Vanity, It’s Definitely My Favorite Sin

The Devil’s Advocate

In 1997, I was quite captivated by a movie starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves entitled “The Devil’s Advocate”.  I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Pastoral Ministries and Bible, preparing for my entrance into a Master’s program, eagerly ready to embark on a call into “the ministry”.   The movie struck an analytical chord in me, first of all because Al Pacino is one of my favorite actors, but secondly, because the movie seemed to get the aspect of “demonology” visually depicted that was most accurate for a Hollywood movie, and painted a grim picture of just how far any one of us particular “Humpty Dumpty’s” can fall prey to his many times unsuspecting devices.

Ironically, the lead attorney who has never lost a case (Keanu Reeves) plays Kevin Lomax, and Al Pacino plays a character by the name of John Milton (ironically the name of the author of Paradise Lost), but who is none other than Mephistopheles himself.  In the introduction to the movie, we witness Kevin Lomax representing someone accused of child molestation, that as the case unfurls, he actually finds out is guilty as Hell.  Nonetheless, as he cross examines the prosecution, he finds more holes in their story than a high-powered lawyer has a right to, and as a result, the jury rests with a “not guilty” verdict.

Fast forward through the movie’s twists and turns, after Lomax now has a carrot of an even higher-profile job being dangled before him from John Milton, and a credulous ride on the dark side that he could have never imagined, the movie then concludes with Kevin realizing the error of his ways through his chaotic dance with the devil, and we then enter the same introductory scene.  Only this time, the now enlightened and virtuous Kevin now refuses to represent the guilty pedophile.  Our hearts soar as we see this spiritual epiphany of Kevin revealed to us, while the reporter Larry grabs Kevin and his wife (played by Charlize Theron), and essentially lets them know that Kevin is now the hero, and he wants to do a story that will be the ultimate “do-gooder” story sure to grant him a new kind of fame. As Reeves and Theron smile at each other with a sense of utter righteous nirvana, the scene then fades as Larry now turns into Al Pacino’s character (Satan) who then says with his shit-eating grin, “Vanity, It’s Definitely My Favorite Sin”.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M68wcB6L0s

Vanity’s Slippery Slope

The thought occurred to me as I considered my own entrance into a “do-gooder” profession at the time, just how imperceptibly oftentimes Satan can take the good that we would do, and can “ipso-facto” turn it into a narcissistic plunge without us even recognizing it, until it’s web around us is fully grown and we’ve been consumed by it ever so completely.  It’s a very slippery slope that catches us incognito, and in its aftermath, it devastates not only our own lives, but also the star-gazed lives of those who falsely project their spiritual hopes and dreams upon us, looking to us for their proxy of Christ himself.  Of course, the apostle Paul hammered this age-old problem out for us quite clearly  in the book of I Corinthians, correcting their “celebrity preacher” propensity, when he reminds them that it is neither He, nor Apollos, nor Peter that is anything at all, but that it is only Christ that we all should follow.  He further reminds them in Chapter 13 quite shockingly, that we could even become so good in our own eyes, perhaps even giving our bodies to be burned alive for those who follow us, and yet; if we have not love (the true motive of righteous living), we are in his words…nothing.  Or perhaps a close second dilemma, is that of being nothing more than a sounding gong or a clanging symbol that everyone can hear, yet no one can seem to turn off as we genuflect at the sound of our own voice and virtuous tabloid.

When I was a rebel pastor, I was constantly confronted both with my own potential for good, and equally my ability to disappoint, continually humbled as I would step into the pulpit to even attempt to say “Thus Saith the Lord” to anyone.  As a result, I tended to preach on topics that I myself was working through in my own life, before I could even begin to hold out anything sacred and substantive for others to take a hold of and embrace for themselves.  I saw the potential for vanity in me, as I looked out Sunday after Sunday at vanity’s equivalent congregational reflection staring back at me; equally caught up in having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.  The kind of power quite frankly, that is only made perfect in the weakness we experience both from our arduous journey into our quest for righteousness as nothing more than sinners saved by grace, and from the malevolent force called “this fallen world” that is persistently antagonistic to such a paradoxical caveat of true winning.  Yet it is only here that Christ can form the crucible of love that has even the remote possibility of making us into someone who would even dare to say, “follow me, as I follow Christ”.

All is Vanity Saith The Preacher

I realize I have written about this in some form or fashion a lot lately.  I guess you could say it is my soul’s quiet preoccupation as I reflect on all the world’s fool’s gold that abounds, and in constant amazement that no matter how much I know it, it is still so easy to fall into its predatory grasp time and time again, as vanity indeed thrives everywhere in our culture today.  I see it in the eyes of “road rage” as I sneak out into an intersection with plenty of room to cross, as those I encounter speed up, almost as if to taunt me with the idea of smashing into my car because I dared to cross while they were on their way to God knows where. I see it in bowed up chests and laser like stares, as men and women walk confidently and defiantly with observable chips on their block, daring anyone to look at them in the incorrect way as they live out their daily survival of only the fittest.  I see it in the media outlets and political pundits who put forth their “two cents” on every matter under the sun, arrogantly claiming their lack of “deplorable” status, distancing themselves from the obvious “dregs of society” that suck up all the space that they occupy.  I see it also in Hollywood’s constant big-headed projection of itself as the standard of which we are all to aspire and work for.  And I now see it equally in the church, where ministers dangle very closely on the precipice of being far too caught up in their own reflection, while the casualties of their unsuspecting tutelage continue to wonder who will yet take up the basin and the towel, rather than succumb to a form of self-consecrated, white-washed simony that rivals the marketplace of which we are all apart.

I believe Tom Conlon tells us the truth of the matter in his song Ohio, where he writes these words that I have reflected upon a good bit lately.  He says, “Everyone wanna be famous, no one wanna be righteous”.  And, well, I suppose both he and the devil are both right after all, because vanity; well it really is our (my) favorite sin.

Selah

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=43&v=3775n_mb05A

 

 

Does Reciprocity of “Give-and-Take” Exist In Relationships Anymore?

