Walking the Life of Faith: A Humble Corrective to the Success Paradigm of American Christianity and Ministry from the Pauline Playbook of Suffering and Failure- Part II

Well if you are still sticking around today to read this blog, either as I mentioned yesterday you are just a sucker for punishment, you can’t resist seeing a man bathe mercilessly in his misery, or perhaps, just perhaps, you’re reading because I’ve got something to say that might be good for us all to hear. I’ll hope for the latter but continue on we must.

We’ve evaluated the world, but more specifically America, and our take on winning and success and how it is deep-rooted in our psyche about what it is to have the good life, how we evaluate others as to whether they are having the good life or not, and that which drives us like the energizer bunny to always be a smashing success until death do us part. In America as well, no one wants to hear the bad news unless there is some good news lurking around the news corner. We’ve been trained in this till it has almost become innate, and we will only tolerate bearers of any type of news; be it political, religious, in regards to health or what have you, if there is of course a happy ending to be achieved around the bend. We also mentioned how this slippery slope of who we are as winners has slipped in by stealth into our view of how we do Christian ministry, and worse yet, how we view our own Christian lives in terms of whether we are doing good or bad spiritually. My brief thesis has been that this view taints our faith in such a way that we miss a great deal of what is to learn from failure and suffering continually in our lives from the playbook of New Testament, or for the purpose of this blog post, by looking at Pauline suffering and failure. To make myself feel better and perhaps you as well, I mentioned my abysmal failure in ministry and lack of consistent “happy trails” and success in my own existence. I did this as a much needed backdrop to introduce a humble corrective to the current success paradigm of American Christianity and ministry that I believe we sidestep to our spiritual impairment at best, and lack of finishing well or at all at its very worst. Also, like Paul, I am the chief of sinners and the ringleader of sidestepping lots of things spiritually, and thus feel very qualified to help souls taken in by this very faulty worldview that I believe leaves fatalities all around us.

Now before I move along, let me just say that everyone wants some good news every now and then. It certainly is not wrong to want that and of course it is very human as well. You kick a dog long enough and sooner or later he no longer wants to come out and play! Humans can only take so much before they crack and break. Having said that, I am not saying that preaching good news is bad, nor am I trying to teach Christians who should already know better that in this life we will suffer, and if you add your Christian faith to it, you “should” at least be experiencing some what more than the next guy–even within seasons of goodness, peace and plenty to balance out the seasons of little. What I am trying to do however, it get us to understand that though we oftentimes don’t realize it, we are evaluating whether or not God likes us, is working in our lives, and is pleased with us by whether or not we are financially successful, have great spouses, great kids, or plenty of this and plenty of that. As a result, a vast majority of people on the right path spiritually have come to evaluate their ministry or themselves through the lens of big mega church’s, rich and fat white people that make up those churches, and the media and the world around them based on whether or not they have been able to achieve the same great results everyone else has. In addition, this leads into a faulty theology that causes them to not have the ability to have joy and peace in their unpredictability, suffering, pain or seasons of famine. As a result, not only do people leave the fold of Christianity, but they often times project a false sense of failure in their Christian lives onto others who no longer give Christianity a second look. They do this because they surmise that if being a Christian can’t survive topsy-turvy and erratic lives such as their own, then there is no sense of them even trying. In fact, they like us, already assume God must hate them as well because of their unsuccessful lives, and so eating, drinking and being merry seems to make a whole lot more sense! I for one have experienced what it’s like to have everything going my way, seemingly on a fast track to endlessly more of these experiences, only to then find shortly around the corner that my close friend instability was just on a brief vacation and promises to be home very soon! And after all the people, including and now especially Christians, who will tell you that the victorious Christian life will be yours if you just follow their success playbook and make the right choices, good theologians of the cross know that there is always a Golgotha of some sort to prepare for at various and oftentimes continuous seasons throughout our lives, both for God’s glory and for no apparent reason at all.  Having said that, we would do well to be more prepared for it!  In essence, we have built a Christianity with a success paradigm within it that most of the riff-raff like me can’t measure up to and perhaps never will. And while successful Christians bask in being on the other side of our failure, the world by and large continues to realize that if that is what Christianity is then it clearly does not work!

Our case in point is the Apostle Paul. Most Christians and Christian ministers tout Paul as their hero and indeed he should be. For as we read about Paul looking backward, we see a man of great success and one who planted churches all over the then known world, penned out a theology and prose that still mesmerize both Christians and pagans alike and who wrote the majority of the New Testament. Church planters as well adore him. They hold him and the book of Acts up as their model for their own success in building churches and assure us that if Paul were alive today he would wear jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, have an IPAD and secure a sexy building and a great rocking worship band before anything else. The church growth movement from the 70’s stemming primarily from the thoughts and words of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner certainly have had their place in this collective credence, yet the overall success paradigm of Americans adds fuel to the fire and perhaps causes us to forget how Paul and others actually viewed him before he was anybody’s hero.

