Forever Trying to Graduate from the Incredible Sinking Class!

A Willing, yet Gullible Spirit

 If there is one thing I know in the marathon called life on the narrow path, it is this: When Jesus said, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, He was telling the sho’nuff truth yall.  Just saying.

Interestingly, he made that pronouncement when He was getting ready to have his life handed over to be brutally murdered while His best homies were found sleeping on the job.  Instead of praying, they were catching some Z’s!  Boy can I relate.  And consequently, if it wasn’t for the comfort of the disciple’s blunders as an exemplar of what “not to do” making me breathe a sigh of relief, I would have ditched this narrow path thing a long, long time ago.  Can I get an amen up in this joint?

Peter seemed to be the ringleader on this kind of shenanigans as a matter of fact.  You know, like when he got the brownie points for getting the right answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am” that Jesus asked the class rather pointedly.  Peter states with a shit-eating grin on his face (paraphrased), “Well, everyone knows Jesus that you of course are ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God’” (in an operatic tone) as he then drops the mic!  Booya!  So, in essence, Peter gets the star for the day in class.  Two stars in fact.  But of course moments later, in what he thought was an equal star-worthy moment, as Jesus lays out the trajectory of his trip to Jerusalem and getting crucified plan, Peter has now received just enough accolades to instruct the teacher apparently.  So he basically looks at Jesus and says something like, “Never Jesus, ain’t gonna happen on my watch”! To which Jesus quickly deflates Peter’s balloon of a growing big head ego with something only your mama could get away with saying and your dignity to still remain intact.  He says, “Get Behind Me Satan! You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s”.  So yeah, the Spirit is indeed willing, but…let’s not move the tassel to the left just yet for the one with the keys and all!

The Reality of Weakened Flesh

I mean when that happened, you would have thought he would have had that Deja vu moment right? I mean when the class that keeps most of us from ever graduating took place, you would think he would have at least had some cliff notes somewhere.  But no.  He is so eager to please, and yet complimentarily, is also so smitten with Jesus more than most at the same time to be sure.

But the scene is set for us.  Jesus, as he often does, goes to pray alone somewhere (subliminal alert to all flunky disciples like me).  And while He does, and since evidently doing other things rather than praying when Jesus does is more important, like for instance “fishing” (during a storm), they spot this figure on the water coming toward them.  And as they wipe their eyes and pinch each other to make sure this is real, the scene changes to a Stephen King novel come to the big screen, and they see dead people (wrong movie), or rather what looks like a ghost I mean.  Well we all know the story.  And Peter, simply trying to graduate with honors again, gets this bright idea that if that’s actually Jesus, which they now recognize it is, perhaps he will really show up the rest of these rag-tag fellows by walking right alongside Him and “be the man” once and for all.  And of course, as Jesus often does, he commends his effort and says, “Sure, come on down Pete”. 

And as the plot then thickens, Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus.  And by then, he must have been saying, “Jesus, I think I am now ready to teach the class on ‘How to Follow Jesus in Just Three Easy Steps’, and then join Enoch and Elijah for that chariot that awaits to escort me to heavenly bliss”.  So he’s walking, with that strut and all (on the water in a storm mind you), and then it happened as sure as the damn dew in the early morning, the text says that “he saw the strong wind and he became afraid”.  And I’m like, “No shit Sherlock”, welcome to the long line of flunkies who always have to repeat this same class!  And as the disciples collectively sing in the background “Never gonna get it, never gonna get it”, the comedy becomes all too hauntingly familiar and up close and personal. At least to those of us who can admit that the flesh cannot and will not EVER get the job done!  And all of a sudden, if we’re honest, we no longer hate Peter for his continual “sucking up”, and instead, we like him…a lot.

 The Audacity of Faith Called into Question

And so rather than over spiritualize this difficult lesson in faith, to be honest, I get a little miffed that Jesus says to Peter, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”, don’t you?  Because it is at this point that I more identify with Peter here.  Truth serum injection alert!  I mean you and I get the picture.  It’s dark, there’s a storm, and the waves are about to engulf him, and all his posse is laughing and talking about his mama all at once!  Who wouldn’t’ be afraid?  Who wouldn’t call everything into question?  Who wouldn’t begin to sink under those circumstances?  Let’s do a go fund me right now!

Well the sanctimonious among us like kicking Peter types when they fall or drown most of the time.  Doesn’t really matter though.  From the safety of our current “non-storm” in our lives we say, “Dude, Jesus is with you, all you had to do is keep your eyes on Him and you would have been just fine man”.  And, they get a star for that.  I mean after all, it’s the truth.  Really it is.  But does it also not make you scratch your head and wonder, “If the Israelites, and all those jive turkeys in the New Testament saw the hand of God, and even God himself, and His only son actually “do” miracles in front of their faces, why can’t you and I just walk on the narrow path with our chest out like a boss man”?