A Question

I’ve reflected on this particular topic for some time now, asking the discernable “sixty-four dollar” question as it relates to others as I “people watch” all around me, while also rather sheepishly asking it of “yours truly”.  For after all, what is good for the goose as they say, must also be good for the gander.  And as far as it goes, up until now, I felt that I had at least somewhat passed that particular test.

For instance, when someone called me and needed something, if I had what they needed, nothing was spared. If I was called upon to give advice; or to simply listen; to be a shoulder they could cry upon; or they needed a place to stay; or if called upon to look at something that was most important to them, I would dare not relinquish it.  I did so simply because after 27 years of devouring the scriptures with both my mind, heart, and equal brokenness, I cannot walk away from the mirror of those well-rehearsed lines and not recognize that I indeed “am” my brother and sister’s keeper.  I “am” somehow to be the hands and feet of Jesus in some form or fashion, and both my schedule and my prayer closet should flex for allowance of that oftentimes inconvenient, yet gospel-like intrusion into my life.  And, should we need a reciprocated mutuality of this same comfort upon ourselves, should we not also be able to count upon it?

Narcissism and Facebook

Well before we hold our breath in the endless waiting line, perhaps our answer comes to us front and center in the current climate of chronic narcissism and now habitual attention deficit disorder?  For me, it’s plain and simple, or black and white, even as I often fall short; and yet, it seems for most of us now, this obvious nudge to go beyond our now routine superficiality of paper-thin convictions and relationships has become an inconvenient truth threatening to hold us back from “living our lives”.  I believe Facebook, of which I am a reluctant patron of, is part and parcel of the problem.  We scroll through old friends and mostly mere acquaintances unremittingly, periodically adding them to our “friends” list, perhaps not realizing it’s “friends with(out) the benefits.  We presume our “likes” and “tags” show in fact that we are comrades of sorts, even as we scurry on to our next diversion keeping us at a comfortable “stone’s throw” from real communication, interaction and love bestowed on our “so-called” virtual friends, many of whom should fall into a quite different category of “brothers and sisters” if their posts claiming their love for Jesus is descriptive of who they actually are.  But Facebook need not bear the full culpability, as I fear this casual “hit it and quit it” relational interaction seeps from these flickering pixels seamlessly into the flesh and blood world of our daily grind equally I’m afraid.

Privatization

For instance, our homes have long become our private castles, hiding us away from the pain and suffering that exists just outside our door, all the while scampering out occasionally for food, drink and never-ending entertainment; and then rushing back into our doors safe and secure again inside the womb of indifference, as we then settle down in front of a speaking idol that beams out constant nonsensical garbage certain to fuel our desensitization all the more.  And as we interact with our peers in our work-day week, once we leave on Friday, the unwritten rule, outside of an occasional joining up for a frolicsome rendezvous, is that the weekends have become our sacred parish of “us four and no more”, as our self-made stained glass windows expediently keep out those that come with any hint of a bag full of predicaments and a worn out welcome to boot.

What About the Church?

And as I ponder this even more, I wonder as it relates to the faith I claim to possess, and that the church proposes to offer assistance with, how we are doing in this same arena?  Are we, as supposed guides of the blind, pushing back on this privatization of our lives that keeps our shoe leather of caring comfortably at bay?   Oh, we use words like “family”, surely understanding that Jesus alluded many times to the fact that His family would be even greater and ever more loving than our own nuclear family.  Yet oftentimes, when we are no longer the shiny new visitor, or the over-committed and tithing acolyte, we find that perhaps we are still “a day late and a dollar short” of feeling safe and loved by a collective family, who at a moment’s notice will go out of their way to leave their light on for you.

And as I muse about this 800-pound conundrum in the church’s and my own room, the question I have recently asked myself is this: Have we now come to a time that our Christianity means mostly nothing outside of the mere trappings of church life full of weekly “sermonettes by preacherettes to us as christianettes”? Or to put it more pithily, I wonder if we truly inculcate the values of Christianity into our daily lives and relationships where the rubber actually meets the road, and beyond the veneer of regular church attendance, an occasional check in a large golden bowl, and constant swaying to the everlasting catalogue of predictable muzak?

The Rub

For sure, the lack of real mutual “give and take” of real community lacking in our daily lives and in the place we call church is often spoken of, and no shortage of ink has been spilled in the description of it, and perhaps I won’t offer anything new here today.  Although it does seem that the lack thereof is slowly killing us in ways we have yet to give attentive runway to in our own topsy-turvy lives; and at least for me, the devil is for sure found in our individual details. Yet I just can’t help but quietly wonder if we’ve not been so busy “going” to church, that somehow; just maybe, we forgot that we are actually supposed to “be” one.

Selah

“Honey, Just Tell Them We’re Home-Churched”

Back to Basics

I guess today it’s high time I get back to why I started writing this blog in the first place. You know, getting back to the narrow path and the Jesus I see missing in America and all; which by default also means the one missing in the American Church…oh yeah, and I guess in me too. But anyway, let’s get on with that why don’t we.

Home-Schooled

First, let me explain a little bit about my title here, just to set you up for my forthcoming psychosis in prose.  I guess you could say my wife was one of the early pioneers of the “Home-School” movement, at least in the sense of one who felt legitimately called to do so some 25 years ago, with me as her supportive, yet also reluctant sidekick.  This of course was back when friends and family alike looked at us like we had lost our freaking minds, and perhaps were building a cult of other homeschoolers and their whacked out Mom’s and Dad’s on an abandoned ranch somewhere secretly plotting the apocalypse!  Yet in everyday settings there were the “deer in the headlights” looks we would get when we’d be at a local store or somewhere during the day, when both younger and older people alike would take it upon themselves to be our judge and jury with questions behind a “shit-eating” look on their face such as, “Why aren’t your kids in school”?  It was then that my wife and I would cut up behind the scenes at times and role-play back and forth about whose response would be the best to such shenanigans. My favorite was, “We don’t need no stinking school man”,or something like, “School is for losers”or something like that.  And I must say, the shock value was worth all the popcorn and candy you could muster up for the show.  In the end however, we settled for the proverbial nail scratch down the chalkboard with the words, “They’re Home-Schooled”.  And of course as you could imagine, there’s nothing like the truth to just throw people off and make them bat-ass crazy, which would cause them to then shortly thereafter commence with questions such as, “Well, what do they do for testing”, or “What about their socialization skills”,or my favorite was when some wise ass would try and trick them with a math question or something like that.  It was all I could do to bite my tongue, but I bet they wouldn’t ask too much about the socialization one these days now would they?  After all, just ask any local SRO officer.

