Living Without a B Plan

I would like to take a brief bit of your time today to sort of piggyback on last week’s blog: It’s Not Called Faith Until It’s Hard.  We wrapped up things, reiterating our main focus of the fact that faith is often times “hard”, yet we have been guilty many times of packaging the gospel in a more palatable fashion that harms more than helps.  The result has been massive attrition (some of which is natural), but that could be avoided at least partly by a presentation of the gospel that includes the costs associated should one give wholehearted alignment to it.  A case in point, and perhaps an addendum to our previous talk worth additional ponderance, comes from Peter himself.  A serious disciple of the Lord known for often getting it wrong, but who often got it “spot on” while the rest were simply trying to catch up.  Our text before us today captures this in a monumental way I believe.

Some Hard Pills to Swallow

Our story comes from John chapter 6, and particularly starting in verse 25, where Jesus begins relating the manna that was given to the Israelites in the wilderness as in fact “Himself”.  In other words, Jesus says He is the “bread of life” that in fact came down from heaven.  This of course starts an immediate ruckus among the crowd, with them first of all calling out his humble and unimpressive lineage from their perspective.  The additional gag reflex was in trying to get their arms and minds around Jesus asking them to “eat his flesh”.  And if that were not bad enough, Jesus seems to be commissioning them to drink some of his “blood” to wash it down with.  And as a result of this “hard teaching”, in verse 66 we find the words, “After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer” (John 6:66 NET).  And I find it interesting to note here that there were many “disciples” that were following Him besides the 12, but it was at this point when the gospel and it’s “hardness” began to separate the men from the boys shall we say.  In fact, you can bet your bottom dollar part of this crowd that bailed as a result were also some of the same ones who later hollered “crucify him” and also chimed in “Give us Barabbas instead” assisting Pilate in deciding His fate.

But in light of this, understandably, Jesus looks out at the 12 and says these somber and profound words that I would suggest He is still asking today to those of us for whom the good confession we made before many witnesses is starting to lack any visible “benefit package”.  Additionally, for those of us who at a pivotal point in our walk begin to also wrestle with the things “hard to understand”, or in the navigation through times of difficulty that seem to have no current expiration date.  The stuff of which Jesus beckons us to not only file away until a later time of revelation, but to also embrace in patient waiting along with the more genteel admonitions that give us epiphanies of glorious light along the way.  And so He says to them, “You don’t want to go away too, do you”?  And I’m guessing at this particular instance you could have heard at least 12 pins drop!

Peter Graduates to Class 201

In fact, it is here that I envision all the disciples looking at each other, wondering who has the correct answer to this haunting question.  Or perhaps they in unison are contemplating whether there is even a right answer to give at this point.  Perhaps they were looking at each other much like you and I might do as schoolchildren when the Principal asks a suspicious looking group of us for an answer to a question that could incriminate the whole lot if answered incorrectly, and so no one lets out a peep; or else!  And yet Peter has already sifted this uncomfortableness through his own mind and heart proven by his epic response. For he has, if you will, already “burned all the ships” and “cashed in his chips”.  And his reply is captivating to say the least. Our text says, “Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God”.  And from my perspective, never have more profound words been uttered for our instruction to those of us trying to make it to second base on the oftentimes lonely narrow path of which we are embarking upon.  For Jesus’ question will continue to be one we also need to answer on the long trek homeward, and our needful repetitive answer will demand the basic tenets of Peter’s reply all over it.

A Flunky Disciple’s Pilgrimage

I concluded last week’s blog with a short video about the story behind the song I sung as a child, still wrestling then with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and what that would look like in Mark Prince clothing.  And though I wouldn’t totally embrace the narrow path until the age of 27, I would spend the next 28 years afterwards learning what that continual decision would cost me personally.  And though I skinned my knee many times throughout that journey through my own spiritual clumsiness, by God’s grace I have been able to say, “I have decided to follow Jesus” and “though none go with me, still I will follow”.  In fact, that has often been the case in moving pictures so to speak.  For I have watched many of my friends who were once “brothers in arms” in the fight of faith on this narrow road become casualties of that same raging battle before my very sad blue eyes.  Men and women who because of trials, toils and snares and a variety of brokenness are those who finally call it quits and say, “enough already”.  For the road is much, much too difficult.  Those costs have also included God’s very own churchmen treating me as an outsider, part of the rebellion, or as someone simply unwilling to kiss their ecclesiastical ring.  A ring of whose glitter did not reflect the gold that had once been projected as a given.  It’s also cost beloved friends and family who both quietly and even boisterously conjured up spells given spiritual names for my demise.  Added to these were my own flaws being worked through cruciform necessities to drive my roots deep and wide and ready for a later more worthwhile rumble with the demons just outside my door.  And then not to be excluded were the loss of all things often unequally mixed with restoration and hope, along with “dark nights of the soul” that lasted more akin to days, weeks and years; along with dates with death to then be postponed until further notice.  And yet here I am, still talking about and walking with Jesus, albeit with a very distinctive limp.

