“Self-Preservation: A Gaping Chink in the Armor to Spiritual Formation in American Christianity”

The Search for Happiness

Well for someone who had as their goal to “write one blog a week in 2018”, I have no doubt given “I suck” new meaning in terms of goal setting.  In fact, it’s been almost two months now.  And though I have a myriad of excuses the size of all my x’s who currently live in Texas, the truth of the matter is that ADHD in this above middle-aged man is the “real deal Holyfield”J.  And the irony is that as I’ve deduced lately, like most Americans, my distraction is of my own making, and not something I can blame on a “syndrome” or a culturally created “sickness”; but rather the ravenous quest built up in my DNA since my more original “sucking” at my Mother’s breast for the pursuit of some “pipe dream” called “the pursuit of happiness”.  In fact, Ruth Whippman reminds us in her best seller America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness that though “Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy in the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on earth”, the results of that investment has not delivered the goods in that it has instead made us the “less happiest place in the developed world”.  Yet, no one seems to be in line to request their money back!

Five Minutes of Fame

And as you look around, the results of our learning from the limitless poor investments has not taught us much I’m afraid. Today for instance, as you look around, everyone is looking for their “five minutes of fame”.  Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has made us all into stars now who otherwise would have had no chance, allowing us to “go live” in the most risqué of life’s otherwise “behind closed doors moments” by recording for us everything from our bedroom privacies; pregnant teenage Mom’s holding their child while simultaneously getting the hell beat of them on the street for only God knows what (our shock and awe I suppose); to no endless repertoire of self-authoritative opinions derived from mere regurgitation of the media spin doctors we feed on from dusk till dawn. And though the exception to the rule is some stars are truly born who otherwise would not have been given a passing glance, the vast majority are an endless upchuck of “much ado about nothing” forced into our watching eyes and mini-screens.  Who will be the next American Idol, YouTube sensation, Twitter n Chief, or Facebook phenomenon?  Only time and a whole lot of endless blushing and barfing knows!

And though the pursuit of happiness in and of itself is not a bad thing, “if” we know where it comes from and the place it should actually hold somewhere down the line in our lives; the real issue for us is our unremitting “fear of death”, which is in stark antithesis to our lofty American pursuit.  As a result, self-preservation rules the day in all of us, and has not bypassed this modern man to boot, constantly scurrying about wondering what to do about it.

The Culprit: Self Preservation

For instance, we’ve got health insurance; life insurance; flood insurance; fire insurance; pet insurance; and now identity-theft insurance, as well as any number of nuances of extra insurance as a caveat to whatever the aforementioned insurance doesn’t cover in the endless fine print.  And of course, everyone now knows that most of the food we eat and the water we drink is toxic; just one more proposed threat to our “survival of the fittest”.  As a result, other fortune hunters and equally do-gooders have created a new health and wellness industry that promises better health, more energy, a better sex life, a solution to the germaphobes in us all, and overall adds more insulation to our otherwise cushy American life.  In the aftermath, when you tally it all up, there is little left for the “giving back” part of life that supposedly delivers the real happiness according to our antiquated Savior, and not enough time in a day to barely write the skimpy check after the “necessary” precautions have been taken into consideration for our own escape from the stuff, and the people of the world crumbling all around us.

What this has done to Christianity in America and in me should be no secret for anyone who pauses for a millisecond to pay attention, or who hasn’t been sleeping under a rock with Rip Van Winkle. Spiritual formation and discipline in the areas of contentment, sacrifice and humility have already “died on the vine”, and the prospect of storing treasures in a blissful and remote heaven we’re so far removed from rarely makes it into the discussion in the majority of our homes, and now sadly (even more a travesty), in most churches that claim to be teaching us (for a small fee) how it’s all supposed to be done.

Seniors Lead the Way?

I do recall once upon a time, if anyone was listening, hearing the prospect at least, that the old men could teach the younger men, and the older women could teach the younger women how to exemplar Christ, but not to worry anymore.  The old have now by and large become even worse about their own self-preservation and the desire to live till that can’t see straight, just as long as endless surgeries and pharmaceuticals can preserve them, right up until the precipice of the injection of the final embalming fluid.  And they have become the germaphobes extraordinaire these days quite frankly.  In fact, as an ecumenist who takes it upon himself to visit and worship with the kaleidoscope of churches under the Christian rainbow, I’ve noticed lately a trend in the high churches I had not before experienced. It seems that even to them, the eucharist is not that “big a deal” I suppose, for the elderly take the bread and bypass the cup, and then whisk back to their seat, shortly after they “nod” at the “blessing of peace” to others, rather than shake someone’s “germ-ridden hands”.  After all, who the Hell knows where those hands have been for goodness sakes, and even God would want us to be cognizant of this wouldn’t he?.  And so it would seem I guess, that they too no longer believe it’s the actual body and blood of the Lord that we need to imbibe.  Transubstantiawho? In fact, I’m now waiting for the “gluten free” bread line to enter the buffet line of church options.  Hell, there’s an idea!  Maybe we could start a eucharistic gluten free church?  Oh, and bring in the organic wine without all those damn added sulfites too for goodness sakes.  Throw out the Common Cup and bring in the plastic protestant-evangelical cup thingies why don’t we?  Opportunity knocks!  But I now digress.

In Search of the Spirit

The truth of the matter is, that self-preservation has infiltrated the one last beacon of hope (the universal church), while the self-proclaimed “frozen chosen” all across the Christian landscape in America hasn’t much left at the end of the church ledger sheet to tip the poor and send those called to proclaim the good news to the rest of the world as to what makes for real happiness and joy in both this life and the next.  And unless the Spirit comes and engulfs all of us by surreptitiousness, none of our money, reason or logic will budge the thinking and shoes of the vast majority of those who still as of yet aren’t paying us even a smidgeon of attention.  And the crux of the matter to be sure is, that enduring hardship as a good soldier sounds like something synonymous to old fashioned rubbish even to the Christian masses, and thus the chink in the Christian’s decrepit armor takes center stage!  Ho Hum.

But at least lately, as I look at myself in the mirror, I doubt that until I’m willing to die in some form or fashion again, or volunteer occasionally to become our Lord’s court jester, that a world and a church now going head-first after whatever spirit of the age is willing to lift up its dress and show its new world to us, that anyone will pay much bloody attention. Sniff, sniff.

Selah

Still Holding On Loosely To Some Fool’s Gold

The Move

It was early October, when although watching the Weather Channel beforehand would have been enlightening to say the least, the Prince family actually loaded up the truck and moved just south of the “Red-Neck Riviera” to the lovely Surfside by the sea.  Yes, that’s right.  We moved smack dab in the midst of the terrible flood of 2015 that took Columbia and much of the country by surprise.  A time at which also marked a new beginning for the 6 of us minus 2 now, just 7 years in the aftermath of the economic Tidal Wave that first engulfed me, and later was to teach me lessons tattooed forever in the very fiber of my being.

Fool’s Gold

The lesson had something to do with the allure of fools gold I suppose.  In fact, in my Full Focus Planner, it’s at least penned as my number 1 “habit goal” for my life at age 53.  It reads, “Settle once and for all the allure of the world’s fools gold”.  I know, I know, you’re probably not that impressed.  But it does look good on paper.  I can show you if you like.  And for me at least, being enamored with fools gold seems to capture what I’m actually trying “not” to be about; given my lesson I supposedly learned and all.

In fact, evidently years ago it was something called “iron pyrites”, having to do with a gold-like mineral that of course is found to be absolutely worthless, thus given the name fools gold.  Many “would be” treasure hunters evidently found this out the hard way after expending all kinds of energy and capital trying to find it, and came up with the bottom of a worthless barrel.  Interestingly however, though the bible warns us that the pursuit of money is synonymous to a “fools gold” of sorts, the fact is, money is real; and it gets you a lot of stuff, and respect, and a whole lot of false friends to boot.  It also functions very much like a god however, and indeed exerts power both for us and in us in exceedingly formidable ways.  And like Gollum, to part with “my precious”is no easy task, and it’s no secret as to why.  Because as the late Zig Ziglar famously said, “though money it isn’t everything, at least in this life, it ranks right up there with good old oxygen”!

But of course you can’t really know any of these things quite honestly until you actually make some of the green stuff yourself.  And though the rich look down on the poor for what they don’t have, and the poor look down on the rich for what they do have, the truth of the matter is that you don’t know its fools gold until you’ve played the fool that a lot of us play sometimes. Just ask any lottery winner!

A Day Late, and A Dollar Short

As I said earlier, I moved here in the aftershock of my economic quake that happened in my life. And as I’ve written briefly about before, my wife and I did so for a number of reasons.  Some of it had to do with giving a little distance between us and our now blossoming young adult sons who were finally “grown and gone” (in theory at least).  It also had to do with extended family ties that no longer were binding; owning nothing of equitable merit; and a job that allows me to live anywhere in the Carolinas. All of this equaled to a risky proposition, but one we gladly took up nonetheless in order to lunge forward, and spread our wings and fly, fly away.  The oasis by the sea also had a nice ring to it as you can imagine, and I vowed that once I got here I would finally begin writing, something to which before I had only given lip service to.