Nonetheless, fast forward to today, and by God’s grace and in spite of all the demons that surrounded us from both educators and our beloved friends and family, two are now done with college, one is finishing, and the fourth one will be headed that way in two short years, and all of them are just as deep in debt to satisfy everyone who desired we fit into their moldJ.

Home-Churched

But I guess you figured that there’s kind of a correlation behind this rebel no one thinks has a cause relating being “Home-Schooled” to being “Home-Churched”.  Well I thought you’d never ask!  In fact, another running joke of ours is along those lines. For as most of you know, I have had my own quiet little battle with the church, which is why I write a blog where I can say “shit” and “damn” and get away with it, because nobody’s hiring me anyway.  LOL.  And yet the truth is, it really hasn’t been a battle, but just a lot of questions; the very thing church’s and churchmen don’t like, when it would be much better, if like those early naysayers of the status quo of what school was to look like, if we would have just simply “fell in line”.

But there is no question that we have had our time with finding our place since we finally stepped out of the role of being behind the scenes churchmen ourselves, and nursing our kids slowly but surely back from being a “PK” (preacher’s kid), back to faith again, while giving equal attention to ourselves in this regard.  But the truth is, after nursing our wounds from BCS (Bad Church Syndrome), we really do love the “idea” of the church. We really do.  In fact, that’s why most Sundays we visit to try and find where we fit in, and then typically settle down for a year or so, and then look at each other, and exit again, still I guess in Bonoesque fashion not having found what we’re looking for.  And as you can imagine, the same questioners, naysayers, and self-proclaimed prophets have their role to play.

Most quite frankly just say we’re “church hoppers” and wishy-washy, and wouldn’t know what we wanted if it smacked us upside the head.  Others say things like, “There is no perfect church, but we have a perfect Lord”,or other goodies like, “There is no perfect church, and besides, once you and I entered it wouldn’t be perfect anymore”…yawn.  And then other more astute practitioners of BCS can philosophize a little better about our disorder, and relate it to being a product of the sixties and early seventies rebellion, and the resultant non-committal nature and allegiance of any institution for goodness sakes.  And others simply continue to build their predictable house of cards to remind us that the one’s on the outside are the one’s with the real problem.  And I’ll have to say, these maxims have worked their way through my complex mind and heart more times than they could possibly know, and I keep coming out on the other side with the same questions.  And so when people ask me where I go to church, and I look at my wife, she simply says, “Honey, just tell them we’re Home-Churched”.

Liquid Drano

And I will have to say that the struggle is real man, let me tell you.  Though two of my four sons show me up pretty good, and both are committed church acolytes at their institution of choice, the so-called teacher of the class is playing hooky sometimes. And I’m afraid that I have enough Protestant guilt built up to last for a good long while for doing so.  And I keep deliberating over the same types of things I guess as to my reason for this.  Things like the lack of real community that you can truly sense, rather than a marketing approach that makes you feel like you’ve been bent over without the necessary foreplay.  Or sometimes it’s the total lack of a message from someone who supposedly spends more time in the word of God and prayer than the rest of us each week, who might actually serve up a steak and baked potato for us to chew on and wrestle with, somehow anointed with a thing called “The Spirit” that drives us to our knees and action. Or perhaps it’s the predictable cliché of “two songs/greeting/awkward handshakes/one song/communion/offering/sermon/two songs/dismissal” (The Restless Church) that just wears me slap out, wondering why I didn’t just go to the beach to read my bible and pray there instead.  And then again, it could be due to the ever-predictable form of godliness we portray with refined reason and logic, yet negligible of the visible power thereof to really make a difference, and actually do at least some of the things that Jesus did.  Or even more so, maybe it’s the fact that I can’t seem to get past all the money it takes for all those buildings and pastors of specialty for each demographic, with little to no money left over for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and feeding the poor and needy, or visiting the orphans and widows in their distress. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, church pundits remind us of the 10% we owe to the Lord as a possible reason why the church is in it’s present state of decline.  Yet somehow the Math doesn’t really add up, which proves you probably really don’t need Algebra to figure this thing outJ.

Perhaps they’re right, and I’m wrong.  For sure, though none of my x-church practitioners would ever comment on my blog or admit that perhaps myself and other renegade prophets could really be on to something worth wrestling with.  After all, like the corporate world of sharks, the ecclesiastical butt kissing line is a long and winding road as well.  And though I am not against the church in any way shape or form, I am increasingly weary of the same predictable answers to legitimate questions of people who are honestly trying to find their way back in.  The truth of the matter is, some say there’s a swamp in Washington that needs to be drained, but I’m just wondering if perhaps a little liquid Drano is needed in Christendom as well.  Meanwhile, the beach is very inviting.

 

Selah

 

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly Among the Facebook Aristocracy

It will of course be no surprise to many of you that we have become a nation of experts on just about everything under the sun it would seem, especially amidst our favorite social media and information highway platforms. Many in fact spout off about things they know; things they think they know; things they don’t really know; and things that are perhaps better off left unsaid altogether. Of particular interest to me is the fact that most of these would be prophets have their particular freak flag that they fly, and that once you look behind the veneer of, always seem to gravitate towards their particular identity politic; victimhood; geography; ethnicity; or particular bandwagon that the cultural elite have been branding to these gullible masses. And in this milieu of a smorgasbord of so-called answers “blowing in the wind”, the quest for some real truth to sink one’s teeth into has been about like trying to nail Jell-O to a freakin wall! This is particularly the case for those who are truly seeking after it, yet which also makes those attempting to speak into the cultural wind with some sort of truthful acumen tantamount to begging for a fistfight of expletives in your social media face in seconds flat.