The Decision to Abort Plan B

And as you guessed it, all of us face this same pivotal moment in our lives if we dare to dream about walking on the path of our Lord and what it might entail for us.  For there are a plethora of never-ending options alluring us to its beck and call, all the while making continual boasts of its cure to whatever currently ails us.  And yet sooner or later like Peter, and like the rest of any would be disciple who endeavors to embark on that self-same path, we’ll have to answer a difficult (yet with God’s grace and help) life altering question.  And the answer has only one reply once we have been beat up one too many times with the pleasures of sin for seasons, and man’s endless tirade of pragmatic plans that promise to lead us anywhere but a cross that will need to be carried.  And it is at that time as we stand watching the crowds teeter-tottering between this way and that, sifting through the vast array of best made plans, that we finally understand that He alone has the words of eternal life.  And then consequently resigning to the fact that in light of that stark and yet beautiful reality, there simply is nowhere else that we can go!  And when that happens; when we finally “fish and cut bait” for the last time, life without a B plan becomes the absolute safest place in the world we could possibly be; and one in which we finally begin to actually live!

Selah

I Can Never Be The Same

 

 

 

It’s Not Called Faith Until It’s Hard!

I guess at times over the years many either overtly or secretly considered me a prophet of doom.  Perhaps now looking back it wasn’t totally unwarranted.  Not because I ate locusts and wild honey, saw apocalyptic visions or preached imminent doom before sundown “lest ye repent”.  However, I guess in a way I just continually felt that many of us (including yours truly as a much younger man) somehow didn’t get the memo that the walk of faith is well…hard.

Yea, there it is; I said it.  Now take a deep breath and then exhale.

The Bitter Revelation

And now that we have collectively had our breathing exercise, I guess you could say I’m at least fortunate to have grasped this very central core of the Holy Writ’s teaching early on, although it didn’t serve me well in ministry very much.  After all, nobody likes a “Debbie downer”.  And though Eeyore is cute and all, you wouldn’t invite him to do a self-improvement seminar.  And I get it, I get it.  But I was a little troubled in my spirit I guess.  For while it seemed most everyone else was preaching “God wants you to be happy and fulfilled”, I seemed to always emphasize the “yeah, but”, or, “maybe not so much”.  You see because as I read the ancient writings, what always seemed to rear its ugly, yet substantiated head was the message that perhaps we either missed or simply tore it out before it had a chance to get into us. And the message is, that life is not only difficult sometimes, even many times; but if you decide to add Jesus to your life-cake mix, man oh man; you’re going to have you some TROUBLE!  That is, if you actually “believe” and stick around long enough to let that active decision run its course.

This Does Not Compute

You know it’s really no wonder that I ran into some problems seeming to always allow the chicken little in me to take center stage.  And I won’t put much fuss up about it.  In fact, I remember as a child growing up at the tail end of the Jesus movement, much of what I heard at least in my circles was the “if you gave your life to Jesus everything would be a breeze” kind of message.  You know, things like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” and such and so on.  And yet it seemed that every time I decided to follow Jesus and lay myself down and put myself out there, a crucifixion of some sort lay not too far off in the distance.  I could pretty much bank on it.  And, the more I read, prayed and pondered, the more I couldn’t help but see that this is to be the way of those who embark on the narrow path in some form or fashion.   I couldn’t get around it.  And even if I had wanted to, my continued reality of unanswered prayers, disappointments, and knives aimed straight towards my back taught me otherwise.  And then I realized that somehow or another we’d all been duped.  And so, a man named Job became my new travel companion.

So let me just say that I can perfectly understand why no one wants to read Job.  Can I get an amen?  In fact, it’s the same reason everyone echoes Paul’s prayer in wanting to know “the power of His resurrection”, yet sheepishly leave out the “share in His sufferings” part (Phil. 3:10).  It’s tantamount to the Fonzarelli trying to say he’s wrong The Fonz.  Not only does it come out incoherent, but we’d rather not do it at all.  And the devil knows.  That’s why he paid God a visit one day to talk smack about His boy.  He came to the Lord and basically said (Mark Prince translation), “Yo God, I mean it’s no wonder why Job serves you and all bruh.  You know with that silver spoon he has sticking out of his sheltered behind and all, and his smoking hot (but not so wise) wife and Norman Rockwell picturesque kiddos.  I mean come on man.  And don’t let me forget, the dude’s got more money than Kanye, and enough land and stuff to isolate himself from any pain the world gives out in good measure. Of course he serves you.  I mean sign me up for some of that”!   And the Lord said, “it’s your call Lucy; but you can’t take his life”.  And then, the rest of the 40 plus chapters show his utter crushing of all he knew, loved and held dear. And then in a New York minute, everything was gone.  And then my boy Job, for the exception of having to stomach a few “fair-weathered friends”, and a little mirror-check of his own smidgeon of self-righteous narcissism once hidden; always kept his faith. And in the aftermath, true humility before a Holy God became his permanent abode, and he also still ended up with more money than Kanye! But I’ll leave the rest for you to discover for yourself.  Suffice is to say for now, that Job should be Church 101, but instead it is a neglected class whose casualties are far too many to mention here.

