Settling Into The Old Man’s Skin

I have had a hand full of people that actually care about me, start to look at me with an edge of concern lately.  In fact, I can almost feel them whispering to themselves as I walk by, secretly saying to themselves, “Is he O.K.”?

Changes

 And I understand that a little bit I guess.  After all, they see this once enthusiastic and extroverted guy transform into an introverted hermit type of fellow, and watch from afar as old blue eyes has been walking lately with a little less spring in his step.  I also refuse to “Grecian formula” things up, and so this increasingly graying beard, and once somewhat chiseled frame has started to show signs of budding atrophy–despite my still quasi-consistent attempts to keep everything from falling down altogether on a fat boy treadmill nearby.

They equally scratch their head as they see a chap who was once a movie aficionado grow increasingly frustrated at the morally inept and purposeless selection, and similarly irritated at Christian movie production attempts to “VidAngel” the unadulterated reality out of life that we all know and experience from day to day.  As a result, turning the “boob tube” off as my old man used to call it, often seems the correct order of the day.

These same people no doubt likewise stop to reflect on someone who is now almost positive that nothing good happens after 10:00 PM at night, and who would just as soon pass the time reading a good book or in finding an old empty church to sit and pray in, than to do just about anything else.  This is also the same person mind you who loves a huge mug of Belgium beer, or a glass of exquisite bourbon as much as anyone with half a pulse; and who puts an occasional premium cigar in the same category as filet mignon and a baked potato–hopelessly drowned in limitless butter and sour cream. To add to this complexity, this ever-evolving patriarch can occasionally be seen with the likes of Chicken little, and one of whom has correspondingly grown pretty damn sure that the sky is actually falling all around us.

A Delightful Paradox

Oh, and don’t get me wrong, I like to be around people (in small doses now I’m afraid) but am equally content with solitude that causes me to habitually reflect and write about the sky I just mentioned.  I also grow increasingly content with a mixture of both a holy sadness and an equal zest for what God has left for me and my beautiful bride in the days that lie ahead–despite not knowing heads or tails of its sure footing anymore.  And for sure, that has taken some reluctant getting used to.

In fact, I’ll go so far to say that I believe that this contrast I just described should be somewhat normal for those of us who are still faithfully pulling out eye-teeth in their pursuit of a God who often plays hard to get, and those who also grow increasingly wary of the endless “grasping for straws” for some eternal bliss in a home down here; when all the while we innately know that we were created for a city whose builder and maker is God.  And the truth is, I’m now actually OK with this beautiful contradiction. But it’s taken quite a country mile to get here into my skin.

Death and Taxes

I can remember hearing Billy Graham say one time something that I found rather profound.  He was asked that if he had it to do all over again what he would do different.  He mentioned several things, but the one that stuck with me, that did not make a lick of sense until recently, was when he said, “I would have prepared more for growing old”.  And this insightful thought has stayed with me ever since.  You see because the fact is, that one day, just as certain as April 15th, the grim reaper will come to do his bidding, and I’m convinced more than ever that preparing for this certainty is singularly what has the distinctive power to catapult us into living a more purposeful life, rather than stoking the continual restlessness of having not yet achieved a life of perfect ease and comfort—a rose garden of which God never promised to those of us who voluntarily still walk on the narrow path. But I think perhaps we have forgotten.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have done things in life to try and “get ahead”.  I’ve worked hard, pursued advanced degrees, tried to be the best at a thing or two. And in that quest, I have experienced some of the euphoria of accomplishment, and the equal sharing of the spoils that come with it.  I still pursue this, simply because I want to be as great as I can be with the talents I’ve been given.  And somehow, someway, I believe there’s a best-selling book somewhere in my repertoire that still causes me to not go gentle into that good night.  All the while, I am now equally comfortable with being a normal guy who has also abysmally failed, yet who simply loves his wife and family, and who makes at least a feeble attempt to walk on this broken road. All the while, I am in constant hope for the daily bread and wine given from a Father who loves to give good gifts to his children–even when the battle rages on for the true fallen sons of God to at last be revealed.

Settle Down and Settle In

In conclusion, the reason that I write this, is not to give those concerned more reason to fret about my current metamorphosis; nor do I wish to become an old man before my allotted time.  But what I do want to do, is to find a way to settle into this old man’s skin in such a way that enables me to offer hope and guidance to those who increasingly engross themselves in a never-ending discontentment from a life that they feel has passed them by, and instead embrace a life of child-like faith and trust in the one who has promised to never leave us or forsake us.  To continually walk hand in hand with the one who longs to give us peace and rest even in the valley of the shadow of our inevitable death, yet most readily in the daily grind of peaks and valleys, highs and lows, and the ever constant “in-betweens” and “still not yets”.  For this is the path for all who dare walk on this road less traveled, and I simply pray that you don’t have to become an old man before finally getting it into your skin.