This new phenomenon seems to be the case among the average Joe who gets his daily diet of information in mere sound bites and video vignettes from their favorite news channel; or even worse, their favorite TV show.   But I’ve found even among those who may have a specialization in a certain area, or having read the latest book on a topic at hand (a real rare phenomenon); and even those who claim allegiance to a particular brand of Christianity or clerical robe, often times speak out of that frame of reference, as opposed to speaking from the overarching motif of grace and that of expressed wisdom sifted through a self-admitted opaque glass. To be sure, I believe there are things we can truly know, and know matter-of-factly, both in the seen and unseen realm, even though the latter regards a metaphysical truth of which modern man has now discounted as mere codswallop. However, that modicum of knowledge that we can come down on, is most often found at the apex of one stalwart platform of certainty: The fact that Jesus took our place. In the words of Bono, it is indeed the “thought that changed the world”.

I say all this to say that it is through the lens of a beneficiary with absolutely nothing to give in return, and also found with no bargaining chips on the table with which to broker a deal with the divine that we then view the world; and that we then humbly attempt to speak into with the unassuming invitation, “Be reconciled to God”. And in spite of what should be obvious to those of us who have walked with a limp on the narrow path for any length of time, I have noticed that the aforementioned groups of people sound off more out of their particular brand of “high-horse” or “groupthink” rather than through both an objective and subjective stance (since the truth we uphold comprises both). Of particular interest and bewilderment for me are those who claim to be harbingers of the ancient path of truth, yet ostensibly do so driven from cultural dictates of current chicness like everyone else, or from a particular “family tradition”, rather than as one speaking from the posture of a prayerful and biblical watchman and discerner of both the truth, as well as the distant mysteries held in equal tension this side of heaven.

In fact, I have found that the quest for truth requires a “both/and” and not an “either/or” approach to arrive at a truth that is substantial enough to both weather the storms of life over the long term, and that also is capable of navigating through both plausible and implausible truth claims vying for attention and allegiance. All in all, we have an awful lot of so-called knowledge that we are sure is “the gospel according to us”, but very little wisdom tempering the claim to such from those who both “know” Him, and equally recognize His ways are past finding out. Though that might sound like the voice of a relativist, it is actually more the story of a weak man’s walk with Christ with his ears and eyes wide open in the midst of both the temporal and the eternal; the secret and also revealed; and equally as part of the kingdom that is both here and still not yet. And it is my personal belief as a wayward traveler on the narrow path, that perhaps once we attempt to get beyond “Jesus took my place”, most of us are found a “day late and a dollar short” of the truth we proclaim, and with big mouths that are better off being shut to a world trying to find it’s way to our path still sadly less traveled.

I must say that it has taken me many years of dangers, toils and snares to come to this very delicate dichotomy between that which I know and that which I am still seeking, and thus I now refrain from too many “soapbox” temptations. I used to preach to my parishioners (unknowingly at the time) from a vantage point of one who had the truth they should listen to, yet quickly conceded amidst my own daily mirror check hoping to see the reflection of a victor of the Christian life, and found instead a mere beggar searching for crumbs staring back at me. From that point onward, I came down from the “holy man chairs” and sat on the pews with the rest of the sinners, and only approached the sacred desk with fear and trembling before speaking “thus saith the Lord” to those in my humble care. It was then that I realized that my theologies and dogmata were of interest to me perhaps, yet not so much to those who were simply trying to get through another night without pulling the trigger, and who desperately needed to see the gospel come in shoe leather of real tangible hope, rather than homilies filled with moral prescriptions no one can keep past Monday morning. Instead, I became a mutual traveler on the narrow path, albeit as one appointed to guide others to where the water truly flowed, and to the one who promised that those who drank deeply of His reservoir would never thirst again. In essence, I also stopped inviting people to church by putting the cart before the horse, and instead directed them to the one who alone had the power to calm and likewise walk through the storms of their lives, footprints and all.

And yet what seems self-evident to those of us who hobble along on the narrow path, is in fact a forest by and large missed by a conglomeration of deviational or comfortable trees by a myriad of other voices in the market square, as well as by so-called friends and family members alike who are praying for our salvation to their way of thinking, and who are “praying for us ” that we finally get it right. They are those who are surer than the word of God itself it seems, and who are relentless in their adamancy that if we’d just fall in line, we could once and for all be just like them, and the(ir) world would then be a happier place.

Though to be sure the “seeing through a glass darkly” Christian life can be a lonely trek on the narrow path, and can be equally comprised of a much shorter “friends” list. And yet at this very acute cost, the opposite tendency of joining in with dogmatic assertion and argumentation while holding too many theological lines drawn in the sand, rather than a more cautious dark glass theology, is much more costly still I’m afraid. And in the aftermath, the former is ripe with casualties that thwart the very mission to bring the “good news” to those who actually want to hear it. Yet to be sure, many take the “glass-darkly” side as synonymous to entrance into the slippery slope of compromise and unorthodoxy, yet walking in the center of biblical tension is a tightrope worth the vulnerability it inevitably brings for those who in the end find the Master there with his outstretched hand guiding us to our final destination.

All in all, as found in the greatest words perhaps ever penned on the topic of love, and words of which are far too easily scurried through on countless wedding days, the apostle Paul himself (the self-recognized “chief of sinners”) reminds us that in this life, “we see through a glass darkly”, and only in the Lord’s eschaton will we “fully know”, and thus will be “fully known” by the only one who truly has the keys to the kingdom. His conclusion holds out before us three things that when all is said and done we can hold on to with a firm and constant surety: it is that of faith, hope and love. The very things we cannot see, but when experienced, are felt far beyond any sermon or moral admonition we could ever remember; and that of which the greatest of those is LOVE. And thus as those of us of whom it is incumbent upon to speak of that which we do know, it must always be through the bestowal of a more loving mirror theology if it is ever to reach the hearts of those that desperately need to hear less from a f—ing know it all, and more from a mutual beggar who has found crumbs to share.