The Forgotten Class

Well, wait a minute, before I forget.  The Job Church 101 class was once taught.  Oh yeah, the early church taught it.  They learned it first from Jesus who said, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his own cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34 NET).  And so it would be no real surprise that Acts 14:22 tells us the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to “continue in the faith” teaching them that “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions”.  Class 101 for sure.  And Stephen found out firsthand, and later Paul and Peter, and then the rest of the 12; save John who was exiled to a luxurious vacation spot in Patmos.

But getting back on track here, I’m sure Job was insightful to them as well.   But if they had forgotten, their Lord not only told them what it would require to have faith in Him, but He then laid down the gauntlet with spilled blood and a broken body and drinking that ghastly cup.  We now have a name for that act in commemoration in fact.  We call it the Eucharist, and we are to regularly imbibe it till He come.  Symbolic innuendo methinks.  And well anyway, Paul reiterated what Jesus taught, and what he taught in his class when he instructed a timid boy named Tim to pass it on to his parishioners when he reminded him, “Now in fact, all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 2:12 NET).  And I could go on, but O.K., O.K.  Here I go again.  Old habits die hard I know.  I didn’t mean to bathe you in it.  Really, I didn’t.  Class dismissed for now.

Time To Get Down To The Heart of the Matter

So back to where we started.  I was trying to make the point that it’s not actually called faith if it’s not hard.  In other words, the expectation that we can inoculate ourselves from either the world’s pain or the pain of carrying our own cross in this world for this noble cause we profess is a misnomer.  It’s gotten us nowhere, and fast.  And I don’t mean to say that many good things will not come on the path, and we should pray and believe to that end “always”.  And we can encourage each other with much emphasis from the scriptures on this aspect of the Christian life, and we must.  I’m simply saying that we must no longer commit the treason of false advertisement when we sell the gospel cheap!  Or better yet, when we don’t lay the “good news” out warts and all for people to consider first and foremost.  For there was once a man that came to Jesus who blurted out, “I will follow you wherever you go”.  And he got an A for that.  But Jesus reminded him that “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has not place to lay his head”.  To which he retorted something along the lines of “Let me go bury my pops first”, and Jesus, being seeker-sensitive as He was (sarcasm alert) said, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”.

So what we learn is that Jesus told people to “count the cost” of discipleship.  Yet from my estimation, it seems we have been guilty of gross misrepresentation for “not” imploring people to do just that.  We haven’t told the whole story.  And consequently, churches full of “Humpty Dumpty’s” are unaware of the great fall that is to come, or that has already been played out for our viewing displeasure!  They are unprepared for the “faith that is hard” phase of their walk that upon navigating through can only then lead them to the forty, sixty and hundredfold of fruitfulness.   And because of this much neglected class, perhaps you and I are watching the movie reel of both others and ourselves played out before us right now, quarantined away here in contemplative Coronaville.  And just maybe someone forgot to tell us what we needed to know; found both in the scriptures, and also in the sage and timeless words of G.K. Chesterton when he wrote, “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting but has been found difficult and left untried”. 

Selah

I Have Decided to Follow Jesus

 

 

When Someone Takes You Where You Don’t Want To Go

The concept of being taken where we don’t want to go or being forced to do what we don’t want to do is anathema to those born and bred in the land of Stars and Stripes.  Although we might concede to that arrangement as a child with no current bargaining chips, to be sure our goal as we exit the tutelage of our mothers and fathers is to never, ever do so again.  The ability to choose what we want when we want, akin to a never-ending seafood buffet line, is something most of us have been burdened with since we first put our foot on the floor.  In fact, it’s really not that beneficial, though it is not my purpose to explore that outside of setting the stage for our talk today.  Yet I’m told by many from third-world countries that this is in stark antithesis to their everyday experience.   The ability to choose, or to perhaps “pull oneself up by their bootstraps” even, as a matter of choice, is a far-off and even grandiose idea.  For on the one hand too many options brings with it great confusion; and on the other, changing one’s “caste” so to speak is not only impossible for them, but somehow a disruption of some reincarnational destiny baked into their subconscious.  And even though this “I did it my way” philosophy seems to be the entitlement of those of us in the land of plenty, my “spidey-sense” tells me that we ought not get used to it all the way to four score and ten.  In fact, my dear friend and spiritual mentor Peter the Rock had a conversation with Jesus one day about this very thing.

Breakfast On the Beach

It was shortly after the resurrection, when the disciples gathered together with Jesus in Galilee, that Peter; perhaps reminiscent of previous days, decided they would rondavu for some good ole night-fishing.  And yet as is often the case, on this night, the fish weren’t willing to join the party, and so they caught nada, zilch!  Then in a flash, equally similar to those miraculous days before the crucifixion, Jesus, who now affectionally called them “children” (I really love that by the way), asks them to throw their net on the right side of the boat.  By this time of course, they have at least learned to do exactly as he says it seems, and faith having now taught them these valuable lessons, now yielded so many fish that they could not pull them all in.  And so it was, right before the fish fry, that Peter and the true love of his life were to have their most difficult, and at the same time transformational conversation.