Selah

The Poor Still Sit On The Back Row With The Baptists

I’m pretty sure that my Baptists friends (if I still have any), don’t always appreciate my affectionate humor when it comes to them.  However, in my defense, since I am an ordained Baptist preacher (I know, I know), I feel like I can poke fun at the “fan damily” and hold my head high while chewing gum at the same time.

You see in America, Baptists get pegged as being the group that sits as far in back of the church as humanly possible, thus we call them “back-row Baptists”.  Yet the truth is, this is a tendency of American Christianity I think as a whole.  The reason is, that most of us are eternally inoculated to any chance of catching the real stuff of Christianity, so sitting on the back row suits us as the perfect way to get just enough of something churchy without getting the real thing.  It’s safe there, no one is really going to call us out, and we can exit out the back door before the preacher finishes the closing prayer without anyone giving us a passing glance.  It’s like we really do have a cloak of invisibility.  I guess that’s why I decided to sit the poor on the back with us for this short visit to church, because they too hardly get a notice anymore inside of an institution that used to be notorious for championing their cause in the world.

Back In The Day

Now as one can imagine, this is much too broad of a subject to unpack rightly in a blog post.  But hopefully, I can at least chime in on something that I think we should be able to notice readily.

Of course, it’s no secret that the church in its early beginnings was one that attended to the cause of the poor, the widows, the sick and dying; and took in all of the dregs of society the roman world deemed expendable.  In fact, several of the Pauline epistles were written in the context of Paul and others collecting funds to give to the church in Jerusalem for a famine that they were experiencing.  In addition, the book of Acts tells us that the early apostles had to appoint men for outreach to the poor because the need had become so great; and as they took up the quandary of the poor, the watching world took eye-dropping notice, which is documented historically ad nauseum.  In fact, even as the apostle Paul was coming into the faith after his persecution of Christians, biding his time till he would be released to the gentiles in full measure; in the book of Galatians, he reminds us that he was given the “right hand of fellowship” by the other apostles, and was simply asked to “remember the poor”.

And the truth is, the old testament also bleeds care for the poor and the needy, and it’s obvious extension into the new testament adds to the already exhaustive case for it being one of the people of God’s highest priorities in complementarity of taking the good news to those who have not yet had the chance of either accepting or rejecting it’s truth claims.  And yet, if this is the case, one wonders if we are by and large now still known for being those with this task as our chief modus operandi.

Part of the Problem

And of course, you can bet dollars to doughnuts, that the first rebuttal in questioning my brief thesis here are accusations of the church not wanting to be accused of a mere “social gospel” stance, where we give people a sandwich as a cheap substitute for the “good news” as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.  The truth is, as lines are drawn in the sand, one can’t help but notice the irony, in that the more conservative branch of the church (who actually still believe the scriptures) have a tendency to err on the side of rejecting the social gospel’s implications, as the mainline branch of Christianity (which seems to believe anything the cultural wind now blows up their skirts) seems to be holding up the biblical standard of ministry to the poor as the only thing that now keeps their skin in the Christian game. And as I contemplate this with a watching eye, I wonder how we have come so far as to separate two things that seem to be a part and parcel of the same gosh-darn message.  As a result, I think those looking in at what we’re up to these days are rightfully bewildered.

Equally problematic, is the fact that part of our hesitation in aligning our cause to the poor is due to not wanting to be guilty of helping those who should have been helping themselves all along (we’re almost sure there is a verse that says that somewhere). The equal faulty logic is that of lumping all the poor into the same basket, which causes us to overlook or simply ignore the obvious casualties that living in a capitalistic economy (the best we’ve come up with yet) can leave lying on the ground all around us unawares.   This includes those of us who can no longer continue to adapt and reinvent ourselves vocationally, or who have no support network to help us pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; and as a result, can be left holding up a sign clearly visible on our way to Walmart.  This is not to mention the vast number of poor children and the elderly who are the real tragedies of the never ending story which is simply not accurately told by left or right leaning pundits, and whose book has been shut and simply tossed into the “Obama phone” basket.

