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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Selah

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Selah