It started out as John realizes that the guy who tells them to throw the net on the right side is of course the Lord (duh).  It is then that Peter ditches the fish cleaning duty and jumps into the sea in order to beat the rest of the gang to the shore where Jesus is already serving up a morning breakfast of fish and bread.  He then shoves a few more on the grill from the morning catch and invites the rag-tag fisherman turned disciples to join him for a sumptuous breakfast on the beach.  And our text tells us in John chapter 21, that though the disciples know it is the Lord, something inside tells them that he is different now in both the strangest and magnificent of ways that they cannot quite explain.

A Class We’d Like To Miss

And now, as is often the case, the conversation turns to Peter; perhaps somewhat still dejected and reluctant to offer much busy spiritual talk in the aftermath of his utter denial of the man he walked and talked with for three years of his life.  Jesus of course knows this, and so He asks him a rather pointed question as he often did when he says, “Do you love me more than these do”?  Peter’s normal tendency, as is still the case here, is to be the best in the class as he retorts “Yes, Lord, you know I love you”.  Peter figures they can now move on to other things, but Jesus is not ready to concede yet, as he asks him yet two more times if he loves him, adding the admonition to “feed or shepherd my sheep”.  And it is here that we see that Jesus seems to be giving him a hall pass for the utter denial at Jesus’ darkest hour, yet as Peter perhaps reluctantly accepts this, he also begins to feel that maybe Jesus is sticking in the knife further by asking him “3” times just as he denied Jesus in the same progression.  Yet what we find is that Jesus is doing nothing of the sort, but lovingly letting him know that He has not given up on him, but is yet again commissioning him to take up the towel and serve in the way of the Master, and to equally love and shepherd those like you and I, who need this broken shell of a man to lead us down our own broken and sometimes cruciform road.

And I mention cruciform because it is to be both Peter’s and our own in some form or fashion if we take seriously the call to love, to serve, to feed and to shepherd the stubborn sheep of God until He returns again.  You know…people like us.  Yet it is here that our lesson comes into clear view.  Jesus tells him ever so generally, yet prophetically nonetheless, that though in his reckless youth he has been used to calling the shots and marching to the beat of his own drum, that there will come a time when this will not be the case.  He reminds him that when he is old, he will be taken outside of his own will, and outside of the purposing of his own life, somewhere that he doesn’t want to go at all.  We are then told by Jesus in a somewhat cryptic form what church history seems to confirm–that Peter would suffer the same fate as his Master.  And yet, Jesus still says to him the same words, “Follow me”.

Can I Just Be Like John for Goodness Sakes?

But before we unpack this (and I’ve always been able to relate to Peter’s response here) he then turns and looks at his spiritual rival (John), and essentially asks Jesus, “Well, if I’m going to die like that, which I don’t even want to think about right now, then what about John boy here”?  And it is here that Jesus says to Peter something that I have often heard him similarly saying to me, and perhaps on your walk on the narrow path, you’ve heard it as well.  He tells him to quit worrying about John, Paul, George, or even Ringo for that matter, but gets right back to the most important issue at hand for us all.  And that is to answer the question correctly and most decisively whether or not we will accept the call to follow, though none go with us or not.  Because to be able to answer the question rightly is the only thing that really matters.  And Jesus is confronting Peter head on with this, even as he tells him that there will be a time when he will not call the damn shots at all, but will instead give up the ghost in the fight of faith.  And so there remains before us a similar and yet equally important reminder before we take another step, that whatever our lot in this life; whatever our achievement or not; our legacy or not; or inheritance we leave the ones we love or not, answering whether we have decided to simply follow is the watershed issue of our lives!

The Answer That Is Still Blowing In My Wind

It was September the 12th, 2019 when I wrote, Forever Trying to Graduate from the Incredible Sinking Class https://marknealprince.com/2019/09/12/forever-trying-to-graduate-from-the-incredible-sinking-class/ where again I attempted to instruct myself and others in the Petrine class of failures, hard knocks, and lessons we must learn if we are to walk on the narrow path Jesus is always guiding His own towards.  In my conclusion, my analysis was that sometimes, and even oftentimes in this life, it is not until we are truly sinking, and the one thing left visible of us out on that big ocean called life is one lone eyeball sending out one last S.O.S. right before we drown!  It is then, and many times only then, that faith comes in like a tsunami and yet actually saves us (even from ourselves) so we can finally be useful in the Kingdom of God, and so we can finally have the kind of sight that can actually guide us and others the rest of the way.

Now though I’m not Peter by a long shot, though in some ways we all are, on Friday, September the 13th, I was taken where I did not wish to go.  As I lay on the cold operating table still awake to the sights and sounds of men and women with masks deciding my fate, inserting long tubes into my heart to mend what I had for so long ignored was broken, I longed for someone to tell me it was finally over.  From the days hence, I’ve sought the Lord and waited like a dog longing for a long-lost bone for a word from Him.  And like Martha, and like Peter even, I am worrying about many things and wondering what is to yet to be made of my life in the grand kingdom story, or if I still have a shot like John and others seem to have.  I’m still waiting, and waiting for some epiphany, for some silver bullet, or perhaps a still small voice would be nice.  But there is one thing that keeps coming back like a resounding gong in my ear that I have a tendency to ignore due to its utter simplicity, since I too have heard it time and time again.  And like Peter, I’m a little perplexed and perhaps a little sad at its eternal repetition throughout my life, somehow waiting for something more.  Yet here it is again, and yet now it is so much sharper in my ear.  I hear him saying to me, “Mark, my dear, dear child, just follow me”!