We’ve been here 2 ½ years now, and moved recently to a spacious rented home just shy of two blocks from my refuge of endless sand and waves, and God’s still small voice.  We own a 2002 Honda, I have a company car, and my wife has done a wonderful job of taking the few material possessions on the inside, and has made this ocean sanctuary my favorite rescue mission ever–to the point at which I almost never want to leave.

As I mentioned before, I’m a sales dog.  In fact, if I sucked at pretty much everything else, this is the one thing that I was meant to do, even if that’s as good as it ever gets.  The last 10 years have been a rollercoaster ride nonetheless. I’ve still been in “sink or swim” mode quite a few times, but have had a few “good” years in terms of Benjamin’s, but not yet enough to purchase a home the smart way this time (If I’m to learn from my tattooed lessons), or to re-stockpile any measure of a portfolio that will as of yet put me back on the financial map (Whatever the Hell that is).  Yet I’m still optimistic.  I mean what else can we do with the time that we have other than seek to get better and stronger, still learn from life’s lessons, and hopefully follow the Lord on the narrow path that leads to real life so I’m told.  I still set goals, though if I had to cash it all in today, the social security money the government has probably already spent is about all I’ve got at this stage of the third quarter of my life.  As a result, I’m shopping for my doublewide retirement villa as we speak.  Realtors, no phone calls please.

But oh yeah, we were supposed to be talking about loosely holding on to fools gold.  I almost forgot.

Pay Attention Sucka

Well it started with a brief and acute reminder about that very thing this last Saturday.  My wife and I went for the first extended time at the beach in awhile due to a surprise winter that has had us spoiled Americans pretty ticked and ready for some “fun in the sun” baby.  It was such a joy to be down there again, though I spend at least 15 minutes a day there in reflection just about every time I’m in town. We drove our golf-cart down there, and that is so cool you know.  I mean after all if your going to live less than two blocks from the beach you gotta have a golf cart man!  It took us two years to save for it, and it was a joy back in August to finally stroke that $3200 check for a used one that we were so ecstatic to finally have.  So on Saturday, we parked our official beach bum statement at our favorite beach access, walked about 50 feet, and then gazed at the ocean’s splendor for about an hour or so.  We talked again about our dreams and plans, the children and others we love, and the God we are desperately trying to follow in the midst of the world’s rigamoro.

It was just a short hour, but so exhilarating.  And then we packed everything up and started to walk back to our golf cart.  And as I got closer, I realized I didn’t see it, but I nevertheless ignored that unwelcome thought until I got closer, until of course it was all over but the crying. My wife was so torn up about it. More for the fact that she knew money is hard to come by, and remembered how thrilled I was to finally get it for everyone, and for the guests that come to see us often.  But as she was rightly torn up about it for the both of us, I just sighed and let my words be few.  We walked back to our short distance home, made our trek to the police station and filed the report with the local police, and then numbed ourselves with a couple of Saturday cold beers until night came briskly by, with another day and another negative dollar waiting on the horizon.

Achieving At Least One of My Goals

I haven’t said much since then about it, because after all, it’s G.O.N.E.  But somehow, I knew immediately in my spirit, that though the Lord didn’t steal it, and I’m sure He was equally sad for me, it was His gracious reminder yet again to hold on to the things of this world loosely; for they are indeed fleeting and truly are (like us) “dust in the wind”.  And then all at once, I was quickly reminiscent of verses etched in my memory and in my soul, such as “whoever loves money, never has enough”, and others such as being free from the love of money, and the very truthful fact that it is nearly damn impossible to serve two masters, since we no doubt will love one and give nothing more than a month of Sundays here and there to the other.  And then I thought about that gosh-darn rich fool who looked at all his barns, quite satisfied with his accomplishments, his multiple streams of income and diversified portfolio; yet who like the late J. Paul Getty when asked how much money would be enough, he replied, “a little bit more”.  And that night, as the story goes, his soul was required of him.

The truth is, I’ve always held on to money and things loosely for as long as I can remember. That can be both a good and a bad thing, at least in this life.  At one point and time, I was like Erasmus, who once said, “When I have a little bit of money, I buy books, and afterwards I buy food and clothes”.  Other times, if I’ve had two dollars, it was a dollar too much when someone else has needed it.  And on other occasions, no matter how hard I’ve tried to accumulate some in my older and wiser years, in life it seems there’s always a golf-cart thief lurking somewhere beyond the dunes.

And then all at once it has occurred to me yet again, that though money has an immense power both for us and in us I’ve already mentioned, and Lord knows we need some of it.  Yet I don’t know if we’ve paid much attention lately or not, but the truth I’m told, is that wherever our treasure is, there will our heart be also.  And so at least for now, I’m thankful for that blasted stolen golf cart, and that it didn’t up and take my heart along with it.

Selah

The Cure for Rollercoaster Christianity

I’ve been moving at a snail’s pace through John chapter 15 this week, and its’ kind of ironic being that it’s message is on “abiding” or “staying” or “remaining” in Christ. And after all, the majority of this mind-blowing piece of scripture is perhaps the key to consistent navigation on the narrow path called the Christian life, and thus somewhere I need to camp out for a while; and perhaps never leave. Perhaps you’d like to nestle up by the campfire and stay with me for a while.

And you see the reason I’m staying here besides the obvious, is because I think it is where we find the cure for what I like to call “Rollercoaster Christianity”. Now I won’t call that phrase my invention (though I certainly wish I had), but I do believe that most of us have bought a perpetual ticket on this not so amusing ride.   In addition, to the curious observer, perhaps you’ve noticed that most of us have a short attention span for just about everything. Very few of us anymore read like we should, and we want our news and information in short sound bites with all the color and pizazz we can get, or else we’ve moved on to the next quick and cheap thrill. To add to our fluidity in what gets our attention, we have incorporated it into our faith as well. As a result, we have very little stickiness within us, and commitment and stick-to-itiveness through the long haul is dependent on a list of variables that are checkered with conditions that most of the time are keeping us from experiencing anything “next-level” that God may have for us.

Oh No, The American Dream Again

 And to add to this puzzle, most of our conditions and barriers to abiding have to do with our unquenchable quest for something I write an awful lot about: The American Dream. And the reason that I do is because I feel that it plagues us an awful bit more than we want to give it credit for, and in one sense, who can blame us for succumbing to it’s pull. After all, we have been sold on its importance since we were old enough to ponder anything of significance that relates to our life on planet earth. We get little nuggets through various stages of our growth into adulthood, and by the time the final piece of the umbilical cord under our parent’s care has been cut, the dream is now front and center of our lives. And the dream goes something like this: We get a good education, we get a good job or open our own business, we work harder than most, and we live “the good life” until death to us part—though many don’t give much thought to that piece soon enough. Many of us then continue this march and have the good fortune to either amass a good bit of wealth while we are here and begin enjoying some of the dream or even all that it perpetuates much earlier out of the gate. These are the people we then idolize. We read their books on the 5 steps to success at this, or the 7 steps to success at that, and we watch them and we seek to emulate their path in hopes of our American dream that will soon come knocking eventually–if we just work hard enough. This chase of course drives us even more as we have kids. For now the dream has to get much bigger to include not only what utopia we can provide for them here, but what we will leave them when we’re gone. And of course we must then pass on the dream to them as well, and so on, and so on and so on.

Now let me just say that dreaming in and of itself is not a bad thing. In many ways, the God of this world has put dreams in our hearts and minds to not only fulfill us and give us purpose while working on this earth, but also to fulfill the mandate to be good stewards of the earth, and those who make mankind’s stay on this earth a bit more cozy and functional. We are also born in many ways with this sense that we were put here to do something significant, and much of our life is spent seeking to find what this is. The late Mark Twain captured this sentiment when I believe he accurately opined that, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why[1].” I believe much of this seeking and searching is therefore God given and not to be equated with the problem the American version of our dreams proposes to solve for us. For instance, as we discover our identity in Christ and His love for us, as well as His continual reminder that the dream inside us must first of all be in light of the dreams of God for the world and for us, we are then commissioned and are welcome to build from there. And therefore when Jesus says that He is “the way, the truth, and the life”, then the dream for the Christian must be constructed from that premise first and foremost; and when we deter from that, it is then that the dream becomes askew for us. Particularly it becomes lopsided when the quest for perpetual comforts in this life take precedence over the call and quest for the comfort, peace and eternality that can only come from knowing Christ himself: our real answer to life’s “sixty-four dollar question”. And if we are truly seeking for the Jesus missing sometimes in America, then this is something that we should be constantly wrestling with, and hopefully coming down on the right side of that conclusion.

Life As It Is For Most of Us

But then there is the “rubber that meets the road”. For after all, we are only human. And as a result, we must live on this earth and we must have certain things in order to merely survive. It is also natural that we want to enjoy the comforts and pleasures that the Lord has given us for our good. And because we live in America, the possibility of acquiring those comforts more frequently is a titillation that at least seems to be within most of our reach. Having said that, the problem comes in when the seeking after and acquisition of these things have escaped our grasp thus far as we move beyond middle age and look out in an almost full crystal ball that gets misty as we look into the near future. And though we are now currently in our quest to “make America great again”, the truth of the matter is that there is only so much room for the “have’s”, and some of us will have to be some of the “have not’s”. And if we didn’t yet believe it, if we are honest, we are finding it to have a grain of truth sketched already into the canvas of our lives. And we secretly wonder how long this old ball called earth can withstand our quest for more and more prosperity for the bigger, better deal. Equally, we also secretly imagine as we run around this hamster wheel of our life if we might eventually get caught in the cross hairs of its threshold. This alone adds an anxiety to our life that for us as Americans seems to be the Achilles heel that keeps us from the abundant life Jesus said he had to offer. It causes us to dread Mondays, and if we’re not careful, to either fall in love with our beds or succumb to an endless cycle of a liquid and sedative weekend.   We then add to our weightiness that the dream has heaped on us the likes of things like cancer; the loss of loved ones; wayward children; and the endless sound bites of bad news that we are forced to digest as it pushes its way into our smart phones for what seems like a 24/7 wakeup call–all the while skirting by the guy with the sign begging for some of our spare change.