For instance if we look at the book of Acts alone, the historical narrative of the early church, we see Paul questioned, thrown into court, beaten, stoned, whipped, misunderstood, abandoned, shipwrecked, escaping out of windows and having years of unfruitfulness figuring out who he was as a minister of the gospel. Even the churches that Paul built were at best house churches that would not come near to rivaling the mega churches of today by a long shot, and even the more notable ones he did plant; the word success would not be what would accurately describe them. In addition, it was an early doctrine taught in the early church as a regular Sunday school class that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul would know this all too well as he would be told upon his conversion on the Damascus road that he would suffer much for the Kingdom of God that he would preach about to others. That of course was an understatement as Paul would mention almost as a badge of honor to the Corinthians, who are the most akin to the American church and who gave him the most grief in his life of ministry. He says to them in II Corinthians 11:16-33 where he writes:

I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would 1but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!  But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, 2in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for pall the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?  30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, the who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (ESV)

 

Notice here that Paul boasts about what the Corinthians (and us as Americans) would see as contemptible, and perhaps a sign of raving “non-success”! Paul in fact tells them that though they boast according to their fleshly accomplishments, he will boast about what their flesh would consider foolish. Now to be sure Paul was a missionary in the infancy of the church in a Roman society that did not take kindly to anything that would not allow both Caesar and Jesus to sit on the throne and thus persecuted them accordingly. However, throughout his life with the Corinthians (Read 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians) he constantly battles their view of him in line with better orators such as Apollos, who was more in line with the Greek orators of their day. They also evaluated how he looked and acted, and more importantly saw his weakness and persecutions as a sign that he was not successful at all, but rather somewhat of a failure.   He would vehemently remind them of this and how their view on what Christianity should actually be characterized by was faulty quite famously in I Cor. 4:8-17 where he writes:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.  I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (ESV)

 

Here he clearly reminds them that what they think is good and the norm for the Christian such as riches, power, a life of ease, worldly wisdom and the like are not the example of what it should mean oftentimes in our walk of faith, nor what we should be evaluated by or evaluate others by if we are to truly represent what it means to be a Christian in this world.

 

And though we don’t have enough time to go through the New Testament and see case after case of things we should already know, we need to look at just a few more. We need to do as little more icing on my thesis cake to further stress that suffering and many times what the world sees as failure are those very things that should actually be some cause of spiritual joy, and the realization that we are heading in the right direction with our faith, and not proof that we suck as a Christian! The few cases in point that I will leave you with are found in several passages in 2 Timothy where Paul writes to Timothy, encouraging him to embrace suffering (II Tim. 1:8), to not give up and lose heart (1:6), but rather to keep the faith (1:12-14).   This is also at a time that most commentators believe Paul was about to die, or at least knew it was not far in the distance (II Tim. 4:7, 8). Yet even as he encourages young Timothy (II. Tim. 4:5) and the church that sufferings are the norm in the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:12). we can see signs of Paul’s own discouragement of his walk of faith and the rejection by people he depended on time and time again, and what we can expect as the church continues to marry the spirit of the age (II Tim. 1:15; 3:1-9; 13,14; 4:1-6; 9; 14-18).

In conclusion today, as I have been thinking about these things again and again I’m taken aback about how I constantly fall into this subtle success trap and ignore the clear teaching from the Holy scriptures–that though we see the journey as a means to an end, God sees the journey often times as the end! In other words, what he is doing in the lives of the church and his people is more about the holiness, however feebly, he wants to extract from our lives for his greater purposes than about a long pedigree or resume that even the world stands up and takes notice of, mesmerized by our accomplishments and success. Though God does raise up trophies of his grace that do accomplish great things both in the eyes of the Kingdom of God and the world many times, more often than not, the rest of us are to be fools for Christ much like the apostle Paul–recognizing that the foolish things of the world really will confound the wise one day (I Cor. 1:26-29). The temptation to continue to evaluate ourselves by the success paradigm both in Christian ministry and our lives as Christians is an epidemic that is quite frankly killing the church! And the truth is, it’s not just the obvious impairment of the “Prosperity Gospel” that is killing us, though it is that to be sure–yet it’s the very subtle success paradigm that always looks to find the silver lining in what is happening in our lives when often times as of yet there isn’t any to be found. It is that which is killing the church and which is resulting in landmines of dismembered casualties all around us. No one wants to talk about longing for our eternal home because we are still so enamored with life here believing this is all there is. Yet what happens when we’re not so sexy anymore? What happens when we no longer have money in our bank accounts, we lose our secure jobs, the dog bites us, the kids no longer stop by, the bones fail, or the spouse is otherwise preoccupied; and the only thing we have left this side of heaven to sink our teeth into is the joy of knowing Christ–that for which Paul said he suffered the loss of all things and considered it rubbish compared to knowing him (Phil. 3:7-11)?

