, to “evolve” if you will. Stasis, however, maintaining constant, that is just not in our DNA. No matter how hard we may try, we constantly move and shift.
We now live in a world where no matter what people say (or symbols they use), you have to dig to discern what they mean by those symbols.

Thus says the Lord:
5“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
    and makes flesh his strength,
    whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
    in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
8 He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
-Jeremiah 17:5-8

I love the symbolism in this passage. God chose great symbols to communicate to us. The picture is clear: tree or shrub, those are the realities. The tree has abundant life always within reach because of his deep faith in God. The shrub is desolate, dry, and fruitless.  He dwells in the wilderness because of his pride and selfishness.

I hate when I’m a shrub (too often).

But what if, no matter the circumstances, you could feel so cool, so calm and collected, peacefully knowing you’re always connected to the God of the universe who created and sustains life? Despite hate, oppression, death and disease, what if you could continue being filled with that life giving presence?

This is the reality of your world view being planted on Christ, the divine logos who, even though he is the creator, stepped down to be less than the created, so that the created could be glorified with the creator.



You’ve probably seen my kids. I love them so much because they are a blessing and of course, they’re beautiful and so much fun. But I they're not just kids to me. They’re symbols. When I look at my children, it symbolizes my commitment to my Father in heaven, who gives good gifts faithfully. They’re symbols of my commitment to Christina, the amazing partner (and wonderful mother) that God has blessed me with. They are symbols of the goodness of light in this dark world. My children remind me of how things should be, how they will be again one day. They remind me to hold fast to the only thing that doesn’t change in this world, the Rock from which I was cleft.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
and you forgot the God who gave you birth.

-Deu 32:18

Monday, May 25, 2015

Wanting to Look Back

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:62  

This verse mostly speaks to our desire to order our own steps in following Christ – tying up loose ends and the like – before we do what we’ve been called to do. I experience this on almost a daily basis as the kids wake up at 6 am. Christina will get Zeke, and Amelia will be chirping away in her room until I stumble out of bed and get her; obliging my wife’s 2nd or 3rd request. I want to do what is right, but sometimes I want to sleep a little longer first.

This is our spiritual tendency. We often want to follow God on our own terms or after we have first done what we want to do. I’ll obey your word to love like you do God, after I curse this sorry out of state driver in front of me. I’ll tithe a tenth of all I have, Lord…just after I take out xyz expenditures, savings, and retirement. We all have those areas of life where we try and make terms with God.

But this is foolishness to God. Though we live in the world, we cannot view life as the world views it. We must take into account the perspective of the One who was and is and is to come. While we like to think that God exists only to serve and protect us in our life; deep down we know this is not the whole truth. God’s invitations for us to follow his will, whether revealed in his word (general) or specific to our lives (…specific…), is always part of a larger narrative. He is always inviting us to play a role in the macro redemption of his creation; and this role is rarely – if ever – discernable. Did Abraham know he would be viewed as the father of the Israelites, adored and revered by Jews, centuries later? No, though he was old and had no children of his own, he just obeyed and left his land. Did Moses know the law would be hung on his shoulders as judge when he went over to the burning bush? Not likely, he only obeyed and took his sandals off. There are many other examples, but the point remains, nothing God asks of us is without meaningful cause. HOA clauses keep homes orderly and properties accenting one another, but God doesn’t want a bunch of good looking believers who simply look the part. He is after a body, joined together by Jesus, which accomplishes his redeeming purposes in the world.  

For me this verse has a deeper meaning.  As of this writing, my tenure as college pastor is officially over. I’m in the process of transitioning to my new role with adult small groups and have even moved offices already! The old has gone, the new has come.

I’ll be tempted to look back and think of what was and what could have been; but there is no fruit to be found in that effort. God has blessed me immensely (way more than I ever believed he would) in following his call into ministry seven years ago. While I knew that I would have the opportunity to be used by Him, I never expected how much He would (and will) change me. It is true; a call to ministry (no matter the place) is simultaneously a call to serve and a call to be sanctified. The two are inseparable.

No, not back, but forward. The horizon is where the weight of glory lies. The fruit we bear can only come by looking toward the Son. 

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;  
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,  
And ran on.

-Stephen Crane 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Prayer Problem

After 10 years really following the Lord, one thing that has become critically clear, is the need for prayer. Another is that prayer is hard to do J. A student once confessed “it’s hard to talk to someone that’s not there!” This is often the tact we take as believers when it comes to prayer. In regards to important things in life, we go to God and his word and we like to have faith, but when the daily task (and I mean task) of prayer surfaces, we look for any and all excuses to ignore it. “God already knows what I need” or “He doesn't really care” or my personal go-to, “I don’t have time today.”