The Minister’s Confession

I can remember years ago when I was a minister, I used to preach to these types of people on any and every given Sunday. I spent most of my week in study, prayer, the visitation of the sick, and attempting to fraternize with and evangelize those lost from the hope or current desire of the gospel. In addition, my time was spent trying to convince people caught up in the American dream to give more and more of their time and money to help in the quest of spreading the good news, and in outreach to the poor all around us. I often grew weary and tired, because I felt that the task was next to impossible. So while I was growing weary and frustrated with the people God had given me to shepherd, I had forgotten that the people he had called me to were just like I myself am today, trying to figure a way out of a rollercoaster Christianity life we know is not God’s desire for us, yet all the while caught up in the midst of our struggle to “make it”, while life is many times dealing out a steady dose of difficulties–sometimes discriminately so. And though I am still a minister at heart, I am now one of those same people, and I consistently feel that perhaps others are frustrated with me, secretly haranguing from afar about my need to “get it together” and “straighten up and fly right”. I find that Job’s friends are never in short supply.

In fact, I also think sometimes well meaning ministers of the gospel have forgotten the daily anguish of the common man. And though their lives are filled with countless demands and struggles like us all, many are caught up also in a bubble of privilege that perhaps they don’t even realize they live in. For in essence, they are paid to be an exemplary Christian so to speak. A mascot we can all get behind and follow. Many, out of their sincerity nonetheless, tell us their own version of the 5 and 7 steps to a successful walk with Jesus. We walk out each Sunday with a new admonition to “simply” do this or to “merely” do that and by Monday the weight of life has already told us that it’s just not in the cards for us, and we fall back in line under the tutelage of our American Dream taskmaster and the path back down the rollercoaster begins. I won’t attempt to give you any real answers today, but I do hope to at least be a peddler of a new hope.

No Easy Answers…But

This is why I’ve recently begun to realize a few things for our brief consideration. First of all, though countless scholarly men and women of the cloth scratch their heads in contemplation of the means of reaching an increasingly antagonistic culture to the gospel, I have resigned to the belief that new methods are not what we lack, and the writing for goodness sakes should have already been on the church wall! Secondly, it is not my belief either that the answer lies in our ability anymore to merely reason our way into the life of the mind and hearts of those who bypass our offer of eternal life; though not to its negation. In fact, as I have contemplated about these very things for most of my life now, both as a once professional clergyman and now as a renegade wandering prophet who walks the life of Christ with a noticeable limp, my conclusion is this: that nothing but the power of God and the Baptism and engulfing of His Spirit in those of us who are called by his name has any remote chance of reorienting our society towards the desire for God and of His Christ. Neither will anything else help us get off the rollercoaster ride of Christianity that we can’t currently seem to escape. And though these are new waters of suppositions for me to traverse in, I am convinced that unless you and I pray continually that God revisit His church with an outpouring not too different than what happened in an upper room over 2000 years ago, you and I are destined for more of the same.

Now to be sure we must continue to abide in the vine of Christ’s love and to surround ourselves with others who are truly seeking to walk the narrow path, and this we must do with reckless abandon. Yet I am reminded of something the late Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones began ranting about years ago that echoes my humble sentiment. His synopsis was extracted from his take on Mark 9 where the disciples could not expel a demon from a boy and Jesus finally has to come in and save the day. Upon expelling the demon, the disciples were somewhat despondent and asked why they could not free the boy from his demonic oppression. Jesus’ answer was that “this kind cannot be driven by anything but prayer” or as Matthew’s gospel states, “prayer and fasting”. Dr. Jones’ interpretation was that the reason we need the baptism of the Spirit is because we now live in a Mark 9 world, and without God’s power through fervent prayer and the Baptism of the Spirit we will continually fail in the ability to live Christ-like lives and to become Christ-like witnesses. His reason: “Because the demon is too deep in the culture”[2]

Some Dylan Theology

As a result of my recent musings, I have begun the voyage of adding several things to my cracked up life. First of all, I am trying to not only pray more in my normal routine of prayer and time in the scriptures, but to also find as many excursions away from the norm of my very predictable life to purposefully get alone with God and cry out to him about these things. Secondly, I have begun saturating my soul with as many books and teachings about the Spirit-filled life as I can get my hands on. And thirdly, I have purposefully put myself in a new and at first uncomfortable terrain of being where people are hoping and praying for these same things in daily practice, and who seek to allow God to move in their everyday lives and give God room to do exactly that in their corporate gatherings. Again, though I am knowingly a man with mere “sea legs” in these things of the Spirit; like Dr. Jones, I am convinced that herein, as unpredictable as the movement of the Spirit is and knowing with zero predictability where its wind will blow in mine and your life, I do however believe that it will not be found in the “sure fire” formulas we have been used to prescribing to ourselves and others ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

In conclusion, I realize most of my conclusions of late are about like “nailing Jell-O to the wall”. I apologize for that. I’ve thrown just about all of my formulas out with the trash a long time ago. But perhaps still like me, you are looking for some gold mine of truth that you can sink your teeth into, because like me you sense something is amiss, and the old ways of business as usual Christianity are no longer working for you, or perhaps they never did. If that is you, I want to simply say that you are not alone, and at the risk of sounding somewhat cliché, let me nonetheless say that Jesus loves you and longs for you to abide and continue on this sometimes very lonely and narrow path. Oh, but one other thing I want you to consider, or rather not forget: Perhaps the answer my friend is actually blowin in the wind, the answer is blowin in the wind!

 

 

Selah

 

[1] “A Quote by Mark Twain.” Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

[2] Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn., and Christopher Catherwood. The Baptism and Gifts of the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996. Print.

The Light in Christendom is But a Flicker Now: Part II

Hello friends. I left off last week with some thoughts about the concept of Christian exile, and the flicker of light left in the church in perhaps an unexpected tangent: By way of my confession of voting for the enigma which is Donald J. Trump. In fact, after touching on several issues about my ongoing cracked up life in order to get us there, that’s where I ultimately landed; with the overall purpose of getting us to think about exile and the fact that we are most definitely in it, irregardless of who is temporarily in the White House. I tried to do so subtly by interjecting that our vote as Christians was perhaps more out of fear of having to live as exilic people more than anything else. My thesis was that part of the reason that droves of Christians in America voted for the billionaire and chief, is because we are afraid that for the first time in our known history, the Christian value system is becoming extinct both in the American public square, and in the thoughts, minds and overall consciousness of almost everyone we rub shoulders with now. We’ve all felt it, and we secretly know it to be true, but somehow we’ve escaped once more due to an election without having to give it much reflective thought. And I for one believe that this is perhaps the beginning of our undoing.

 

And of course in a sense, all of this that I’m speaking about is not a secret as I also suggested last week. The reason is because we have actually been on this moral spiral downward motion for several decades now. However, in the wake of the last eight years of a liberal administration, when we’ve actually witnessed the last of nationally accepted Christian ethics fall like dominoes before our eyes and then actually become new laws in the realms of the definition of marriage and gender identity to name a few, the Christian masses are almost certain that Armageddon is just in sight. And as I mentioned last week, many middle class voters showed up in mass for Trump on Nov. 8th also due to feeling that they had been long left out of the public discussion that would concern them for so long, and are those who have been by and large left out of what remains of the American Dream. In addition, those same people who espoused to many of the same values we mutually as a nation had once held so dear, no longer saw their values represented in the main stream. To add insult to injury, the values they and their families once believed in have now come full circle in being publicly derided and dismissed as poppycock to the liberal elite in the know. As a result, this is the shape and the state we’re in.

 

My brief purpose today to wrap up some of these sentiments is not to continue on a political pathway however. This is the case not only because I am not an expert in the political arena, but also because I want to focus more on why we in Christendom, as our light slowly fades, really voted in the way that we did. My consensus is that the reason that we voted the way we did is more about fear than actually voting for the best candidate. The truth is that we voted because we are afraid of living for the first time as strangers and aliens in a world where Constantinian-like state sanctions and national acceptability of the Judeo-Christian value system is truly on it’s last hoorah. It is also my belief, that though this is not preferred in the natural state of things, in terms of our final real spiritual influence in our neck of the world, its demise should in fact be to us as a bittersweet yet welcome long-lost friend.