Selah

 

 

 

Walking the Life of Faith: A Humble Corrective to the Success Paradigm of American Christianity and Ministry from the Pauline Playbook of Suffering and Failure- Part I

I’ve been pondering a lot lately about what it means to live a life of faith. In my last blog post I sort of introduced that thought in saying that I believe that living a life of faith has to mean more than what we currently see of the average American Christian; including and “especially” myself. I mentioned this in so many words, piggybacking on the concept of what it means to live life “on the back 9” in response to the rite of passage of me becoming the big “50” last week. Although perhaps my title proposed to solve what that means, yet to be sure it really only posed other questions rather than clear-cut answers, and this continuation of that deliberation will surely be no different in that regard. In fact, not only do we not have enough time for serious exposition and commentary of this important and lofty idea of what it means to life the life of faith in an American context for a blog post, but quite frankly, answering the questions oneself on our individual journeys with the Master is more important than any prescribed “5 steps to living a life of faith” that I could prescribe, or that many of us increasingly fall for. The reality is sometimes the devil is in the details, and the details for all of us in living actual lives of faith is often times in feebly strapping a hold and going along for the ride that the Spirit will take us that will be many times very much “unlike” our brothers and sisters that surround us. As the purpose of my post will be to suggest, the success paradigm of who we are as Americans culturally, and what has conversely been projected onto American Christianity and ministry, I believe is to err greatly as to what “real” faith and victory in the Kingdom of God really is! In fact, out the outset, I would submit that oftentimes the word “success” is the fly in the ointment if we are to understand all that Jesus wants us to know about following him on the narrow path.

 

As I mentioned, these reflections have invaded my thoughts and dreams lately and has caused no shortage of tossing and turning into sleepless nights, only to rise to the reality that this life of genuine faith I ruminate about is the very thing that escapes my own grasp as a Christian. Though I might propose as a protection mechanism to talk about many ways in which I have portrayed a life faith, the fact is that of late I’m amazed at how much I talk about this life of faith, yet fail just about every test thus proving that my exhaustive reading of the class notes has not effected what it is to actually look like in my own life. This is especially true in terms of how I react to the reality that is my life, which is to be oftentimes more cruciform than successful, if I am to live the life of a Christian in some way close to a New Testament definition.

 

For instance, just two years ago I came off of about a 6-year extremely difficult financial tsunami that I truly thought would never end. And of course for Christians in America, finances are the primary form of suffering that we believe are a result of everything from simply sucking as a human, to not working hard enough, having enough education or ingenuity, or from flat out disobedience to God himself who surely helps those who help themselves! This concept is ingrained in us to the bloody core to the point that very rarely can we see any value in our brief or even extenuated moments of poverty and failure. From everything from securing a steady and lucrative job, thriving in our own business venture, having a smoking-hot marriage or relationship, to having very compliant and equally successful children and ongoing progeny, or to our evaluation of our life as a whole; it all stems from a success paradigm that indeed “is” who we are as Americans. And quite frankly, to be a loser is the epitome of a very “non-American” thing to do from who we are as a people, a nation and how we look to the rest of the world. This of course affects us politically as to whether we are on the right or the left or simply a messed up version of both. It affects us physically in how ourselves and others evaluate our value as being worthy of a second glance as we walk down the street, or as a derogatory reminder that we need to work out more, eat less and take fat-sucking pills that give us the six-pack abs that will be the envy of the beach the next summer season. In fact, everything that occupies our day from the time our feet hit the ground and the first cup of coffee that hits our lips, to the time our weary bodies hit the longed for bed is consumed with being a winner. We’re frenzied with being successful, having more money than the month, multiple streams of income, successful lives, successful ventures, leisure by the sea; and as echoed in our story books, life lived “happily ever after”–and oh by the way…very, very successful! Of course I’ve really just only touched the surface as to what success and winning means to us as Americans and the human race perhaps, but the real focus of my talk today is how that very same romanticism has indeed hijacked the church and Christian ministry, and likewise how it has wrongly defined what it means to be people of faith.    

 

But before I deal with that issue, by way of reintroduction, let me first get back to my non-success story. As I said earlier, I came off of a 6-year financial tsunami that I truly thought I would never recover from. I then was fortunate enough to have a couple of really good years that miraculously at least got me back on the food chain somewhere equal to perhaps whale poop! Nonetheless, after literally losing everything that my American peers would equate to a successful life, in the last two years I was at least able to recover my home (perhaps a curse more than a blessing), and get out from under the overwhelming sense of not being able to breathe that only most poor people know anything about. Fast forward to today at 50, though I am still employed I am starting all over with no savings, in a new and perhaps chaotic job, an insecure career, college-age children who still have needs, the natural cycle of degenerative bodies and no longer being “the man”, life-altering decisions demanding to be made correctly on the horizon; and a plethora of other things that have effected my sleep quite regularly lately. Though positively I do have a pretty good resume, the benefit of having secured a great education, a beautiful wife and family behind me sink or swim; as well as the prospect of another day to make things better, the truth is–I’m not getting any younger or better looking! In addition, I’m getting somewhat weary of chasing the American dream but don’t seem to have any choice as to whether I should chase it or not. I have also given quite frankly till it hurts, as those who know me can attest to, and essentially at 50 I’m going nowhere pretty fast if you evaluate it by American standards.