“We are all beggars, this is true”.

the dying words of Martin Luther

 

Selah

 

 

 

How to Save a Life

An Encounter

 In one of those rare moments of late, this week I had the great privilege of witnessing humanity at it’s best at just about the time I had concluded western civilization’s (and more specifically America’s) fall into the abyss as an ever increasing and most imminent certainty. This series of episodic events over the course of the last few months started with my brief encounter with a homeless man whose morose and disheveled appearance struck me to the very core, much as the plight of the forgotten and dismissed in our society always has. Yet this man’s humble and yet acutely saturnine eyes began to tell me a story that I needed to hear for myself.

It started as an occasional dash to the golden arches on a Saturday or Sunday morning for a satiating sausage McGriddle for my wife and I after a weeklong observance of abstinence from life’s fonder pleasures. As I entered the drive-thru, I saw him out the corner of my eye, sitting there like someone uninvited yet nonetheless out front and center lingering abashedly for a few morsels from any rich man’s table. Then, as I ordered my food, I said to the drive-thru attendant, “make that a double order please”, as I then moseyed my way back around to roll down my window with his bag of food and drink with a simple “God Bless” as I then skirted by. This is of course something very easy to do, which at least bespeaks of a heart headed in the right place I suppose. However, it is as also an all too easy “pass” for most of us to skate by the obvious plank in our society’s eye that we like to pretend is simply not there while the time-release nature of our increasing desensitization capitulates once again. And then as I ride off into my middle-class coastal weekend of sunbathing, cold beer and a Sabbath observance and rest on Sunday, I begin to contemplate about what I have witnessed as I often do; and yet again to what the Lord himself would have me do about it.

After guilting myself about my own lack of response to simply open my doors to one such as he, I am quickly reminded of all of societies justifiable reasons one cannot open up his home with a wife and kids to a stranger of his kind. This of course is all quite evenhanded in both a protective and financial capacity; and yet at the same time a very clear watering down of a gospel that once upon a time was the church’s golden rule rather than a now more normal exception to it. And the thought occurred to me that it seems that it must take just about 2000 years or better to go from losing our lives to saving it again. And I’m also reminded very quickly why nothing much happens worthy of a powerful notation to a people who have somehow now lost their first love, and who have clearly forgotten that Babylon is not their home.

A History of College Tries

Nonetheless, on another note, I guess you could say I have been an advocate of the poor and downtrodden for most of my life, to at least give myself a grade on the curve. And throughout the course of my life, on any given day, our family was joined with weary life travelers who stopped in for a time of rest and a little helping hand. Of course I’d like to say that as a result of this ongoing practice I’d have an entourage of successful stories of how my rescue resulted in some “happily ever after” for those in my care. However, the truth is that most accepted my help, all the while rejecting my offer of the one who could really help them, and who then exited out my door to either an untimely death; a trek deeper into their favorite mire; or with a contumacious resolve to simply do it their way yet again. Perhaps the messenger was not as good as he should have been, or perhaps what I learned is that it’s mostly about our obedience to an open-handed life rather than the possession of a pragmatic catalog of “winning” at any heroic rescues to speak of which sell books and ushers one into some church hall of fame. Many who watched as result were sure that we were fools full of naiveté and grandiose ideas in trying to make this wretched world some better place, while others chilly obtuseness resigned them to a comfortable and lingering judgment of our endeavors, towering behind a infectious and rampant belief that “there but for the grace of God go I” applied to everyone but their miserable selves.

Yet even as a person with a track record of at least playing at “losing one’s life” for the sake of the gospel throughout the last 26 years of my life, I’ve gone through periodic bouts of joining the ranks of the naysayers, and then back again to someone who increasingly scratches his head as to why those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ have softened so much of the gospel’s loudest commandment’s around wealth and money to a very sanitized and distant undertone. And as I muse through these things, I make my way back through the drive-thru line again for a fast food fix; drop off another bag of goodies to my new and comfortably detached acquaintance; and off to my next first-world excursion.

And then the day came when I finally decided to engage him. I asked him about his story, and where he’d been in his life. He then proceeded to tell me as a man in his late fifties to early sixties about a family that had all now passed away, and about multiple heart surgeries that left him as someone with already limited skills incapable of full sustainment in this “swimming with the sharks” economy. In addition, he told me about countless tries to gain consistent employment yet continually being let go as a result of his obvious health liabilities to his employer. I then gave a feeble smile, told him I would be praying, and casually mentioned that I wanted people in the community to know about his plight. And then, like a well-intentioned do-gooder, I whisked away to yet another fantastic distraction until this week brought his memory again to my mind.

The Ray of Hope

 It seemed that someone posted something on our community Facebook site inquiring if anyone knew the story of this humble yet familiar untouchable of our seaside community. Then within moments, many began to chime in along with my wife and I about our individual interactions with him and the desire to help in some way. These comments continued amidst an occasional stone cast from Scrooge-like posts bidding us to in essence allow the decreasing of the surplus population to take its evolutionary course. All the while, one brave soul took it upon himself to start a “GoFundMe” page for our new nomadic friend. Within hours, a large sum of money was raised to help get a myriad of essentials this man would need to at least have a chance to breathe but for a moment. All the while, many more have pledged to give longer term support to a man who found himself caught up in a tailspin of life of which he had no ability to recover from. Many more have vowed to work with him to chip away at the barriers in his life preventing him from any type of hope or survival in this dog-eat-dog world of which we are all but a paycheck away from homelessness inside of ourselves. And I’ll have to say that this old dog has been given a new found faith in humanity this week, and with a new resolve to constantly be wiling to speak out and for the vulnerable of our world that the scriptures uniformly and exhaustively compel us towards. So I guess you could say that this week I learned firsthand again how you actually save a life; which most always comes by being wiling to lose some of it first of all.