 

However, up until now, our only friend has indeed been the world I’m afraid. So for decades now, and as a result, the church in America has lost its cultural influence. And the reason has been two-fold. First of all, as Christians have become more and more equal purveyors and evangelists of the American Dream, and as a result have become non-distinct in the culture at large, to the point that no one is truly listening anymore. To make matters worse, the church, in a mad dash to sidestep its corporate lack of holiness and strangeness in Babylon, decided instead that what the world really needed from us was our relevance. As a result we traded clerical collars for skinny jeans, hymnody for rock n roll shows, and real prophetic pastors with John the Baptist-like backbone for CEO’s who know how to grow organizations.   As a result we saw the masses both come and go over the last several decades, and who are now going, going, and you guessed it…now gone. And yet we continually scratch our heads as to exactly what and why it happened. The second reason we lost our cultural influence is because not only is it by nature of Christianity itself that we become strangers and aliens in a foreign land as God’s people always have been, but also because we have needed to indeed reinvent who we are to actually be in exile before we can again gain any credence again in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

 

You see the truth of the matter is that we have lived as preferred members of the state for so long, that we have no real experience living as people of exile as our own scriptures propose that we must live as. We have not yet resisted to blood, or lost our property like much of the great cloud of witnesses of the early church did, as well as the countless millions who have suffered and still do suffer as exilic people all across the world. We have lived in a land that respected our clergy, upheld our values as having equal billing on the cultural marquee, and have benefited from living in a country that upholds our right to speak our minds as it’s very own Holy Grail. As a result, I’m afraid we are at a real disservice as to what to do about it. We have now exercised our right as free citizens to vote someone out and someone else in more to our liking, and more akin to our particular brand of the truth. And I think that secretly we perhaps all believe that unprecedented economic growth, prayer in public schools, and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn are indeed just around the corner. We’re also pretty sure that our new commander and chief will fix everything that is broken, and pretty soon our own vision of America will be of course “great again”, and things will go back to being as they always have been. After all, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home”.

 

I must conclude by saying that I long for the same primrose path as everyone else, and long for the days when the struggle to make it in this crazy world would yield some sort of final success story somewhere over the rainbow. It’s in our human nature to do so, and the Father of course knows we at least desire and even have some need of these things. But as I look out across the landscape of the culture of which you and I are apart, I can’t help but believe that the trajectory we were headed for has only been given but a speed bump for now. And of course, we voted for that speed bump and it is now very prevalently in the road. Yet the truth of the matter is, that the vast majority of our land and even our world are fast and furiously conspiring in order to ensure that there won’t be a second one. As a result, My only prayer for you and I is that when that happens, and it will; I would wish we’d all been ready!

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

The Light in Christendom is But a Flicker Now: Part I

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written last, and the time passage has been missed, at least by me. It has also brought with it a bewilderment of what to actually say worthy of your ear’s attention. Call it “writer’s block”, or chalk it up as “when you don’t use it you lose it”; it really doesn’t matter. The point is, and what I’m really straining to say is, that I’m somewhat at a crossroads these days about what I’d like to talk about…again.

But then, like the surety of a daily problem to solve or survive, there it was, just this morning. As I poured through John chapter 3 for perhaps the millionth time in my life, the thought occurred to me for some reason as I meditated about the need to be born again by the Spirit and not the flesh, and the vast ramifications and theological implications of that in light of our current milieu of a postmodern world now come of age, something else came to me that felt I desperately needed, or at least wanted to say to you. And that certain something that I would like to briefly speak about today is the further digression of the light in Christendom that I have felt for some time is indeed now merely only somewhat of a flicker.

But before I attempt to continue to unpack that thought just a bit, let me just say that I’ve been on a positive kick since my last post or two, which of course have been just a little darker, and of course quite frankly, most like me. Oh but you would be proud of me to be sure though. In fact, I’ve been “speaking the word” into my life each morning, going to a church that believes in the same, and grasping and hoping each day for brighter tomorrows. I’ve also been looking forward to victories that God is merely waiting on me to simply believe in order for me to claim so that my life experience echoes it’s reality that’s been waiting for me to get on board.   It’s all really good stuff to be sure. Oh I know, I know. You sense the sarcasm already I can tell; so now a brief explanation.

You see for most of my life I have been exposed to a particular version of Christendom that by and large, and I think rightfully so, prides themselves on being cruciform, or what Luther would call a “theology of the cross”. That is to say that the cross is most acutely reminiscent of our daily experience in this life, and the self-identification with Jesus on our own road to Calvary is of not only a tremendous truth with ample biblical support, but also brings with it the equally comfortable spiritual and emotional salve in assisting us in living in a world that tends to give us more thorns and thistles than roses if we’re honest. In light of that, understanding the fall’s consequences and correlation to our own experience in the constant battle over sin and the war of good and evil, the need for Christ to come to die, and our own necessity from time to time to do so as well in the cusp of human relationships and encounter with worldly gods, gives us at least some “aha” moments. The flipside of that cruciform life of course is what many call being “theologians of glory”. They are those who in a nutshell seem to emphasize the good news of the resurrection that resulted for Jesus, and that will surely also result not only for us in the sweet bye and bye, but also even here and now. And there is biblical support for that as well.

In addition, there is overwhelming support from those of us who perhaps have not experienced too much of the victorious Christian life, or any life for that matter, and who long to put forth a resolved faith in a God they cannot see who will nonetheless spur them on to victories that as of yet have constantly escaped them. The temptation for the earthy reality of the one, and the hope of the triumphant other, do constant battle in the war within our very souls from dusk till dawn. And so we are betwixt and between. We long for the presence of Christ in our lives, and claim we would like to be like him, yet, when the reality of His cross coalesces with the lives of our own, like everyone else, we are longing for Easter instead; with a side order of “six-pack” abs, an eternal and bulging bank account and nightly euphoric sex if you please until we meet on that beautiful shore.

But getting back to my first diversion from the topic at hand. I have decided for now until I change my mind again by next Tuesday, that I want to live harmoniously somewhere in between both of these two worlds if only in the sense that somehow, some way, if Christianity is true and everything else is a lie, God has to be the God both of the cross and the resurrection in our lives, or the vast majority of us simply won’t make it! And of course this explains why an increasing majority of us are indeed NOT making it. The reason is of course that eventually, if a dog gets beaten up enough, he or she loses the wag in its tail and thus the will to fight anymore. And as you already know, or at least imagine where I am headed, in the world of which we are currently apart, the casualties of those dogs have become the new norm rather than the exception; and they either jump from bridges, hold up signs on our street corners or stand impatiently day after day in the line at your local CVS. The culture is having its way with us, and we seem neither to blush or take notice. And we all struggle with it. But the truth is, more and more, we are also losing our numbers inside of Christendom as a result. And we’re not simply losing those who have married the spirit of the age, but equally to those who have given up the fight due to eons and eons of not winning at anything, including the Christian life anymore—and I for one have no stones to throw. So I say, bring on the resurrection!

This is of course a perfect transition into Christendom’s now flickering light I mentioned in the beginning. And this of course will also no doubt take me into some cursory mentioning of the political climate that I typically prefer to avoid. I avoid it simply because I’m not an expert (Social media addicts please take note), but also because it shows my hand and invites in the haters. Nonetheless, in the way that I will briefly speak of it, it is only with a purpose to help describe the flickering light and the realization of Christendom’s own incumbent exile, and that though many have been writing about this for some time now, perhaps the chariots coming to take us to a more permanent Babylon are just outside the front door of our ever present American Dream. So here we go.

The recent election of President Donald Trump is an anomaly on many fronts. First of all, he is not like our recent “intellectual and chief” Barrack Obama by a long shot. Nor perhaps is he like any President we have ever had, although many are looking for comparisons everywhere these days. They do so to remind everyone that the sky is indeed not falling even though Chicken Little pundits assure us in endless sound bites that the ovens of Auschwitz are just around the bend. We also have learned from those “in the know” that the reason President Trump won (Yes Joe Scarborough, he really is your President) by that faulty and outdated mechanism called the Electoral College. is because the middle class have been neglected for far too long, their voices have not been heard, and thus the call to “Make America Great Again” won the day for those forgotten masses. I could go on and on, and to be sure there is much more to be said. However, from what I have heard and read thus far, it at least seems a plausible explanation to the present mystifying conundrum our country finds itself in: That of President Donald Trump.

True confession. I for one pulled the lever for Trump late in the midnight hour. Yes that’s right I finally admitted it. I was part of the secret Trump vote nobody knew about. After desiring from the beginning for John Kasich to be the nominee and then realizing the world didn’t find him sexy enough or boisterous enough, I then skipped “Lying Ted” and moved on to “Little Marco”. I saw some redemption there at least. I thought he had something to say, was a man of some conviction, and seemed to be able to articulate it well in public debate. I even got excited when he “stuck it to the man” Trump in the debate and felt at any minute the billionaire giant was about to come tumbling down. Then of course once Little Marco lost Florida, I realized he too was a defeated foe and I applauded him for finally realizing as much. From there I really didn’t know what to do. I thought about voting for Donald Duck (seriously), but then later capitulated to the fact that it was either Donald Trump or “Crooked Hillary”. After I thought about that for about a second and a half, I then drank a bottle of Holy Water and cast my vote for Hitler; I mean Trump. So there you have it. I won’t go in to all the reasons behind that just now, but just getting it off my chest makes me feel better. I guess you could say I’m a Trump voter, and I’m quietly watching with prayers and my fingers crossed behind my back!