The Expediency that Crept In

 O.K. I realize we all know these things, if we are at least honest with ourselves a little longer than a nanosecond, but for those of us who call ourselves Christ’s followers, our reaction should not be so simplistic and superficial.  You see part of the problem is that the church, who was once known as the defender of the true poor caught up in the tailspin of this thing we call life, has turned what was once a calling and apprenticeship to Christ as true followers on a mission, to a career path whose specializations have choked out the remaining month at the end of the money.  And in this current hour of the mass marketization of the franchise of the church and its mavens in tow, what we find is that sometimes 80 to 90% or more goes to the upkeep of the now finely oiled machine.  As a result, very little is left to send true pioneer missionaries to unreached lands, or to help subsist the poor in the household of God (whom we’ll always have with us); or to also reach out and own the cause of the homeless and poor just outside our stain glassed window.  It is of course no secret that with a church on every corner, and some that span the circumference of a city block, the church collectively (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants) could solve the problem of homelessness in mere seconds flat.

At the very least, we could do so among those who failed the “dog eat dog world” of our American experiment, and simply need to buy much needed time to reengage in a world that virtually ignores their true existence on any given day.  To be sure there are multiple variables in this equation for consideration outside the scope of this blog.  However, the fact remains, that while the church by and large will continue to bypass the implications of my brief critique and other voices like it, those we are supposedly called to reach with our “good news” secretly know that we are the last true beacon of hope for those who have no power and no voice, and yet they sit back and wonder why we’ve abdicated our one last true apologetic in this late hour.

Back to Business As Usual

And the truth is, the poor really aren’t on the back row though with the Baptists.  That’s my bad.  Oh, they are there with us, but they are in the front and in the middle, desperate for all the hope they can muster before Monday’s realties settle in like an all too familiar friend.  They are there with their predicament, yet afraid to show their true hand for fear of the waxing generalizations of their circumstances, which is always nothing more than a problem of their own making.  They are also down the street, they’re the neighbors who went and took our neighborhood, and to be sure they are also the basket people walking around and mumbling for perhaps some of your loose change.  They are also the kids with a heap of family dysfunction and yet always broken pocketbooks, and those who can’t even buy a job, much less “get” one that can take them out of the “working poor” status.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch; the back-row stumbles in.  Hush now! For the show is about to begin.

Selah

 

Loving the Sound of Our Own Voice

The word narcissism is thrown around a lot these days; and for good damn reason.  In fact, our culture breeds those who exemplify it now like seahorses, yet they all seem to live far too long!  This dilemma is in fact something that anyone, even without a spiritual bone in their body, can easily spot a mile or so away.  And even if they don’t get out much, I’m sure Facebook or Instagram would be a case in point as to their predominance.  Yet, for those of us who add a daily mirror check through the reflection of that outdated book we always hear about, then we should actually be meeting the narcissist in ourselves most regularly–if we allow God’s laser pointer to zero in on that particular bullet point of our lives.  It is no less the case I’m afraid for many who peddle the word of God on any given Sunday in our pulpits across America.  And as much as we’d like to think we are exempt from the analysis; I beg to differ.

A Month of Sunday’s Ago

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years ago now that I served as one of those clerics myself in a local church.  And preaching was of course important.  And it is my humble opinion that it is indeed very vital in the life of the church.  And as much as I used to think that anybody with a “call” could get up and say “thus saith the Lord”, I’ve come to believe that those that do it should have what Stuart Briscoe once suggested, “the heart of a child, the mind of a scholar and the hide of a rhinoceros”!  It is sufficient of course to also add that the preacher’s task is pivotal to aid in guiding the hearts and minds of people towards reshaping the world they are far too often conformed to, and to act as spiritual chisels in the lifetime task of transforming their thinking towards the mind of Christ instead.  This of course is no easy assignment, and the fainthearted and the unqualified need not apply.

Now I for one, though I have preached a good bit in the past, I have for sure sat in on more sermons than most.  And as a result, I would like to think I’m a pretty good guide as to its consequent blunders that cause many people like myself to prefer a root canal instead.  Besides noting the obvious fact that people who cannot take a 2000-year-old book and bring its relevant reality into the life of the average person, which causes them to seriously wrestle with its truth claims should never be allowed to do it, there are other more even weightier issues I’m afraid.  For instance, sometimes methinks, in light of the importance of what we’ve been called to do, perhaps we like the sound of our own voice a bit too much.

Who You Calling a Narcissist?

I think part of the reason we fall prey to this tendency is because though our task is indeed a difficult one for a variety of reasons, it is also equally a vastly rewarding one.  I came to this realization first hand after I finally threw in the towel on the “full-time” ministry (whatever the Hell that’s supposed to mean) and entered back into the world of well…you and me.

First of all, I had the privilege of spending 10 to 20 hours each week immersed in the scriptures and mounds of theology books, which is synonymous to giving a new tool to Tim the Tool man. I loved it! And most pastors with a call towards this task should, or else get out quickly while there is still time for all of us to escape the sermonette.