A Plea to the Church Idea I Love

I’ve been an advocate for some time now of the church taking one homeless person, or family at a time, and to go beyond “feeding the homeless” to actually doing what I witnessed this week in “homing” the homeless; since that is clearly what they need. And as I say this, I know many individuals have actually done this, and many more have spawned organizations that do their best to take many off the streets who have no hope unless a truly good Samaritan should pass their way willing to stick it out over a much longer and messier haul. Yet the truth is, that most of us would not give to organizations that expend most of their resources to the machine itself, with very little left for the propagation of the gospel and to the poor Jesus said he came specifically for. And yet even as I say this, I know that the church has done more to alleviate the ills of society than any other organization known to man “hands down”. Yet somehow I believe that we have allowed the professionalization of the ministry and the needs of those within it’s comfortable and long-term ranks to supersede the needs of the one’s Jesus said were “the least of these”, and to whose humble care is sure and eternal criterion for sitting on his right hand. By choice, however painfully, I finally chose to be an unsuccessful minister in a system that many times fails to read the so obvious writing on the church wall in regards to this fly in its ointment. And to a system that actually once turned a watching world “upside down”. And yet even as I say this, I know that the hope of the world still remains with the church; or at least by those within her ranks. I only mean to say that this week, I learned how to save a life from the roadies and not the boys in the band.

 

Selah

 

 

Finishing Well Inside of a 50 Shades of Grey World

From Stalwart Allegiance to a Slip, Sliding Away

 It was 26 years ago, that at the age of 27, I finally fell down at my dining room table and conceded to the great hound of heaven. The one who had watched me run so long and so hard away from His loving arms till exhaustion finally took its inevitable toll. I had finally gotten “sick and tired of being sick and tired” as they say, and he knew it—and all I could do was say, “Here I am; please do something with this mess I’ve made of my life”.

You see though I grew up in the church and “gave my heart to Jesus” every other Sunday night; up until this point, something in that process had not yet “taken” shall we say.  For shortly after my commitment to forsake all for the cause of Christ, I was only a short mini-skirt or bong hit away from becoming a casualty in the spiritual war in the heavenlies. To be sure part of it was due to my family dysfunction, an additional portion was the rejection of an evangelicalism that I could not measure up to, and yet a vast percentage was simply due to two competing loves you might say. There was of course the love of the world I was caught up in that I could at least touch, taste and feel; and then there was the promise of a love and a home that was eternal, but yet somewhere beyond the horizon of my current ability to experience all that it had to offer. And to be sure, for most of us, this is indeed where the rubber meets the road.

Nonetheless, at the age of 27, the aspect of what it meant to hear the Lord say “Well done, thy good and faithful servant”, and this facet of what it means to truly “finish well” gave me new aspirations from which to strive and set my face like flint towards. And for quite awhile, even amidst many failures along the way to be sure, I felt that my roots started to go deep; and that a faithful tree with a promising future started to sink down by streams of water with some visible fruit for the world around me to pick from. Through a daily walk and later years of theological study, as well as a brief stint in pastoral church ministry; though difficult at times, the eternal love started to win the battle of my allegiance more times than not, and I was perhaps the happiest I had ever been.

Fast forward through my personal battle with what in my minds’ eye the church was becoming and heading towards, I eventually took a sabbatical that has lasted some 16 plus years now with perhaps no end in sight. During that time, I felt that I was still “walking the walk and talking the talk” for the most part. For instance, I was still a family man; I still read my Bible everyday and prayed; I gave to those in need around me to a bloody fault; and reasoned that for the most part, I was still on the straight and narrow path. During this time, I also shucked off most of the stifling restraints that evangelicalism sought to impose upon me to “not smoke, drink or chew and run with those who do”, and set out to explore what the church world outside of evangelicalism’s doors had to offer someone looking for a much deeper and vibrant faith–one capable of real answers to questions the church no longer seemed to even desire to answer. Yet though I had periods of great faith during this time; like the frog in the kettle, I too slowly had the “finishing well” cooked out of me, and much of who I had become looked an awful like the world I had told God so many years ago I would never fall in love with again. And as I looked around, I realized that the church had joined me in this great falling away. And it seems that now, this characteristic of “finishing well” has become at least “50 shades of grey.”

The World’s Definition

The world has its various ideas of what it means to finish well to be sure. Many believe that it has to do with dying with the most toys, which typically boils down to the acquiring of houses, cars, stocks and bonds; retirement by the sea, and a solid inheritance for our progeny as the epitome of a successful life. Others search for power, prestige and fame that equally come with spoils that can afford whatever the heart desires. Some seek to live on the edge, and get their kicks in jumping out of soaring planes, climbing the highest mountains or swimming on the ocean floor—or slowly but surely checking off a bucket list that defines and gives their life the greatest possible meaning.   Then there are others who look for various social-justice causes to give themselves to with a view to making a name for themselves as well; yet also no doubt in order to leave the world a little better than the way they found it. And it would seem that for others, to finish well apparently means to waste away in front of a television set until the undertaker finally pronounces us DEAD, whilst others don’t give it much thought at all it seems. But the crux of the matter is that most of us live by Paul’s nihilistic synopsis without something like the resurrection’s implications to really sink our teeth into: that of eating, drinking and being merry; since tomorrow we all die.

The Good and Faithful Servants of Yesteryear and Today

 I reminisced a bit lately about many who led the charge of bidding others and myself to the cause of Christ in my young tutelage. The sad state of affairs is that many of them too have become casualties of war, and are no longer finishing well or even on the path striving for it. They are spiritual MIA’s that no one can find remotely near the battlefield anymore, and who seem to be stoically pursuing it’s logical ends. Many also divorce pretty much the same as everyone else; watch the same movies as everyone else; look out for themselves pretty much like everybody else; and are doing their level best to pretend their former self was perhaps misguided or perhaps credulous. Let’s just say that there aren’t many heroes left from the good ole days anymore, and it doesn’t seem that new one’s are about to cause much of a fuss in this “50 shades of grey” world continually knocking just outside their front door.