 

Oh and one more thing, I haven’t been successful in ministry either. The truth is though I’ve always prided myself as being a great orator and speaker in the pulpit of Christian ministry, you wouldn’t’ know it by those knocking down my doors to invite me to lead them in the ways of God anytime soon. And to be sure it’s partly my fault. I have always been a rebel with a cause and the cause that has taken precedence as far as Christian ministry has put me as a mini Martin Luther with no Prince Frederick the III of Saxony to keep the fires from burning me at the ecclesiastical stake. The result has led me to being somewhat ecumenical as well as an evangelical critic inside the bible belt of the South with no country (denomination) to give me roots and Christian ministry job security–a path I admittedly chose as my own. And though I’ve tried to get back in Christian ministry quite frankly with no real agenda other than to serve and utilize my gifts and get people to think about all the reform needed within American Christianity, I typically have not won many battles, secured many raving fans nor have been very “successful” in ministry at all. In fact the only two full-time churches I pastored throughout my career resulted in them asking me to leave and me leaving of my own accord and Ichabod being figuratively written on the church doors with well meaning Christian pillars reminding me that at the end of the day it was probably all my fault. To add to that, I dreamt of planting a church for years, yet due to my early career stance of trying to keep a secure Christian job (which I sucked at) I bypassed that dream, and yet just a year ago decided to take the “you can do it” plunge. The result so far: you guessed it—abysmal failure by even American Christian standards.

 

Now I am surrounded and know of many Christian ministry comrades who have been “successful” and my hat is off to them. In fact in America there is no argument like success. And as a result, those comrades might even be the ones that would tell you that perhaps I’m writing about this today because I have an axe to grind, or perhaps this is a mere process of catharsis to make me feel better about my ministry disasters. Perhaps they would say it’s a way to get my point across and get people to take notice, or merely a sign of my unwillingness to submit to the church and recant of my rebellious ways so help me God! The truth is however, after some sort of all of those things perhaps being true to some degree at various points in the past, I write this more out of sadness than anger, and as an honest way to understand my own flirtation with the success paradigm and it’s daily grip on how I evaluate my success as a Christian against the roaring crowd of successful naysayers who tell me the proof is in the results whether it be life or ministry. And consequently, if that is the case, then you should disregard anything I’m about to say and pick up the latest “Six steps to this” or “7 habits to that” available anywhere you desire to look at Christian bookstores everywhere. Or, if you are a brave soul and perhaps a sucker for punishment, or just plain curious to know whether or not I know anything of which I speak that could be of some help on your Christian journey then indeed stick along for the ride. I’ll conclude my thoughts tomorrow with Part II.

 

Selah

 

Living on the “Back 9”: What Should Life After 50 Mean for the American Christian?

I have never have really been into the sport of golf. To say that is all too obvious to those who know me well. In fact, once as a pastor long, long ago I had one of my parishioners give me a set of Big Bertha clubs that I later gave away without batting an eye. I guess I really didn’t see the significance of those clubs, nor how in the world I could ever become a guy who spent his leisure moments swatting away at those balls on a plush green course, or of having golf-sized dreams of that great retirement golf course in the sky awaiting me in the not too far distance. In fact, I guess I kind of have a George Carlin take on the sport of golf (Google it). For my good golfer friends of mine, please don’t take offense to that once you do Google itJ Nonetheless, in a nutshell, I guess it goes without saying that not everyone has come to appreciate the sport the way men and women the world over seem to do and that especially includes me. I must say however that though I have not come to make golf something that I enjoy playing or watching, or devoting any of my time to, I do appreciate one particular phrase that comes from the game of golf. The phrase is called “The Back 9”; and of course quite simply to the golf enthusiast–it is the last 9 holes of an 18-hole game of golf.

Interestingly, I have actually used this phrase quite a bit in the last year in anticipation (or perhaps in consternation) about turning the big 50! In fact, I’ve thought about it quite a lot as I awaited that big day that happened just last week, and specifically I have used it when talking to people and getting both them and I to think about what “living on the back 9” should mean for us all. Typically when I do that I often get a blank stare, the “deer in the headlights” look, or a disinterested and “Oh gee I’ve run out of time” smile as they either move along or hurriedly bid me to move to a topic of greater interest and value. I will have to say nonetheless that I increasingly find this greatly disturbing to note that not many of those close to age 50 or beyond give much thought to this phrase and what it means, or what it should mean to them anymore. This troubles me a bit, echoing the obvious reality that we live in a society seemingly still enamored with the illusive and very deceptive American dream (or nightmare). I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Oh yeah I almost forgot. My 50th birthday party was a lot of fun I must say. I had much too much to eat, way too much wine and Grand Marnier; and yet the time spent with family and friends was priceless and indeed very tender. It is of course that of which I believe as people, yet even more so as Christian people, we should allow to get us to begin thinking a lot more about our “back 9”, which I believe should cause us to ponder a great deal more about how we should finish this game of life of which we are apart.

But getting back to the American dream. Most of us in America, and I would dare say all of us, have to some degree been touched by this pervasive worldview and have spent no shortage of time from the cradle to the grave being told we must have it and must figure out how we are to get a piece of it. It has become to us the sole quest in life—that of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is of course the American tag line or slogan of sorts. A slogan that has come to mean in some sort of way a life of ease, with an abundance of things and power that make life just a wee bit easier–so we think. In fact, both rich and poor alike are affected by it either positively or negatively, and I would suggest whether you are rich or poor both of those experiences await us without prejudice should we live long enough and are fortunate enough to learn from it.