But there is of course another group of voters that were the forgotten in my humble opinion. They were of course those of us in Christendom, which used to be comprised of predominantly the Western world and the “moral majority” of these United States of America. Those of us including myself as the last of the baby boomers, who have quietly and sometimes unfortunately not so quietly, watched as the moral values held dear for two millennia taken from a Judeo-Christian worldview, slowly erode into nothing but a vapor. Values that at once were recognizable to nearly everyone on Norman Rockwell Street, and who by and large believed were the way the world worked and how we should then live. Ideals that most would agree were the underpinnings and bedrock of a democratic anomaly in the world: The United States of America. These same folks (myself included) have also watched sex come out of the closet and into our living rooms, boardrooms and chat rooms. They’ve watched schools become war zones and state sanctioned indoctrination stations. They’ve had marriage both redefined and declined; gender identities never before questioned now becoming a shade of gray or whimsical preference; history continually rewritten; and the churches and churchmen that were pillars in the public square become court jesters or consenters to whatever is blowing in the cultural wind. And so then, just about everything Christendom once knew that was as sure as death and taxes has now become a flickering light that almost no one even recognizes anymore. And as a result: those people , people like me, voted for Donald J. Trump. Yes that’s right. Christians like me voted for a narcissistic, female genitalia-grabbing billionaire for Commander and Chief, because well…we’ve never had to live in exile before.

Selah

Lost In This Masquerade

It is one of those particular days when I’ve not much to write about specifically, other than about what I’m feeling at this very moment. I guess you could say that many times how deeply I feel about things in this life has plagued me somewhat, yet it’s the only thing that truly makes me know I’m breathing, and that the creator is somewhere close by. It’s a slightly overcast day with gentle breezes blowing to and fro, and with a slight mist in the air that as you breathe takes the oceans not too distant scent into your very pores. So I inhale. And as I do, it conjures up a lot of thoughts and emotions as I sit here staring out the window of my local library where I often go to write and work. And so with nothing particular to say that has kept me up this week, I am again acutely aware of how often I feel lost in this big ole globalized world, and how often I’ve been here before. Surely my name is carved in a tree somewhere not too far from this familiar setting. So while I slip away into this imaginary space, I take out my pocketknife and cross out the “wuz” and put “Mark is here” instead.

 

And I guess I’m lost for a lot of reasons, but I’ll let Leon Russell explain today. You see Leon wrote the song This Masquerade that George Benson then made famous. Its words are about two lovers unsure of where their relationship is headed or what to really do about it, and so they feel lost. However, its first lines seem to accurately depict what I feel at this moment in this world, and in this space and time. It says:

 

Are we really happy here

With this lonely game we play

Looking for words to say

Searching but not finding

Understanding anywhere

We’re lost in a masquerade

 

Now I’m not sure if Mr. Russell meant anything of what I take from these words, but at least today while I’m reaching for straws from which to write, it seems to echo continually in my mind of a reality that is increasingly mine, and I wonder secretly if any of my Christian brethren feel it just a smidgeon. And now as I exhale, I am sending out an S.O.S. today for anyone who might be listening.

 

And I think the reason I feel this way and have for some time now is partly because, though America’s lonely game of the pursuit of happiness is constantly played out around us by those caught in it’s subtle grasp, I wonder as Christians if a holy sadness is not more the norm for us now than the exception–and perhaps it is even becoming a spiritual discipline, if it wasn’t already.

 

In fact, I’ve seen a real shift in the last decade or two in the toll that the need for more and more things and information has taken on all of us, but specifically those who are to somehow emit some kind of light from a city set on a hill or a lamp out from under the basket of our lives. One cannot help but notice that the light in the American church seems to be now diminishing underneath the basket of the daily grind beckoning us to work, buy, sell and trade until we give up the ghost–as well as the bad news that now comes in pixel droves across our screens like a flood from dusk to dawn. If we add to this the layers of secure red tape we must now be experts at administering in order to protect our private castles, small fortunes and our families, we’ve no time anymore it seems to spend on weightier matters of eternal value, and the wolf is of course always at the door. And he has no goodies for Grandma, but is simply there to eat you my dear! And as I see people each day, and even those of us who call ourselves followers of the Way, I see them walking around with what looks like tombstones in their eyes. They are dead men and women walking. And then I ask “Are we really happy here…I’m looking for words to say”? For people are searching, but not finding, or understanding anywhere.

 

In the first three chapters of the book of Revelation, John the revelator speaks to the seven churches and refers to them as lampstands ironically. Many commentators have various takes on who John is talking to specifically. My personal analysis has led me to believe that though he is talking to specific churches, he is also in the Spirit speaking forever to all of the universal church who by proxy carry a lampstand for the world to see whether they realize it not. I wonder what the world is seeing right now, and whether or not our lampstand will one day be removed altogether? Or has it already been removed, but we didn’t get the memo? The Catholic and Orthodox churches seem to be the last beacon of torchbearers that any of the Western world is even remotely listening to, while the Protestant church has by and large done a prick-tease with the Spirit of the age for the last 100-years or so, fully preparing to bend over any day now. And I for one am continually lost in this masquerade.

 

And so for those of us who however feebly attempt to walk on this narrow path, we are now increasingly the aliens and strangers the apostle Peter warned us we’d be…again. And I also feel that the heat is getting turned up as we speak in a furnace somewhere, preparing for torches to light some new Nero’s garden. For we now live in a world where to speak absolutely about any issue in matters of faith is often met with laughter and contemptible discounting. One wonders when the great restrainer of carte blanche evil (the U.S. armed forces) is finally removed, if we won’t all be bearing a cross of closer proximity to our Lords once and for all. Protesters cause riots to state their case, and the rights of individuals have now become our nation’s only Holy Writ. All the while, the Protestant church has now resorted to doughnuts and coffee, designated parking spaces and free t-shirts to get people to peak inside. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we now have CEO’s disguised as pastors in skinny jeans with accentuated packages, telling everyone exactly what our itching ears have been dying to hear. Is anyone still listening?

 

So admittedly I’m searching and not finding, and I’ve had a tough time finding a place to call home in preparation for the coming Eschaton of God; though increasingly I’m once again more and more inclined to believe the oldest church on the block has the only resounding clarity. Uncertainty in my secure footing in this world is about the only thing I can truly count on, and more and more a steady dose of Jesus and an occasional shot of whiskey is about the only thing that gets me through the day. I also love my lovely wife and children, and would give my eyetooth for their joy and ease in Zion, but increasingly I come up with the short end of the stick in their behalf. Nonetheless, off I go to the next hotel, and to the next presentation where I pull out my bag of products and services to sell so I can keep the lights on, and perhaps get one nostril above the water that all but engulfs me on any given day. Oh I know the message sounds bleak today, but don’t worry, I’m as stable as a guy can be even without a straightjacket, a rubber room or a bottle of Prozac. And no, I’m not Falling Down…really I’m not. And “no”, quite frankly, I still just prefer my life straight up and then on the rocks if you please. Oh, and I do love Jesus with all my heart, I really do. It’s just that today…well…I feel kind of lost in this here masquerade.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Has Christianity Cost Us Lately?

An Observation

I’ve been pondering the topic above this weekend at great length. What spawned my brief fixation was the observant mutual back and forth between my wife and I, that by and large Christianity no longer costs very much to the average Joe or Suzy Churchman or woman.  Nor is there a sweeping rebuttal from it’s men of the cloth that this is much cause for concern. Oh some do, to be sure. But they are constantly tempted to quickly change the topic for lack of interest from their hearers. It gives a sort of “yawn” effect to it’s American congregants, and quickly leads to shopping for a new teacher to scratch the itching ear somewhere down the road of buffet-line Christianity.   It’s a problem to be sure, and there are no short answers or long ones quite honestly to fix it I’m afraid. This is what our devolution of the faith has brought us to you might say, and we all share a collective ownership of it.

 

The Organism Suffers

 

And as I’m sure you’ve noted by now, if you have taken the time to read anything I have written of late, you realize that for the most part when I speak of church positively, I am from my heart of hearts speaking as to what I feel that the scriptures emphasize the most; that of the organism rather than the organization—though I am apart of both. But leaving the organization aside for a moment, in fairness to the organism (you and me), I realize that many today sacrifice much.  Not only in the everyday crosses they bear due to living on planet earth, but who add to their cost daily by continuing to fill up what lacks in Christ’s sufferings here on earth, in order to further allow the world to see Golgotha up front and center everyday on their own street corner or on a hill far away. And there are those who suffer not only in this country for their faith in some ways to be sure, but more acutely across the globe in the least concentrated areas of Christianity. Those who suffer in their own bodies and pocketbooks in ways we cannot know, and to whom everyday is a constant test as to their unwavering belief or conceded apostasy. They too are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget to remember their chains and mistreatment (Heb. 13:3) that is felt as if it were our own.

 

Now the church organism in the West suffers too as I mentioned. For instance, if we have somewhat individually clung to the old rugged cross with all it’s foolishness that the world has attributed to it, and to it’s increasing unpopularity of thought in the public square, this comes with it’s own brand of persecution. And of course despite whimsical and momentary elections that offer the believing masses rays of hope that we’ll be great along with God again, the trajectory of the western world is moving away and not toward anything that we have or have had to say I’m afraid. This is partly our fault, and partly due to the man of lawlessness (II. Thes. 2:3) that has already settled down in the both written and unwritten code of our culture. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I believe inquiring minds have to know this is the new norm if anyone is paying attention; all the while still keeping hope that the church will hold it’s ground and the gates of Hell will not in the end prevail.