Selah

 

 

 

 

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Where’s Your Homeboy Now?

 In St. Peter the Rock’s 2nd epistle and chapter 3, the edgy disciple-prophet pens a verse in the middle of a lengthy narrative on the so-called “negligible” signs of Christ’s coming, from scoffers who prognosticate that the jig is up on the Christians once and for all, for the “so-called” Messiah has no clothes.  In a nutshell, it’s time to stop the babbling and go home. In essence they say that first of all, God doesn’t judge anyone (though ironically they don’t believe He exists), and secondly, that if we are still taking a can of whoopass through life down here and waiting around for a trumpet from the sky to come at any minute, we are indeed the gullible and thus deplorable Christians the “educated” masses think we are.

In fact, the verse says exactly what they are still saying some 2000 year later:

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4 ESV)

In other words, science now “knows” the better order of things, and that what goes in a test tube always then comes out of it in predictable fashion, and the “sign” theory is outdated, along with the good book and its people; and so it’s now time to shut the whole thing down.  Even though of course, both the might of the Romans and the “fine-tooth comb” of the religious establishment were unable to do so by simply producing a very dead body about 20 years earlier.

Yet Peter then first of all reminds them that God’s judgment is not only a surety at some point off in the distant future, but that it’s track record is also certain for those who want to take a trip down memory lane: perhaps starting with, I don’t know…the flood maybe?  He then builds a case by saying that just as that was evident when the time came, it will be undeniable again, and he uses that to build a case for the reason for the apparent stall out.

Is God Being Slack Concerning the Promise?

 In essence, Peter says that God is giving all of us, including the scoffers, time to perhaps take a double take and relook at this whole Christian thing with new eyes again.  And he suggests that by turning our glance away from merely the truth of the particulars, that instead; as Jordan Peterson has at least partially reminded us, we should spend more time in the realm of the universals.  His admonition in turn, though still conceding to us the tangible truth of real matter and all its boasts, is to equally compel us towards the spiritual truth that hangs in the balance in the grasp of the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–so help us God.  A realm of truth, even with its now “multi-millennia” of signs for inquiring minds wanting to know, that the culture writ large has long thrown out with the baby, and the bathwater.

Dooms Day Preppers

I can remember like it was yesterday back in the 70’s, when the runaway best seller The Late Great Planet Earth was released.  At that time, along with the overabundance of cheesy movies low budget filmmakers produced in its aftermath, churches (including mine) were sure we were in the cross hairs of the end of days, and that the eschaton of God would be imminent.  Fast forward to 2019, and like me, I’m sure most who call themselves by the name of Christ now feel that if Jesus isn’t now on His way in short order, we secretly wonder if Peter’s nemeses were on to something.  Perhaps He is not coming like we thought, or like the Thessalonians, maybe we fell asleep and somehow missed the whole shebang.

Jesus talked about some signs too in Matthew 24.  Things about false messiahs; wars and rumors of wars; nation against nation; famines; pestilences and earthquakes.  He would then add that this was only “the beginning of sorrows”.  He would go on further to say that all of us who called ourselves by His name would be hated to be sure, something about the “abomination of desolation” (with varying interpretations of what this was or would be), and the gospel of good news being taken to all the nations (of which Paul made boast of being completed even in his own time).

He also talked about the parable of “the fig tree” (which most believe referred to Israel becoming a nation in 1948).  Many would also talk about “this generation not passing away” until it was fulfilled to mean, as many dooms-day prophets heralded, that sometime around 1988 was to be the final curtain call.  He then went on to give many other signs–yet assured us that not even He knew the day or the hour.  Instead he uttered that this particular occurrence was strictly in His Father’s timetable, but assured us that alertness, attention to holiness and preparedness for the hour should be the state of the church at all times.  And so still we wait, while the volume of the scoffers has now reached colossal proportions in every market square and computer screen.

Is the Enemy Us?

And yet I wonder.  Smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ signs for us to pay attention to, he mentions something that I feel bears ponderance now more than ever.  He says that during these times, “that because lawlessness increased, the love of many will grow cold”.  And the apostle Paul seemed to be echoing Jesus sentiment again, when in 2 Thessalonians, he speaks about “the great falling away”, which almost every Tom, Dick and Harry soothsayer agrees refers to the state of the church at that time as becoming corrupt, irrelevant and chameleon-like in perfectly blending in with the scoffers themselves.  And of course, that is where I begin to have a sort of out of body experience that sure as Hell feels like the real thing from where I’m sitting.

For instance, does anyone still called by the name of Christ doubt that lawlessness has increased calamitously in our now “global village”, and even in our own lives–thus causing our love for Christ to, I don’t know…grow cold maybe?  And is that not also what John the Revelator is alluding to when he reminds the church at Ephesus that they had “lost their first love” before he lays out the apocalyptic time clock?