For instance, since I have had the great privilege (or curse) of making some money in this life—and losing it, that the obsession with money is a fair-weather friend at best and a robber of precious lives at worst. Money indeed comes and goes with the wind and does not deliver near what it promises. In fact, most who have made some money, or who far beyond me would even call themselves rich by the American standard are so preoccupied with money, that from the time of our initial quest for it and on to the accumulation of more and more it tends to both consume and possess us albeit by stealth. Like the ring of power, money desires “my precious” to have us in it’s clutches for the major part of our existence in this American life. In fact, from the time we acquire it most of our time is then spent either on how to make more (multiple streams of income), or wrestling over how we can keep it.

The poor of course are no less affected by this fruitless expedition. In fact, the poor wish for the same things the rich do. Though the more political of us might be tempted to say that perhaps they don’t want it bad enough (which is why they are poor), or are not willing to work as hard as the next guy for it, the more enlightened and objective of us realize that it’s not always that simple. The truth is that American capitalistic systems that are in place gives many of us the opportunity to achieve truly great things “beyond our raising”, yet the truth correspondingly is that no matter how hard many try–geography, family, education, circumstances and things beyond our control will always keep the realization of it “a day late and a dollar short” to many. In light of that, the poor struggle for the “pot of gold” through pulling up their own bootstraps not unlike the rich, or notwithstanding in a last desperation of a winning lottery ticket, falsely clinging on to the belief, much like the rich, that if they can but obtain it just once then the American dream will finally be theirs for the taking.   And though I have found money to be useful in terms of having more choices and on a surface level making life and my family’s life a little enhanced and more care-free. and that which has enabled me to help a lot of people, it’s constant hold on us is doing something I’m afraid that is a dire impediment to the life of faith in Jesus Christ. It is that to which I want to briefly spend the rest of our time together today unpacking.

For instance, let’s look at the word “faith”. It is of course that of which we are initially indeed “saved” by (Eph. 2:8,9), that of which is the hallmark of Christian’s ongoing walk with Christ (Col. 2:6,7), and that which will keep us unstained from the world and bring us safely home when all is said and done (I John 5:4). Those who claim the name of Christ in any sort of even half-devoted fashion know this, and it is indeed elementary in their thinking from the very first days of embracing Christ as the reason of their existence and overall purpose and focus in life. The troubling part at least for me is what does my faith mean outside of that applied to my everyday life and decision making for everyone, but particularly now that I am walking down the course and picking up the right club for completion of my own “back 9”?

To be more pointed and for our thoughtful reflection here, the scriptures tell us also that faith “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The write of Hebrews takes it even a step further in Heb. 11:6 when he says that without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”. So then, when we look at faith by this definition, especially while walking the back 9 of life, what does it mean for us now? To be honest, the American dream paints the picture somewhat like this: you make a lot of money, put your kids through college, buy your dream home and maybe a vacation home to boot, retire at 65 or much sooner, and then recline in a life of comfort and security doing the things we’ve always wanted to do. And even though we know that after these things the reality of death lurks around the corner, we somehow don’t spend near as much time meditating on that reality; and many quite sadly, even the elderly among us, are still oblivious to the fact that their final destiny awaits where they will carry none of these things with them. Nor will we carry the friends, family and loved ones we’ve spent a great deal of time with and lived for with us to our destination. We come into this world alone and we will check out just the same until our rendezvous with the creator on the other side. Yet many who do at least think from time to time of living in light of enjoying a 50th birthday party with friends and family I mentioned earlier and savoring various times throughout life such as these, still seem to only scratch the surface as to the significance of their brief stint here and what it is to suggest for how they live their lives until their mortal body is merely food for worms!

For those who bypass the life of God in Christ but who do think about life on the “back 9” and what it is to mean to them and others in terms of the epitaph they wish to write in advance, other also very important things occupy their thoughts—things in fact that should also engage the thoughts of Christians as well. Things such as “making a difference”, “giving back” or becoming great philanthropists of worthy causes with our name, labor and money attached to them We do this in Achilles like passion, thus ensuring that everyone will remember our name. I’ve been giving these and many other things a lot of thought actually for some time now after being broken quite significantly in my own illusive quest of my piece of the American dream and to find some meaning in this madness of this American life. To say it is constantly in my thoughts is an understatement. The “back 9” has now come “front and center” as I am now officially “over the Hill” and that reality is the sobering thought that I truly wish to drive me in my remaining 9 holes of this life that I’ve been given for but a transitory moment. I wish to play it and I wish to play it well, yet I wish to do so in a much more ambitious stab at life-defining faith that looks a lot more like Jesus, and good bit less than what Christian faith hijacked by American values and culture has increasingly come to mean.

For instance, how do we live lives of faith that take into consideration some of the realities that are a part of this American life on the back 9 (security, retirement, and a nest egg that might last as long as we do) juxtaposed between what it means to live a life of faith that smells a lot more like Jesus than most of our friends, family and Christian brethren would tell us? To answer that question is something I’m just beginning to attempt to do, so for those perhaps looking for some glimpse of an answer from this cracked up American life, you may still come up with more questions than answers and the proverbial short end of the stick. Nonetheless, in conclusion, I hope to leave you something worthy of your consideration and with at least a more worthy “back 9” step in the right direction if you are also one who perhaps calls themselves Christians inside of the ever increasing insanity that is this American dream life.