 

And so if we are picking up our daily cross, we should also wrestle with what we see everyday that comes at us now in a pop-up window across our various screens waiting for us as we awaken each day. Things such as another police officer being shot, racial tensions mounting, refugees who haven’t anywhere to go, and the President-elect’s new cabinet member that many speculate is sure to do us all in. These are all collectively cause for concern and discussion, but closer to home I think we have bigger fish to fry. And we are in information overload to be sure, which brings about not only opportunity, but I think increased sadness; easily explained by the Prozac nation of which we are apart of now. Nonetheless, we are perplexed as to what to do about that, and not sure we are big enough and bold enough to do much about it other than pray and send an occasional guilt-ridden check or a like on Facebook. However, within our own families and street corners, as we open our eyes for a brief moment, we struggle with what to do about the countless ills that are within a stone’s throw of our own private castles: things like kids with broken homes; homelessness; and Single Mom’s who haven’t a prayer unless someone sees the face of Christ in their hopeless eyes. We struggle with what part we are to play, all the while trying to cut off just a sliver of an American Dream for ourselves and our families, and yet…the two are very strange bedfellows indeed aren’t they? Oh yeah, the struggle is for real isn’t it? Or should I ask, “Shouldn’t it be”?

 

The Organization, Maybe Not So Much

 

I can remember about a year ago talking with a pastor friend about my wrestling with the question I’ve put before us today.  I unpacked my life before him about my struggle with these things, and about my experience in opening up my home and pocketbook for many years to the face of Christ I have seen in my own life that were hungry, in prison, naked, or needing some cold water. I remember the conversation and sharing the mêlée I had in my own ability to achieve both the juggling act of trying to lose my life and gain it at the same time—an enigma indeed. His reply was staggering, and I haven’t forgotten it. He said, “Maybe Jesus didn’t want you to do all those things you did”. In other words the quick translation was: Jesus would have preferred I gain my life rather than lose it. I refrained from the chuckling that would have possibly disguised my uncontrollable sobbing just behind my sad blue eyes, and perhaps even scoffing at the stereotypical response by well meaning Christians who believe that if we don’t have a savings account, a 401K and own our own home, we’ve missed God somehow, and simply need a Dave Ramsey class! Its unwritten prose, but its lines are there nonetheless to be seen and read, and many of us in the organism have now memorized their response verbatim. And it is this problem that I believe comes first from the organization at large, and from the broader culture that we are all much more affected by than we are perhaps willing to admit.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of reading in my day, and for those who know me, they would probably say that is an understatement. Nonetheless, most of that reading has been devotionally and as a discipline in the scriptures themselves, but also in reading very broadly in all areas where the church is concerned; and also historically–particularly honing in on its infancy. One thing is overwhelming clear in this practice that I can’t shake out of my head and heart and it is this: The church understood it’s call to reach out to the have not’s; the have nones; the crippled and the lame; the sick and the dying; and the mentally disturbed, and brought them into their care. This was often accomplished with the extension of the healing touch of Christ’s power from their hands to restore, and the equally therapeutic power of love, a place to stay, with food and a warm blanket to ease their continued pain and suffering–as well as from the stigma of their vulnerability from a world that would just as soon find a way to decrease their surplus population.

 

Now to be sure, the organizational church has been known for its outreach in these areas that should not be underestimated in the least. In fact, almost everywhere there is suffering in the world, some branch of both the organizational church and individuals that make up the organism will be the first ones on the front line of offering a cup of cold water and some sort of assistance to the disenfranchised that our world periodically spits out of it’s evolutional system of which they cannot thrive in. Yet what has caused me a slight relapse back into questioning the church’s overall approach, is the fact that most of it’s population in America that I am constantly bumping into seems to be mostly concerned with their own self-preservation and achievement of the American Dream.  To a point that the calling to sacrifice has become almost a faint whisper that almost no one is even straining to hear anymore. It has been drowned out I’m afraid by the scream of cultural inconsequentialities and a familiar call to compete with new sets of Joneses.

 

Cost is Caught and Not Taught

 

One reason I think in particular, and this is sure to get me into trouble with the “I love my church” crowd, stems from the amount of money that goes into the maintenance and upkeep of the machine that is the organizational church. And though many of these same churches have ministries and programs that assuage the picture given that they are involved in the things the church has always been noted for; the truth is: compared to the actual money that comes in the door, 95% in most churches are going to the solemn assemblies and programs we provide the saints– whilst the percentage left to the lost and least of these is negligible to say the least. Part of the reason is because we have become too dependent on paid professionals to do for us what the organism we should be doing for ourselves. And though it is not my purpose today to unpack too much of this, it is simply to point out that this is attributable to a problem I am seeking to highlight–of a Christianity without a cost, where we learn from those who should be exemplars otherwise that self-preservation is to be preferred over giving sacrificially. And while we are commissioned to give more and more to the upkeep of the machine through various tactics and campaigns, we are rarely allowed to peel back the financial statement onion.  Yet when we do, we find that perhaps the church needs financial accountability as well to correct this malaise among itself that has also infected its constituents. As the old adage suggests, “Monkey see, Monkey do”! For if I as a minister of the gospel do not by my own example and admonition to my congregants allow Christianity to cost me something and to wrestle with the various faces of Christ I see each day, then how will I truly teach aside from practice. The devil is in the details I assure you. This to me seems to be a huge problem that should not be overlooked.

 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

 

As I write this today, I am again asking these huge questions in my own life as an individual. Is my sole purpose to provide for my family, leave them an inheritance and provide them the best life now? Perhaps this is the case, but perhaps not. I struggle with this conundrum of late, and it sometimes keeps me up at night. It does so because of the rightful tension it should have in each of our lives as Christians, as well as my own failure to measure up to a Daddy Warbucks expectation. And how will I be sized up as I leave this world if I continually fail in the eyes of the ones I love and in the eyes of others that will no doubt forget me shortly after my body hits the cold, dirt floor? Or did Jesus perhaps really mean it when he said that though the heavenly Father knew we had need of such things as basic to our human survival and well being, that he really did want us to seek first his Kingdom and righteousness? A Kingdom, that while other kingdoms rage all around us and are concerned with their various agendas, should characteristically be concerned with that one that was lost, and the least of these that may knock on your private castle door today. I submit to you that if we call ourselves Christians in any form or fashion, what our Christianity costs us must go outside of our intimate family circle, what’s left at the end of the month, and not to the exclusion of the five loaves and two fish we already have. Until Christianity passes this litmus test, its doubtful that anyone will make much of a fuss about us in the not too distant future. And for a church that once turned the Roman world upside down in just 3 centuries, we have now in just 17 since then turned it back right-side up…and perhaps the writing is now rather chiseled on the church wall.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Some Of Us Find Community Almost Everywhere but Church

A Caveat

 

I know at the outset, the words in the title above before good and noble churchmen and practitioners teeter-totter on the precipice of sacrilege. In fact, if you have spent more than a day exposed to your version of Christendom, a sort of immediate gag reflex kicks in based either on what we’ve heard in those circles; what we’ve been taught; or even more subtly, what we have come to fervently believe and teach ourselves. But what of experience of the “some of us” in my title we might ask? What of the pew jumpers, church hoppers and those who choose to do some form of church almost anywhere but the building on main or church street in your given town or city square? Does that count for something to get at a broader picture of the truth? Or, is their experience totally suspect here, and more akin to some sort of blasphemy worthy of contemptible discounting, or perhaps just shy of inquisition-like reactions?

 

Now before I attempt to explain briefly what I mean by my subject this morning, let me also blurt out an agreed upon qualification to those well-meaning keepers of the magisterium who stoically and eternally disagree, or who would claim to have the opposite experience, and of course a church or two to in their experience toolbox to prove it. And to that I would say, “I understand”. I also appreciate the disclaimer and the modicum of truth that it has to add to this discussion. There is no argument here, except to say that perhaps our disagreement, belief, or experience is well known only to us: the faithful; the paid players; or those who tend to have learned to sort of…fall in line with it. However, equally plausibly perchance to everyone else outside the fold, is that it is not that cut and dry, and also to an increasing amount of church ragamuffins like me who would wish they were found holding different cards.

 

In fact, there has not a day gone by in the last 20 years of my life that I have not wished to become permanently apart of a communal sheep fold that I could bring my Socratic inquiries and still graze in, only to have been increasingly set out like a goat on my own often lonely path–just left of the right side of the Lord to many I’m sure. And though I’ve longed to bring my honest questions and concerns to the Eucharistic table, and to the potluck or small group meeting, I’ve mostly been met with those who would simply wish that I would finally get the memo, kiss the ring, and drop my 10% premium in the offering plate and shuffle along. Well perhaps more later. For now, let me share just a couple of reasons why goats like me with sheep-like dreams never find that sheep-connection that they long for, but who are still very much trying.