Others caught up in the Fifty shades of the church’s “redefining” of what it actually means now to follow on the narrow path have surmised that it must mean merely “going to church” and dropping their weekly fire insure premium in the plate, while then scurrying off to continue to build their treasures and enjoy their pleasures right here; again, pretty much like everyone else. Christian Smith coined the dilemma among young people as a moralistic therapeutic deism, which resigns the Christian imperative to nothing more than being a good person; calling on God when one is in need; the pursuit of the betterment of oneself; and that all good boys and girls go to heaven when they die. My personal belief is that it is not just the young; but also that the old alike have now taken the ball and ran with it and made it a life science. Yet this description to me also amounts to a practical atheism among the frozen chosen who keep the external forms and trapping of their religion, while it’s real substance is discarded from their lives all together. It is in this present condition that we find ourselves, and perhaps I am also one of its imprisoned disciples. My only question is whether or not anyone else recognizes that the narrow path has now been redefined as the broader one, and whether or not we in the church are even letting the prospect interrupt our dinner plans.

What Does It Mean To Finish Well in a Fifty Shades of Grey World

 So what does it mean to finish well in a fifty shades of grey world? To be sure the devil is somehow mixed in with these details. What does it mean to walk the life of faith while the church and the world are at the same dinner party? For those who recognize the snake in the garden, perhaps it means sometime walking alone with God in the cool of the day. Perhaps it also means walking sometimes in a quiet sadness, not only at our own falling short of the high calling, but in the lack of finding real communal companions who increasingly also recognize we’ve drastically veered off of the narrow road that leads to life. I think it also means the willingness to become a little weird to those at the dinner party, and that perhaps our dance card is increasingly wide open. I believe it also means the embracing of what the scriptures call becoming “strangers and aliens” in a world that is most definitely not our home, and that we must learn daily to loosen the choke-hold it unremittingly has in our lives. I believe it also means the world’s grasp will not go quietly without much prayer and fasting, and that it will increasingly mean loving and being willing to lose to and in a world that will continually reject our walking to the beat of a different drum. It must also mean becoming people whose influence means more than words and repetitive bible studies, as important as they are, but that also comes with power to heal and to save, and that has the ability to transfer people from the darkness into his marvelous light, even as the lions lick their chops in a den somewhere still down the road that only the Father knows of.  And while the party guests scoff and ask “Where is the promise of his coming” since the world tick-tocks on as it always has, the disciple whom Jesus loved does not stutter as he reminds us what it means to truly finish well in a “50 shades of grey” world. He writes:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”. (I John 2:15-17 ESV)

Selah

The Futile Search in Finding Christ’s One True Church

At the outset, let me say that I mean no disregard for the church or one’s individual slant of it in the above statement. And I certainly have the utmost respect for the rich panorama of diversity of thought and practice that makes up the Christian church for the last two millennia. And so when I say “the Christian church”, unlike some; but hopefully like a whole lot of others; I mean the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant expression–even with the checkered history all of them carry along as their preferred but often discounted baggage. I of course did not come to this supposition by upbringing or choice, but rather by dogged compulsion. The compulsion came from a lifetime of pouring through the texts of Holy Scripture, which attempt to speak for itself through the Spirit if we will but let them. Yet it also came from being a lifetime bibliophile that has wolfed down books from each side of the church isle, longing to hear some kernel of truth to help a poor beggar trying to find his way, ever searching for the crumbs around God’s vast church table. This has been for the purpose of mining the reservoir of particular richness that is the universal church, and to the otherwise exclusion that we would have all missed had we not settled down with our hearts, the Holy Spirit, and with our thinking caps, particularly in order to linger long and hard into what they had to show us should we care to give a little listen.

An Acquired Taste

This view has come from a church-school of hard knocks, and has carried a very high cost for me personally, as one who set out many years ago with a “calling” to “preach the gospel” in a setting that for me was the Protestant-Evangelical church. At the time, I had no idea how very much I would be the “square peg in the round hole” there, all the while struggling persistently to call it my home; even amidst sheep in wolves clothing who had no other intention than my demise and hopeful resolve to finally call it quits–or to simply sit down and shut up! And in the first chapter of that journey, the wolves had the sheep by one as I exited the “call” with a mound of school loan debt and a waning belief in a system that for me had far too many casualties than successes to increasingly speak of. And though my experience hemorrhaged out in everything that came forth from my lips and broken heart, not too awful many were listening; nor do they still at the time of this writing. And in fact, this snubbing of my damaged heart and prophetic desire to allow my life to be an open book everyone could read in regards to my reaction to my particular experience with the church was typically met with disdain, contempt, and a place on someone’s permanent “we’ll be praying for you” list, while equally waiting for me to eventually “see the light” and fall back in line. And though I never did, it wasn’t for the lack of umpteen years worth of a serious college try.

An Angry Lad

I’m sure part of the reason I was unsuccessful in making the trek back was because at first I was angry. Anger is hard to hide even when we speak with a s____ eating grin on our face. The Grinch towards church in us cannot be hidden behind it, and most can spot our “accident waiting to happen” in a few seconds flat. In fact, I can remember the time that a dear friend of mine had asked me whether or not I would like to help him start a church shortly after I had waived my white flag in my last pastorate, to which I simply replied, “If you want to see it fail miserably, then I’m your man”. Fortunately for me, this particular churchman and friend saw me for who I really was, and who imputed unto me what he alone could see, as he extended his graceful hand and listening ear with a continual push for me to give it another go and even share his pulpit. Perhaps he was on drugs, or perhaps he was the one light on a dark path the Father above allowed to remind me, that perhaps I still had something to say. And he was the someone who saved my life that dark night, and I thank God he had the discerning and sensitive eyes from which to see me with at that time.