And in hobbling along this narrow and sometimes lonely path, searching every so anxiously for the Jesus missing in America and in my own life, perhaps the signs we should be looking for have been building a barricade from our eyes in our own back yard for some time now.  And all the while, the myriad of money changers we gave the new keys to have now reentered our various temples, as we shuffle in week after week for the show that must now begin.  But perhaps, just maybe; the signs are indeed everywhere now, except we have become the church-going, therapeutic, moralistic and deist scoffers, who no longer live like they are leaving at all.

 

Selah

 

 

The Narrow Path Thing

Blog ADHD

I guess you could say I’ve gotten a little off focus lately, with you know… with um, that narrow path thing I’m always going on about.   It’s of course always on my wayward heart and mind as it relates to the part of it I see drastically missing now in the church, and equally in this here ragamuffin. But I can’t let it go.  It won’t let me I’m afraid.  Old age and senility is a bitch I guess.

You see after at least 50 years of reading the scriptures devotionally, academically and in mostly utter desperation to grovel to the crumbs from God’s table in order to get through the given day, its commissioning and its constant beckoning to be on that exact path, will not escape me.  I want, I need, I have to be on it—but, there aren’t many travel companions as a Nazirite once opined.  And so I’m walking, I’m hobbling along.   But here I go again, thinking I can, thinking I can, and resting in the fact that somehow He can, through me…conceivably.

A Prophet’s Graduation

So yes, it haunts me pretty regularly, it is true.  And I often wake up from my grandiose narrow path dreams mesmerized at the fact that Christianity went and stole Jesus right from under our noses as we were sipping our lattes, planning our next weekend excursion, and tipping our way into the final icing on our “cake life” of the treasures that yet await us in heaven—or so we’ve been told.

But I’m not so sure.

And though I’ve been accused of sometimes being a “wanna be” prophet of woe, I get the feeling that perhaps I’ve now graduated from the class and am the real McCoy now. Not that anyone is listening, but I’m beginning to feel the “Thus Saith the Lord” off in the distance of my ears ringing, and so I’m speaking it out for those of us who have ears to hear and eyes to see.  But maybe first we need to lose the air pods, cut the noise off, turn the lights down or simply turn around.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign

It’s funny how things go in life. There are little signs, little guideposts along the way that you know are leading you to something, even when no one else may be paying bloody attention.  And then God subtly reminds us in that still small voice thing that there are yet remnants of witty bitty prophets of worldly insignificance who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal or Molech, and who confirm to us that the answers that have been blowing in our collective wind have the potential to raise up a valley of dry, dead as Hell bones if we will let it.  That’s happened to me a lot lately.

It started with a few epiphanies that I wrote in my prayer journal which I then posted on social media, as those rare instances where you feel God pointed his finger right through the sky and into your heart and soul and “stuck” around for a month of Sundays.  Things such as:

We absolutely must drop the notion that as a Christian, everything we say and do will be liked by others regardless of our earnest desire to be winsome. In fact, if we are now to truly follow Jesus, we will more than likely earn the title of court jester”.

Or this:

“Either you work for the glory that is now, or for the one Jesus says is yet to come. But very rarely does He entrust both to us”.

And then last but not least:

“Either we believe all of what Jesus said was true or we don’t. But it’s high time we absolutely believe that the behavior should reflect our conclusion on the matter”. 

 And if that wasn’t enough, Ann Voskamp walked in my reading life and upset what was left of my own very self-protected, yet very broken applecart.  The one, two punch.  Kaboom. She came, she conquered, I’m now done.

So, What Is the Narrow Path Anyway?

And so, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a pastor friend of mine several months back.  The poor guy actually read some of my blogs a time or two and so he asked me, “Mark, so what is the narrow path anyway dude”? And I thought to myself, “Why’d he have to go there”? Foul ball.  No, but really, I’m glad he did.  Because perhaps I need to redefine it for myself again before I can sheepishly begin to articulate it to others.  Drumroll please!

You see the truth is the narrow path is designed to tell us something right out the gate.  It says to us ever so, I don’t know, OBVIOUSLY, that by the road being narrow, and few finding it, that the way is…well, hard I think.   Cruciform.  Yep, I’m sure of it.  In fact, G.K. Chesterton once said about this exact fly in the ointment that “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting but has been found difficult and thus left untried”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself G.K. You see the narrow path first and foremost has to mean that if the Christian life costs your nothing to walk it, speak it and live it out in Sodom and Gomorrah (in case you thought you were in Kansas), then more than likely you took a detour of some kind, and that perhaps if you see all your friends there with you too, you may need something akin to a minority report.

I also think the narrow path has to mean something that sounds an awful lot like LOVE.  No, not the easy peezy, Japaneezy kind for goodness sakes, that simply loves those who are “loveable”. Even gosh darn pagans do that. But something more akin to enemy love I heard a teacher once say, or that at the very least seeks to love and bless even when others will occasionally, or perhaps frequently curse and join ranks with gossip columnists eat up with days of our lives of which they mostly know nothing about, or who secretly hope for our final undoing.  Yea, I think it’s that.  And It’s not a cheesy love either that simply “grins and bears it”, but one that often is “butt hurt” and yet chooses to love anyway, and to bless anyway, and even gives a tunic and goes a mile or two further, and even turns a sore cheek now and again. Something about “love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things” rings a bell.  Yea, I think this is to walk a narrow path–sometimes alone I’m afraid.  In fact, oftentimes of late it seems.