Secondly, if I was of course doing what Pastors should be doing (no differences of opinion here), I was able to spend the rest of my time praying; doing the work of an evangelist in the public square; trying to help the poor (like pulling eyeteeth!); visiting Aunt Ethel and Grandma Louise, and of course burying Uncle Joe.  Those of course were all things that I actually loved to do by virtue of the call, and in fact the only thing about my job I disliked was getting folks hitched. That’s’ a story for another time.

But imagine if you will, being a Jesus freak, and getting to go to work every day and do Jesus freak stuff. It was the greatest reason in the world to get out of bed.  And yet what I realized once I entered back into the workforce of the average Dick and Jane, was that I had a somewhat protected life.  But let me explain.

Amazing What?

You see what I had so easily forgotten, is that while I was busy week after week trying to get those “unspiritual” people to be committed, and to give Jesus their all, I found out that they were often simply too busy getting laid off from their jobs; losing their homes; having their teenagers commit suicide; and praying to God that their spouse might make love to them again.  You know, the small stuff.

In essence, sometimes, though I would have told you I was giving them a steak every Sunday with the words I had prepared, I was also equally guilty of beating the dogshit out of them at times, totally unawares.  And in that sense, I too was guilty of loving the sound of my own voice given the task I had been commissioned with, more than bleeding with the people who were simply looking for Jesus in some possible shoe leather.  Not some condescending tower of theological certainty and ex cathedra pronouncements upon their life, but an ear to listen to, a shoulder to cry on, and a grace that used to be called amazing.  And in that sense at least, I missed it for a while, much to my great disappointment.

A Solo Pulpit’s Silent Ego

But I think likewise, loving the sound of our own voice manifests itself in another very subtle way that we often miss.

For instance, when Pastors preach every Sunday and yet never equip others to do likewise, people are not able to witness something more akin to something the scriptures actually beckon us to do. As a result, we bypass the exemplification of humility to congregational narcissists who might not yet know what it looks like, by showing firsthand that we’re actually not actually the cat’s meow at all.

Instead, oftentimes we get either the same preacher week after week (who is quite frankly not that good) or we get the golden tongued orator we can’t get enough of, yet the church is built around his persona and magnetism, and thus people tend to worship his reflection right along with him.  And as a result of this gross error in judgement, as pastors exit to “bigger and better deals”, churches fold in the aftermath, having built the church house around a bigger narcissist than ourselves.  And it would seem that even though Paul reminded the Corinthian church (a church sadly reminiscent of today’s) that neither he, nor Peter, no Apollos died for them; they constantly gathered for the smooth operator sermonizers, who could have been banging the church pianist after choir practice, but somehow the fact that they could “preach the word” was the glue that held the whole house of cards together.

And as a result of this pastor worship, everyone now goes to the biggest and best show in town to hear the guy with the tightest skinny jeans and the best three-point sermon. All the while people shuffle out and shake their hands as they exit unchanged; and yet it seems in America we love to have it so.

Hello, My name is Mark Prince, and I’m a Narcissist

So, I guess you could say I’m a recovering narcissist, simply calling shots now from the sidelines as I see them.  And though I still revere the task of the preacher and even the foolishness of its message to the Greeks and the stumbling block it still is to the Jews, I sometimes wonder if us preacher types have stopped to realize that we may not be that big of a deal after all. And maybe, just perhaps; our own reflection has blinded us to the fact that what people are most in need of is one who simply looks a little more like Christ.

Yep.  That oughta do it I think.

Selah

Reading From the Wrong Script

A Bad Funeral

It’s been several years ago now that I had the grave misfortune of attending a funeral none of us ever want to attend.  It was the service of a once precious little girl that grew up way too fast in a mad, mad world, assimilating all too naturally from her life’s’ pedigree into the all too predictable “fast lane”.  A lane we’re told is sure to make anyone lose both their mind and life—and yet the latter was to come to her first.

I had a brief smidgeon of time to be involved in her life before the end of her innocence, and my wife and I bumped into her again as a girl all grown up with babies of her own; extremely lost, but continuing the fight that was hers since the day she first put her foot on the ground.

As we plopped into our seats that somber early afternoon, one could not help but notice the clientele by the litany of escalades in the parking lot–and by the clear demarcation of illegal apothecary types dispersed among the audience.  It was a population riddled with those who were living on life’s jagged edge, and yet ripe for hearing a message in this captivating hour that pointed to some north star of truth and hope for those with ears to hear. Or shall we say, it was an audience prepared for a preacher of good news.  Yet as the minister began his message, after a few quite interesting eulogies and the like, the hopefulness I had for help to be forthcoming for this audience that were lost in a masquerade of their own making, was quickly drowned out by words of a man holding the wrong script.