Sad and Alone on the Journey

My anger eventually subsided and turned to one of sadness you might say. For one, I was sad for what I was now “relearning” again in the business world and in my travels, as I constantly met people who were enamored with the prospect of Jesus but no so much from the institution associated with his namesake. And although it is all too unsurprising now in its familiar sound to our ears, it is still increasingly #1 on the top 10 list of barriers to the gospel, and one that has caused me many a sleepless nights and a proverbial scratching of the head.

This sadness continued for quite some time in my life and I checked out for a time to lick the remainder of my wounds before this little engine that thought he could would get back into the church game. Yet I increasingly ran up against brick walls of all shapes, sizes and colors that I couldn’t get around, nor would it’s clerical cronies and guards allow me an alternate route. For while I thought these barriers were of my own making alone, yet as months turned into years with no end in sight, I began to realize that much of my struggle was an honest angst that I shared more with those on the outside looking in than those secure within the cozy womb of the institution of which they were apart. The sadness for me then easily mutated into aloneness, and both seemed to set up camp and stay for at least a month of Sundays.

This aloneness then led to a resolve to perhaps go solo this time around and break new ground. You see I increasingly struggled with the model of the church that I saw that seemed to expend most of it’s resources on itself and the professionals that would administer it; particularly when there was not much from a pragmatic standpoint to show for its efforts when all was said, and not much done. I peeked in, and besides looking at my own imperfect limp on the narrow path, I increasingly saw people take classes in evangelism, yet who still didn’t evangelize. I saw those who were commissioned to take up their cross and follow, but who preferred to simply wear them around their necks. And I increasingly witnessed a church that continually resorted to speaking a language to a postmodern world that no one even understood anymore, much less gave an honest listen to. And evidently, someone forgot to tell the church this was going on, as they stood continually stalwart and entrenched for battle against the very ones Jesus called us to eat, drink and die with and for. I waited and I waited, and then I decided to take the plunge in my own church planting effort, all the while fully expecting failure, due to the historic dark cloud of my former clergy existence.

Put Me In Coach

Yet deep inside of me, I long envisioned a church that might actually be both distinct, and yet at the same time attractive to people who were truly lost, and who occasionally peeked around the corner to listen and see if anyone could perhaps point the way forward. A year and a half later; after much prayer, tenuous effort, and thousands of dollars spent, I was unable to find those who were willing to be peculiar with me for a short time in order to see something so obviously true and right become a reality for those outside Christendom’s stained-glass door. I knew many were secretly hoping and patiently waiting for my failure, while a few really broken people who actually knew they were, longed to see something they too no longer believed in. And then one day, I decided to pull the plug. I tapped out again. Perhaps it was not the fish, but the fisherman with the problem. I could vaguely hear my mentors from afar assuring me of this all too predictable fish story.

A Recurring But Ever Evasive Dream

It’s been several years later now and I moved to an eastern shore to forget about it all for just a smidgeon, and find God somewhere in the crashing waves right down the street and inside my restless and wayward heart. I pretty much lost everything the world holds dear in this thing called life, partially by trying to serve up my family some version of an American Dream. But I mostly lost it due to the willingness to give whatever I had for a chance to see God show up to validate my tenured thesis, and who would perhaps once again “call” me to say “Thus saith the Lord” behind a sacred desk of a local church. So far the day has not yet come. Yet even through all the dangers, toils and snares I have already come from, trying desperately to fit in and be loved by the bride of Christ as she played hard to get, I too have many times left her at the altar for another time and place, or another bride altogether. All the while, the Lord has never let me shake the constant desire to see the bride become beautiful again, while longing for her to admit her ogre tendencies in the night. I have also never ceased wanting to bring my Shrek self along with her, knowing that somehow, someway, God needs me to bring my brokenness alongside to perhaps tease her hair and make here a little more desirable to the sinners in such desperate need of her loving touch and embrace.

Through some 16 years now since my exit stage left from the one thing I just knew was the reason I breathed for besides my wife and children, but that I ultimately walked away from, I have looked high and low for the one “true” church that I could finally call “home”. The one place where I would finally become one of it’s own, and yet still be an inquisitive gadfly in continual search of God’s whole truth and nothing but the truth. So far, those teasing wolves are now up by two.

A Quick and Fantastic Distraction

 I must say however that for a long time now the sacramental church of the Orthodox and Catholic variety has sure got my wandering eye. At times they sure are “smoking hot” compared to the anything goes, fly by the seat of your pants rock n roll shows of protestant-evangelicalism. For sure their mystical and ancient beauty has caught me looking hard and long a time or two. And yet, increasingly; as I watch each of these wonderful traditions not even begin to be able to (within themselves) “un-schism” what was once the one holy catholic church, and who swear by the necessity of uniformity and conformity of their own expression as being the “one true church”, I am increasingly left no longer holding my breath–nor desire to be left holding their bag. That is not to say they don’t shine a compelling light though, especially among a protestant-evangelicalism that seems always ready to take up occasional allegiance with the cultural Joneses, and still have no idea who they want to be when they grow up. And they are a light we still all need, but nonetheless one which is I’m afraid only a microcosm of the kaleidoscope of light that is “the church”, and one that God seems to use, even as we squabble amongst ourselves as to who actually has the damn keys! Perhaps we have forgotten that we still all ultimately see through the glass darkly, and when all is said and done, the church exists for others and not ourselves as to what really matters. Or perhaps we’re also too busy trying to be the victor in the fight, forgetting that our faith was founded by the one who willingly threw in the towel.

A Child in Search of…

At present I’m hanging out with a bunch of Calvinists these days, and they certainly have something as well to bring to the table. I’ve been attending quite regularly, and though I don’t put all my eggs in their basket either, I haven’t told them as of yet. Because for now, I’m too smitten yet again with the prospect of a beautiful bride that extends the invitation of a permanent “family” in the making, with a lifetime of loving commitment to lost souls just like myself, and to those outside looking for a place to belong and extra room at the family eucharist table. And though I have ended my search for the one true church, I must say, I have yet to cease longing for and belief in a place that I can call home. After all, isn’t everyone?

 

Selah