It should be no great secret that throughout the scriptures, those who are marked as having tremendous faith did great and mighty things as a result–and most of them had broken halos just like the lot of us. If for instance we look at people such has Abraham, Noah and Moses highlighted in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament in Hebrews 11, we should at least notice something about them that is drastically different than our own. In fact, if we just stop with these three characters we see that Abraham took off not even knowing where he was going, gave the best of the available property and goods to his nephew lot, and was one who was willing to sacrifice his only son because of the faith he had in a God that had promised him that his son would one day be an heir to multitudes as numerous as the sand in the seashore. When I think of Abraham’s faith, I feel as if I’m simply in the middle of some Charlton Heston movie, where he plays Abraham this time instead of Moses and it is so entertaining, so real and yet I’m awfully glad when the curtain closes and I’m back to the real world where only “practical” faith rooted in the things we can see, feel and touch is required of me. I concede to the very relieving notion that Abraham was a superhero and I’m not, and well…that settles it. Meanwhile I make sure I know exactly where I’m going before I do anything for God, certainly could justify keeping the best for myself for my families sake of course, and the thought of giving up my only son is chalked up as a mere O.T. example and not something I will ever be confronted with or asked to wrestle with in anyway. And as for Noah, who built an enormous boat and preached repentance telling people it was going to rain when as of yet it never had, I wrestle with whether or not I could do the same. Or to break it down to where I live and perhaps you as well, in my everyday life I think about how often I fail at merely standing up for what I do believe passionately and authentically in a world that increasingly looks at all Christians as weird Noah’s and are those who have resigned to the response that there truly is no sign that God is on His way at all (II Pet. 3:4-7). And as far as Moses is concerned, one we are told was the greatest among God’s prophets; I can’t even live in the same neighborhood. He would have to ante up big bucks just to mail me a postcard! And furthermore, his exploits and profound faith in God that led him to say no to the pleasures of sin for a season and rather suffer with the people of God is a theology class I continually take and can never seem to get a consistent passing grade. I resign to myself, if this is the faith we are to have, even mustard-seed faith in a big God, why are so few of us any closer to it and doesn’t it matter profoundly if we do not?

Of course if we then move on to the New Testament, and for the purpose of a much shorter blog skip the rest of the Old Testament giants of the faith, we have the historical record of 11 of the original 12 apostles who died for the faith– the 12th of which (John) was exiled to a remote island and then died as an old feeble man in Ephesus. And of course as if that wasn’t enough, we then we have scriptures that almost sound foreign to my American ears in terms of their weight and viability to me. We are told for instance to seek first the Kingdom and all the things on earth we need will be a given (Matthew 6:33). We are bid to store up treasures in heaven rather than the preoccupation with 401K’s, Roth IRA’s and family estates here, and his suggestion to the richest of the bunch was to give it all away, give it to the poor and then follow him (Matt. 18:16-22). A thought most of us would just as soon control, alt and delete! We are also told to take no thought as to what we are going to eat, wear or what kind of house we’ll live in because God knows we need them and has got it all covered (Matthew 6: 25-32). We are also told by Jesus that a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15), that faith moves mountains (Matt. 17:20), the things that are unseen are eternal while the things we see are merely temporal (2 Cor. 4:18), and that the fervent prayers of faith by righteous men can do amazing things (James 5:14-18). These of course are just mere drops in an exhaustive scriptural bucket that repeatedly challenges God’s people to live lives of radical faith in whatever time they have been called upon to live in.

And then here we are, both you and I. Have you looked around lately, and have you noticed that the western world is not paying people of faith much attention anymore and really neither are we paying attention to the fact that we are most of the time impostors of people of faith for people to behold? I mean do we at least some times wonder why as we sip latte’s on Sunday mornings in our faded jeans listening to a rather predictable and irrelevant show that we walk out the door and continue to live lives of Christian mediocrity that effects no one including ourselves? And is it just me, or do you not wonder why there is such a detachment from the way we are called to live and the way we actually do? Are you and I really surprised then at the mass exodus of our own sons and daughters from authentic faith who really have lived through our Christian B movie reel (yawn) and wonder what all the fuss really is all about?

Well I said at the outset that I wouldn’t solve this dilemma. In fact, I’m sure I just exacerbated the issue that has already been debated for far too long and not an awful lot done about it at least in my neck of the woods. It makes for good reading though and it will get some Amens and hallelujahs and perhaps cause us to put an extra percent or two in the offering plate on Sunday or $20.00 to digest what we already knew at the local Christian bookstore. I must say however that I’m increasingly becoming not only unsatisfied with those around me’s numbness to it, but more importantly I’m becomingly increasingly nauseated at my own unresponsiveness. Somehow I know living on the “back 9” means me living a life of faith that is comprised of risks, off of primrose paths, with some sort of a cross to carry and learning how to live with little and plenty perhaps over and over in the same lifetime. In addition, I believe it must cause you and I to question everything that we hold as our holy grail in life when it comes to the acquiring and keeping of the home, the white picket fence, college education for the kids and a good comfortable job or career, living happily ever after and substituting living spiritually for merely buying Christian trinkets that give mostly just ourselves the illusion that we actually are Christians following on the narrow path. The truth is, I’m all for a “back 9” church full of losers just like me who know something is rotten in Denmark and in their own lives when it comes to their lack faith in Christ, and who know they must do something about it at this final hour. For sure I’m all for one, it’s just that I honestly don’t really know where to begin looking, and like Bono, I’ve become somewhat cynical that I’ll ever find what I’m looking for.