Oh, and I think it might have something to do with FORGIVENESS too perhaps.  Yea, so Jesus kind of talked a lot about that I believe. We are to forgive.  Not necessarily to forget, but maybe to throw it in a “sea of forgetfulness” or something like that maybe.  Like God did, and always, always does.  Maybe its “seventy times seven” or maybe “to infinity and beyond” as Buzz always said.  It means sometimes saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”, or maybe even “Forgive them, since I too have often been unforgiving and unloving too”.  You know, tit for tat.  Reciprocal FORGIVENESS maybe even.  Love and forgiveness have to be the dynamic duo I’d say.  Yea, that’ll work.

Oh, and perhaps it means to GIVE maybe.  Oh not the 10% thing necessarily, though perhaps not to its exclusion somewhere, or to something, or to even someone. In fact, to walk with the narrow path jive turkeys, it means giving a lot; maybe everything, even when knowing it is pearls thrown to some swine of sorts.  Maybe even most times.  No return on investment, no pragmatism, no accountability, and no blind man coming back to thank us. Just giving out of our plenty and out of our nothing maybe, for some joy set before us perhaps.  Very Macedonian-like methinks.  Very Pauline if you will.  And perhaps Petrine, and Johanine, and all very disciplee and stuff.  Or better yet, very Jesusesque don’t you think?

It means giving a good damn about all the plight you see both inside and outside your four walls without scurrying about so quickly so as to not think hard or deep enough about what it is you just saw, or if there is anything I or my collective brethren should do about it.

It means churches not so hung up on services but perhaps more SERVICE to others, both in and outside the sheep gate.  In word and deed.  Good news and Good works alright.  And maybe, just maybe even with one of them there church thingies on every city block in the good ole bible belt, maybe we become a real talk of the town and own the plight of the homeless, the mentally ill, the widow, the single Mom and the fatherless. And perhaps while we’re at it, instead of churches becoming more like mausoleums, gymnasiums, Tony Robbins workshops, and the only spot you get your weekly “ex cathedra”, they become more like homes of refuge to those types.   You know, the ones Jesus said are actually like looking directly at Himself I believe, and are the difference between becoming a right-handed sheep or a left-handed goat-for-nothing.

Hard Times At Narrow Path High

Yea, I think it kind of means all those things, and of course a whole lot more.  But, that’s a good damn start, I think.  That’ll get us going I believe. Yes, the difficult road of love, forgiveness and where we actually store up what we have and what we haven’t somewhere else I heard a man born in Bethlehem once say.  And whether or not we hang around sinners, beggars and whores, or stay comfy inside church doors. Hey, that rhymed!

But you can bet that it’s a lonely, sparse road though this narrow path thing.  I’m telling ya.  And evidently, there are few there be that find it I heard a Galilean once say. But perhaps you’re either in or your out, you sink or you swim, you separate boys from men, put on your big girl panties, or something like that.  But what I do know is, that the narrow path doesn’t get a word in edgewise around here much anymore, and I think that’s why the church increasingly looks pretty much like everybody else on that other road over yonder–safe and secure inside a cocoon of orthodoxy, while the rest of us are busy not even applying the itching ear salve their serving up on any given Sunday.

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Awkward Dinner Conversations on a Ship of Obtuse Fools

An Epiphany of Sorts

It was about a year and a half ago that I found myself on a particular “ship of fools” shall we say.  I don’t mean by my deprecating comments to exclude my own ability to “play the fool” from time to time in regard to what I will reflect upon today.  But what alarmed me this precise evening, was a specific “comfortable numbness” to the things that should actually really matter, but that were not only “uncharacteristic” of my chosen drinking buddies this insightful evening, but that also sounded an alarm inside of me as to just where we are at with the culture, and even the Christian sub-culture at large.  And in the aftermath, it has since then caused me to further cogitate on the abysmal shape we are currently in regarding our once revered and assumed virtues once taught by the Alpha and Omega himself.

For those who don’t know, I’m in the educational software business as a sales dog, and I travel quite a country mile in my particular territory to get the job done on most weeks of the year. As is also typical, at least two to three times a year, I leave on an overcrowded and suffocating jet plane to our corporate office for various sales meetings of sorts.  After all day meetings and “death by PowerPoint”, we are typically whisked away, absent of any down time, to a posh restaurant or venue where dinner and drinks are served, and where those of us across all departments spend time getting acquainted, sharing stories, and enjoying some sodality of sorts.  And on one particular evening not too, too long ago, we were scheduled to go on an excursion upon a luxurious yacht for a moonlight dinner cruise.  That sounds nice enough I know.  Yet as fate would have it, the weather was not conducive to taking the coveted “three-hour tour”, and we simply spent the evening in dock and went about the business at hand without missing a beat.