 

Some Reasons Why

 

            The Church with a Big C Instead of a Little c

The first reason that I have observed, is not only why I and countless others find it hard to uncover real community in the church, but also relates to why it is no surprise that I also hold to a much looser view as to the scope of the church’s authority in my life–which has to do with the church’s continual bargaining to the broader culture for it’s importance as a Big C instead of a little one. Again, I can feel the knee-jerk reaction to that statement; and to many, they would surmise it is due to my left over 60’s rebellion, or the spirit of the narcissistic cultural age of which we are all immersed in. But please hear me out, and for a moment, I’ll let someone like Paul F.M. Zahl with church “street creds” add to my introductory commentary, and to what many other beleaguered Christian nomads along the church path have felt for sometime now where he writes:

 

 

“Ecclesiology (the study of the church) is an actual ill! By definition it places the church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The facts of history run counter to ecclesiology. They reveal a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived. The gospel of grace, based on relational love that is entirely one-way, is at odds with ecclesiology…Because we believe in the depth of sin and in the impossibility until death, of any “original sin-free zone” in the world, we are skeptical of any church idea that ascribes to church a distinctive authority that it must be obeyed. A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to the church, irreducibly Protestant. The Protestantism of grace’s church idea, which is church by negation and church from suspicion, is important for all Christians to come up against, because it delivers them from the skepticism and finally the voluntary abandonment to which all church fealty finally leads when the lights go on…I can write this in my own blood. Disenchantment with my own branch of the institution has not affected my conviction that Christ is the light of the world and that God’s grace is the way of human freedom. Had the ecclesiology of grace been higher than the anthropology of original sin and totally depravity permitted it to be, the result of the loss would have been a loss of a hope in God. The negation of Ecclesiology from grace permits the survival of faith in Christ as the Wound of the World to heal the wounds of the world”[1].

 

In essence, Zahl reminds us that to not have an ecclesiology is actually to have one, but it’s not what we expect, or perhaps want to hear. Yet our new ecclesiology puts first things first.  In other words,

 

“It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church”[2].

 

These are words of fresh air for both weary church neophytes and aficionados alike who are constantly on probation in their mind, and perhaps in the minds of other good church goers pertaining to the fact that the church struggle is real–particularly evidenced by a theologian and churchmen of high rank who has also experienced the struggle acutely on the inside. It is at least one of the reasons, that though we know we are to be with the people of God regularly somewhere, we hold up a Great Wall to block us from conceding to a popular view of church (Protestant or Catholic) that shuns or disregards our voice and questions as valid to the church conversation and participation, without it being a mere apostate affront to the institution itself.

 

            A Lack of Grace That is Palpable, Yet Also Underground

 

The second reason most find community almost everywhere but church is because grace, the thought that changed the world (Bono), is oftentimes the missing ingredient in a church service setting, the potluck or the small group—and it doesn’t really matter which. For instance, as soon as a question is asked; a taboo broken; a snotty nose kid goes unattended; or a pregnant teen emerges, all bets are off! We drop what we were doing to answer; to repair; to wipe; and instead are more prone to pass judgment before offering graceful love. I can’t explain it in others and much less myself, but it is further proof that though the church is comprised of good that we all need to be apart of, it also; when it begins to see itself beyond the humble and broken stewards and faithful sowers of it’s gospel truth, to instead titles of spiritual fathers who know best–it oftentimes throws the possibility of real community amongst the broken and spiritual misfits out the door. This is especially so for those who not only do not know what a good Father is, or a family; but who come from a lineage and a past or present for whom life may have dealt very different cards—or for whom there are no simplistic answers for the realties that are their constant companion. The church often cannot make room for unsuccessful Christians for whom the victorious Christian life constantly escapes them, even though they follow silently, yet unwaveringly—and often even more so than the ones with standing white-picket fences.

 

I can remember years ago the theme song from the hit TV show Cheers, whose line added, “everyone wants to go where everyone knows your name”. I thought it ironic then that the bar behaved much like a family–a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. Fast-forward many years later, I too more often found solace in a bottle or possibly a friend (Indigo Girls) at the local saloon than anywhere else. The truth is, community is difficult in an age when individualism runs amuck, and “me, my and I” have taken precedence over the others found in community, and to be sure I can be part of the problem. But it should also then be no surprise that we reproduce that spirit in the church when it engulfs the broader culture of which we are also many times brazenly apart of as well. For just as the church affects culture, it is also affected by it; much as we would like to think we are exempt from the disease our culture oozes in flickering pixels across our screens of various shapes and sizes.

 

The truth is that we cannot have real community until grace takes precedence over spiritual, political or social correctness that seems to be endemic among us all. For unless we are led by a starkly different kingdom value-set, we are prone to wander, and the non-going church culture feels it! In fact, we can tell a lot about who we have true community with by who we can’t wait to hang around with on the weekend, rather than who we sit behind every brisk Sunday morning. The bottom line is: We love being around people who love us back, just the way we are (Billy Joel).  And to those who expect or exact nothing from us other than our company, our being, and our mutual offertory cleansing of shared successes and failures walking along the narrow path–albeit with a distinct and communal limp. This kind of community is perhaps better shared with the real life of bread and wine, or beer and hamburgers on the grill, rather than the manufactured world of quick Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts, with three worship songs, an offering plate and an altar call–with an ensemble conclusion of “yall come back real soon ya hear”. And though I am not necessarily advocating we replace the coffee pots with cabernet or Stella on Sunday morning, what I am advocating is the necessity for church to go beyond the common call for meeting in small groups, to a more human call to living real life together in and out of the context of Bible study and prayer, yet also not to their exclusion. This will take risqué thinking that will no doubt be met by good churchmen, yet who may also look at us with frog-eyes and begin looking for new lily pads down the road. Nonetheless, it is a journey worth taking; especially as the “rise of the nones[3]” are increasingly comprised of the “Christian dones[4]”.  They are those who would rather stay at home alone rather than subject themselves to the same graceless, monotonous, and artificial activity; and yet that still expects different results from parishioners who have long shown signs of Rigor Mortis.

 

At least some of this decay in our parishioners is due to being constantly oppressed by the preaching of a law or spiritual prescriptions no one can ever keep or fill, but who get it handed to them sanctimoniously on any given Sunday. Dr. Zahl again adds keen insight here where he writes,

 

“Preachers require a history of grace in relation to their own personal sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have individual knowledge of their own form of original sin and total depravity, they have nothing to offer to which anyone else can relate. Grace has to be the core of a preacher’s own story in order for their sermons to carry any impact. If this is not so, they will preach the law and exhort. Then they will become angry at their dispirited and paralyzed listeners. Ministers who start to despise their own congregations—and many do—do so because ‘their’ people are not doing what the minister is telling them to do. The minister assumes they have ‘free will’ because he thinks he does. Therefore, when they exercise their ‘freedom’ in not doing what he preaches he starts to dislike them”[5].

 

I learned this the hard way from my own experience as a former preacher who held the law up every Sunday, although I would have prided myself as a graceful person in most other aspects of my life. I never understood why, that though people liked my sermons because of their bible saturation, three logical points and eloquent delivery; yet they also seemed to be shaking my hand every Sunday, ever so quietly whispering in my ear “Great sermon Mark, but I’m going back to sin now”. And they were, and so was I. Not always consciously, yet sometimes very much so–simply because we really can’t help ourselves without daily divine intervention.

 

I finally realized grace was the answer to all of life’s problems years ago when by happenstance I picked up the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and then overdosed on a follow up called The Ragamuffin Gospel, by the late Brennan Manning. Through those pages, I finally realized most find community everywhere but church and determined to change my tune and course. At that time, I never realized the cost of Zahl’s advice for a spiritual misfit like me: that of being transparent and preaching grace to religious people. Jesus results should have been a case in point! What I found out the hard way was that the Bible belt likes pastors as church mascots more than someone with a holy calling, yet who also sits on the sidelines with the rest of the sinners and shuns sitting in the “Holy man” chairs. Good churchmen also prefer being told what to do sometimes even more than being freely given the scandalous license that grace appears to provide: for others to simply be who they are–sinners, saved by the matchless grace of Jesus, and those who rest and walk in that awareness each and every day. No instead, I found that we like our preachers on pedestals rather than like the most prolific writer of the New Testament; the Apostle Paul, who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.  For me, this proved to be rather risky behavior for the frozen chosen, but I discovered that the broken and bruised couldn’t get enough.

 

A Humble but Familiar Reminder

 

I realize that my brief musings have opened up some “cans of worms” and left some questions unanswered. And to that I would say, “This is a blog, and I don’t want to keep you too long, and I’ll be back”. And perhaps I would also say, “it’s also a lot like life, and also unavoidable in meditations about the deity”. Nonetheless, I believe these two things I have outlined this morning should be a clarion call to church leaders and good churchmen alike to take a look around and pause for reflection and introspection. It’s not because I have said it to be sure, and it’s certainly not because they are new admonitions. But rather its because it’s actually being said and has been said all around them, much like leftover landmines from a previous war that they seem to strategically still avoid. Landmines that have now erupted, resulting in an exodus from church–whose results are still mostly brushed off as a cultural problem (the world), rather than an actual subcultural one (the church). All the while, the flames and broken bodies are all around with their own fate still off in the smoky distance.

 

And yet meanwhile…the broken and spiritual misfits are still dying to get in.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[2] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] White, J. E. (2014). The rise of the Nones: Understanding and reaching the religiously unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

 

[4] Packard, J., & Hope, A. (2015). Church refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are done with the church but not their faith. Loveland, CO: Group.