Selah

Defenders of the Truth or Blocking People From the Truth?: A Kind Rebuttal to the Self-Proclaimed Judges of Robin Williams Suicide

In recent days I’ve had the misfortune of reading various posts from well-meaning evangelicals asserting their theological stance on the “right or wrongness” of the beloved Robin Williams suicide and his resultant place in eternity.  It seems that in a world where everyone has a voice regardless of their credentials–as fate would have it, the well-intentioned and self-proclaimed theologians and evangelists feel it is their duty as defenders of the truth to let the world know the obvious and not so obvious.  

 The obvious to the Christian inside of the cocoon of Christianity is that, as we must believe, those without Christ–according to Christ himself and the whole of Christian scripture, do not give reassurance as to our eternal destination.  That I’m afraid we have to believe, albeit humbly (Christians take note), if we are to be true to the very “few” essentials we must believe in order to be in line with Historic Orthodox Christianity.  That mind you is only obvious to those of us within the circle of Christianity, which is a point not to be taken too lightly.  In other words, it is “not” a point that the world outside of Christian circles is supposed to understand, nor will they ever until the veil of darkness has been lifted from their eyes (2 Cor. 4:4).  This of course is not in our wheelhouse of magic tricks to pull off with sleight of word-smithing hand.  Though Christian preaching (the right kind) can be of some help in lifting the veil, the scripture is very clear throughout that it is God himself who does the veil lifting (John 6:44).  And though we would possibly be prone to think as mere byproducts of the dogmatism we hear expounded from many pulpits week to week that our stance with the world and the spiritually weak inside the walls of buildings we call the church should be to uphold the truth at all costs, I fear we are missing the point of truth’s place and intention in the entirety of the New Testament canon. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

But now let’s briefly talk about the “not so obvious”. The not so obvious part of the message of those well-intentioned defenders of the truth dragons is that mental-illness, unless it has happened to you or has gripped your family in all too familiar and haunting ways, is a reality of which lies in the mysterious realm. Brilliant spiritual masters of the Christian faith have long known and rested in this mysteriousness of not knowing all there is to know about God (Deut. 29:29;Isa. 55:9). However, the unfortunate part is that most inside of one particular branch of historic orthodox Christianity (evangelicals) seem to never be content with this one aspect called mystery that is equally an attribute of the God that we love and worship. As a result of holding this mystery in tension with other truths, the scriptures that they think are a manual of word for word instruction on every aspect of their lives and those they would “keep in line” rather than a guiding light for understanding the ways, movements and rhythms of the Spirit of God rightly applied to their own individual lives indeed miss the forest for the trees.

The second thing to note is that no one really knows where Robin Williams stance was on faith issues or whether he was a believer or not. No one for instance truly knows if he was a man of faith simply because of what he did or did not say in the public eye. Though we are to be “fruit-inspectors” that does not mean we blabber about with all we have inspected about someone we don’t even know or those we do know for that matter. In fact, it stands to reason that we will be very busy just inspecting the “lack” of fruit in our own spiritual mirror thus not giving us near enough time to inspect others!  Furthermore, this man who once compared Catholicism to Episcopalianism as Christianity with “half the guilt” (very funny quite frankly) perhaps had something to say to us in that statement we continually miss.

First of all, that statement says to me that he knew something of what he was speaking of experientially and thus negatively perhaps. As a result, secondly and more importantly, the fact that the good news of Jesus Christ, the thought (grace) that changed the world (Bono), would be increasingly known by all inquiring minds who might want to know outside of the cocoon of Christianity as news of “guilt” (law) and judgment rather than a place of love, inclusion and grace is the point that I want to focus on. The further point is to define briefly what it means to be a real “defender of the Christian truth” as opposed to one’s who increasingly repel people from the truth of the gospel that really is and always should be amazingly “good news”!  However, before I do so, I want to say that what makes these “defenders” of the truth rightfully so nervous when guys like me say these sorts of things is that somehow when we do that we are on a slippery slope to compromise and antinomianism. Antinomianism being a fancy theological word coming out of the earliest times of Christianity and today which is a belief which leads people to take the good, graceful news of Jesus as their own but reject any kind of demands on how they live their lives in the culture, in their families and in the body of Christ of which they are apart. They are those on every corner today who believe Jesus is your “homeboy”, your friend, or your magic genie who would never have anything to say about your lifestyle choices but just simply wants us to all get along, have a group hug and all make it to heaven safely and secure. So let me dispel that fear first and foremost and unequivocally say that is not at all what I am saying. So now on to our final task at hand—what does it truly mean to be a defender of the truth rather than those who increasingly repel people from the truth?