I’ve often wondered that myself, especially, even today; perhaps like most of you.  But you don’t have to raise your hand or anything.  But just between us, here’s a newsflash: Life is fricking hard as Hell, with or without Jesus!  And it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the boat, out of the boat, all up in your grill, or whether he just finished calming whatever storm in your own life.  It just doesn’t matter.  Because first of all, whatever victory you did have, you have probably by now written off as coincidence or donated it to science.  Or, better yet, if it was the failure and the sinking and not the victory you experienced (more often than not by my terms), the rub is this: Sometimes even when Jesus is there for real, or by faith, we cannot for the life of us see Him anywhere!  Because after all, we are sinking!  And it’s not imaginary, it’s not our abnormal psychology kicking in, or our imaginary freakin friend.  Hell no, it is for real OK!  So let’s just call it out can we?

 The Other Side of Fear

George Addair is accredited with the famous quote, and one that I both love and hate because of its truthfulness and difficulty in actually carrying out.  He said, “Everything you have always wanted is on the other side of fear”.  Moment of silence please.  Let that sink in and breath slowly!  And in this case, the devil, or “Mr. Frenchy”, or whatever you desire to call him, specializes in fear.  It’s his favorite my precious.  And you guessed it.  He is behind all that blocks us from the way of “real” faith.  He keeps us petrified in fear, and his primary job it seems, is to lie to us; and just for kicks and giggles, I’m told he likes to steal, kill and destroy too!  Just watch the evening news and you’ll get it immediately.

Stephen King in fact, seems to also know, as in the case with the reboot of his recent films (parts 1 and 2) of IT from his earlier novel.  Now I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it.  But every one of the cast of characters, from the first movie to the one just released last week, has come from some depravity and fear in their life for which they feel that cannot ever escape.  Whether it be falling victim to an overprotective and hypochondriac mother; owning the guilt of a brother who was tragically murdered; caught up in the crutches of a pedophilic father; or as a fat kid who’ll probably never be kissed by the girl he loves; the song remains the same.  IT knows what they fear, and he can transform himself into whatever that is, with all the guilt to boot.  Ironically, he’s a clown, which kids (most) would normally trust and love, but IT is also the most hideous beast one can imagine with an evil bite! Or, if you’ll have it, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or for our purposes here, maybe even and angel of light!

But here’s the point, and I know it took me awhile to get here.  The charismatics, or perhaps we’ll call them “people of faith”, can teach us something here.  They’ve been teaching me a lot lately (though I’m very slow at this), as I still remain cautious, probably to a fault.  But the truth is, that Jesus and George Addair (not necessarily the same) are right.  Everything we want, everything God can and apparently wants to do both for us and in us, is on the other side of fear–which is the hardest class if you haven’t gotten it by now.  It’s the Mother lode I’m telling you.

Because you see, faith only comes through when you’re drowning, and there’s only one eyeball left on top of the water that anyone can see coming out of your nappy head!  It seems to only come then.  And it doesn’t matter whether you see Jesus like Peter did, or whether you can’t always see Him like you and me.  And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been there time and time again, and so you just think, “God, why don’t you stop picking on me while I’m dying over here.  And why then do you have the audacity to ask, ‘Why did you doubt’”?  What matters is simply this, as I’m sure Peter finally realized as that last bit of blood rushed to his head on his upside cross as he finally graduated the incredible sinking class: Faith only comes through once you die, or you drown, and not a moment before!  And the good news for us is, you don’t always have to die or drown, but you sure as Hell will feel like it and experience some of what it might feel like, time and time again.  Because after all, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things that are currently unseen—while you are drowning.  For in that moment, and only through the Spirit of God, faith speaks things that are currently not as if they actually are.  And no, Dale Carnegie is not getting ready to walk in.  And No, it’s not Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller either.   But I will tell you this:  He that comes to God, must not only believe that He is God, but continually (every single day, while you are in fact drowning, I’m afraid), that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.  Because faith is a full contact sport my friend.  And getting your ass kicked from to time, and I mean like Mike Tyson, ear-biting ass kicked, is the only way we’ll ever graduate the incredible sinking class!

Selah

 

 

 

There’s Something Wrong with The Ground: Part I

A Bump in the Road

I’ve been consistently drawn to the passage I want to put before you today for a good portion of my life, and even more so of late, somehow trying to “get it in me” if you will. The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each give their spin on the story, and I’ve heard every analysis from preachers to business people, to self-help gurus, who each spin it in a variety of most interesting ways.  Some quite accurate, some, not so much.  Nonetheless, this has never stopped me from periodically coming back to it like a dog continually intrigued to run after the same bone tossed a thousand times, in order to glean from its hidden gold beneath that rather funky ground we often find ourselves in.  And because of that, somehow, I’ve always inferred that Jesus wants this ole dog to set up permanent camp here; put my Martha cap on; sit at the feet of the Master till the cows come home; or until pig’s fly, or, when something starts to actually grow for goodness sakes.  You get the picture.  So, I guess it’s my new address in between life’s hell and high water, even my permanent one.  Perhaps it should be yours too.

The backdrop here is familiar through the gospels.  Jesus is getting slammed with people wanting to touch the hem of his garment in light of their dire straits, get something from him, or perhaps crucify him; or maybe even betray him with a kiss.  But we won’t be picky here.  The names change, but the scenery and the mixture is pretty much the same.  And so Jesus is sitting in his fishing boat looking at the people hanging on the beach gazing back at him with bated breath, and he begins to speak in one of his favorite ways that continue to baffle us all; in parables.  Nonetheless, the passage goes like this:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear (Mt. 13:1-9 ESV). 