Party Foul

Now in my usual Mark Prince manner, I am somewhat the “life of the party” when I’m up to the task, and I found myself this particular night at the table with a group of ladies that ranged from their early 30’s to late 40’s, leaving me (yours truly), as is now often the case, as the Senior at the table.  As I was enjoying my dinner and a few adult beverages, I was also doing my level best to get the table laughing and engaging everyone to make the night go both fast and well.  And then, without really noticing it, we wandered adrift into this conversation about love and marriage, as each one talked about everything from their almost picture-perfect marriages, to some who had pulled the plug on the institution long ago.  And then there it was, like a lady of the evening waltzing in and settling down in the front row at church during the middle of a really bad sermon, an awkwardness and a hush you that you could have heard a mile away plopped down on the dinner table right in front of us–when I rather abruptly related the struggles of marriage to individuals not being will to die.  Mic drop!

Now as I peeled the elongated stares off of the center of my forehead like dead skin on a wound, it occurred to me that we were in the middle of a Sunday School lesson that both no one had graduated from at this particular table, and that no one was volunteering to take part in for the present or near future.  So, I guess you could say that my popularity contest with the ladies took a sharp turn now going from “hero to zero”, and I was now center stage with my pants down left to explain my most unwelcome and equally unfamiliar conversation.  At that point, as I tried to simply explain, that in order for marriages, or any relationship for that matter to work long term, it all boils down to someone, at some point, and oftentimes the same person quite frankly, being willing to essentially “die” to themselves, forgive, and live and let die.  As I then continued to peel the remaining skin off of my forehead, in a moment of apparent frustration, I looked at them and said, “Damn, have none of your gals ever been to Sunday School for goodness sakes”?  Of course, this didn’t go quite how I planned, and from then on, my only course of action was to make an attempt at a quick joke amid the deafening silence, and slowly disappear out of my chair like an escape artist to the barstool of rescue awaiting in the next room.

Who the Hell Wants to Die Anyway?

And of course, the thought then occurred to me quite perceptibly so; that no one wants to “die” anymore. In fact, we see it just about everywhere we turn our heads these days.  For instance, I see it often and quite sadly at a plethora of dinner tables in any given restaurant in America, where aged depravity coupled with long standing marital bitterness comes full circle to our bated eyes, as elderly couples sit opposite one another drinking their wine and eating their food without even a glance in the other ones direction, reflecting alone in their quiet and un-blissful misery of “till death do us part”.  And the profound sadness I feel as I witness this time in marital “living Hell” is almost too much to bear.  I can scarcely take it in.  And as unpopular as it may seem, and equally out of step with the current ethos of pervasive thought in the public square and average living rooms, the lack of death in our individuals’ lives is the fresh steamy dog shit on the squeaky clean living room floor!  It simply has to be addressed, yet we’re finding ways it seems to simply sweep it under the rug, and then in a quite diversionary manner, imagine that the stench is simply a newly discovered aromatic that will over time simply “blend in”.  But of course, the lack of death in relationships across the board “is” the crux of the problem, despite its unpopularity at dinner conversations on your ship of choice. It is indeed why marriages exit on irreconcilable differences and the like, why siblings grow apart; why kids grow up without Moms and Dads; and why there are after all wars, wars, and rumors of wars, as a Nazarite once opined long, long ago.

The Cruciform Road Less Traveled

Several years now I watched a fascinating and equally poignant movie entitled “Calvary” that almost no one even heard of.  It was a subtle “Christian” masterpiece if I must say, that was not even remotely billed as such, but that hammered the nails of its message right into the feet and hands of any who dared to receive it’s unwelcome and yet healing balm it offered us.   In one particular scene Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson expresses to his daughter as they brisk about on an Irish seashore, that “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues”.  To which his daughter Fiona replies, “What would be your number one”?  Father Lavelle then readily replies, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated”.  And later, for our conclusive purposes today, the movie then comically explains why the subject of death is such an awkward and unpopular dinner conversation aboard our various ships of obtuse fools, when it explains in particular wittiness, as the person simply called “the writer” says to Father LaVelle, “You know how you can tell you’re really getting old”? To which Father Lavelle says “No, How”?  To which the writer then retorts, “No one says the word ‘death’ around you anymore”?

And perhaps that explains it after all does it not?  You see the truth is, that the Outlaw preacher came to die because the world on its own terms both wouldn’t and couldn’t, without some cosmic divine intervention. It was indeed an experiment already tried for quite some time and was found wanting, and still very much is.  In fact, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, that in describing the virtue at its core, it is; or rather should be, the ability to be willing to be “defrauded” at times, and to even “suffer wrong”, to which is oftentimes the real “one-two punch” to the gut of our eternal unwillingness to budge in our relationships, when quite frankly; someone almost always has to be the one who is willing to, well…die.

But the bruised reed from Bethlehem came in by stealth quite cleverly, and fooled the world in a constant mad dash to always incessantly fight to be #1, and to stoically never let anyone else see them sweat, so help them god.  And while we are dead set on living and winning still, He turned the world upside down by cruciform losing, which is why many today call him Lord; yet sadly wear his statement of “deathful” winning around their necks, rather than as a quite regular mantra as to how we all should actually seek to live.  And as a result, the talk of death on the ship of obtuse fools still makes for a most awkward dinner conversation.

Selah

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

The Search for Happiness

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

Five Minutes of Fame

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

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

The Culprit: Self Preservation

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

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

Seniors Lead the Way?

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

In Search of the Spirit

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

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

Selah

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