Who Stole the Pastor’s Lines?

It seems that the pastor, though not really having a precedent from the lips of Jesus nor his apostles, felt that the majority of his homily should be focused on the fact that they were all…well, sinners.  I guess he figured that somehow they were unaware of this fact.  And though I believe there is a time and a place in a message for this reality to come to bear on an audience, due to the travesty of this particular moment in time, the need of the hour seemed to be in pointing them to an absolute in a way that they could both understand and receive.  A truthfulness that would lead them to begin asking the deeper questions and wrestling with their life as a “to go bag”, rather than “preacheresque” dreams of an altar call of nothing more than jailhouse religion at a bloody funeral for goodness sakes!  But my analysis of the necessity at hand would not have its day, the true gospel was not preached, and I’m quite sure most business was carried on as usual as everyone exited the missed opportunity.

Christianese

This led me to ponder the fact that this is all too characteristic in Christendom even today, where we speak in “Christianese” rather than in the language of the kinds of people we are engaging.  And the reason is, because we are merely reading from a script we have well-rehearsed after eons of bad Sunday School, a faulty hermeneutic, and best-selling books by those who assure us that the gospel absolutely has to beat the Hell out of you before you can even begin to have hope for that uncloudy day.  And there is indeed a grain of truth in every lie, so let me briefly explain.

Read the Book Man!

 Jesus himself gave us some examples of knowing your audience.  For instance, when talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who was also a curious seeker of the truth, he chided him a bit, but was gentle in getting him to understand why there was a need to be born “again”.  Yet with the merely religious and patronizing scribes and pharisees, his patience wore thin; as he riddled them with questions they could not answer, and diatribes of which they would not soon recover from.  Yet all the while, it was the sinners who in fact “knew” they were that he gave the greatest freedom and latitude.  It was an open invitation to walk with him for a little while and take a little look see, and perceive if perhaps there was a way, a truth and indeed a life they should follow other than the false gods of their own making. He brought the best wine to their parties, healed their lame and dying, and once they took it upon themselves to actually decide to follow the man from Galilee, he implored them to “go and sin no more”.  In short, Jesus patiently loved people into the kingdom starting with where they were at. He was not in a hurry to count the “decisions for Christ”, because he wanted to make sure that people were “all in” for the long haul, or not at all.  In that sense, everything was black and white for Jesus.

We then have some examples from others, although the greatest soul winner of the last two millennia, the apostle Paul, gave us the insightful lessons in “non”-scriptedness. It was instead a speech rooted in none other than the law of Christ, that reminded us in I Corinthians chapter 9 that he became “all” things to “all” people in order to win some.  To the Jew, he became like a Jew, to those without the law he became as one without it, and to those who were weak, he became as weak.  This should cause those of us who call ourselves heralders of the gospel message to retune the antennas of both our ears and our speech.

Again, Paul reminds us in Colossians 4:3-6, as he asks for their prayers for himself as a communicator of the gospel where he writes:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a doorfor the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.  Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (ESV)

I’m going to go on a limb here and resign to the fact that some things are as plain as the nose on our faces, and thus need no further explanation.  But I do think Paul even gives us an actual example many times of what this might actually look like.  His most famous one of all however would have to be his sermon on Mars Hill where he engages every Tom, Dick and Harry wannabee philosopher in Athens who constantly gathered to hear the next “new thing”.  He does so by at first quoting from their own poets whom they respect, gives a passing credence to their own belief system, and then used a tangible bridge builder by talking about an “unknown” god they perhaps seek but know nothing as of yet about, in order to begin an exercise in winsome conversation.  He reminds them that it is indeed man’s quest to both seek and even find God, and then assures them that even in their sinfulness, God is so very near to them, and indeed can and will be found if they so desire.  And in fact, it is not until he has done a lot of fancy footwork in laying out the gospel, that he politely reminds them that God is most emphatically calling them to repent.

The God of the Living?

I am reminded of these clear signs from both the Master and His most successful missionary, and yet one wonders if any of us have been listening at all.  And as a result, I secretly weep for those who continue to have to listen to a script nobody is even remotely paying attention to anymore. It thus becomes evident to me, that the ones doing the preaching no longer read the headlines, and that to most truly lost people, God is still dead indeed.  And it’s not the overabundance of Nietzsche’s disciples who are still killing Him I’m afraid, but rather the evangelists who have clearly disregarded how to actually raise him from the dead!

 

Selah