Prayer is perhaps one of the most faith critical aspects of our relationship with God and just as breathing air is to our physical life, prayer is to be as reflexive spiritually – reflexive, but not mindless. God, for some reason, is passionate about our prayer life. When Jesus cleared the temple of the merchants, overturning their tables, he said “my father’s house is a house of prayer.” Pray without ceasing. Pray authentically. Pray by the spirit. The commandments are clear, but the nagging doubt still remains.

When I’m feeling like a failure of a husband, pastor, father, or friend; when I am exhausted and anxious…I can almost always point to the lack of prayer in my life. Something about prayer requires more faith than trusting in His macro plan…the posture of the heart is yielded in submission…a daily offering of all we have. It is more difficult to display a sincere humility on a daily basis than a public profession of God’s sovereignty.

As alien as it is to me, a couple notions have recently changed my perception of prayer entirely. 
1) Jesus prayed and still prays for us. He prayed for us in the garden in Jn 17 thousands of years ago, he prayed for peter before his denial (Lk 22:31), and he intercedes on our behalf even now at the right hand of the father (Heb 7:35, Rm 8:34).

If Jesus prayed (and prays still…to himself) for us, how much more should we pray to him?

2) Our prayers are an aroma to God. Is it possible that our prayers are picked up less by the ear and more by the nose? Rev 8:3 speaks the fact that our prayers are the aroma of God’s throne room. If God already knows our hearts and minds and what we need, perhaps he doesn't want to hear our prayers, so much as he wants to experience them. An all-powerful creator wants to be in relationship with his creation so much that he dies on the cross for them to be made holy and make a way for them. It’s possible, that to God, our prayers are like one more sensory experience of being worshiped. The Father waits patiently for his children to come to him…in joy, in grief, in fear, or in love. What is more precious to a father than the voices of his children?

Prayer is a powerful thing. It is the drawing of daily grace. As Oswald Chambers wrote:
“Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God. Don’t say, “I will endure this until I can get away and pray.” Pray now — draw on the grace of God in your moment of need. Prayer is the most normal and useful thing; it is not simply a reflex action of your devotion to God. We are very slow to learn to draw on God’s grace through prayer.”

Not once these last 10 years, have I not experienced the “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” when I've truly gone to Him with my worries and concerns. I don’t do it enough; I often rely on my own power much too long. Sometimes it’s hard to be still and genuinely silence my heart or mind with the worries and stresses of the day. Sometimes I forget to thank God for his provision (whether physical or spiritual).

But God wants a broken and contrite spirit; he wants me to bow my heart before him each and every day. In this he is well pleased.


Prayer is precious to God, so much so he keeps the pantry of heaven stocked full of it. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nicaragua

I love taking people to Nicaragua. It's a beautiful country with charming people...and a week there is worth a year at home. When you get people out of their comfort zones, away from the conveniences of their lives and the immediacy of our culture, that is when people begin to listen. I heard someone say, "the Christian life is, at its core, is nothing more than listening to God and then doing what he says." I've found that to be true and in Nicaragua, I try to capitalize.

We had a small team this year, eight in all (including me). Four students from W&M and a few different Chapel connections. It simply amazes me to watch what happens when strangers from totally different backgrounds come together in the same environment, unite with a common mission, and focus on others for a week. Always good things.

We studied Moses' encounter with God on the mountain with the burning bush as the lens through which the trip would take shape. Even though Moses had run away from God, killing a man in cold blood, God drew him to himself with the bush that was on fire but would not burn. Moses means "drawn" in Hebrew.

God draws us all to himself, many times throughout our lives. Sometimes we wander from his provision and care, only to be searched for and found, and drawn again.

In Nicaragua, there is a blessedness to the week. We spend a lot of time with people who have nothing of material value, yet they have so much more than we spiritually. They prize every day interactions because their relationships with friends and family are where their hearts are.

Spending time with them, being accepted by them, and for many on our trip, loved by them; we are given a new understanding of living that is counter to our deeply ingrained western conceptions. In Nicaragua, the myth's of me and more are not so palpable. People aren't bombarded with the lie that everything is about them and they need more (stuff, money, pleasure, influence) to be happy. They live life one day at a time, because tomorrow has enough worries of its own.

We closed our trip looking at God's work through the exodus. The mighty hand of God performed many works and miracles to display his power to the Egyptians, but God hardened Pharaohs heart. For God, it would require a sacrifice of great value to free his people, the death of the firstborn and the blood of the Lamb. Listen to God's words to Pharaoh...

Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” - Ex 4:22-23

There is no mistaking it, God wanted his son Israel to be freed from the slavery of Egypt, and he wasn't joking. Its no coincidence that this narrative is repeated, perfected, and completed through Christ today.

The world is Egpyt, and we are Israel (after all Israel means "one who wrestles with God"), and God freed us with the blood of a perfect and spotless lamb - and most importantly - the death of his firstborn son. He made this way for us, so we too could be freed from the captivity of sin and darkness that reigns so abundantly today. Freed for what? Freed so we could truly, rightly, and forever worship Him.