 

[5] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

Broken Into Disbelief

A Revelation

 

As I was reading through the book of Exodus the other morning, though not my run of the mill experience, I came upon a verse that literally stopped me in my tracks. Like a hungry man in clear view of something simmering on the stove, I sniffed further to see what awaited me. Yet at further glance, it’s promise of immediate gratification of my appetite for what God had to say was instead struck with an illumination to be sure, but one that would be of a much more somber bite—even bitter at first, and one which all at once brought sadness and profound understanding. Understanding into something that many of us on the other side of salvation have forgotten about. It’s called true brokenness, and it often times stifles permanently any craving and invitation for many to walk with God on a new path of hope after so much disappointment and disillusionment. I then leaned in further.

 

The backdrop is this. We all know the story. Moses has been told to rescue the people of Israel from their enslavement to the Egyptian people. He is at first continually reluctant, and retorts to God both reasonable and unreasonable excuse after excuse. God then tells him in chapter 6 that with a strong hand He will deliver the people of Israel, and he will use Moses and Aaron to do it. Moses is not convinced himself, but he listens on. After all, it is a daunting task he has been given. God then assures Moses that just like he walked with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and was in a covenant relationship with them–promising that they would be much more than sojourners in Canaan as before, that they would now truly have a land of their own. God declares to Moses that the time is indeed at hand, and he needs to strap his seatbelt on for what Moses knows will be the ride of his life. God then goes on to pledge to Moses that the people will be delivered from their slavery, and he makes the additional promise that He will be their God, and they will be His people, and that better days are just upon the horizon for this 400-year long, oppressed people. The curtain closes for a moment, and then reopens again for scene 2, and the people’s reaction to Moses “word from the Lord” is not what we expect. Yet maybe it actually is, that is, if we’re listening and still leaning in. And then there it is, like grannies vittles on God’s revelatory grill, it hit me where vs. 9 tells us:

 

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery[1].

 

As I read that, and I looked twice to make sure there was no ground about to open up to have them for lunch, or any snakes poised and ready to strike, not only do I see their true plight, but I also sense at this point that God does as well. And after all, why wouldn’t he, and why, as God’s very own people, wouldn’t we also understand?

 

The Problem

 

You know brokenness has become a chic word in the church in recent years. It’s now popular and trendy to say that we’re all broken, and to be sure, it is also a truism that the denial of, will in a new york minute prove its axiom to any watchful eye. Yet also, this side of heaven, we dance back and forth between being theologians of glory (hope for consistent and evolving virtue towards the divine in this life) and theologians of the cross (the reality that too much hope in this will meet with continuing failures that will leave us exhausted and even more broken). But back to our story for a moment. When I read that verse of scripture, without any need of a commentary or outside help, all at once it came to me what all of us should already know, but perhaps have now forgotten. You see the people that we would reach with God’s hope, and many times ourselves, have been broken so much that quite frankly, we have lost our ability to believe anymore. Or, for purposes of this blog, many are I believe “Broken into Disbelief”.

 

Imagine if you will 400 years of now generational slavery. Its’ all we know, it’s all our kids’ know, it’s all the grandchildren know, and books on our shelves speak of the permanent reality that is our existence that our forefathers (you guessed it) also knew. Perhaps its what I like to call “stinking thinking”, or a sort of caste system built now into our DNA fabric of our lives that says whatever we are, we shall always be. In short, there is no hope. In fact, any quick jolt out of our reality to chase a pipe dream such as Moses was selling was quickly met with the deer in the headlights look of “What you talking about Willis”? Nobody’s buying, and to be sure nobody’s selling. The words from the people should not surprise us however, because they are oftentimes our own—even very consistently my own. So I have no stones here.

 

But first about people who don’t know God at all. We often wonder why they teeter totter back and forth as to whether there is any need for Him in their lives. We marvel why the truly lost are not knocking down our church doors to get in. We speculate and ruminate about their rejection as mere rebellion, lack of commitment, and the fact that they’re all pagans after all, and settle down into smug acceptance of the impenetrable wall of the unbeliever as the rise of the none’s (no affiliation to God or church) that we evidently think we have (none)thing to do with–or rather, we have simply grown too insular inside the cocoon of safe Christianity to remember when we ourselves were as the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians:

 

“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light”[2].

 

But what I really saw as I was pondering these words was the understanding of the true raddled state of people that can’t quite make the leap with God yet because brokenness and slavery is all that they know. Their brokenness has become like a comfortable salve to a consistent wound that though not alleviating the pain has taken them into a place that is “comfortably numb”. Like the woman who has for far too many times gone down the path of loneliness in search of a knight in shining armor to be kissed and then crowned queen, only to be left with crying babies, welfare lines and sneers from those who have either forgotten or will never know what it’s like. And then as to the junkie’s “needle and the damage done” (Neil Young), hers is a that of being caught up in a system for which she finds no escape, and the news of a pilgrim traveler that tells her “God wants to save you” sounds an awful lot like blah, blah, blah mixed with a heavy dose of smoke and mirrors, or better yet–a path that will get a whole lot tougher before they see any hope of any promised land. Thanks, but no thanks Moses, or whoever you are!

 

But wait a moment. Before we are too quick to escape the easy task of associating the lost, or the “riff-raff” of single mothers, junkies and hoods of generational poverty in any given city center on our main street, the truth is that it happens to us all even within our white picket fences, dogs named blue, apple pie and a Chevrolet or two. For you see, we are all prone to brokenness and enslavement, most of which is our own continual making as Bob Dylan once eloquently crooned:

 

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”[3]

 

That’s right.   It’s you and I. It’s either the Lord of right beliefs or the devil of wrong ones. It’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, the goats from the sheep, the enslaved from the free, and the lost from the found. Oh our enslavement varies, but it comes with the beliefs or non-beliefs we give voice to everyday, and then let them have their permanent podium in our lives. And the microphone is always on in our head. I know it all too well.

 

For instance, as a man who after years of trying to climb my own version of a corporate ladder of some sort that continually escaped me, I’m often then left only with the Jones I’ve been subconsciously trying to keep up with, who stare back in unison contemptuously at my lack of a stable economic portfolio. Thus the ability to find community in my current state becomes problematic among those who have forgotten their own version of brokenness and enslavement. Or then there are those of us who resign to the belief that any word of God’s goodness and his desire to give us a future and a hope sound an awful lot like Moses going off at the mouth with this “God wants to deliver you” bit, and because of our brokenness, we find it hard to believe anymore–in fact we haven’t the ability to as I said earlier. In fact, we let it sink in and take root, and even coddle and nurse it like a baby.

 

And there are also those who have enslavement to a belief that a marriage is what it is, and happiness and fulfillment in it has become a joke told by “college buddy” to remind us what fools we were for believing in such an institution. So we don’t strive anymore with it, and like brothers on a hotel bed (Death Cab for Cutie), we settle for the fatalism of things and try to simply cope with the settled nihilism. Or, for the children who’ve been raised by absentee parents, or abusive parents, who continue to believe the comfortable slavery that no one can be trusted, and who are afraid they are now genetically predisposed to merely rinsing and repeating the sins of the fathers and mothers–and for whom there is no love for them truly to be found. It’s a gaping hole in their life that only God can fill.  As a result, the drinking never stops because the drinks absolve their victimization and quietly numbs the pain.

 

Or perhaps it is the daily beliefs we accept each day that we’ve have all too acceptingly come to regard as our lot, with no desire to even think contrarily anymore. Fill in the blank with your numbness, your disbelief, your enslavement, and your perpetual hopelessness. You get the picture. We are all broken into disbelief. We’re not in Kansas, or Disneyworld, and we’re not sure dreams of any shape or size come true anymore.

 

A Grasping Of Hope in God’s Goodness

 

I want to conclude my thoughts today with an invitation for you to go on a journey I have now hesitantly taken as a result of my own battle with enslavement and brokenness, which many times, even today, has kept me from believing my hope of a promised land. It is a journey into the goodness of God as his primary modus operandi. It’s a shift to the belief that when God says: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen”[4], that he really means it, and he means it for you and me that He calls his very own.

 

You see my friends, it is so easy to resign to this belief, which is actually unbelief, and thus the acceptance of our enslavement to things that are contrary to God’s word and good intention for us. Instead, we would rather resign to the belief which comes from the castles of impenetrable walls we’ve built with our slavery bricks and straw. Oh I get that your bondage is like a 400-year old zit with hair on it! I’ve got two or three. And I get that slavery has taken up residence in the broken dreams that are now stacked up like dominoes in a free fall all around you. And I get that we can never know a man or a woman until we walk a mile in their worn out shoes. Catharsis accomplished! However, what I’m really trying to say today as a former and recovering enslaved person myself, is that God is calling, and he’s heard your cry, and his desire is to deliver you, and He desires to be your God and for you to be His people! It’s time for the renewing of our mind to transform the way we think, that has within it the very real power for you and I to believe again, and that God is indeed calling us into His goodness, and into a land of peace and blessing, even while sometimes in the midst of life’s many storms. We must fight for it, we must believe it is possible again, and we must let hope always have the last word in our lives. Your parting of the Red Sea awaits you!

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Exodus 6:9 ESV

[2] Ephesians 5:8 ESV

3 Dylan, B. (n.d.). You Gonna Have To Serve Somebody. Retrieved from https://www.bing.com/search?q=you+gonna+have+to+serve+somebody+lyrics&form=APMCS1&PC=APMC

4 Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

 

 

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