 What you Talking About Willis?

Now interestingly, in between verses 9 and 18, Jesus gets the right question thrown to him by the disciples.  They simply ask what maybe you and I have asked, or are currently asking, “Why do you speak to them in parables”, or, “how about giving the dog a bone here”?  Makes sense. And of course here it is all too easy to skirt by this part and get to his explanation coming up about what the dang parable actually means.  But we want to get to the punchline, we just want to pass the gosh-darn test.  Cliff notes please!  And Jesus gets it.  So he responds basically saying that the understanding usually comes to already spiritual awakened people (not even the disciples yet apparently), and to those who are really seeking what the kingdom is about because they’ve run out of bargaining chips.  This of course is opposed to those who are not so much seeking the life he wants to give, but what they gain if they decided to do it; or perhaps more importantly, those whose hearts are already hardened by what’s wrong in their ground, and as a result wouldn’t see or hear even if Jesus slapped them upside their nappy heads with it! Evidently, it has a lot to do with a lifetime of shutting their eyes and ears to what’s already been said and done all around them, and as a result have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.  Somehow, I wonder if he’s talking to me!

But Jesus doesn’t leave them hanging, nor does he want to.  Because it is now that the kingdom is just beginning to be ushered in.  And so, he realizes that as the Holy Spirit inevitably comes just a stone’s throw down the road, more awakened people will start to get it, and if they do, he knows some kind of “living water” will then engulf them, and they’ll finally graduate from the class, or at least move on to a new class.  And as a result, they’ll get to write a book on 4 steps to Spiritual Gardening or something like that, because there will be fruit-flies everywhere for goodness sakes!  And it is here that you and I need to set up camp for the morning, noon and night.  So, the Master gets right to it.  He says:

Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”(Matthew 13:18-23 ESV)

And the plot thickens.

There’s a Thief Among Us

Jesus opines that the word, His word, actually comes to the lot of us, with often mixed results. No argument there. The first is the majority of us in the vast cosmos so it seems. And in this case Geraldine was partly right, the devil evidently did make them do it.  Jesus says that the evil one can and often does “snatch” away what was initially sown somewhat haphazardly along the path.  We could chalk it up as bad soil, or that it was kind of strewn about by happenstance and not purposefully. The sky is the limit.  There are probably no wrong answers here.  But what we do know, and the synoptics are in cahoots, is that the devil steals some stuff, a lot evidently.  In fact, Jesus reminded us that the evil one came to kill, steal and destroy, whereas Jesus came to give something along the lines of abundant life or something like that.  So we get it I think.  Evidently stealing is one of the extra special aspects of the Prince of Darkness’ MO. And it makes perfect sense does it not?

Is The Enemy We’ve Found in Lock-Step With Us?

For instance, we see people get little morsels of the word thrown on them in a multiplicity of ways, and all at once, they start to take it in.  However, in the blink of an eye it seems, the habitual lies and isms and survival of the fittest mantras that have been on autopilot most of their lives, rush in and talk them off the edge of their merely circumstantial naivete back to the safety of popular consensus and comfort zones.  And then “poof”, it’s as if nothing ever happened.  Business as usual.  Case closed.  The curtain is now pulled on what coulda, shoulda, woulda been.

But perhaps before we move too fast and put all the lost in this prayer list bucket, maybe the devil still steals from the enlightened of us too I suppose before we get a block down the road.  For the same family traditions, worldly indoctrinations and our own eternal struggle to somehow finally listen to this still small voice more readily while simultaneously seeking to pull our own bootstraps up somewhere I guess, causes us all to buckle, and shuck it off as working perhaps for some; but maybe, just maybe, it’s really not for the likes of us after all.  So we dodge the fish, and cut the bait instead; again and again, and again.

So yeah, the devil steals stuff like I said, well like Jesus said.  And it’s kind of sad don’t you think.  Perhaps we need an alarm or something, or a wall, or maybe there’s something in our ground I suppose.

Selah

Stay tuned for Part II

Broken Into Disbelief

A Revelation

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

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

 

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

 

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

The Problem

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

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

But first about people who don’t know God at all. We often wonder why they teeter totter back and forth as to whether there is any need for Him in their lives.  We marvel why the truly lost are not knocking down our church doors to get in.  We speculate and ruminate about their rejection as mere rebellion, lack of commitment, and the fact that they’re all pagans after all.  Afterwards, we then settle down into smug acceptance of the impenetrable wall of the unbeliever as the rise of the none’s (no affiliation to God or church) that we evidently think we have nothing to do with.  Or perhaps we have simply grown too insular inside the cocoon of safe Christianity to remember when we ourselves were as the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians:

 

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

 

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

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

 

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grasping Of Hope in God’s Goodness

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

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

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Exodus 6:9 ESV

[2] Ephesians 5:8 ESV

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

4 Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Selah

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Selah