Let me say at the outset that the answer to this question is what we increasingly miss and for the life of me I can’t understand how we do. For instance, to be sure we are to “defend the truth” in the sense that “inside” the body of Christ we are to not let error (the distortion of the few essentials of the historic orthodox Christian faith) slide in and distort the truth and deceive the flock. We are given this injunction throughout the New Testament. It also goes without saying that we are to be defenders in that sense–albeit humbly, though firmly and lovingly; with a view to steering those who err back to the truth of the gospel. This begs the question, “What then “is” the truth of the gospel”? Well quite frankly, to put it very simply for our time here today, the gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, died and rose again for the purpose of redeeming mankind from the slavery of sin and from being help captive for so long by Satan (which is also the majority of the world’s way of thinking) to do his will, and for the purpose of reordering creation to be recreated in the image of Christ—God’s intention all along. Having said that, I believe that in order for one to be a Christian he or she must believe those things I’ve just mentioned yet summed up rather perfectly in the Apostle’s Creed long ago which says:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; 
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, 
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. 
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; 
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
 I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. 
Amen.

 

Now to be sure the word of God tells us a lot more to chew on, live by, meditate upon and strive towards. However, it is these “essentials” summed up in the Apostles Creed that should unite and not divide the body of Christ—a point that has been explained repeatedly and nauseously long before my reintroduction here. It is also these things that we should “defend” within the body of Christ but “not” outside of the spiritual or physical doors of the organism or organization that is the church. Please hear me out as being the synthesis and main point of what I want to leave you with today. Let me now announce it from the rooftops: It is “not” the duty of Christians to announce, preach, blast, defend, judge or correct people outside of the Christian faith of our “truth” claims in what we rightly believe. Why is that we are always learning and never able to arrive at knowledge of the real crux of Christian truth (II Tim. 3:7)?

The truth is, if one merely reads with a discerning eye the body of the gospels, the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, one increasingly becomes aware that there is really only one thing that should judge people outside of Christianity as to the truth of Christianity, and that is “how” we live our lives! In fact the word of God tells us (II Cor. 2:14-17) that our lives are a living apologetic that are either a fragrance that leads people to the life in Christ or a judgment that leads them to death away from Christ. Notice however it is our lives that judge them when they see how we live compared to how they live, but not our words that judge them. In fact the apostle Paul wrote clearly in I Cor. 5:9-13 that is not our job to judge people outside of the body of Christ but to clean up our own bloody mess, and in fact it is God alone that judges outsiders!  Rather he says, our job is actually to hang around with every sort of “Tom, Dick, Harry and Mary” that lives contrarily to our gospel.  We purposefully do this in order that perhaps they can see something of our lives and graceful words, thoughts, actions and reasoned discourse that tells them there is something about us that accentuates the fact to them that they are indeed missing something of profound meaning and purpose in their own lives. The New Testament is crystal clear that it is our lack of holiness, our lack of authenticity and faithfulness and proper engagement with the culture that is what a unbelieving world finds increasingly unbelievable (Brennan Manning)! Also in almost every instance, outside of the core orthodox essentials of what it means to be a believer in terms of right belief, almost every other mention of the “truth” is related to how we live period! Now we all know that you might say.  So then, why in the world Mark do you think you are now the enlightened one to lead us into this? Well the truth is, what I wonder almost all of the time is why is it that if we know this, we get it undeniably and disastrously wrong again and again?

In summary today and to conclude my brief thoughts here, I want to say that judgment starts and ends with the house of God and not for those outside it’s doors! People outside of Christ are supposed to act as if they are outside of Christ. Though many of them (perhaps Robin Williams and others) exemplify more Christian virtues in their charitable giving, humility and selflessness even while struggling through tremendous pain and suffering than most Christians I know do, the fact that also many of them do not should be a no-brainer and of course no surprise to us. The truth is however that after 2000 years of Christianity, to have not learned from it’s both good and evil history is to be destined to continually repeat it—and that we have, and that we are at the stroke of my keypad! The blood and souls of many far too numerous to count outside of Christ is on our hands!  Sadly however, rather than admit this and seek to live the truth for all to see, we constantly want to protect it, and to be quite blunt, no one but a very slim few in the world and even amongst our miserable selves is listening anymore contrary to what we might think!  It is time for the people of God quite frankly to “be” the church rather than merely “go” to it. This is long overdue and nothing but this will cause an unbelieving world that no longer believes in anything to believe in what we have to say again, just as the early Church realized in the roman world 2000 years ago. The truth is we don’t need too many defenders of the truth anymore because we have that in truckloads! None of them will be out of a job soon I assure you. What we need however in this urgent hour is exemplifiers of that truth in shoe leather, and in time it will be that and only that which will compel people to either to be judged by our lives and thus reject the truth of Christianity, or to run with open arms to the grace, mercy and love they see displayed in us and by us. Until then we are a sounding gong and a noisy symbol (I Cor. 13), or a drip of water that everyone can hear but can’t seem to turn off. As one who at least desires to exemplify the truth of Christianity however feebly, I want to say thank you Robin Williams for making me laugh at times when I wanted to mostly cry, and my prayer is that you found Christ and are resting in His arms with no more tears, sorrow or pain. May you rest in Peace!

Selah